There are two approaches to plotting or structure. I think of them as ‘male’ and ‘female’ although not all men go the male route, or women the female route. But it is a useful distinction. The male way is to ‘think things through’ before beginning. It is an architectural approach, involving plans, elevations, knowledge of materials and then building brick by brick. The female way is to find out what your book is about by writing it. This involves cutting away extraneous material. It’s the archaeological approach: a bit of geo-phiz followed by a lot of digging and dusting. There’s a story down there somewhere!
I’ve always gone the second route. Yes, of course, you need to know what your book is about in rough outline – you may even know the theme; you may even know the ending. But you have not thought things through at the outset in detail, and you have no plans to work by.
I’m now in deep revision on my fourth novel, A Gift for the Magus. I have been painstakingly excavating it for about three years now, but what I have is not satisfactory. It is failing in the area of structure. Starting work on this particularly savage edit, I discovered a revulsion for lists in my notebook, lists of things to include and delete. I couldn’t even read them. And yet, as I heard in a recent lecture on Luca della Robbia, ‘you can’t feel your way in marble’. You have to know where you are going, and I realised that I could get no further, ‘feeling my way’. Then I remembered mind-mapping.
I checked the web and there are several programmes for mind-mapping. The one I tried didn’t do the job. It just produced lists with fancy clouds round them. I went back to how I always used to do it, on paper with pencils and felt-tips. Bingo! Now I draw each chapter, putting the central theme in the middle and then organising things around the edge, in fancy clouds, boxes, whatever I wish. I do great sweeping arrows linking one thought to another. And once the chapter is done, I go back and make sure I’ve mentioned everything relevant on the map.
This technique has a great benefit. Structure and plotting are, of course, classic examples of left-hand brain activities. Mind-mapping does the job using the right-hand side. It is an artistic activity, with the shapes and colours employed to highlight each thought. The very act of using a pencil, feeling the resistance and acceptance of the paper, is creative.
So if you are an archaeologist rather than an architect, try mind-mapping by hand and have great childish fun. Draw your villains. Add little details such as ‘dinner menu: stuffed quail and anchovies – mmm delicious!’ When you come to write your chapter, there will be little or no need to pause and chew your fingernails. Believe it or not, you will have ‘thought it all through’ just like a man, but in a very female way.

This Post Has 9 Comments

  1. Hi Linda,
    I just discovered your new historical blog! Yay! What a great way to learn more about writing historical fiction. I quite enjoyed your first posts and look forward to reading more!
    Maggie 🙂

    1. Hi Maggie,
      Many thanks for your encouraging comments. I will indeed post more now I know that I have a reader! Is there anything in particular you’d like me to cover?
      All best

  2. Hmm…I can’t think of anything specific offhand. I’m sure, though, as I continue reading ‘The Botticelli Trilogy,’ I will think of things to ask. 🙂

  3. Hello Linda,
    You have more than one reader! I found you through Helen Hollick’s Twitter post. I plan to begin the Botticelli Trilogy as soon as I’ve completed Helen’s The Kingmaking.
    I, too , am in the midst of revisions and this article on mind-mapping may prove to be heaven sent.
    Thanks for your generosity.

    1. Thanks, Mari (and Helen!). I’ve finished my revision now and this is my first day at the desk in about four years wondering what to do with myself. I have a talk to prepare for the 16th – other than that, no excuses not to do the filing. So I’ll be posting more blogs than I have been. And I may get round to doing another tweet (only one so far, with Helen’s encouragement).
      I’m so glad the mind-mapping piece has helped. In the end I found it really useful to map out a section of chapters in coloured pens on A3 paper and have it under my elbow at all times for jottings and doodles. What period are you working on?
      Happy writing

  4. From a male point of view outlining and diagraming are probably a major drag for everybody. The best novel structure I’ve seen that’s relatively simple comes out of the Weekend Novelist. The author uses the structure of the Accidental Tourist and creates scenes. String the complete scenes together, you’ve got a book. I want to write those scenes, but I haven’t yet although I have more than enough material and tons of documents. Thanks for doing a writing blog, it is inspiring.

  5. Sam, that’s really interesting. Can you tell us more? The beads on a string method is fine, but there is no getting away from the need for a theme. To follow the analogy, the beads need to be related to each other in some shape or form and you need more than a bit of string as an organising principle. It all comes down to the author – why you want to write, and what it is you have to say, both provide the theme.

  6. Hello Linda,
    I came upon your blog by accident. I have been wanting to start a blog for the longest time as there is something in me urging me to go ahead and express myself. A fear of exposing myself too much has held me back thus far. Reading your blog seem to have given me the courage I need. I guess finding your blog was meant to be. Thanks. Keep up the good work.

    1. Dear Patricia – what a sweet message, thank you! I definitely think you should take the plunge, just don’t write anything that you would feel embarrassed about later. It’s a brilliant exercise in finding your true voice! I get by thinking that no-one’s reading me at all, that I’m singing alone in the Albert Hall – and when you think that, you tend to let rip and hit your best notes. But then along comes the accidental, like your good self, and it gives you a nice warm feeling when they say hello. So go ahead – take the plunge! And let me know when you have so that I can come and visit you. Linda

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