Scott D. Parker
A couple weeks back, I wrote about one of the rabbit trails we all take through the shrubbery that is the internet. The thing at the end of my trail was the wonderful happenstance discovery of Aaron Allston’s book, Plotting: A Novelist’s Workout Guide. For those who may have missed it, the following text from the opening page is what hooked me:
Do any of these statements sound familiar?
- "I come up with good ideas, but I can't develop them into complete novels." [Yes! That’s me!]
- "I'm going along fine with my novel, and then it just stops. I can't get it moving again." [Again, yeah!]
- "I know what happens from start to finish, but I can't figure out what it's really about." [Sometime, yeah.]
- "I know what's supposed to happen and what it's supposed to mean, but my story is just not working." [Still me, a bit]
- "My novel is missing something and I can't figure out what it is." [Sure.]
If any of the above applies to you, Plotting: A Novelist's Workout Guide can help.
Well, I’m here to tell you that I’ve finished this book and it is exactly what I needed. You see, I’m stuck on a story that I’m writing and I’m trying to figure out which way it needs to go (bullet point #2). Moreover, bullet point #1 is a thing I struggle with as well.
Allston breaks down his book into two large sections. The third section is the appendix. Part one is theory. Here is where he lays out, in detail, many of the concepts most of us already know: What is a scene, the basics of plotting, the four elements of plots, etc. But where this book differs from others I’ve read is in two very important ways. One, Allston gives you exercises! Yes, you have homework. Some of these exercises might be basic, but for a beginning writer (or one who might be stuck), they are fantastic. There are exercises in each chapter (four chapters per section) and, while they start out as random exercises, they gradually turn to your own work. That’s a nice way of coming at your novel--in-progress with something akin to outside eyes.
But where this book really earns it’s keep is the sample novel. To illustrate his points, Allston uses lots of on-the-fly examples. Along the way, however, he starts a novel from scratch. He poses an idea for a story and takes it from idea all the way through two to three outlines! This was like a light bulb went off in my head. I’ve heard talk of outlining over and over and I could not get past the idea of the high school-type outline with Roman numerals. I was a bit ahead of the curve with my use of notecards, but seeing Allston ask the questions writers are suppose to ask, answer them, and then build his plot was so enlightening. Especially when he got to the outlining stage, just reading and trying to absorb all that is present in the outline is both daunting and exciting.
The book has done something I expected it to do: I couldn’t wait to finish it so I could start applying it’s teachings on my own work.
I mentioned this in my previous post mentioning this book, but Allston recently passed away. But he has left writers of all stages of development with a fantastic primer on how to plot and prepare for writing.
You can get the book via Amazon or at ArcherRat Publishing’s website (where you can get the epub or a PDF) If you head over there, Allston also posted some Author’s Notes where he examines the process he used to write a few of his short stories. If you get the Amazon Kindle version, you can highlight and annotate the book to your heart's content. I know I sure did. Afterwards, you can go and get your notes from the web and keep some of Allston's checklists on your desk while you write. Perfect!
This book, in its circuitous route, arrived at the time I most needed it. I'm now looking forward to applying Allston's processes in all my writing.