MBM: Plotting vs. Plodding with Tobi Summers

Today, I have my second guest, Tobi Summers, here for MARCH BOOK MADNESS. I’m excited for Tobi’s post since it’s all about plotting (outlining before writing) versus plodding (just starting and plowing through until you hopefully find an end). Both have their advantages, so I’ll just let Tobi jump right in on the subject. 

Tobi: I have a love-hate relationship with the plot of a story.  Before 2011, I’d finished three novellas (at the time I called them novels).  The first was written in middle school and probably should be discarded for the purposes of this conversation, but the other two shared one thing in common—they had no plots. 

Oh, it kind of looked like they did for awhile.  Merry-Go-Roundwas about a married couple remembering their past after receiving an invitation to their childhood friend’s wedding.  Peter James was about five kids and their babysitter who discover a magical, Neverland-esque world in their basement.


But the longer you write a book, the more you start to realize which plots are strong and which aren’t.  And neither of these was strong.  They were, at best, good premises that had the potential to develop into good stories.  Because Peter James isn’t about them discovering the world.  It’s about what happens after they discover it, which I didn’t know when I dove into writing the story.  Merry-Go-Roundwound up being almost a series of independent scenes snipped from these characters’ lives, and in doing so, lost the tension that keeps you turning the page. 
When I sat down to write Rosettalast year, I was determined to avoid this problem.  So I wrote the blurb that would go on the back of the book, and I came up with two strong plot threads and a character arc before I ever typed the prologue.  They changed a lot as I was writing, but the basic themes stayed in place.  It was still rough going, and I found I had a lot to rewrite, but I finished it, and I was at least halfway to proud when it was done.  There’s conflict and action, and a little less time where everyone walks through the woods and talks about nothing.

I do more plotting than plodding, because I know that going in without one hasn’t yielded the results I wanted.  There are plenty of people who plan more, people who use outlines and break down their stories chapter by chapter, but I can’t be one of those people.  I did that when I was younger, right up until the point where the story veered away from the outline, and I chose to shut down rather than try to adapt.  Plotting the story too strictly can be suffocating, and it doesn’t leave much room to adjust for what the characters are doing.

Each writer’s different though (and each book too!), and there are plenty of advantages and disadvantages to both methods.  For me, plotting helps me avoid writer’s block and make sure my story has tension.  But it can also be restrictive because I’m not so good at pulling back and realizing that it’s okay for the story to go a different direction than what I’d initially planned.  On the other hand, plodding allows the story more freedom to develop naturally.  Unfortunately, that also means the story can more easily veer off-track.
Bio:  Tobi Summers is a writer paying the bills by working for a legal publishing company.  She completed her first novella twelve years ago and has been writing seriously ever since.  She’s currently editing her fourth novel, writing her fifth, and writing television reviews. You can find her blog at writingguide.blogspot.com, on Twitter @tobisummersor you can email her at tobisummers@writeme.com.

Rebecca: Thanks so much for weighing in Tobi!!! I love the idea of writing the blurb for the back of the book first. That’s something I’m going to try now. For me, plotting too heavily does suffocate my writing like you mentioned. I’m personally stuck somewhere in the middle, flipping back and forth between heavy plotting/outlining seasons, and just writing blindly. I’m not sure this is all bad. I’ve heard of at least a few big-time authors who do a very detailed outline and then never look at it after they begin writing. To me, that’s the best of both worlds because you start with a plan but then let the story and characters go in a natural direction. But I completely agree with you, Tobi, that each writer has their own style, even each book will follow a different path. Man, I love writing! :)  Thanks again Tobi! 

Tobi left us a list of great questions on this subject: 

What do you do when you’re coming up with the plot of the story?  Are you an outliner?  Do you let the characters drive the plot, or the plot develop the characters?  Have you ever gone into a project without a plot where the results have pleasantly surprised you? 

PS–If you missed the schedule for March Book Madness, here it is. 


           Lynn Wiese Sneyd: Thurs, March 8, Querying 
          Tobi Summers: Tues, March 13, Plotting vs. Plodding
          JoLynne Lyon: Thurs, March 15, Marketing
          Cassie Mae: Tues, March 20, Editing
          Jessica Khoury: Thurs, March 22, Editing
          Tricia Pease: Tues, March 27th, Reading
          Sharon Belknap: Thurs, March 29Reading
          (if it’s blue, you can click on it to go to that post) 

10 thoughts on “MBM: Plotting vs. Plodding with Tobi Summers

  1. Very cool topic! I've been thinking about this a lot lately.I think when I was younger I was more of a plodder – characters: check, basic idea: sorta check, story GO! And then I'd get a few chapters in, my attention would waver, I'd realize I have no idea what I was thinking and stop. So then I tried plotting, very very heavy plotting, and I got a little more done but ultimately dropped the book.I think I've finally found my balance, as you say Rebecca, where I do a bit of both! Generally I let an idea sit in my head for months, duking it out with other ideas and different versions of itself before a victor emerges, and then I take that idea and repeat (but this time thinking a little more on the world) and then I take THAT victor and plot out the beginning and the end, and maybe a very loose table of contents. And I plod my way through most of the book towards those plotted lampposts.However, I've found for the two books I've finished, and the one I'm writing now, is that the degree of plodding/plotting changes with each book.As for Tobi's question: Sometimes the characters have surprised me! But not often the plot.Lovely post, ^_^


  2. Duking it out. Love it! I like to mull things over. Probably drives the husband crazy because I'm always mulling, but I figure it's better thought out before it's written than after when I can't stand to part with the words. :)


  3. Great topic. I should probably outline more, but I love a character-driven story. I like it when characters are allowed to live their own lives. If they don't they end up doing unnatural things–while the plot marches on without missing a beat.


  4. I love a character driven story, too. That's why I like the idea of an outline that is well planned and then thrown out. In fact, I think it's great when characters do something unexpected, even for their author.


  5. Great advice, Tobi! I'm a plotter, too. I write a loose outline, then go from there. But I always know the ending. Knowing how to tie up the ending helps me pace my characterization and plot.


  6. I guess I do both too. The plot forms in my head, then I dive in. About halfway through, I write my query letter (even if I don't end up using it, lol) A lot of times though, there's a twist that comes out of nowhere and I'll put it in there. :)


  7. Halfway through your write your query? That's awesome! The only query I've written really stunk. I have a lot to learn that way. But I love when the story takes a turn that you didn't expect. Hopefully the reader didn't expect it either.


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