Learning to Plot My Life

I’ve been working with the absolutely awesome, kick-ass Cairene MacDonald of Third Hand Works, whose tagline is: “from overwhelmed to ready for anything.”   She’s phenomenal, on a number of levels.

I’m juggling a lot right now.  I’ve joined the team at Entangled Publishing, who are also kick-ass.  (Trust me, if you’re a writer, you’re going to be hearing a lot about them this year.  When they launch, they’re going to light the publishing world on fire with a blowtorch.  I’m lucky enough to be one of their publicists.  I get to wear my White Hat and walk my talk, which is awesome. )

I’ve also got this, all you peeps who like to rock and sell a lot, without selling out.  I get to do Mad Plotting Calls, and do some high level editing.

I teach over at Savvy Authors — a full year’s mentoring course.

I’ve just finished edits on the first book of a trilogy.  My agents are shopping my next series, a sort of Urban Fantasy My Girl Friday.

Did I mention my son’s four years old? Because he’d mention it, given the chance.

Oh, and we’re moving.  One to grow on!

A system is needed.  Possibly several.  STAT!

I wrote my first seven or so novels when I was working at a full time job.  It wasn’t that hard, all things considered.  I’d work all day, write a few hours at night.  Still had plenty of time to drink Jagermeister ice tea and do Family Guy marathons on weekends.

Then my son (a.k.a. The Boy) entered my life, and all hell broke loose.  Suddenly, what I juggled with relatively few bobbles became like a grenade exploding.  I didn’t so much drop things as get caught in the shrapnel.

What used to work suddenly doesn’t.

I tried Franklin Covey.  Allen’s GTD (Getting To Done.)  Zen To Done.  Julie Morgenstern and Organizing from the Inside Out.    I’ve read more time management books than I can admit, or even remember.  And nothing quite worked.  But I kept stumbling, and through a convoluted path finally found Cairene, and discovered the trick wasn’t to find the system that worked.

It was to look at myself, and what was already working.

The one system that survived.

I came up with my infamous Compulsive Plotting method with one main thing in mind:  writing to deadline.  I sold my second book on proposal, and suddenly, they wanted to know “when can you turn this in?”  I’d written my first book complete before I sold it — I knew I liked the whole proposal idea, so I suddenly had to figure out how many pages I needed to write when, and I needed to figure out how to make the story fit.

I’ve been writing for twelve years, and the plotting system and story craft has developed, streamlined, but ultimately I’ve found what worked.  I don’t think about it anymore.  When I get a story idea, I go through the same process.  Character work.  GMC chart.  Plot points.  Scene outline.  It’s like breathing.  It’s what gives me the ability to spot other people’s plot arcs at twelve paces (and under an hour.)

What I did not have was a system for everything else.  In fact, it never occurred to me to try one.

Plotting my life.

The wildest thing I’ve discovered in working with Cairene, besides the power of metaphors and play, is that I don’t have to have a to-do list like anyone else.  The reason all those other admirable systems I’ve been studying over the years didn’t work for me was because I was looking at what others did, instead of looking at what I do naturally.

I have my plotting system down cold.  So why couldn’t I apply it to my life?

Character sketch.  I’ve done more research into what shapes my characters than I’ve ever done for myself.  STarting to unravel that — the why behind  the whats that I  do — inevitably leads me to the next point.

GMC.  What is my goal, really?  If I’m not clear about what I want, I won’t know it when I get it.  I state it clearly in my novels.  I need to do that in my life.

Then, why do I want to do whatever the hell I’ve jumped into?  If I’m writing a novel, I need to ask why, or else the next time it gets sticky and hellish, I’m going to come perilously close to turning tail and tucking that bad boy in a drawer.  That’s where motivation comes in.

Finally, obstacles.  What’s standing in my way?  That would be external (i.e. “I want to sell a book, but the market’s soft for (whatever) at this point.”) or internal (such as “I really want to tackle a big information project, but I’m scared because I’ve never done it before.”) If I don’t know what’s in my way, I won’t know how to work around it.  I’m just going to keep going “smack-ouch, smack-ouch” against the wall.

Plot Points.  This is a little more of a stretch, but strangely, it does still work.  Larry Brooks’ brilliant STORY ENGINEERING breaks a story into four parts:  the first quarter being when something happens to jar the protagonist out of stasis; the second quarter, when the character runs around trying to figure out what to do and reacting to everything thrown at him; the third quarter, when he’s gotten new information and has gone from reactive to proactive; and finally the fourth quarter, when the stakes have been raised, he’s faced his fears, and he kicks some ass. (I am liberally paraphrasing.)

Plot Points: I has them!

When I take a project, I look at what got me started (the Inciting Incident.)  I look at my goal, and why I’m there, and what will happen if I don’t do it.  (Plot Point One.)  If I’m planning, odds are good I’m at Plot Point 2.  I’ve done my info gathering, and now it’s time to set out the plan of action.

Plot Point 3 would be moving from planning to action.  Carrying out the dream.  Going for it.

The Black Moment:  “What’s the worst that could happen?”  Not in a negative way.  Just looking at possible solutions, and adding practicality to imagination.

Finally the resolution:  how do I want this to end?

It’s not perfect.  But it’s damned close.

Granted, I can’t control my life the way I control my books… but honestly, my stories have a mind of their own no matter how hard I “plot.”  The whole point for me in having the system is a way to wrap my mind around a very complicated, interdependent set of threads.  How to keep focus, no matter what happens.

Now that I’m applying it to everything I’ve got going on?

I think I’m looking forward to being a heroine in my own story. To writing my own life.  🙂

What do you think?  What do you do to keep moving, to get things done?  What systems do you have that work?

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8 Replies to “Learning to Plot My Life”

  1. Big messy hearts of love for this!!! This is beautiful! Did you just come up with this last night or were you holding out on me yesterday.

    I can completely see myself thinking of my life like this and finding out what my motivations are and then how to accomplish them. Brilliant!

    1. LOL! I promise I wasn’t holding out. I was going to say something, and then got sidetracked. You see why I need systems! 😀

      Let me know if this works on your projects — you’ve got a lot of threads, too. Very curious!

  2. Ah, another *take a breath* post. I LOVE these. Very timely. In a book you need a scene and a sequel. ‘Sequel’ as in time for a breather, time to reflect before the plot moves on. I’ve only recently realized that I need a ‘sequel’ in my writing life, too. Instead of constantly nagging myself to do more! more! more! (which is the message I get from most of the writing blogs I look at) I need to pop my head up and take a breath now and then. In the long run, I’ll probably accomplish more of the things that are really important to me. At least I hope so 🙂 Execellent post!

    1. Ginna! That is BRILLIANT!! *smacking self on forehead* I need “sequels” too! And when writing a lot of action, there needs to be dips in pacing, or you get what my friend calls “falling asleep at the edge of your seat” — high tension with no release, which leads to monotony no matter what. You absolutely need breathers. Thank you thank you thank you for this observation! 😀

      1. I agree with you both. Brilliant observation from Ginna. Frenetic pace is exhausting! I heard much about building in tension release when I first started writing; now almost never. A lot is gained from allowing for reflection/acclimation before moving on. In a larger sense, so much insight is gained in taking a break from a WIP, or even from writing in general. Makes so much sense to apply the concept to Cathy’s analogy (which I love, btw Cathy :)).

  3. Oh, I’m terrible at plotting out my stories and novels. Maybe that’s why I don’t have an agent.

    But I suppose that I’ve come to accept the way I write (accept as much as I am capable of since acceptance doesn’t appear to a stagnant state) and I accept the way I live. My home will not be spotless. My son may not have organic lunches.

    There might be a plenty of wrong ways to live, but there is no one right way. If there is room in the world for all kinds of stories, then there is room in the world for me.

    1. True, Marta. I’m not saying this is a way everyone should manage their time and projects, and neither does Cairene. She’s been fantastic about looking at what does work for you, and then building on it. Of course, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right? 😀

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