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Losing The Plot When Writing A Novel, by Ben Kane

I have intimate experience of going seriously astray with a novel – losing the plot, if you like. Many people often don’t stop to consider the real meaning behind everyday expressions. This one might have originally signified when the writer of a play/novel somehow meandered off the track along which their story was travelling. Yet it is all too easy to do, as I found out with my second novel, The Silver Eagle.

I’ll explain a little: in August 2007, I secured a major book deal, signing with Random House for a trilogy that began with my first novel, The Forgotten Legion. It was a life-changing event, in more ways than one. At the time, I had been working as a veterinary surgeon for fifteen years but I wanted to become a full time writer. Suddenly, this was a real possibility. My career path was set out for the next couple of years. All I had to do was to write one book every twelve months. I didn’t even consider that it might be hard to reproduce the work that had generated the first novel, much of the plotline of which had emerged as I wrote it. I approached The Silver Eagle in the same way, beginning with a rough idea of where the storyline would go, with the only definite events in the book being a couple of things in the middle and a climactic scene at the end. I began by taking my characters off on adventures in central Asia (where they had ended up at the end of The Forgotten Legion), writing about life in a Roman army camp in the winter and so on. When I’d written about half of it, my editor took a look at what I’d done. I will never forget the phone call with her after she’d read it. The crux of the conversation went something like this:

Editor: ‘You know the section about wintertime in the Roman camp?’

Me (surprised): ‘Yes?’

Editor: ‘How exactly does that drive the plot?’

Me (nervously): ‘It doesn’t?’

Editor: ‘Err, no.’

Me (with sinking feeling in stomach): ‘Do you want me to rewrite it?’

Editor: ‘Yes.’

Me (now feeling distinctly upset): ‘OK.’

That was a 25% rewrite, which took a couple of months (I was still working full time at the day job then). Naively, I thought that problem wouldn’t happen again. It did, later in the same book. Cue another 25% rewrite. I know now through my friendship with other writers that my editor is one tough cookie compared to theirs, so maybe my experience was harder than some have had. I also know that the process was an enormous help to me, improving my knowledge of the craft of writing and teaching me that what I might find fascinating about my chosen subject is not necessarily good for the story or appealing to readers. Learning this didn’t stop the whole affair from being extremely unpleasant, however. In all, The Silver Eagle took me fourteen months to write. As I like to say in the talks that I give, that’s because I wrote 150% of it.

Needless to say, I never wanted to fall into that trap again. In all my subsequent works I have taken great care to write a detailed chapter outline of the entire book before I have written a single word of the actual story. I also write a historical timeline so that I can keep perspective with the real events that were happening then. I print these out and keep them by me on my desk as I write the new book. With each successive novel, my experience and confidence has increased. Now I know that if a story wanders a little from the original path, it should return before too long (and before the reader has become irritated or simply bored) to the original, exciting plot.

It’s all about the story.

***Write with Ben Kane near Hobart, Australia with Novel Writing Retreats Australia in February 2014

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The Silver Eagle: (The Forgotten Legion Chronicles No. 2) (Forgotten Legion Chronicles)The Road to Rome (Forgotten Legion Chronicles)Hannibal: Enemy of Rome     The Sultan's WifeBetrayalAuslander

Writing Historical Novels

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. I’ve had times when I’ve lost the plot. I can usually tell when it happens because I start to feel that I don’t know where the plot is going. When it happens, I usually go back to the beginning and start reading and editing. My goal is that reading the manuscript will focus my attention in the way a reader would see the story and help me see when I start to wander. It usually works.

    October 7, 2013
  2. I recall hearing that the original use of ‘lost the plot’ was from naval sonar operators. It derived from resolving individual contact sounds and plotting locations on the chart. When they became overwhelmed with data they literally lost (track of) the plot. I can’t locate any corroborating information though.

    October 7, 2013
  3. I think it’s especially understandable when writing historical fiction – chances are you love the period you’re writing about. The temptation to have your characters explore every nook of every place and event from the period can prove to be almost overwhelming.

    October 7, 2013
  4. I blame the characters. They’re always wandering off on their own and sometimes it’s the devil’s own job to find the b***s again.

    Still, I suppose that’s better than them disappearing completely 😉

    October 10, 2013

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