13 March 2018

The Plot Thickens

Welcome Sherry Harris

Sherry Harris, author of a cozy amateur-sleuth mystery series, is our guest today on SleuthSayers. In addition to writing the Sarah Winston Garage Sale mysteries, Sherry is vice president of Sisters in Crime National and immediate past president of the Chesapeake Chapter of Sisters in Crime. Her first novel, Tagged For Death, was a finalist for the Agatha Award for Best First Novel. Her fifth novel, I Know What You Bid Last Summer, came out from Kensington on February 27th, and she has more books under contract. I've been lucky enough to work with Sherry for a few years, and I'm happy to let her share her thoughts on plotting and plot holes– evil, evil plot holes– with you today.

— Barb Goffman

The Plot Thickens
by Sherry Harris

Plotting is not something that comes naturally to me. It reminds me too much of outlining papers for school. No fun. What’s an author to do?

Since the second book in my Sarah Winston Garage Sale series, Barb Goffman has been my independent editor. One of the many things she’s done to improve my writing is to encourage me to plot. When I gave her my sixth book to edit last spring I expected the usual notes on upping this or that. What she gave me included a list of TWENTY-SIX questions that I hadn’t answered in the manuscript. TWENTY-SIX!
book 1 in the series

That meant I had a lot of rewriting to do. We all know that saying, all writing is rewriting, but this time it was crazy. Not only that, but she said she’d figured out who did it near the beginning of the manuscript. Barb had never said that to me before. And she had one more bit of advice: Maybe you should sketch out your plot before your write the next book.


How does my editor at Kensington figure in to all this? Some editors want a five-to-ten page synopsis or outline before they sign off on a book. For the last four books, I’ve only turned in the briefest ideas – some only a couple of sentences, some a paragraph. I turned in a synopsis after I’ve written the book – it’s a lot easier that way.

When I started book seven I attempted to take Barb’s advice, so I wrote out a page of who did it and why they did it. I referred back to that page as the book progressed. I have to admit it was helpful because if I started off on a tangent, the page would keep me on track. This time the manuscript came back with fourteen questions. And most of them weren’t difficult to fix, so I didn’t have to spend a ton of time rewriting. Whew! Maybe there is something to this whole plotting thing.

Sherry's latest book
Now I’m starting the eighth book. When I wrote my Kensington editor it was more of a “Hey, I want to try this. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it done in a cozy before.” He said, “Go for it.”

But now I’m facing the blank computer screen. I’ve started to try to plot. The nugget of information that leads me down the writing path has been a bit different in each book. Sometimes I start with the victim, sometimes the type of crime. This time I know who the killer is, but I don’t know who they killed or why.

I’ve been making a list of potential victims and writing why after each one. It’s a very different process for me and so far I keep drawing a blank. Instead I’ve been sketching out other aspects of the book – things like who are the suspects (which may sound crazy considering I still don’t know who dies), where Sarah is in her personal life, what time of year is it, what kind of garage sale will she deal with. While I do that I keep wondering if I can pull off what I want to and then circle back to the list. I stare at the list and then play a game of solitaire. A call to Barb to work through all of this is imminent.

Any advice? How do you manage your plot?


  1. I am happy to hear that someone else shares my plotting problems!

    I am convinced, however, that there is no one right way to write, at least not fiction. If your method, even if not the most efficient, works for you, don't change it. Who know what the Muse has in mind for you.

  2. Oh, Sherry and Jan, I am right there with you - I have tremendous plotting problems, mostly because when I start something, I have an idea, some characters, and/or a mood... and that's it. Half the time I don't know who did it; the other half of the time, I don't know how it happened. I really need to start plotting things out.

  3. Sherry, Jan and Eve, I'm in the same boat with you all. Maybe we could start a singing group.

    I can create characters and get a general idea and overview and hear dialogue, but the cause-effect and logic of plot are a different language. My mind doesn't seem to work sequentially.

    When I have an idea that seems workable, I try to list my scenes in order and won't start writing until I think I have the plot in reasonably coherent condition. But as I write, I always discover details I've left out, repeated, or put in the wrong place.

    As for no outline, I can't do it. Period. I'd end up writing 400 pages of tangents and never find my way back to the story. I look at pantsers with amazement. How do they make it look so easy?

    Sherry, great post. Welcome to the gang.

  4. Hi Sherry!

    I used to completely pants, but yeah - as Steve said, I lost control of the story.

    What seems to be working for me know is to generate a lot of "what if" ideas and put them into Scapple (a program made by the folks who make Scrivener). Then I can look at the ideas and draw lines between the ones that seem to connect. Final step is "Draft Zero," which is often a bare-bones, straight-as-an-arrow telling of the story. It is generally way short and a critique partner says it is my "outline." Usually I discover a new killer (at least) before the end of it.

    Then comes revision and fleshing everything out.


  5. Interesting point, Janice! I agree that different things work for different people. I'm trying to improve my efficiency!

  6. Eve, there are a large number of us non-plotters out there! I'm hoping to come to a point of some plotting but not an outline!

  7. Steve, I have so many friends who list scenes. I find it mind boggling. But I'm willing to give it a try!

  8. Mary, I haven't heard of Scapple. I know lots of Scrivner users but it's never appealed to me. Scapple sounds interesting. Thanks for sharing your process!

  9. I start with a simple three acts and a finale paradigm. An inciting moment, three crisis points at least, climax. I must know those before I get started, otherwise I may not have enough of a plot for a novel.
    But I have a question: how are people getting book contracts without turning in plot outlines? My publisher insists on it, or I don't get any money at all before the book is finished.

  10. Thanks, Melodie! That sounds very doable! I wrote a proposal for the first three books and then another for the next too. I think now my editor trusts me enough to know I can take and idea and run with it. And I'm writing a series instead of stand alones so that may make a difference.

  11. Hi Sherry!
    Those evil, evil plot holes! Thank goodness we have Barb to make us fill them in!
    I'm like you. I wish I were a plotter. I know it would make my writing life so much easier. I tried Scrivener, but my mind does not work in an orderly fashion and it's a miracle that I've finished a few stories and books.
    I write in scenes and then figure out how to connect them. It's bizarre but it works for me. I just thank my lucky stars that so far St. Martin's hasn't required a synopsis.

  12. We are lucky, Shari! And my process has been a lot like yours. But I think for the book that is up next I need more structure.

  13. Lucky that Barb is available to you; she is one smart (fortune) cookie!
    A fresh perspective and pair of eye is extremely helpful. I have done plotting with poems, believe it or not, although I am a basically a pantster. Most poems and non-fiction articles come fast to me, with no plotting necessary. I tried that with short stories and the novel, (which I am determined to finish), but my characters take off on their own. However, I do find myself having to back-track and insert, which often kills my flow.
    It is a hard transition from pantster to plotter, I know.
    Good luck!

  14. I hear you, Tonette! I've backtracked and rewritten one too many times!

  15. I enjoy plotting and I appreciate exquisitely plotted novels. However, with some of my favorite novelists, major plotting takes a distant second or third place because theirs are all about the characters and interpersonal plots. As mentioned above, all is important.

  16. I hope to some day enjoy plotting too!

  17. Hi Sherry!
    I have been more of a pantser but I'm finding with the book I'm currently writing, I keep having to go back and cross out pages that have gone off on a some weird path that doesn't work. I am determined to try plotting and outlining going forward. I haven't started yet, but I look forward to the challenge.

    Great article. Thanks for talking about it!

    Lynn McPherson

  18. Let me know how it goes, Lynn! I worked more on my plot yesterday!


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