Authors Explore Plotting vs. Plodding… and Jelly Doughnuts

A panel of authors led by the august Lee Martindale showered writers with splendid advice in the Saturday afternoon Writers Track panel in the Hyatt on creating plots. Describing herself as a “short-story slinger,” Martindale invited the team of authors to suggest ways to capture sometimes elusive plot ideas.

Melissa F. Olson replied that when she gets even a small piece of an idea, she immediately writes it down. Agreeing, Anthony Francis said that he keeps three different notebooks for just that purpose. Confronted frequently with ideas late at night, Janny Wurts learned to write legibly in the dark.

Richard Kadrey said that he also writes in dark, but with somewhat inconsistent results. Once, he woke in the night with what he was certain was a brilliant idea. In the morning, he read his note: “Jelly doughnuts.”

As a result of frequent requests for writing implements while bathing, Laura Anne Gilman related how her roommate put up a whiteboard in the shower. She also carries a journal, adding that, as a reminder, she always includes in her notes the emotion involved when she got the idea.

When plotting, Wurts said she always considers what is at stake for the character in that moment. Approaching from a different perspective, Gilman said that if something angers her or gives her feels, she must work it out. She does not know what is at stake for her characters when she begins to plot. Rather, she needs to know her characters first and only later finds out what is at stake. Only after she gets the emotive context down and discovers where the characters are on their journey, she can push forward.

Kadrey remarked that he experiences ideas in bursts of images. He often gets the beginning and end of a novel in coded messages, but those may change after he drives forward until he gets to an interesting place.

After two books, Olson thought that she would have established a procedure but said that there is no pattern to getting a book out. She said that she always schedules a research trip for each book, which she finds hugely helpful. She mentioned a setting at an area known as Sunken City in Los Angeles as especially fascinating.

In considering any plotting differences between short- and long-term fiction, Wurts noted that there is a radical difference in the time invested in a novel versus a short story. If you don’t want to invest the time needed for a novel, you can try putting three things in a box and make a story from the intersection. Gilman views her brain as a storehouse, where ideas clatter, crash, and shake, creating a story. Francis also takes road trips as part of his work on each novel.

Francis said that he takes novel threads and ties them together, but in a short story, there is not enough room to tie together novelistic threads.

Although Kadrey does a lot of plotting, he said that he owes no loyalty to his plot outlines and will frequently go through as many as eight outlines before he finishes. He sees short stories as a great place to let your instincts run wild.

Wurts agreed and said that you should let your intuition guide you. Kadrey added that writing is like driving at night. You only can see what is in front of you. Kadrey also mentioned Raymond Chandler’s ten rules for writing a detective story as a good guide for plot considerations.

Gilman said that even a pantser (someone who writes, figuratively, from the seat of their pants) can plan. Different outline methods tried by Francis included the snowflake method and related hierarchical outlines. Olson recommended determining plot points in advance and James Scott Bell’s book on writing from the middle to help determine what you should include. Francis and Martindale both suggested developing synopses as an aid in evaluating book plots.

The panel closed with questions. One fan praised the panel as inspiring, “like setting my soul on fire.”

Author of the article

Amy L. Herring (Louise Herring-Jones) writes speculative fiction, with a preference for historical fantasy and alternate mystery. Her stories, appearing in fourteen anthologies, include “The Poulterer’s Tale” in God Bless Us, Every One—Christmas Carols beyond Dickens (Voodoo Rumors Media, 2019). Amy is a NaNoWriMo co-municipal liaison. She also coordinates the Huntsville (Alabama) Literary Association’s writers’ group. Visit her online at