Having said that, Lee Child is the multi-million selling author of the Jack Reacher books, and he doesn’t have anything but a main character, a location and an opening sentence when he starts, so it’s possible to write this way, but rare. If you want to read more about Lee Child’s writing process, check out Reacher Said Nothing by Andy Martin, who followed him for a year. The method clearly works for Lee, because he’s earned enough from it to have a flat overlooking Central Park and a whole Sussex farmhouse just for writing, but it doesn’t work for me.
Anyway, back to the plot. I’ve always enjoyed the plotting process. Working out what’s going to happen to my characters and how it all fits together is one of my favourite bits. I plotted all my early books using simple Word documents. I’d write a paragraph briefly describing each major scene in the book, and end up with a document three to six pages long. This would be my guide as I set out to write the story. I wouldn’t necessarily follow it exactly, but it was good to know where I was heading.
The trouble was, when I came to write Love Song the ideas didn’t come to me in a logical sequence. I knew I had a girl like this, and a boy like this, and another boy, and a country house, and a band who went on tour, and this event (but I wasn’t sure when it happened), and that crucial scene in a folly by a lake, and that other moment when the girl discovered music, really discovered it … I was writing all these ideas down in my notebook and on little bits of paper as they came to me in the bath, or late at night, reading a rock biography. What I had was a mess. I needed to visualise it as a story, but how?
I’m a member of a few writing groups on Facebook and one of my friends there had mentioned plotting with Post-Its. The advantage, she pointed out, is that you can move ideas around as you go. There are other benefits too. It’s quick. It’s colourful. It’s big! Once you’ve made a Post-It note plot, it’s hard to ignore it. You’re almost obliged to sit down and write it out.
I went down to my local stationery shop and bought the biggest sheet of card they sold – bright blue – and lots of colourful Post-Its in different sizes. I wasn’t sure exactly how I was going to use them, but even just buying them felt creative. Sure enough, when I got home I quickly realised that I could describe characters on pink notes and locations on green, so they’d stand out. Scene ideas unfolded below on larger yellow squares. I copied out my notes and even just doing this made the story seem more real.
Then came the fun part: arranging the Post-Its on the card in a flowing design that ran from left to right, in roughly chronological order in the story. To start off with there were gaps – big ones – and I realised there were whole sections of the book I needed to invent. Other squares were clustered together and looking at them, some scenes grew in depth and importance in front of my eyes. After a few happy hours, the story of Love Song emerged. The beginning needed loads of work but there were sections towards the end that I couldn’t wait to write. I pinned the card on the corkboard in front of the desk in my writing shed. It stayed there for a year as I ploughed my way through the first drafts, reminding me where to focus and what I was writing for.
I wouldn’t plot any other way now. It’s fun, and quick, and it works for me, and it involves buying stationery – hello? I have a thing about stationery. It takes me back to those early schooldays, going shopping with my mother for new rubbers and ink cartridges before the first day of term, and wondering if we’d be able to get replacements for my precious, worn-down Caran d’Ache colouring pencils. Any excuse, basically. In those days, I was illustrating the stories in my head. Now I write them down. I think the primary school me would be pleased to see how little has changed.
Try Post-It Notes out for yourself to find out if Sophia’s method works for you.