Set Your Aim by Sarah Dooley

When I think of plot, the first thing that comes to mind isn't writing, or even reading. It's celeration charting. As a teacher in a Precision Teaching classroom, I rely on points plotted on a chart to give me information about the speed and accuracy with which my students are moving toward their aims. 

As a bookworm kid, I never would have expected to grow up a math teacher - much less a math teacher who uses math to track her teaching - much less a math teacher who uses math to track her writing - but here we are. The celeration chart is beautiful because you can see at a glance how your learner is faring. Whether accuracy is maintained as the pace increases. Whether a skill is truly becoming fluent. You can get the whole picture at a glance.

This is a story about how math taught me to write synopses of unfinished plots.

There's a point, about forty percent or so into a novel, when I realize I am totally lost. It happens every time. Up to this point, I've been riding the adrenaline rush of new characters and setting, tasting the deliciousness of their language, dizzy on the unfamiliar atmosphere. But long about page one-oh-something, realization hits:

I have no idea what I'm doing.

My awesome new characters and beloved new setting aren't so new anymore, and they are bopping around their made-up universe, aimlessly waiting for me to make something happen.

This is the point when it's helpful for me to think of my novel like a snapshot -- a painting, a dust jacket description, a celeration chart. Whatever I need to envision to realize that if I take a few big steps back and look, I need to be able to see the whole picture, particularly where I'm headed. Only then can I set my aim, and with every plot point, move toward it. 

An exercise that is helpful for me at the forty-to-sixty-percent point in my novel is this:  I write the synopsis. Not the thorough, every-detail kind, but the kind you'd read on a dust jacket, a literary snapshot of the novel. Here's the book I'm writing. And yes, there will be things I've written that I'll have to cut because they don't fit on the page. And yes, I'll have to adjust my aim and plot a few points differently. But for me, stopping to summarize the novel my characters and I are mired in helps me ensure we're all accelerating in the same direction.


  1. Been there so many times, Sarah. This is helpful. Thanks.

  2. I agree--things feel so lost in the middle. A synopsis is a GREAT way to find your direction again.


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