Kate Forsyth – plotting a novel

Business man brainstorming trying to find a solution staying late at the office and working by lamp light with a reference book and puzzle pieces and a stimulating cup of coffee overhead view.

My current definition of intense – spending a day with Kate Forsyth while she teaches the finer points of plotting a novel. I flew to Sydney (blue skies, warm weather, gorgeous friends) for the weekend to do a writing course at the Australian Writers’ Centre. Kate was equal parts inspiration and practicality – I finished the day feeling like I had new tools for my writing and was inspired to try this new way of planning a novel.

I have completed many writing courses over the past five years but never one on planning or plotting a novel before. I have always been a got-a-vague-idea-let’s-see-where-this-goes kind of writer. And it never felt quite right but when I did try to plan out a novel I became stuck, and would just write it out, rather than plan it out. And I wondered whether I was really procrastinating by writing lists and moving scenes around … surely that wasn’t moving my story forward?

It also seemed at odds with the way I usually organise myself in life – I am a write a list kind of girl – for groceries, daily tasks, Christmas presents, etc.

I read a fantastic book on planning a book – C.S. Lakin’s The twelve key pillars of novel construction but it has taken Kate’s workshop to really understand the benefits of planning.

For a little while, I have been wondering about the connection for writers between the left and right sides of the brain, the analytical and the intuitive sides. When Kate defined the four stages of writing as daydreaming, plotting, writing and editing, I could see that both sides of the brain are equally important for writing. Obviously, you need intuition for daydreaming, and analysis for plotting and editing. I would have thought that writing relies more on intuition but Kate said that analysis is just as important because you need to make decisions on what you are writing.

There were so many other lightbulb moments:

  • that writing a novel is like doing a jigsaw – you start with the foundations – the corners, the edges
  • that all the incidents in a plot must be inextricably bound
  • that the pacing must quicken with shorter chapters, even shorter sentences, towards the end of the book
  • that planning a book is like following a recipe – you can adjust it once you have followed the recipe a few times
  • that if you are stuck, it means you don’t know enough about your characters or your story.

Kate gave us a ten point detailed explanation of her process for planning a book. I am going to use this on the first draft of my NaNoWriMo book – even though I have already written the first draft. There are only three weeks until the Easter school holidays but I want to apply Kate’s process in reverse before I start the second draft.

And Kate did tell us that it was ok to change your plan and that she did so frequently!

So I’m making up my mind to be an organised, planned writer, just like I am organised and planned (somewhat!) in the rest of my life. Are you a planning sort of person for most of your life’s details or just some of them? And if you are a creative type, with a flair for cooking or sketching or sewing or writing, are you organised or a free spirit with your art?

18 comments

  1. Kate sounds like she’s onto something. Writing a book always seemed to me to need planning but talent in storytelling. Glad you enjoyed the weekend mixing with other like minded people.

  2. Sounds like your workshop was really worthwhile, Karen.

    I am very much a list maker, to be organised lists are essential!!!

    On another topic, could any of your readers tell me what has made the Elena Ferrante novels so popular? I finally started the first one of the Neapolitan series and am about to jump ship halfway through. Just don’t care enough about any of the characters to keep reading. Is there any reason I should perservere?

    1. Thanks, Terri. I slogged on through the first Elena Ferrante book only because it was on the reading list for my online bookclub. I enjoyed the details of daily Italian life but it wasn’t enough to motivate me to read the next three books. But I have heard others say the next books are better.

  3. Dani Shapiro in Still Writing made same jigsaw analogy about writing but I think it is applicable to any creative endeavour. I am an organised, routine person. Creatively, though, I tend to go with the flow a bit more possibly because I can become absorbed by these endeavours and can start to head in directions I hadn’t previously contemplated. I have written any fiction since school but I remember I hated landing because I never knew where it was going to head. I trusted it would unfold into something coherent!

  4. Okay let me rewrite the penultimate sentence – I haven’t written any fiction since school and I hated planning! iPad keyboards are a bit useless!

    1. Love Dani Shapiro – one of my favourite writers on writing! And that is why creativity is equally exciting and frightening, because you do have to let go and trust the process and you usually don’t know where you’re going to finish up!

  5. Great post, I was at the course too! It was really full on wasn’t it? I’m so glad I did it though. I’m pretty disorganised in every day life – I’m going to just admit it, I’m too old to pretend any more lol – but I can really appreciate how having a plan means you are less likely to give up or get lost in all the research/story. Good luck with the writing! L

    1. Thanks, Lauren – it was great to meet you at the course! Good luck with your planning and writing.

  6. Great summary, Karen. I too was at the workshop and gained very valuable information. I’m a chronic list writer, diary keeper and live my life by the pen, and yet when it comes to writing, I too, struggle with the whole plotting and planning side of things. This course was extremely well structured and in layman’s terms so even the newest of budding authors could follow it. Love, Loved, Loved it.

    1. Hi Lorraine, so glad we met up at the course! So much gold to take in, wasn’t there? Let me know how you go with following Kate’s plotting techniques. As she said, it is like a recipe and you do have to adjust it to suit yourself. I am expecting that I will probably resist the planning at some stage but I’m determined to keep going but I can see how useful it is.

  7. You’ve made me really want to do this course now! I don’t tend to plot or do bullet point outlines much. When I have tried in the past, it ruined the fun for me and then I was no longer interested in writing the story. However, I would love to get better at doing some sort of blend between the two. I’ll have to check it out!

    1. Amy, it was so fabulous! I was definitely on the pantser side of writing but always felt that it didn’t serve me well. And with the planning tools, I can see how beautifully everything thread is entwined. Let me know if you want more info about the points covered in the course – happy to talk offline.

  8. Hi Karen,
    Well said.
    Kate is an inspiration and so practical in her application.
    I am determined to find a beautiful Journal and continue planning my novel. I have come to realise that this is pretty much what I have been doing but in long form…
    Back for Fantasy, Science Fiction and more on the 19th. Then to find writing / planning time.
    It was wonderful to meet you in class and to see you in Facebook.
    Let our writing journey begin….

    1. Hi Debra, so lovely to meet you at Kate’s course! I was so inspired by Kate’s notebook, too – it was her combination of printed and handwritten material, plus all those gorgeous pictures. I’m glad we can keep in touch via Facebook!

  9. So wonderful to hear how inspired you are! You are a unique, precious mix of creativity and control, intuition and insight – so happy you’ve found a way to bring your two sides together. And I can’t wait I read the result!!!

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