Monday, August 3, 2009

ARTICLE: Needlepoint Plotting by TERRY ODELL

If someone asks how I got started writing, I’ll usually tell them it’s because I ran out of wall space for my needlepoint and needed a new creative outlet.

I used to do both needlepoint and cross stitch, but I soon learned I preferred needlepoint because unlike counted cross stitch, with a needlepoint canvas, I could jump around when I got tired of one section. If I tried that doing a cross stitch, I always ended up off (and I have the pieces on the wall to prove it). But if I got sick of working on the pink tulip in needlepoint, I could switch to the blue iris and everything would blend together in the end.

Now, as a writer, I’m totally anal about writing in precise chronological order. Simple flashbacks make me jumpy, even when I know they’re the best way to cover the necessary ground. I can’t write something that happens in the middle of the book until I get there.

But plotting is something else. For me, that’s not writing. Plotting is brainstorming, although it’s often with myself. And for me, it’s thinking of the little bits and pieces--the flowers on the needlepoint canvas. The connecting bits--the background--comes later. True, the canvas may be painted with the final picture, but it’s not bright, and there’s no reason you have to stick precisely to the colors already there. I start with a fairly strong idea of who my characters are and what their conflict will be, but the story is vague. I know where it starts and where it will end. Maybe a few key points in between. But I write character driven stories.

As a matter of fact, when I get started, I don’t think of plots, I think of scenes and situations. Ideas for scenes come from everywhere. An overheard conversation, an article in the paper, something on television. In my head I’ll see characters cooking together, going to the park, eating in a fancy restaurant, driving, flying, or riding a bus across the country. Seeing a play, getting robbed, shooting someone. Falling into a river, being in a car accident. Losing someone they love.

In a romance, there are some scenes that a reader expects. First meet, first kiss, first sex. But where each of those things happens is up to the writer (or sometimes, the character).

You’ll notice I haven’t addressed characters. It’s impossible to separate what happens in a scene from the characters who inhabit it, but I’ve only got so much time and space for this article. Suffice it to say, I spend a lot of time getting to know my characters before I toss them into a scene.

As the plot unfolds, ideas for scenes might change. Some get set aside for another book. Some get added because I can’t get from point A to point D without more things happening.

Sometimes it’s a melody that inspires a scene. I usually have my iTunes library set to ‘shuffle’ when I work, and I never know what might trigger something. “Take it to the Limit” just makes me want to be in someone’s arms, letting the music flow through us. Did I know what I would be writing? How it would fit into a story? No, of course not. I just knew it would have to be in some story someday. As it turned out, it turned up as the first meet between hero and heroine in When Danger Calls.

Sometimes the scenes don’t play out the way I thought they would. I’d had a scene in my head for years – Randy & Sarah from Finding Sarah would be in the mountains in an old summer camp. There would be a bunch of kids there, and it would be a very scary storm, and Sarah would lead the kids in singing while Randy played the piano. (Probably inspired by the Peter, Paul & Mary Around the Campfire CD my daughter gave me.) Anyway, the summer camp in the rain scene morphed into a dance recital at a nursing home. The dance instructor forgot the CDs and Randy ended up playing piano so they could put on the show for the seniors.

And sometimes a character triggers a scene. Blake, in What’s In A Name? clicked for me when I heard the line, “Papa, I don’t think I said ‘I love you’ near enough,” in Leader of the Band by Dan Fogelberg. I knew there would be a scene where he had to admit that to himself.

I tend to write from scene to scene. Sometimes the one in my head is several chapters away from where I’m writing, but I know I have to get there.

The closest I came to plotting was for Hurricane Breeze from The Wild Rose Press. Since it was a short story, I could hold most of the storyline in my head. My critique group and I brainstormed ideas and how to get to “the end.” We did it so well, I knew exactly what I had to write. From that point on, it became an actual chore to get the words down. For me, the fun is exploring, and if my roadmap is too detailed, it’s just a strenuous hike, not an adventure.

So, as I write, I tend to know where I need to be a chapter or two away, and it becomes a matter of filling in all the in-between stuff. As I move closer to the scene that’s been playing out in my head, I might get a glimpse of where that will lead, and I’ll have a new flower to add to my canvas.

Yes, I apply what I’ve learned about the craft as I write. No scene should exist without several good reasons to be there. There should be conflict, of course, and something the readers don’t expect, so they’ll turn the page.

Are there false starts, or scenes that don’t work? Yes. But I’ve ripped out my share of needlepoint stitches when I’ve made mistakes, too. I regard the time I spend rewriting as the equivalent of the detailed plotting other writers do. I figure the act of writing itself is a learning process and helps me hone the craft. As I wrote my 6th book, I noticed fewer instances where I had to rip out work I’d already done.

I hope you’ll take some time to wander through my website, I’ve got a section called “Behind the Scenes” where you can read about the stories behind the stories. And be sure to visit my blog, where I share craft tips, talk about writing, and have special guests who share all kinds of stories.


  1. I love your plotting analogy, Linda. I like to write my scenes in chronological order, too (even though when I'm writing, I frequently skip around--I'll work on the beginning one day, then end of the book the next.)

    Like you, I also put snippets of things into another file to use for other books. We can't cram it all in to one book, after all, and it's nice to know we're getting prepared for the next project.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  2. Hi, Elizabeth. Glad you liked my analogy. I have to WRITE in order, but I can deal with plot points as they occur to me.

    Since I wrote this, I've been dabbling with tracking all these ideas using a modified storyboard technique. There's more on my blog and my website.