I've been at this writing thing for quite a while, and I've developed a repertoire of tricks I use for plotting out a new book. From webbing and sociograms to collages to sketching, I've used any number of techniques begged, borrowed, or stolen from others. And every once in a while, I get to thinking I've got this process licked.
Then a new story idea comes along that puts me in my place. I'm working on just such an idea now, the bare bones of a book proposal I'm pretty sure is going to rock. Only problem is that my first three chapters raised way more questions than answers. I had no idea how to pull together the mass -- I mean mess -- of disparate elements impaled in tiny slivers throughout my brain into the coherent synopsis I'll need as both a road map and a sales tool.
Nothing was working. The usual suspects left me more confused than ever. In desperation, I convened a EPS (Emergency Plotting Session) with Joni at Starbucks yesterday, and she said, something to the effect of, "Sister, you need notecards." She explained how something in the act of writing out cards and sliding them around on the table helped her immeasurably.
I'll confess. Inwardly, I was rolling my eyes. Notecards were not part of my process. Sure, sticky notes with key scenes come into play after I sell the proposal and want to keep the major plot points in front of me, but I've never used them during the initial plotting.
Still, I was desperate after a week of banging my head against the keyboard, so I gave notecards a whirl, adapting them to mesh with my process. I jotted everything I knew about each character (and there are a lot) on a card, then grouped the cards by relationships. It helped me straighten out everybody's history, love affairs, familial relationships, and what have you.
And as if by magic, something clicked. Now I have a much clearer idea of the story as a whole. At last, I'm ready to tackle the synopsis once again.
The moral of the story is not that any one methodology is necessarily better than another. What works for one book won't necessarily work for another. But as long as you're willing to keep trying new things, to keep learning and adapting, the Old Dog can continue building better books.