0 In A Third Kind of Madness/ In Sleep You Know/ On Creating/ Writing

Growing a Plot From a Stem

A two leaved plant grows from a stack of books. Text reads: growing a plot from a stem

So last night it started. What, you ask?

The dreams. Dreams about my current story, the characters interacting, the plot and where it’s headed.

When this happens, I know my brain is in full storytelling mode. And this is when the real magic starts to happen for me, because I’ll be thinking through scenes in my head in the shower, while grocery shopping, or eating dinner. It’s so exciting!

When I start writing, I have characters and a vague idea what the story’s about, and not too much else. I let the characters and mood develop and then the plot will reveal where it’s going. If it sounds like I’m kinda hands-off-the-wheel in this process, you’re right. I trust that there’s a plot there, and there always is.

This particular story grew from a stem I’d wrote down years ago. It took that long to get here, but I knew it would bloom when it was ready. Trust!

⬆️ I wrote that earlier today over on Mastodon, and I wanted to expand on it here, because there’s a lot to talk about!

Plots, pants… plants?

I’m sure I’ve mentioned before that in a world of writers that often divide into “plotter” and “pantser” camps, I’m definitely a “planster.” I can hear some of you asking, “What’s the difference?”

Planners are all about drawing up an outline and strongly defining their plot before they get started. They know where they’re headed, they’ve got the map at the ready, and generally the ride is smooth because of all the planning they did before they even started writing the actual tale. There’s a lot to be said for this method because of that.

Pantsers are the total opposite: they sit down and turn loose the ol’ brain on the paper or keyboard. They might have a general idea of where they want to go, or maybe they just metaphorically get in the car and drive around as their heart leads them. It’s basically discovering the story as you go, which is exhilarating but also can lead to frustration if it remains aimless for too long.

Plansters? [I’ve also seen it as plantser] They’re somewhere in the middle, and the degree to which they lean to one side or the other can vary wildly. It’s okay to claim one of the first two titles as your method and still use some techniques from the other, by the way. I think most writers do, again to varying degrees.

The way I create my stories works in this way:

I’m an extremely character-driven writer, so the main character[s] show up first, usually in an opening scene that sets the tone of the story to come. I do a lot of pre-writing in my head, playing out scenarios like I’m telling myself a story, before I ever commit the characters to the page in any way. This way I can see if there’s a viable story to be shared, or if it needs to be shelved for later.

That’s actually what happened with the current WIP, which I’ve been talking about under the acronym ATKOM for now. When it first appeared, the MC was a guy, and someone who had given up on any artistic abilities early on in childhood. Now the MC is non-binary, and a talented photographer. What stayed was the muse love interest and the MC’s extreme shyness and awkwardness. Oh, and the art collective with the unpleasant leader, Joolie. The story’s plot also has gone in a completely different direction than I originally imagined that it would, and I feel it’s much stronger for that.

So I come up with characters, or more properly – they show up, and I put them in a scene and see how they work and what happens. When it gels and feels exciting, I keep going. At this point, I generally have no idea where the story is going. I just let the scenes unroll naturally and explore from there.

Using In Sleep You Know as an example: I knew my opener was Merrick showing up uninvited to a party, which unbeknownst to him was being thrown by a house full of Fae. Classic, right? Lots of possibility in that scene.

I also knew Merrick was a musician, and kind of aimless and unmotivated but clever and resourceful enough when his back was to the wall. Every single thing else happened in the exploratory first chapter without a plan. Aisling showed up with her ability to walk in other people’s dreams, and Cullen, who started out as jaded and just tagging along for a good time but quickly warmed into a likeable guy.

From there, things changed rapidly. When I started writing, there was no Lucee or Sousa or The Maithe, and certainly no Gwyliannan of Tiennan House. Vali showed up all on her own and she and Sousa carved out their own subplot without any conscious input from me! Which really is something, as Vali is one of my favorite characters to date.

What happens next?

So here’s what usually happens after the characters establish themselves and the story starts to get some ideas of what it wants to be. [Yes, I’m anthropomorphizing my stories and characters, but in many ways they really do have lives of their own.]

About 20,000 to 30,000 words in, I sit down and think about character arcs and where I want the story to go. Usually at this point I already have a good idea of what I want, but no matter how I loosely plot out things I always leave room for sudden changes and swerves. These characters will do unexpected things, I tell you! For example, originally I thought Brenna would be the one to show Merrick how to shape a raven, but our small and gentle friend Quillan stepped up instead. He’s another character who I didn’t have plans for but he insisted on being more important than I would have guessed.

Okay, so far I:

  • Imagine some characters
  • Put them in an opening scene with a vague idea of what I want to happen
  • Start writing, letting the characters do their thing
  • If it’s gelling, around 20,000-30,000 words sit down and make a loose outline and character arcs if I haven’t already*

My outlines are basically me sitting down and writing out beats – the important moments that drive the story along – making sure to include key interactions between characters that I want to see happen and why, as well as where plot points might converge or reveal important details. It sounds more complicated than it really is. I mean, here’s the fleshed out beats from the first couple of chapters of ISYK:

  • Merrick goes to House Mirabilis
  • Meets Aisling, she saves him from Edana, Cullen tags along
  • The Ladies go after Merrick, Morgance loses and has to offer name [no one is sure why they go after him so hard]
  • Merrick is introduced to Fallon and she says he is under their protection
  • He joins the party, meets Sheridan, drinks and eats
  • Fallon asks who will stand for him, Aisling, Cullen, and Sheridan say yes
  • Fallon tells him who they are [fae, Eleriannan] and asks him if he will join them for seven years. He says yes.]

Note that I wrote this part of the outline *after* I wrote those chapters. My outline for the last part of the book is a lot more vague:

  • construction of gates so that there can be free movement
  • why does Genaine claim no knowledge of gates
  • who will guard gates
  • what comes from Lucee’s pledge to Genaine [redacted]
  • Vali’s graffiti
  • [redacted]
  • Vali wards The Maithe, Grimshaw attacks in front, they grab [redacted]
  • Tell them that if they surrender The Maithe, [redacted] will not be harmed

So you can see, it’s more about what I know I need or want to cover, less about “this is how it’ll go” – there are even some things in that outline that I didn’t share here that never came to pass. I guess in some alternative timeline, maybe they did?

I’ll tell you the truth here – I didn’t even write this part of the outline until I was at what I knew to be the last third of the book. Right around there everything came to me in a rush, and I knew where the story was going, though the last couple of chapters still shocked the heck out of me. If you’ve read ISYK feel free to message me and ask what the surprises were!

So this is a pretty long post and I’ve got more to say, including tips for managing all the bits and pieces floating around waiting for that outline to corral them, so tune in for Part Two to learn about things like how a planster manages characters over a long arc that isn’t really planned out at all, and how character-driven plots work for me.

Until next time!

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