Flashback: Pre-Plotting

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Written By: Cait London


Doing the Yellow Pad Thing or Preplotting



Plotting is a big word. I prefer to divide it into two units: 1.) preplotting and 2.) structuring the novel. Preplotting is the yellow pad stage, tossing ideas out there, locking firmly into one theme, developing one basic plot, and toying with all the things that could happen within that plot. Structuring the novel involves placing all those events and twists in a logical order to excite the reader.

For now, we are concerned with preplotting, getting those ideas, not the logical sequence of events comprising the novel. It is important to understand that: There is no right way to plot a book; each individual seeks to find a method that will work for them. It’s a pot shoot, trying different methods until one works better than the rest. To argue which method is best, is a road without an end. But by trying different methods, the individual writer can develop their own way to work. In my experience, working with new writers, I find this is the stage that they might skip, plunging on to construct a perfect story without building a good foundation. That is why I stress preplotting.

I used to be a “gut” writer, and sometimes still am, just letting those stories flow onto paper without a structured plan. Okay, I did have this basic idea for a 10 chapter book (this could be stretched for a longer one): introduce conflicts, characters, setting in the first three chapters; develop the relationship and escalate the events until a critical development puts the characters on the line around the 9th chapter (a point or event which tests the relationship), and allow for a nice soft come-down on the 10th chapter. Along the line of my basic chapters, numbered one through ten, I’d draw 2 hearts, indicating love scenes. That is the basic curve for a romance. “Plunging” quickly got me into trouble at about the third chapter ; now I spend more “yellow pad” time, eliminating the potential of writing myself into corners.

My first Avon book, as yet untitled, involved the lives of three women. This required individual plotting of each life, then braiding their lives and loves together in the complete book. I did not “plunge” into this book.

In the Tallchief series (written by Cait London), I developed mini-plots for the Tallchief ancestors and have been asked by readers to write their stories. In plotting the Tallchiefs, I developed five siblings, each teenage life altered by the death of their parents. I constructed a town, Amen Flats, and different basic elements and landmarks to run through each book. Then I considered the family dynamics-the role of the eldest brother, only eighteen and ready to accept responsibility for his younger siblings. Duncan was terrified that he would fail to keep them together. Each Tallchief had a role to play in their survival, and Fiona, who was just ten at the time of her parents’ murder, had the awesome burden of being “good.” As an adult, Fiona emerges in The Seduction of Fiona Tallchief (Silhouette Desire 4/98). I constructed the Tallchief basic concept all at one time, each would have a prologue describing how they felt at the time of their loss, each would have a legend, each story woven with elements of their ancestors. Then with the composite Tallchief series set in place, the characters birth order and basic personalities, their family history, I began their individual stories. All the prework, the preplotting, set a good foundation for each story. When I began kneading Fiona as a character and what could happen to her, pushing for a basic plot, I found a twist that led into a duet spin-off: Nick Palladin: Man of Secrets 8/98 and Scent of a Woman 12/98.

There are three Palladin brothers, each haunted by a dark legacy: their father held up the convenience store and murdered the Tallchiefs’ parents. Who is the most unlikely man for a woman with Fiona’s background to love? “Unlikely” tosses in a twist.

This preplotting yellow pad stage-turning ideas–is laborious, brow-sweating, draining, tedious. Good stories come not from siphoning off basic themes from other books, but delving into yourself, really working to produce the best that you can. Sometimes you find that you cannot handle the topic you have chosen-been there, done that. My idea was great, but I couldn’t handle intense forensics.

* Know yourself. Who are you and what are your strengths, your weaknesses, your background and what you know? Be critical about your endurance level. If your attention is short, you might not be suited for a long novel. Humor is basic; a writer either has it or not, but if they do, it can be honed. I do not believe humor can be taught. Sometimes, to learn who you are as a writer, you have to step out on a ledge and take chances.

* How to get ideas: Some years ago, I wrote what became a popular article on Story Fishing. The article was intended to help people who cannot easily generate ideas. Basically, ideas come from people and people related actions. According to Webster’s Dictionary, a novel deals with human experience. Search microfiched historical newspapers. Scan CD Roms, Bartlett’s Famous Quotations and hobby groups. From the listing of the American Billiards Congress, I researched 1880s billiards and wrote The Wedding Gamble by Cait Logan. This is the story of a professional woman billiardist in Montana. I like to travel western fur trader/gold/NA trails and ideas are everywhere. I traveled/researched the entire Oregon Trail for Night Fire, and it is loaded with ideas. In Be Mine, the story of a German immigrant who wanted to keep her traditions, but also wanted to be a “modern” woman of the West, I used carrier pigeons as an element; the idea was harvested from microfisched newspapers.

Another Be Mine element was 1800s “working women’s” tokens, found in a flea market. A wife, finding these tokens in her husband’s clothing-well, that was another twist in Be Mine. Music presents an excellent source of ideas; the Wall Street Journal, newspapers and magazines (contemporary writers can find loads of ideas in women’s magazines). Then I seek out unusual businesses or ethnic festivals. A peek at a Psych 101 text book is a good place for ideas, and baby name books (the explanations create wonderful characters).

* Other ways to get ideas include playing games:

* The “versus” game: Make a list of human traits and “versus” them, i.e. honor vs. loyalty.

* Playing the What If game-this is fiction as we know it, stepping off that ledge.

* Turning crimes of violence or robbery. Why? Who stands to benefit.

* An incident that had profound affects on lives (that would be the convenience store robbery in which the Tallchief parents are murdered.

* I develop a “toy box” in which I keep ideas. They may not be useable when they arrive, but if I like them, I’ll stuff them away for future use and development. Try developing a personal database of basic ideas, i.e. a love-triangle, territorial disputes of water and land, historical preservation society fighting a shopping mall development, survivor’s guilt (I just did this one), literacy, spousal abuse, etc. Busy work between projects, like working on my toy box, or database of ideas is essential, building a supply of ideas, working them. I also develop a title database, which can lead to stories. This is churning the idea mill, not waiting for an idea to drop in, but being positive and working toward a goal. Constant work habits are essential in the writer. Sometimes ideas do drop in and when they do, write them down.

* Work on themes, i.e. the strength of the Tallchief family, bonded together; good over evil, a woman discovering her strengths and making a new life, etc. This theme will run throughout the book, connecting the series of events, which is the plot. Or that’s what works for me.

In preplotting, understand the givens:

* Yourself and your strengths, weaknesses, ref: above.

* Your story will twist and turn.

* For every action, there is a reaction. If not the predicted reaction, then the story takes a twist. (One of my readers says she likes King and me because of the twists. Now that is a compliment!)

* Slot the book to a specific market.

* Book length. Chapter length. Do your research.

* There are no new plots, only a variations.

By this time, you have your basic plot and a theme. Now work on a title to anchor you to the book, this is called a “working title.” Also, have an idea of the book-humorous, dark, tense, and so forth. This also anchors you to the book while creating, but you may wish to change this as the story turns and changes in development. I write humor and I write dark and intense, but sometimes in the writing, they change during the writing.

Next, freewheeling, make a list of everything you want to occur in the book, just tossing ideas on paper. Keep in mind actions/reactions/twists. This list is critical; it is what will happen in your book. Some writers use a yellow pad; others use index cards. There is software that attempts to do this brainstorming, but nothing is as good as time spent doing the yellow pad thing. If you wish to try software, try Collaborator III. Shove those ideas out there; get an array of ideas that you may or may not use. Remember that developing a plot is like the actual writing of the book; it is a “work in progress.”

Make a list and develop characters for your novel. Some writers prefer doing this before making the list of events which will later become their plotline, and that leads to actual connecting a series of events, the second half of plotting.

Editors are seeking “fresh ideas.” Preplotting, spending effort at the yellow pad stage, offers a feeding ground for these fresh ideas. Preplotting efforts help you better know your story.

That’s it for preplotting. It is painstakingly painful, but it pays off. I’d like to leave you with an affirmation: You MAKE time for writing; you don’t FIND time.

Lois Kleinsasser, aka Cait London (Silhouette) and Cait Logan (Berkley/Dell), consistently places on USA Today, Ingram’s, Waldenbooks and other national mass market and series best selling lists. She has millions of books in print, is published in 28 countries, and is currently at work on books approaching 40. She travels to and researches the sites of her books and has driven the entire Oregon Trail and several Northwest and Canadian fur trader/gold trails. She writes articles for writers’ magazines, lectures, and has many national awards. She is currently nominated for Best Americana. She is a member of Novelists, Inc. (professional), Romance Writers of America, Orange County RWA, and Sisters in Crime. Though Lois grew up in rural Washington State, she is a long-term resident of Missouri and is the mother of three daughters. 1998 marks Lois’s twelve years in publishing. As Cait London, her ’98 lineup is The Seduction of Fiona Tallchief (Silhouette Desire 4/98), !

Nick Palladin: Man of Secrets (Silhouette Desire 8/98), Maternity Leave (Silhouette Anthology 9/98) Avon Untitled (11/98), Scent of a Woman (Silhouette Desire 12/98).


Recommended Reading List for Writers


1. WEBSTER’S NEW COLLEGIATE DICTIONARY. This dates words, when they came into use. In the back is an excellent writer’s reference area for grammar, punctuation, etc.

2. TECHNIQUES OF THE SELLING WRITER. Dwight Swain. This book encompasses everything you need to be a fiction writer.


Books on Plotting:


* WRITING MYSTERIES by Mystery Writers of America

* 20 MASTER PLOTS by Ronald B. Tobias



* A Baby Name book, preferably one that defines the meanings and when they were popular

* WHAT’S WHAT by Reginald Bragonier, Jr. and David Fisher


* DOMESTIC TECHNOLOGY by Nell Du Vall. This gives the year of an item’s creation

* BARTLETT’S FAMOUS QUOTATIONS or a quotation book.


The 3 Basic Plots: Revenge, Possession and Escape