14 December 2018

Books to help with plotting and structuring a novel

Lesley Sanderson, Author
by Lesley Sanderson Writing Tips

Lesley Sanderson was a student on our 6-month novel-writing course in London back in 2015, her debut psychological thriller The Orchid Girls is out now. Lesley worked on this novel during her time with us and since taking the course and honing her craft she has learnt how much of a difference plotting your novel can make to your writing process. Here she tells us more about the lessons she learned from her first novel and the skills she is applying to her second novel and beyond…

When I took my place on the Curtis Brown 6 month novel-writing course in September 2015 I’d written the beginning of my first psychological thriller to apply for the course. My book was then titled On The Edge, and had a sketchy plot, which needed a lot of work, as became clear throughout the course. Thanks to being shortlisted on the Lucy Cavendish prize in May 2017 I was approached by an agent and invited to submit my full manuscript. At that stage it was incomplete at 67,000 words and needed a lot of work, but I was lucky to be offered representation on the strength of this. I did three rounds of edits with my agent before it went on submission to publishers and then required two further structural edits before publication.

When I started the course I was definitely not a plotter, but after the haphazard way I’d written book one I was determined not to make the same mistakes with book two.

Being asked to write this blog piece and trying to find the time to do it got me thinking about my writing and how I fit it in around my job. I work a four day week as a school librarian during term time, with the other day dedicated to writing. I still find I have little time to fit in all the writing and critiquing that I want to do. Reflecting on the process I am indebted to two books which have helped with plotting and structuring my work in order to make best use of my time.

The first book Into The Woods by John Yorke explores how stories are constructed and looks in depth at the three and five-act structure that all stories should follow. At one stage I was sick of rewriting the book and it not being quite right and what helped was dividing the book into five acts and restructuring the plot to fit the diagram provided in the book. I also wrote a character arc for each character as well as some themes, for example a photograph was intrinsic to my plot so I mapped out an arc for it as if it were a character. This helped me make sense of my plot and whenever something wasn’t working I could refer back to my character arcs and find out what wasn’t working.

As I have just submitted book two to my editor my attention has turned to plotting ideas for my next books. The second book I have recently discovered is Take Off Your Pants: Outline your Books for Faster, Better Writing by Libbie Hawker. In this short book Libbie Hawker shows you how to structure an outline and pace a book so that the reader won’t want to put it down. The book is very simple to understand and in following her method I now have a template for outlining future books, resulting in a coherent plot document.

Although waiting to get my edit back is an anxious time I am also looking forward to getting stuck in. One of the best parts of publication for me has been working with my editor through all the many stages a book goes through – I hadn’t realised how much I would enjoy the process!

Read Lesley’s thrilling debut The Orchid Girls.

If you’re currently working on a novel, take a look at our selective entry novel-writing courses. Or, if you’re writing YA or children’s fiction why not take a look at our selective entry online course for Writing YA and Children’s Fiction with Catherine Johnson.

We also run three short online courses at budget-price designed to help writers at different stages of their novel-writing journey: Starting to Write Your NovelWrite to the End of Your Novel and Edit & Pitch Your Novel.


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