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I’m plotting a new novel. It’s a big, complicated story set in the 18th Century, taking place in multiple timeframes, with multiple points of views, in a few different locations on two continents and also, briefly, at sea. It’s also a mystery, so I have to plan it very tightly, and the trick is making the finished story seem natural and un-complicated. I’d like it to propel the reader forward, in the most pleasurable way, and I need to nail the plot before I get serious about the actual writing, when I can focus on character nuance, setting, and finer detail work.

I’ve learned the hard way that writing a novel without some idea of where it’s going is dangerous for me. More than once, I’ve polished up a work (a work that’s taken over a year to complete) and found that something was fundamentally flawed. By “fundamental” I mean the problem cannot be easily remedied with further revision, that a core element of the story, or a central character, is so deeply lacking that it calls for a major rewrite. And since stories tend to work best with strong cause and effect, any serious change radically affects everything that follows. If there’s a significant rewrite of Chapter 1, chances are good that Chapters 2 – The End don’t work anymore.

I wish to avoid this, if possible, with better planning. A fool’s dream, I’m sure, but it probably can’t hurt to try. It’s a lot easier to overhaul a plot than a whole book. But there’s another problem: what if excessive plotting saps the organic nature of the story and makes it feel frigid or contrived? Honestly, I’ve never bought that concern. Plotting takes as much loose creative energy as the actual writing. Many times, it’s the spacey plotting phase that keeps me most organic and uncontrived.

Nevertheless: many of the best moments in writing are lucky accidents. You’ll often hear writers talk about of being “surprised” by what their characters suddenly do, as if they’ve really come to life and gotten wills of their own. And this is true. It really happens. Everything from character to plot and setting frequently surprise me in the moment, and even when those surprises are minor, they can powerfully shift the direction of a story, sometimes in ways that are far better than anything I planned in advance. To keep this possibility alive, I’m doing three plots of varying specificity.

The High-Level Plot

This is a bare-bones outline, only two pages long in total. Each chapter is described in a few words. It’s a bird’s-eye view, a way to see the whole story, and its structure, in one quick glance. It’s especially helpful with general structure, and useful in times when the details overwhelm me.

The Detailed Plot

Consider this the sloppiest first draft imaginable. Each chapter gets 3-5 pages, almost a paragraph-by-paragraph game plan, where I don’t worry about prose or super-fine detail. It allows me to keep that organic story flow and discover those moments when a character does something unexpected, or identify places where I’ll need to do more research or figure out some critical point. If somebody read a book and then told you the story, rather blandly but with all of the essential points, it would sound a lot like my chapter plans. Again, since I haven’t sent hours getting the language right and making every moment just so, I won’t feel bad giving the whole thing an overhaul if I discover serious weaknesses along the way.

The Scheherazade Experiment

To see if my characters are compelling, to identify major problems, and to see if a reader might eagerly enjoy my story, I wanted to try a simple test. My solution is the The Scheherazade Experiment, named after the woman who told captivating stories, night after night, to dissuade a king from killing her. The experiment is designed for books whose goal is page-turbability, though I suppose it could be used with other kinds of stories. Here’s how it works:

  1. Pick a trusted friend, one whose taste you respect: an ideal reader.
  2. Be certain this friend is comfortable being honest. Let her know that criticism won’t hurt you, since you have this nifty multi-level plot that’s easily revised.
  3. Write a short, compelling summary of Chapter 1 (say 2-3 paragraphs).
  4. Email your friend the summary.
  5. The friend’s job is simple and non-taxing: read the summary and reply with either “More, please!” or “Zzzzz”.
  6. If “More, please!”, send Chapter 2 and repeat the process until the end.
  7. If you get a “Zzzzz”, figure out why and make improvements before continuing.
  8. If you can’t understand a “Zzzzz”, ask your friend if she is willing to explain what stopped the story cold.
  9. Buy that friend a gift when you’re done. She’s earned it.

If you can keep your reader eagerly requesting each chapter all the way to the end, it’s possible that your beloved story is really as good as you believe. You could try this with two or three friends, if you dare, to ensure that your original friend’s reaction isn’t a fluke. Too many responses might get confusing, however, and you don’t want to turn novel-writing into a committee project. The book must finally be your own, exactly as you want it, and you may need to disagree with a “Zzzzz” and forge on regardless. I realize the whole thing has an un-artistic, “test audience” vibe. This is why picking the right friend is so important: however arty you get, you want to write a book that someone will enjoy, and that friend of yours ought to be the type of reader you hope to engage.

Two of my favorite benefits of this approach have been (1) sharing the story-in-progress with a friend, which makes the long work a little less lonely and regularly boosts my confidence, and (2) forcing me to once again clarify my own intimacy with the novel. If I had to say to what happens in Chapter 8 that makes it worth keeping, I could tell you, confidently, and with multiple levels of detail, without skipping a beat. And knowing characters and events that closely, and deeply, is vital to making the actual book come alive.

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