How To Plot a Book in 16 Steps

Posted by on Aug 1, 2013 in Lists, Tutorials, Writing & Reading | 128 comments

I’ve recently entered the brainstorming stage of my next book. It’s a fun, crazy time. Sometimes my mood is rainbows. Sometimes it’s angst. Right now my mood wants lists (as it often does), so here you go: a step-by-step guide to plotting a book. All you writers out there, this is for you. You’re welcome.

1. Find the most inconvenient time/place. Showers are good. Cars, too. Lying in bed, comfortable, mostly asleep? Perfect.

2. Think about something else.

3. Bolt of lightning crashes above you, singeing little bits of your hair as it sizzles past. Geez, that was close.

4. You’ve got it! THE idea! (By the way, you’re brilliant. Good job.)

5. Ignore it or write it down? Debate the options. Decide to wait. You are wet/busy steering/warm and comfortable. The idea can hold…Can’t it?

6. Suddenly remember the last time you told yourself that. Disgraced and petulant, that particular World’s Best Idea slunk away, never to return again. The only things you remember about it are that it had something to do with the letter ‘R’ and it felt like perfection on a milkshake. So, yeah, not helpful.

7. Curse your memory. Curse the timing of lightning. Curse the notepad, which always parts ways with the pen you were certain you put it next to. Curse writing. Who invented it, anyway? It’s their fault you’re even in this mess.

8. Find both the pen and the notebook. Finally.

9. The pen even works. It’s a miracle. Celebrate.

10. But not too long, because ideas have an expiration date, and this one’s nearing it.

11. Grab a towel/pull off the road/sit up in the dark.

12. Write. Begin to feel giddy. This is the best idea ever! Ooh! And there’s a nice subplot! And a turning point! The first? Second? Whatever. You’ll figure it out.

13. Maybe later, though, since you ARE naked and freezing and hogging the bathroom/getting honked at/burning under the glare of a grumbly spouse who JUST WANTS YOU TO TURN OUT THE LIGHT ALREADY. These people do not understand the joys of writing, poor things. They deserve your pity.

14. There’s no time for pity. You have an idea to write. Get back to work.

15. When you are satisfied, stash the notebook and pen and resume your mundane, non-writing task, all the while planning time to type in those pages and further flesh out your idea before you a) forget what you meant by “arrow moonbeam swirl” and b) forget how to read your own handwriting.

16. Repeat process until book is outlined. Then repeat throughout the writing phase. And revisions. And after you turn in your revisions. And basically until you start a new book. And maybe even a little after that.

BONUS STEP: Later, when you are visiting an elementary school, describing your writing process, an earnest third grader will ask you where your ideas come from. A few good answers may cross your mind: Wal*Mart, the newspapers, dreams. But ultimately you will find yourself telling the truth: “Bad timing. My best ideas come from the worst timing.”

  • Jennifer Shirk

    Oh my gosh, yes! Why do they come at the worst times? I always get pieces of my scenes when I’m almost asleep. Grr…

    • Caryn Caldwell

      That happens to me all the time! And I can never decide if I should turn the light back on and start writing them immediately or just go to sleep. Sometimes the book wins. Sometimes sleep does.

  • Deanie Humphrys-Dunne

    Hi Caryn,
    This is my first visit to your blog. This was a really cute,funny, and creative one. Great job.
    Happy weekend.

    • Caryn Caldwell

      Thanks so much for stoping by, Deanie, and for taking the time to comment! I had a lot of fun with this post, so I’m glad you enjoyed it.

  • Deanie Humphrys-Dunne

    Thanks for taking the time to leave me a special comment, Caryn.

    • Caryn Caldwell

      Of course, Deanie! I try to respond to everyone (though I got a little behind in the last week because I wasn’t getting all of my comment notifications.) Enjoy the rest of your summer!

  • Carrie Butler

    Hah! This is too true. :)

    • Caryn Caldwell

      Creativity is so fickle, isn’t it? :-)

  • Christina Lee

    LOL!!! Awesome!

    • Caryn Caldwell

      Thanks, Christina! :-)

  • LoryKC

    I try not to even sit on the couch, lately as I am always too tired to get back up! It’s bad. Not productive, no ideas, getting nothing done. So when I finally drag myself upstairs and into bed, sink into the pillow and start floating off to slee….BAM! BEST.IDEA.EVER.
    But the shower does work REALLY well, too! (I’ve figured out the meaning of life and the solution for world peace in there, too….but lost them by the time I got dressed!)

    • Caryn Caldwell

      Yes! That’s exactly how those pre-sleep ideas come, isn’t it? They love to pull that kind of stuff. And LOL on the shower thing. So true! All the world’s solutions are in the shower. In fact, maybe all workplaces should have built-in showers. The world would be much better off.

  • Nikki Trionfo

    Haha, I love this! Although, I have to say that pen and paper are much more inspiring to me than a computer. I like to force myself to write ideas and somehow the fifty dumb ideas don’t bother me as much on a piece of binder paper as they do on a computer screen. And sometimes I even get a good idea. :)

    • Caryn Caldwell

      Nikki, I’m with you on finding inspiration in pen and paper. I usually write on my computer just to save the time it takes to transcribe everything, but when I can’t get my mind to work, a pen in hand and paper in front of me will usually do the trick. As you said, I think it’s the disposability of it all.

  • Shallee McArthur

    This is hilariously brilliant. And a frighteningly accurate description of exactly how story plotting happens.

  • Alyssa Goodnight

    This sounds just like me–particularly the “in bed, almost asleep” part. Happened last night, in fact. And the night before. :)

  • Cynthia C. Willis

    This is great… and too true. Sad, but true. Ahhh, the writing life! : )

  • Caryn Caldwell

    @Shallee — Thanks! I had a feeling I wasn’t the only who went through these steps. 😀

    @Alyssa — I hope those moments ended up being worth it. Sometimes they are what can make a book, aren’t they?

    @Cynthia — Nothing like it, is there? (Though I do wonder if, say, painters wake up with ideas for new ways to mix colors or depict birds flying or whatever. They must, right?)

  • Jesse Sutanto

    Oh my gawd, this is so true! I love it. :)

    • Caryn Caldwell

      Thank you so much! Glad you enjoyed it! (And glad I’m not the only one who goes through this…)

  • Diane Holcomb

    I’m real good with steps 1 – 10. The handwriting part becomes a problem. I can’t read my scribbles. I could dictate into a tape recorder (those ancient devices) or turn on my laptop. But since I’m usually in the shower or driving or ready to fall asleep, it’s highly unlikely that I’ll do anything except suds up, floor the gas, or burrow down under the covers.

    Plot? Bah! I’m a pantser. (Which is why I never get past the first draft stage.)

    Funny post.

    • Caryn Caldwell

      LOL! I have the same problem. My handwriting is horrible. It’s why I keep a note-taking program on my phone. Then I just order Siri to write down my thoughts. It’s like having a personal (if robotic) secretary. Of course, it doesn’t work so well in the shower, though!

  • LisaAnn

    Oh my goodness, I know you posted this ages ago, but I somehow missed it until now. Obsessed. Such good advice–and so true!

    • Caryn Caldwell

      Thank you! Glad you liked it. And, uh, yeah…I should probably blog more often. I can’t help it; Twitter and Instagram just so fun, and they use all my social networking time.

  • Medeia Sharif

    These are great. :) Ah, a writer and plotting. I do most of my writing on my computer, but I prefer a notebook for planning things out.

    • Caryn Caldwell

      Thanks, Medeia! I’m with you, too. I write on my computer, but notebooks are great for planning and brainstorming. There’s something about using a pen and paper that gets the thoughts flowing in a different way.

  • Karen McKibbin

    My best ideas come to me when I’m in a tea shop. Over a cup of English Breakfast and toasted teacakes. Works every time!!

    • Caryn Caldwell

      That sounds lovely, Karen! And I agree — a lot of my best scenes have unfurled at our local coffee shop/bakery, over a nice bagel and hot chocolate. (Okay, slightly different menus, probably depending on country of origin, but the idea is still the same! :-D)

  • Vanessa B. Bernard

    Hilarious post Caryn! :) Loved it!

    • Caryn Caldwell

      Thank you, Vanessa! I’m so glad you enjoyed it. :-)

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