If you look up plotting on the internet, you will come up against the concept of there being writers who are plotters (people that plot and plan before writing) and pantsers (people that write by the seat of their pants, figuring it out as they go). I been forced to realise that against all logic I fall into the second camp, but I cannot identify with that naming convention. Probably because I am used to UK English where pants mean either underwear or that something is a bit crap.
A little while ago I watched a YouTube lecture delivered by, I think, Brandon Sanderson, but whoever it was, they used the term discovery writer. A writer who discover their story through the act of writing it. Now that is a label I feel a lot more comfortable with and weirdly, because who would have thought something as silly as a label makes such a difference, it has helped me reconcile myself to my true writer self.
In my day-to-day life I am a naturally organised, plan-ey type of person - in fact, I've essentially made a career out of being good at it. So of course, I assumed that if I was going to write something longer, I would have to start with a clear idea of the story arc, the start & the end and there would be lots of character sheets. And since I never seemed to be coming up with anything even resembling that - instead turning up nuggets of scenes, snippets of dialogue and weird and wonderful premises - I never pursued the idea of writing a novel.
Cue me signing myself up to a week-long residential writing course for aspiring fiction writers and being faced with the fact that pretty much every exercise we did I ended up writing snippets involving the same character in different stages of what was clearly an urban fantasy style story. A character and story I had never had the least thought of in any way before that week. But when I put pen to paper all sorts of scenes and dialogue appeared revealing different parts of this story. It was amazing and very, very disconcerting. I was encouraged by the feedback from the tutors and my fellow attendees to try to keep working on the story afterwards, with the view of creating a novel.
For the longest time, I got stuck and didn't write much on it at all. For one simple reason. I still hadn't accepted the reality of what it means to be a discovery writer. I didn't sit my bum down to write because I felt that I didn't know what to write. Even with all the different little snippets I had come up with during the course, I didn't know what the story was really about and I most certainly didn't have a clue how it was meant to end. And I thought that until I know what I should write, I can't sit down and write.
As it turns out, what I had to do was to sit down, look at what I'd last written and ask myself "and then what happens?". And once I started writing something always turned up on the page - some of it is not very good writing, some of it will most likely disappear or be changed - but more and more of the story was turning up. It is a seriously odd feeling to sit down and not know what is going to happen next. I always used to think that people that do write in that way were exaggerating when they said they didn't know where the story was going to go or what the ending was. I can now confirm that it is perfectly possible to create a story that way. It is sort of like one of those computer games where the map of the zone is clouded over until you've cleared the area, so you wade in there not knowing what monsters, treasure and quicksand might be hiding around the corner. Scary - yes, but doable.
That's not to say that I have not done any plotting along the way at all. I have. I got to a certain stage where what was ahead of me wasn't just dense fog that I needed to work my way through. It was a brick wall and only by applying a little bit of gentle plotting work could I blow a little hole in it to crawl through.
Because my natural inclination is for planning and lists and schedules and all that, I needed something a bit more detailed than "there's supposed to be 3 acts". I read reviews of various different systems for breaking it down further and decided to give Blake Snyder's "Save the Cat" system a go. The reason he gives in his book as to why he designed his system really resonated with me. He explains that someone had clued him in on the concept that a story has to have 3 acts.
"Oh! Three acts! Imagine that? And yet, it was not enough. Like a swimmer in a vast ocean, there was a lot of open water in between those two Act Breaks. And a lot of empty script space in which to get lost, panic and drown. I needed more islands, shorter swims."Blake Snyder
For this reason I have found his system immensely helpful. It gives me more places to aim for and his concept of a board with index cards with scenes on it has been super helpful. So I flip between forcing myself to write my way through the fog and when I hit a brick wall, I go stare at my board and talk at my other half or the lovely people in my writers' group to help me find a way past that brick wall. I wouldn't say that means that I have a system. This is the very first novel I am attempting to write and it may or may not end up good enough to be interesting to a publisher. So this is more me sharing with you my journey of discovery of what appears to be working for me and not - and most importantly why, so you have a chance of figuring whether said thing might work for you or not.