Thursday, March 29, 2012

Plotting as Discovery by Jonnie Jacobs

Jonnie Jacobs is the author of thirteen novels, including the Kate Austen mystery series and the Kali O'Brien series. Her new release, Paradise Falls, is a standalone mystery. A former practicing attorney, Jonnie now lives with her husband in San Francisco and writes full time.


Plotting as Discovery by Jonnie Jacobs

Thanks, Pat, for letting me join in today. Since I'm in the early stages of a new book (and all the struggles that entails), I thought I'd talk about my approach to plotting.

When I plan a trip, I know where I’m going and I know how I’m going to get there. But that carefully planned approach doesn’t work for me when I write. I wish to heck it did because it would save me a lot of angst, not to mention more than a few dozen (a few hundred?) deleted pages and “wasted” hours. Every time I finish a book I promise myself that next time I’m going to outline. I tell myself I’m going to plot the path and lay out the entire book in detail before putting a single word on the page. Since I write mystery novels, outlining would be particularly helpful. But after fifteen novels, I am beginning to accept that it’s never going to happen. I’m simply one of those writers (and there are many of us) who discovers the story as I go along.

I find two major roadblocks in outlining. First, I can’t think in the abstract. I need to see the characters reacting to events and to each other in order to discover what happens next. Often, I’m pleasantly surprised. I’ve come up with wonderful plot twists, colorful minor characters, and intriguing sub-plots I’d never have imagined from the perspective of an outline.

Second, outlining kills my interest in the book. I have, on occasion, made a stab at outlining a book. And I’ve actually come up with some pretty exciting plots that way. But by the time I sit down to actually write the book, I’ve lost all interest in the characters and the story. I find myself moving by rote from plot point to plot point trying unsuccessfully to breathe some life into the events on the page. The process reminds me of the childhood game “connect the dots.”

This doesn’t mean, however, that I head out on my story journey blindly and with no idea at all where I’m headed. I have a general sense of what the story will be about. In The Only Suspect, for example, I knew that my male lead’s wife was missing and that everything he knew about her was a lie.

I usually have in mind an inciting incident – an event that puts the events of the novel in motion. This is not necessarily where I’ll start the novel, however. The Next Victim begins with attorney Kali O’Brien on vacation with her detective boyfriend. There’s a hint of the action to come (she gets a garbled phone message from her brother), but it’s the murder of her brother that puts the story in action.

Before I start a book I also have some general idea about where the story will end up, but not necessarily who the killer is or how he or she will be found out. I always have several possibilities in mind and work them into the plot, making sure that each has ties to the victim that would make him a believable killer. Sometimes the actual killer (and motive) is someone I hadn’t even considered when I started writing.

I generally have in mind two or three main mileposts for my journey – events that propel the action in one direction or another, and I’m always on the lookout for obstacles and conflicts.

And lastly, I have a good sense of the main character(s), how he or she is involved in the events of the story, and why those events are important to that character. My most recent book, Paradise Falls, March 2012, focuses on Grace Whittington who suspects her stepson of harming her daughter, and on detective Rayna Godwin who has her own reasons for being troubled by the girl’s disappearance.

With those basics loosely in place, I head off on my incredible journey, taking the trip one leg at a time, usually looking forward a chapter or two (think of it as looking to the next layover on your road trip). The further I get into the book, the more it jells.

And then, when I reach the end, I outline what I’ve written to make sure clues get followed up on and the story stays consistent.

Mine is not the most efficient method (and it is, at times, truly painful) but it’s the only one that works for me. And that’s they real key to all of this. There are many ways to write a book; authors need to find what works for them.


Thanks so much for being my guest today, Jonnie. You did a great job of explaining this style of plotting. I've also tried outlining with no success, so I think I'll just settle in and do it your way from now on. I wish you the best of luck with your new Five Star release.

For more information about Jonnie and her books, please visit her website.


Margot Kinberg said...

Pat - Thanks for hosting Jonnie.

Jonnie - Thanks for sharing your approach to plotting. I know exactly what you mean about an outline being limiting. I admire your ability to just get out there and write without a really clear plan for your work; I'll bet that exploring the story as you go gives your writing a lot of freshness. I wish you much success.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

It's all about finding out what works for us.
I'm the opposite - if I don't know where I'm going with a story, I lose interest. And without an outline, my story would wander off into the desert and never return.

Dean K Miller said...

After 15 novels and she still has "struggles" with a new book? Is there ever going to be an easy ride here? Wait...maybe I'm just fitting in early. ;-}

I've tried an outline, even went back to outline a WIP and had similar results as Ms. Jacobs.

Someday, but I'm pretty sure the only outline I'll ever use is the one they chalk around my lifeless body when I reach the end of my earthly journey.

But for now, an outline seems like I'd be holding the story, which really isn't mine, as a hostage.

Patricia Stoltey said...

Good morning, everyone (even though the morning is half over as I write this) -- and many thanks to Jonnie for this helpful article. It made me feel a lot better about my "go with the flow" process.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

It's always interesting to read the method fellow mystery writers use to approach plotting a novel. I agree with you, Jonnie, it does need to start with character and then move on from there. I often firm up a plot line after the first draft.


Jacqueline Seewald
THE TRUTH SLEUTH--now in large print
DEATH LEGACY--new release

Jemi Fraser said...

I can't do a big outline either. I like to be surprised along the way :)

jonnie jacobs said...

Thanks everyone. It always interesting to see the different approaches to writing, and always encouraging to know there are others who have the same difficulties I do.


Dylan Book Reader said...

There is some really useful advice in this post. I have been an outliner, but I might experiment with this discovery writing.