Over the course of the next several weeks, I’ll outline my process for bringing a book from idea to final draft. Every writer has his or her own way of doing this, and we usually spend awhile perfecting it, stealing ideas from others that we think will work.
So if you’ve ever wondered how I take that original thought and make it into something you want to read, here’s your big chance!
Plotters vs. Pantsers
Recently, a discussion has arisen in the writing community, suggesting there are basically two different types of authors — Plotters (who plan out everything before they begin writing) and Pantsers (people who prefer to write “by the seat of their pants,” not making a plan but just writing whatever comes into their heads).
I very definitely fall into the former category. When I was younger, I was a Pantser. If I tried to outline, I would feel that I had written the story and was ready to move on to something else. I wanted the raw creation of just plucking it out of my head as it came to me.
The problem with that approach, for me, was that I would get stuck. I have a lot of unfinished novels from college and graduate school days. I’d hit a block and not be able to figure out what to do next. My momentum would fade, and it would be very difficult for me to complete the project.
Since then, I’ve become a Plotter, and it suits my personality much better. I like to think about things and make plans. I don’t think on my feet that well. Several of my friends are Pantsers, and they write excellent books. But I can’t do it that way. I have to know where I’m going before I start.
I keep a sewn notebook in the hutch of my writing desk. When I first conceive of a story, I get it out and start making notes in it. I always write in pencil for two reasons. One, I like to be able to erase if I make a mistake or decide I want to make a change. Two, it reminds me of my days as an elementary school student, making all sorts of drawings and stories in my notebooks. I got bored in class a lot, and I would amuse myself by making up stories and drawing superheroes. I used a pencil then, so that’s what I use today.
I almost always start with a list of the major characters. I give them names and a one- or two-line description noting whom they are and what their functions are in the story.
Next, I jot down the big ideas — plots, themes, who is trying to accomplish what, etc. The notes I make here depend on the nature of the book. For a Wolf Dasher novel, I almost make note of what the villain is trying to accomplish and how he or she means to pull it off. For Beauty & the Beast: A Modern Fairy Tale, I made notes of what Rory (my main character) wanted to happen, how she wanted the school to change, and how she uses the three wishes she gets.
If there are going to be special objects in a book, I make notes on them separately. Because they are homages to James Bond, the Wolf Dasher books usually feature gadgets. I take the time to note what they are, how they work, and how they will specifically function in the story. Likewise, I knew Calibot was getting a magical sword in The Sword and the Sorcerer. I detailed what it could do and what its special powers would be.
All this helps me focus on my mind on how the story will develop. I almost always know how it begins and how it ends. It’s connecting the two I generally have to discover in the writing process.
Once I’ve got all my preliminary work done, I start outlining the plot. I do this on a chapter-by-chapter basis. I try not to get too detailed. If I do that, I won’t want to write it. I basically compose story beats that allow me to write the chapter whole cloth while still having a guide for where I want to go.
The purpose of this exercise is to give me a map. I want the chapter to develop organically (i.e., evolve as I’m writing it). I don’t want to feel like I’m forced to write a certain thing. So my outline consists of one to three sentences briefly describing what happens in the chapter.
I used to outline the entire book before I started writing. That was useful, because I never got stuck then. I knew exactly what was supposed to happen next.
But outlining a whole book in advance is tiring and time-consuming, and it threatens to blunt my enthusiasm for getting it done. Starting with Roses Are White, I changed my process to outline five chapters at a time.
This lets me do a couple of things. First, I leave more opportunity for the book to take an unexpected turn. One of the interesting things about writing is the story going places of its own. You start writing, and the next thing you know, you’re not really in control anymore. It takes on its own life, and smart writers allow that to happen and follow it. By only plotting five chapters at a time, I give myself more opportunity to let the novel change from its original idea. When a twist I hadn’t previously thought of jumps into my head, it’s easier for my to accommodate that and weave it into the book.
Second, it sets manageable goals. When I’m in first-draft mode, I try to write a chapter a day. I prefer to write each weekday and take the weekends off. That gives me some mental rest, so I can recharge while still keeping a good, steady pace. I write between 1500 and 4000 words a day, so by writing five days a week, I get pretty solid output.
So I plot five chapters. I write one of those a day until I’ve hit my goal for the week. Over the weekend, I spend some time thinking about where the book is going, and I plot the next five chapters, so that, on Monday, I’m ready to start writing again.
Perhaps the most important thing I do during the writing of the first draft is the one thing I don’t do — edit. When I’m working on getting that first draft down, I don’t edit what I’ve written. I only reread it if I need to remember what happened in a specific place.
I don’t want to get caught up in evaluating my work before its finished. It’s easy to get distracted, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed and quit.
So I don’t do anything that could cause that to happen. I just focus on getting the words down. After I’ve finished the first draft is the time to edit and evaluate.
And that’s what I’ll discuss next week, when I examine my process for the second draft of a novel.