WRITING Plotting like a pro


Some writers have a tried and tested method for plotting their books, others just wing it. After her third novel, Joanna Nadin devised a technique that sounds deceptively simple. She shared it at a webinar in June. Charlotte Teeple Salas reports.

On a sunny day at the SCBWI Retreat, March 2022, Joanna Nadin was delivering a lecture on Brilliant Beginnings, when Camilla Chester asked: 'What’s your secret formula to plotting?' 

As Jo answered, we scribbled away, absorbing every drop of Nadin magic, mere moments from discovering the secrets of the writing universe. Alas, these elusive secrets couldn’t be captured in five minutes, and cake (this being a retreat) was calling. So, when Camilla invited Jo to speak on Plotting Power for SCBWI Industry Insiders, I was one of many who raced to sign up.


 Jo didn’t begin properly planning her books until her third. Borrowing Robert McKee’s Story from the library, she distilled it into notes and developed a method she has used for 19 years. Now, she’s happy to share it with us.

Story [Picture credit: Blackwells]

Caveat: This is Jo’s personal process, not a magical formula. It may not be for everyone. However, these tricks will help ‘cheat’ our brains into thinking they are not writing a daunting novel.

Why plan?

Planning helps us break our books into manageable chunks. Jo likes and needs the discipline of planning, especially when she has deadlines for multiple contracts and other jobs. In her experience, one month of planning can cut writing time by several. Planning gives her the safety and confidence to write the book (and no more writer’s block, since she knows what she needs to write long before she does the writing), and the more she plans, the less she wastes time while writing.


Myths about planning

Planning isn’t writing – Planning is writing. When the story plays in our heads, and we’re jotting things down, we’re playing, but we’re also writing.


Planning is boring – When we’re exploring our story’s possibilities, taking different paths to find the right one, it’s not boring, it’s an adventure.


Planning makes the ‘writing up’ boring – Maybe if you hate words. But since Jo loves thinking about beautiful language and rhetoric, writing is never boring.


Planning makes a story rigid and inflexible – Even if we have plotted to the last detail, when we write, we can still go where our characters take us. There is room for exploring, but the map of our story will bring us safely to the end.


Extracting soup

Once she has an initial idea for a story, Jo keeps a messy notebook (A5 Europa is her favourite) and spends a month or so writing down everything as it comes to her. This can be in any order, and often fills several notebooks, until there’s enough ‘soup’ out of her head with which to play. Using another notebook, she rewrites this soup into helpful sections:


  • Titles
  • Themes
  • Influences
  • Premise
  • Key USP/Hook
  • Characters
  • Map
  • Setting
  • Story

Jo 'casts' her characters which is key to seeing and hearing them

On characters and setting

Character is plot. Jo must be able to hear her characters speak and see them in her head before she writes, so she casts her characters. She also walks her landscape. Her stories are often set in Essex or Cornwall because these places are familiar. If she is unable to literally walk the path of her characters (as for example, during lockdown), she uses Google Street View. In addition, she will map the landscape for her characters, either using a printout or drawing the map herself.

Jo makes detailed notes on every aspect of her novel

Order, order

From here, Jo sifts through her notes bringing order, sometimes by dividing them into acts (she used three for No Man’s Land). Then she types them up into helpful categories based upon her story’s needs. For The Double Life of Daisy Hemmings, for example, with its dual timeline she used: Now, Then, Plot, Nice Lines. After a month or two of playing around, she can finally boil her story down to around 20 key plot points.


Grab scissors and glue

To Jo, the next part feels like proper magic. She cuts her notes into separate pieces of paper and arranges them in ‘the only obvious order’: Plot points, then vignettes (under the correct plot point), and nice lines. She glues these to A4 paper and places them in a folder, essentially giving herself a chapter-by-chapter plan. This is where mind tricks are key. Over the next month, as she adds bits to her scenes and gives them breadth and depth, at no point does she feel like she is writing a novel. But before she knows it, she has what she considers to be her first draft.


Jo cuts and pastes her plot into a coherent order

How do you eat an elephant?

Jo keeps lists to track all her tasks. Taking one chapter out of her folder at a time (in any order, depending upon her mood), she gives herself a goal of writing 500 words a day. Since lockdown, she’s been accomplishing this during The Writers’ Hour. If she’s not teaching or doing other tasks, she carries on. Sometimes a chapter takes a day to write, or two weeks. When she’s finished writing each chapter from the folder, she’s written her book! Then it’s time to edit and make her words sing.


Jo’s questions to help you plan

  • How much time do you have to work or want to work?
  • What will make writing the novel manageable in that time?
  • What will build your confidence?
  • What will help you find the characters’ voices?
  • What will stop you getting stuck?

Thanks to Jo and Camilla for such an inspiring SCBWI Industry Insider event. Happy writing, everyone!


Jo recommends:

Story by Robert McKee
The Science of Storytelling by Will Storr
Into the Woods by John Yorke 
The Writers’ Hour: https://writershour.com

*All webinar screenshots courtesy of Charlotte Teeple Salas


As a child in California, Charlotte Teeple Salas caught the story bug from Star Wars and ballet, yearning to be the first ballerina in space. Currently finishing her MA in Writing for Young People at Bath Spa University, she was recently shortlisted for the Searchlight Writing for Children Awards’ Best Novel Opening 2021 and longlisted for Guppy YA Open Submission 2022. Charlotte lives in North London with her French-American-British family, happily creating stories of her own.


Françoise Price is Deputy Editor for Words & Pictures. Contact: deputyeditor@britishscbwi.org

No comments:

We love comments and really appreciate the time it takes to leave one.
Interesting and pithy reactions to a post are brilliant but we also LOVE it when people just say they've read and enjoyed.
We've made it easy to comment by losing the 'are you human?' test, which means we get a lot of spam. Fortunately, Blogger recognises these, so most, if not all, anonymous comments are deleted without reading.

Words & Pictures is the Online Magazine of SCBWI British Isles. Powered by Blogger.