Run for the hills! Emma is dispensing writing advice! Heh. Well, I get into conversations with other writers, and lately I've been thinking a lot about writing method - particularly plotting vs pantsing - or "plotsing", which is more the kind of method I use. I do outline intensively, but things often turn out differently when they're on the page. Still, there's no question that the outline reduces the panic moments in a first draft by...a lot. I've never actually finished a draft without one! This is kind of a Snowflake-Save the Cat-Breakout Novel-Painful Experience-hybrid method of all the advice I've absorbed over the years. And it changes with every book I write. But this is the most consistent method I've found, so I thought I'd share!
I’ve always kept notebooks handy. Not just journals (although I do keep one of those, too!), but notebooks in which to jot down any and all ideas that come to mind. I mean anything from a word, a sentence, even part of a scene (which might not necessarily make it into the final book). When I’m in a new-idea brainstorming mood, I’ll actually go through all my old notebooks looking for these little kernels of wisdom. For instance, it’s interesting to look through the notebook I was using in 2011, when I first started playing with ideas for what would eventually become the Darkworld series. Most of these ideas never made it to the final draft, but there’s one sentence that actually formed the plot of another series, one I’m currently writing. You never know what you might come up with!
It’s good to road-test concepts and characters at this stage. Usually this is when I’m in between drafts, or even when I have some spare time mid-project. Or on trains. Or when my brain’s in overdrive and I can’t sleep, and suddenly an idea I thought of years ago comes slamming back into my mind and I can’t rest until I write it down. These things happen to writers – it’s normal. :P
This stage can last from days to months. I find the longer I give an idea to germinate, the more likely it is that the next stages will be slightly less painful…
- Choose an idea!
For this tricky stage, where the story could go in one of a hundred directions, it’s easy to panic and pick the familiar idea rather than an original one. Believe me, I’ve done that, and that’s why my first few attempts at stories didn’t work. Reading Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maas (which I recommend to all writers!) was a revelation. When picking an idea, I now look for the things Maas recommends – plausibility (i.e. the idea has to be surprising but credible); inherent conflict (story thrives on conflict!); high stakes (both public and private); emotional appeal; originality (this is a tricky one – a new angle on a concept, or mixing two familiar themes into something unique); and finally, something that’s important to me, as a reader and a writer. I don’t follow Maas’s guide to the letter, but if a story has all these things, it has to be pretty good, right?
- The Dreaded Pitch!
Following on from that… I write a one-sentence summary…or pitch. *gag* I hate and despise this part, but it nails the story down pretty quick. Once I have that sentence (and it can be pretty basic – Character A is something does something but something conflict something before END OF THE WORLD… or something like that. I rarely actually keep my sentences afterwards, but it works as a starting point!), I turn it into a one-paragraph summary or blurb. Five sentences. Beginning, three conflicts, ending. Usually that ends up changing later too, but I used that method for the first novel I actually finished, so old habits die hard!
- Write a synopsis.
Next, I use that to nail down the story or series arc, by writing a synopsis (I use this useful guide here). I'll have figured out who the main character is, and their journey. By now I’ll have to actually know how many books the story’s going to cover, or so I hope! It doesn’t always work that way, which is why I often work on several of these stages at the same time.
For instance, I’ll sometimes backtrack and do all the research/worldbuilding first. This can take a while, and can involve delving into some interesting places! I’ve started building Pinterest boards and playlists on Spotify as I work, too. The main thing in this stage is figuring out the rules. Every book I’ve written has had some sort of speculative element, and getting those rules down before starting will save major headaches later on! (Again, speaking from painful experience!) I also take notes on settings and pertinent background details. (I might talk more about worldbuilding in a future blog post!)
- Figure out the character arcs.
Next is a vital stage – character arcs. For each character, I write a one-sentence summary of their story, and their motivation, conflict, goal, and whether they achieve it. I then expand on this to a one-paragraph summary (this closely follows the snowflake method) – like stage 3, but character-specific. One for each main character. I usually end up with about 4-5 of these depending on how many major players there are in the story. Start with your protagonist and antagonist, and work from there.
- Beat sheets, sub-plots and complications, oh my!
Next: back to the story arc! This time, I’ll now know the individual threads for each character, so I’ll build them into the plan, which by now resembles a very messy outline. I use the Save the Cat beat sheet and also this useful plotting sheet to work my outline into something actually resembling a story plan.
- Pull it all together!
This is where the different things I’m working on start to converge. I carry on researching and also build character profiles, including for minor characters, writing down anything important. Finally, I go back to the outline and break it into chapters (I’m currently experimenting with this guide from Janice Hardy’s blog because it fits in really well with how my own outlining process works). Then if I’m feeling particularly neurotic, I’ll even break it into scenes.
- Let the magic happen!
Do I actually start writing at this point? Well, it depends. :P I’m strange. I’ve mentioned before that I need to have the first scene down before I can start writing a draft. But that certainly isn’t a requirement. “Just sit down and write” is the best advice I can give – and sometimes, it really is that simple.