WMBTSG Day Eighteen (Comment to this post to enter the drawing)

Welcome to day eighteen of the Writer Mama Back-to-School Giveaway. Today’s giveaway is another double-header, but this time one person will win two great books on fiction writing. Those two books are: Plot & Structure and Revision & Self-Editing by James Scott Bell from the Writer’s Digest Write Great Fiction series.

How does plot influence story structure? What’s the difference between plotting for commercial and literary fiction? How do you revise a plot or structure that’s gone off course? With Write Great Fiction: Plot & Structure, you’ll discover the answers to these questions and more. Award-winning author James Scott Bell offers clear, concise information that will help you create a believable and memorable plot, including:

  • Techniques for crafting strong beginnings, middles, and ends
  • Easy-to-understand plotting diagrams and charts
  • Brainstorming techniques for original plot ideas
  • Thought-provoking exercises at the end of each chapter
  • Story structure models and methods for all genres
  • Tips and tools for correcting common plot problems
Filled with plot examples from popular novels, comprehensive checklists, and practical hands-on guidance, Write Great Fiction: Plot & Structure gives you the skills you need to approach plot and structure like an experienced pro

In Write Great Fiction: Revision & Self-Editing, James Scott Bell draws on his experience as a novelist and instructor to provide specific revision tips geared toward the first read-through, as well as targeted self-editing instruction focusing on the individual elements of a novel like plot, structure, characters, theme, voice, style, setting, and endings. You’ll learn how to:

  • Write a cleaner first draft right out of the gate using Bell’s plotting principles
  • Get the most out of revision and self-editing techniques by honing your skills with detailed exercises
  • Systematically revise a completed draft using the ultimate revision checklist that talks you through the core story elements
Whether you’re in the process of writing a novel, have a finished draft you don’t know what to do with, or have a rejected manuscript you don’t know how to fix, Revision & Self-Editing gives you the guidance you need to write and revise like a pro.


JAMES SCOTT BELL is the author of Try Dying and Try Darkness (Hachette/Center Street), and the former fiction columnist for Writers Digest magazine. He has written two books in the Writers Digest series Write Great Fiction: Plot & Structure and Revision & Self-Editing. Jim has taught writing at Pepperdine University and numerous writers conferences. He attended the University of California, Santa Barbara where he studied writing with Raymond Carver. He lives in Los Angeles. For more about his latest novel, Try Dying, visit his website.


Today’s question:

Do you write first or plot first? If you plot first, how detailed is your plot? If you don’t plot first, why don’t you?

If this is your first post in the giveaway, please read “Da Rules.”

You may post your comments until midnight PST on September 18th.


36 Responses to “WMBTSG Day Eighteen (Comment to this post to enter the drawing)”

  1. 1 Elizabeth September 18, 2008 at 4:43 am

    I write first, then go back and outline the plot, then re-write. I usually have an idea of the beginning and the end, but I have to discover how to get from A to Z through outlining. The temptation is to get bogged down in outlining and never go back to actually writing…

  2. 2 delia boylan September 18, 2008 at 5:28 am

    I don’t ever plot first. Unless it’s a mystery, I’m not sure you should. The whole point of fiction is to liberate yourself-to get to know your characters and let them evolve and take you places you never imagined they’d go. I feel like if your character surprises you, you’re doing well. Which isn’t to say that plot doesn’t matter, of course. Just that it should flow out of the central characters and their conflicts, rather than vice versa.

  3. 3 Amie H September 18, 2008 at 6:05 am

    My writing is like scraps. Bits and pieces that are disconnected. I mostly write non fiction but I like to play around with fiction to keep my imagination in good shape. I write and write and write and then I take the scraps and look for connections. I am a visual person. I like notebook paper without lines. So sometimes I will diagram a story very loosely. Colored markers and juicy pens. Nothing scientific. At this point it is more of a creative exercise. But as I go along in this writing journey and allow myself to see myself as a writer, I am taking on more discipline and structure with my work and finding that very helpful. Right now I am working on diagramming the plot of my own writing career. It’s always good to start with a goal in mind.

  4. 4 Eliza September 18, 2008 at 7:01 am

    First, I do a lot of brainstorming. My most recent project began with about two months of jotting down ideas, jotting down research–even playing with character’s voices. I can’t start a project without a strong, identifiable voice.

    Then I began to piece it all together in a sort of loose outline. I plotted very loosely according to where I wanted the characters to begin and end in their journeys. I dropped in pieces from my brainstorming and research to help act as catalysts on the journey.

    After that, it’s off to draft. Once I have a draft, then I go back and plot and outline more heavily, and then, whooee, revision time.

  5. 5 Mary Jo C. September 18, 2008 at 7:33 am

    The novel I’m working on actually came to me from a first line of another novel by Jules Verne. I just wrote pages and pages in a spiral notebook, then found it years later and said Whoa! I wrote this? This is good stuff!

    So, I continued to “free write” and as I got a picture of what was going on and the possibilities of what could happen, I plotted out about 10 chapters, wrote some more and became involved in research. One of the main characters is an old African tribal woman with lots of traditions and beliefs, including a carved doll which is prominent in the story.

    I’d love to have these books to help tighten and focus my novel-in-progress!

  6. 6 Laura September 18, 2008 at 7:48 am

    As I have mostly been writing personal essays, I have little experience with plotting. There seems to be little need to plot when recounting events that have already happened. The writing seems to be simply a retelling of an existing sequence of events.

    However, as I begin to delve into fiction writing, I am finding that I simply let the story evolve as it wills. I have a basic idea of where I hope the story will go, but no real plotting. I do think that I need to learn plotting, and then find a way to combine elements of plotting with letting the characters & story discover themselves.

  7. 7 Erika September 18, 2008 at 8:21 am

    I definitely write first. It just seems to be what comes naturally and what helps me evolve the plot. Once I’m part way into the story, I will plot some very basic details, but nothing close to a formal outline. A lot of it just takes place in my head…

    For me writing first gets me excited about the story.

  8. 8 rowena September 18, 2008 at 8:55 am

    I have recently changed my technique, or perhaps I’ve refined it. I used to write first, with a vague idea of where I wanted to go. I would take notes and draw pictures and make maps and graphs and just keep writing.

    Now, I start with an outline, get to know the characters, refine the outline, then start working. I think I like this way better. It helps me get to know the story much more intimately. And no one says I have to stick to the outline exactly as written.

  9. 9 Richelle September 18, 2008 at 9:00 am

    I’ve done it both ways, but I’m discovering that it’s important to have a very rough idea of plot before I get too far into a book/story. I start out getting a character or two down, which usually presents a plot idea, which I outline pretty thoroughly. That way, when I get stuck or am not sure what would happen next, I have a point B (or C or D…) to write to.

    The outline is a fluid document. When the characters take me in a new direction, I revise the outline — which ensures that I continue to have a viable story and not 150 pages of decent writing that goes nowhere.

  10. 10 Cara September 18, 2008 at 9:37 am

    I should qualify this first, by owning up that I have never written any full-length novels to date, unless you count two more or less disastrous attempts in my early teens. I don’t! My current fiction experience is limited to pieces ranging from 500 word flash fiction (which is painfully short for someone as verbose as me!), to a 5000 word short story (ah, much better). Beyond that, I have not yet attempted.

    That being said, I have a uniform way I approach all writings, from these little daily exercises for the Writer Mama blog, to my longer works. I pause for a moment to mentally brainstorm ideas and get my thoughts in order. This, I guess, roughly (very roughly!) translates to my plotting stage. Then I start to write.

    By the time I’ve got my first paragraph done, my mind is already racing ahead, deciding on the ending of the piece. Then I just let myself go, and allow my words take me there.

  11. 11 Celestial Goldfish September 18, 2008 at 9:57 am

    I’m fumbled blindly with stories before, and it’s not fun. I like having some idea of the plot, and I like knowing what I plan to write each day when I’m working on a novel. After taking a course online, I realized it helps to think in terms of a pitch line and a query letter before I even start the actual story. Sure, it’s a rough draft and things may meander as I actually write, but it’s better than putting on a blindfold and sitting at the keyboard.

    For my upcoming book I’m trying out a program called yWriter to help me establish plot and chapter outlines. I get more and more organized each year!

  12. 12 Laurie Thompson September 18, 2008 at 10:12 am

    So far, I’ve mostly written nonfiction, so I definitely plot first (researching and outlining). I’m still trying to figure out fiction, but I think because of my nonfiction experience (and just the way my brain works) I will probably always have to plot first. I need to have a roadmap to guide me, even if I end up straying from it later. Sometimes, however, the best way to get warmed up is to just start writing without any thought or care about where I’m going. This usually results in my most interesting and enjoyable writing time, but with horrendous results that I’ll never show to anyone!

  13. 13 Elise September 18, 2008 at 10:39 am

    I am a mostly non-fiction/memoir writer (for now) so the writing comes first, then I go back and revise like any fiction writer would do…checking for character, plot, POV, voice, etc. I don’t outline, but there is much thought about how the “story” moves along. Is it too fast? Too slow? Should I zoom in on this point or not? Maybe my “thinking” is a substitute for an outline. But the writing definitely comes first…then the “thinking!”

  14. 14 Katrina September 18, 2008 at 10:51 am

    I know the beginning and the end; the middle develops as I write, although I often have some ideas. I’ve tried outlining, but as organized as I am in other aspects of my writing career, using an outline in my fiction has proven detrimental. However, as I’m writing this it occurs to me that perhaps I sometimes do mini-outlines for individual scenes, just in my head. I can see the advantage to outlining plot, but in respect to the whole book, knowing most that will happen is like reading the spoiler for a movie; it takes some of the thrill away for me. I’ve yet to experience story-stopping writer’s block for significant amounts of time. Usually when I’m unsure of direction, I’ll throw something at my protagonist and see what happens (guns, accidents, some tragedy, etc.). Sometimes I’ll use it, but more often, it will: (1) trigger a different idea for moving the story forward, and (2) illuminate more of the character’s motivation about what they would or would not do and why, which, happily, is quite useful.

  15. 15 PeggyD. September 18, 2008 at 11:08 am

    I definitely have an idea for a plot before I begin writing. It might change completely before I am done with a writing project, but I begin with some kind of plot idea, however big, small, detailed or vague it might be. I also try to outline with my fiction, which works okay, but I have revised my outline at least three times for one of my projects and the structure is still changing. The plot is probably the one thing that changes the least throughout my writing projects, but I allow it to evolve – whatever makes the story better and stronger.

  16. 16 Cat September 18, 2008 at 11:09 am

    I wish I could say I plot beforehand, because it seems so organized. But I don’t. Sometimes I work from an outline, but often not. I do think that having a better idea of where I want to go next would be a very good thing, indeed, but I don’t think I’m very good at plot, frankly. And I do like letting things go where they want–I often end up surprised. I spend much more time thinking about and understanding my characters before I start to write.

  17. 17 Judy September 18, 2008 at 11:33 am

    I just free write, like a lot of you. The story just comes and, often, it’s a surprise to me. My work has been limited to no more than the 3000 words for now. I began to focus on writing as a career in January (no; it wasn’t a NY Resolution) so I haven’t developed the stamina or skills to write a novel yet. I do feel little ideas beginning to take shape in my head. When I attempt a novel, I would think I would do a combination of both and weave them in together, kind of like science and religion.

  18. 18 Laural September 18, 2008 at 11:38 am

    My only novel writing experience was a write first, then take the raw material and plot next. Then re-write and re-work lots. Same for my non-fiction, now that I think about it. I agree with what a few people said about thinking on things too. Those spare minutes while waiting for class to start or the kids to come racing in, or while you’re getting the mundane house stuff done. That’s valuable pre-plotting too.

  19. 19 Stephanie Craig September 18, 2008 at 11:48 am

    I outline for everything. If you are trying to write a book, making an outline before you start will save you a lot of trouble and time. You may find out that the original idea just does not work. The few hours lost spent on the plot outline of a story that just will not work is better than wasting possibly hundreds of hours if you write and do not outline that same story.

    I liken outlines to a car ride. Yes if you decide to go from Detroit to Houston, you can jump in the car and go south. But if you do, you will spend so much time trying to figure out where you are going, that you miss the view. If you have directions and planned stops, you can know for sure where you are and take time to enjoy all the little places and people along the way. You will get there sooner too, because you are a lot less likely to get lost and have to backtrack.

  20. 20 Beth@MommyComeLately September 18, 2008 at 1:05 pm

    I plot first–but I confess to plotting loosely. My plot has plenty of wiggle room for my characters to surprise me. With my WIP, right now I’m writing backwards, filling in a few gaps in my plot.
    I think of plotting like painting. First I sketch out the faint lines of the picture with a pencil. Then I start adding in the color and details, the shadowing–that sort of thing–as I write and rewrite. I call it “adding more brushstrokes.” Of course, the feedback from my writers group helps tremendously too. They encourage me to add more of this or that–dialogue, tension–and help me know just where to add the brushstrokes.

  21. 21 Cathy September 18, 2008 at 1:45 pm

    I plot first. I work from the ending back, but I have a general idea of where my plot is going. If it’s flash, I generally have an idea come to me like that-in a flash- and I may stare off for a few minutes, zombie-like, but I’m plotting in my head. Then I write in a burst.

    If it’s a longer work or my middle grade fiction, I plot, loosely, in the shower. Then I write an outline, making sure I’m covering the main points of my shower plot. After I write a few drafts, I may change characters or the order of my story, but I generally stick to my shower plot.

  22. 22 Lori Russell September 18, 2008 at 2:36 pm

    When writing ficiton, I ussually start with an image or a scene and a few bits and pieces of the plot and take the creative jump from there. Most of the time I have no idea what the end of the piece will be before I get there.

    By the end of the first draft, I am gettig clearer on what the story is really about, what scenes need to be added or eliminated to create the character arc, motivaiton and plot points. During the course of writing a novel, I often take my characters for a long walk and ask them questions in my head. What happens next? What do you need me to know about why you are acting this way? Then I go home and free write. I often find that I’ve mined gems that can be used in the actual story. Only once did the idea for the structure/plot for a novel come first and I’ve yet to complete the project.

  23. 23 Jenny September 18, 2008 at 2:44 pm

    I tend to write the plot outline first, because it helps me to “see where I’m going as I write.” Also, it helps me to figure out any potential problems I may need to resolve with the characters.

    That doesn’t mean I always stick to it, but it helps, kind of like an outline does when you’re writing non-fiction.

    Occasionally I free write just to get the feel for the characters, and uncover the plot beginnings that way.

    So I guess: whatever gets you through the night! 🙂

  24. 24 Amber September 18, 2008 at 3:53 pm

    When it comes to novels I usually plot very loosely which provides some structure but I think I need more. Sometimes I’ll find myself running out of steam. I’ll have my characters set and then have ten to twenty events or things that happen and need to get tied up.

    With short stories I really don’t plot at all. I haven’t figured out why there is a difference between the two.

  25. 25 Mar Junge, c3PR September 18, 2008 at 5:28 pm

    It’s comforting to read that so many of you don’t plot first, because plotting is my weakest link. It’s the one area in which I’m a total novice. I took a plot class from Martha Alderson and realized how important plotting is to commercial fiction. Martha showed us that even the children’s book “Where the Wild Things Are” follows the same plot structure used in many blockbuster novels. I can see where plotting, like outlining, can save hours of rewriting down the road. And it can also help keep the story moving when you’re not sure what should come next. But like any other writing skill, it takes time, discipline and dedication to do well.

  26. 26 Renee September 18, 2008 at 5:53 pm

    I like to have a general plot outlined (if only in my head!) prior to writing. But I don’t like to be a slave to the plot. I’m always inspired to add to the plot, sometimes just by something as simple as hearing a song on the radio. I think that’s the fun part of writing fiction — you have the freedom to follow your story, not vice versa.

  27. 27 krysk September 18, 2008 at 6:53 pm

    When I sit down to write I have a general idea in my head and then I just write from there, usually half way through I realize that I am completley lost/over my head and need to regroup. I then, using paper and pen, draw myself either a web or a simple plot outline – writing what I am trying to say, sequence of events, etc. I do this everytime I write a piece – it is always a trade off between letting my creativity simply flow, and reigning all my thoughts in – but this is what works for me. I am getting way better at using the computer as a “work in progress” and simply just allowing myself to free write about my topi/subject – rather than always self-editing myself on paper…

  28. 28 Lisa September 18, 2008 at 7:53 pm

    I don’t plot or outline before I begin writing fiction, I freewrite and see what happens. This is the fun part for me, to see where my writing and characters want to go and where they will take me. Most of the time I just follow them down a path that meanders, unfortunately for me it is often aimless. Reading everyone’s comments was insightful and I would like to try plotting a story. I think it will be helpful to have a general idea where I’m going when I begin something.

  29. 29 kmcdade September 18, 2008 at 9:55 pm

    Nope, I don’t plot first, at least so far. I haven’t written much fiction, though. I completed a short story for children this year, which I basically wrote off the top of my head and then went back and revised and tightened. I don’t think I really changed anything with the plot. My other experience was with a novel I started during NaNoWriMo last year. I started with a seed idea that came from a dream, and thought it was something that I could flesh out, but it really didn’t work out. I found that I really didn’t like my novel, even when I tried taking it in a different direction. Maybe if I had tried plotting it out more, I would have gotten along better (and NaNo is coming up again soon, hmmmm….).

  30. 30 elizaj September 18, 2008 at 10:19 pm

    The short fiction bits that I have written have all focused on character to begin with.
    I’ve always admired Anne Tyler. With her books there is very little heavy duty plot. She does not skip from one catastrophe to the next like some writer’s do, to keep the story “alive.”
    What keeps me glued with Anne’s books, is the transformation and growth of such wonderful interesting characters. A reader really get to know the people.
    Her character development shows real writer’s skill and art.

  31. 31 Mama K. September 18, 2008 at 10:40 pm

    When I write fiction, I imagine the whole story in my mind before I write. The plot plays itself out like a movie in the theater of my mind. So I’m really writing from memory, describing what I’ve seen—almost a memoir of a memory. It’s not quite as easy as it sounds, because I still have to find the right words to describe the scenes and to flesh out the characters. So the writing still requires work, it’s just that the plot is mostly easy to follow. And that’s not to say that there aren’t any foggy areas—-because sometimes there are: places where the scene is unclear, and I’m not sure what is/should be happening. That sort of situation calls for some ruminating, and after a few hours or days or weeks, something clicks, and I can go on.

    I’ve never done well at setting goals, and this works, so why plot?

  32. 32 Jennifer September 18, 2008 at 11:09 pm

    I’ve not written much fiction so I’m enjoying reading the process that other writers go through to get to a finished fiction piece. So far, I just have a few ideas down that came to me in an unplanned way. Since I haven’t focused on fiction writing, I don’t have experience with outlines and plotting. I’d like to know how others approach character development. That feels like a sticking point for me. I may have this plot idea that came from freewriting and now I feel like I have to try and structure a character to fit in with the plot. I doesn’t feel very organic or authentic to me.

  33. 33 alirambles September 18, 2008 at 11:29 pm

    I’ve only written one novel. I wrote first, then plotted part of the rest out until I wasn’t sure what happened next. Then I wrote some more. As I wrote, the plot became clearer in my mind, and I was able to plot out the rest of the novel.

    The problem with this technique is that I’m still plotting, in my revisions. Partly that’s due to inexperience. Nothing that I wrote feels like time wasted, because it was all part of a huge learning process, but I think with my next book I’ll try to plot things out a little more before I write as much.

  34. 34 Erin Maher September 18, 2008 at 11:54 pm

    I don’t plot, but I intend to try it. My writing has always been based on pleasure, so it usually starts on a character, scene or idea that springs into my head. It grows from there, and sometimes ends very abruptly because I don’t know where to go – which has brought on “slice of life!” comments from writing professors. But is really evidence of poor=no planning.

    I’ve got an idea in the works right now for a workshop I’m doing, and maybe I’ll plot the bad boy out. See how I do sitting down in the seat of my pants rather than flying in them.

  35. 35 Cheryl September 19, 2008 at 8:29 am

    I write first–but I always know the beginning, the end, and usually the crisis point. As I write each chapter, I often get plot points for further chapters. When I’m done the first draft, I revise, adding layers, details, etc.

  1. 1 WMBTSG Day Eighteen Drawing: And the winner is… « The Writer Mama Riffs Trackback on September 19, 2008 at 2:23 pm
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