When I first started writing, it was all “seat of my pants.” No notes, no plotting, nothing but me, a pen or pencil, and the blank page.
At some point, and I honestly don’t remember when, that changed into a search for “the” method.
I already knew writers worked differently. Where two writers might find common ground on one approach, they might as easily find irreconcilable differences on another aspect of the writing process. It wasn’t that I thought all writers wrote the same, but more I believed I had one perfect way to write. I thought once I discovered the way, every single book, short story, and even poem, would be easy going.
I took classes, listened to podcasts, exchanged tips with writer friends, read writing books, etc. I collected a broad list of techniques that made sense to me and seemed plausible. Each project, I implemented some of these techniques, and for a while, things got easier.
Which is when I learned the horrifying truth.
There is no one method, no perfect way to produce solid stories, and no one-size-fits-all solution for me as a writer.
On the surface, I have different approaches for short stories compared to novels. In general, I let the short story idea germinate until it feels fleshed out then write it down as fast as I can manage to get a solid first draft.
There are some short stories that come to me with a crystal clear idea I need to write now before it fades. There are others that are a neat concept, but though I write a ton of notes, don’t go anywhere until a character steps into the main role. There are still more where I get a prompt that’s interesting but doesn’t produce anything, so I set it aside to read later in the hopes the story will come into being. Some of my short stories follow an abbreviated version of the process I use for novels while with others the steps occur only in my head.
None of those methods is better or worse than any other. They’re just different.
With novels, I thought I had a method that worked, and it did for a while, but then along came a project where nothing worked. Only by throwing away all my processes could I discover the story. Because this happens, I never stop exploring new techniques. Sometimes I just streamline the ones I already use, and sometimes I’m in brand new territory. For example, I’m still learning how to use an actual timeline software and incorporate it into my process. With so many series, and two set in historical (or alt history) periods, I could no longer get away with jotted notes.
I try to have an initial synopsis for novels that gives the scope of the story, touches on the big points in quick summary, and offers some guidance as to where the book should end.
Then I do a plot-based outline. Scenes are represented as narrative blurbs that may include instructions, but will just as likely hold dialogue or character comments centered on the moment. These blurbs are jotted down as they occur to me, so not in any specific order. (You can download an example spreadsheet in my Writing Tools.)
My final step before writing is to organize the outline (why I write in a spreadsheet), which involves both breaking up blurbs that cover more than one scene and sorting everything in chronological order. I read through the whole outline to confirm I’m happy with how it represents the story I want to tell. When I start writing, I do not hold myself to the exact blurbs, but rather use them as guidelines and jumping off points to make sure I’m headed in the right direction.
It’s a very structured, organized process, and it serves me well.
Does it serve for every book I write?
You might have guessed the answer is no. Sometimes the initial synopsis starts out as a short story that I realize is more summary than story. Sometimes the synopsis comes to me in a flash and I rush to write it down. Sometimes music triggers the story; sometimes standing in water or walking does the trick. Obtaining this initial synopsis is the least consistent part of my process.
As far as the outline, that so far has proved useful every time. When most people are using constructed outlines, mine is more a stream of consciousness summary of the story broken down into scenes. In some ways, it takes the place of the raw rough draft, and the result of following this step is a much more coherent first draft than I used to get. But I’ve started writing before finishing the outline, I’ve written the outline while writing, and I’ve caught up to and overcome the unfinished outline without pausing to take a breath. My preference is to have a finished outline and yet I’m capable of completing a draft with an outline at many stages.
What can be learned from this?
Ultimately, it serves you well to gather techniques that resonate with you. Sometimes one will work, sometimes another, but the most important part is to stay flexible and open. Whether you change over time, a specific project demands a different approach, or you rediscover something you’ve forgotten, the one consistent aspect is change. Holding yourself rigid as to process as soon as you find one that works for you may lead to blocking the very creativity your process was supposed to encourage.
This does not mean try to reinvent your process with each project. If something is working for you, absolutely use it. The need to flex comes when the existing techniques are fighting the project you want to undertake. Don’t give up on the project. Don’t give up on writing. Flex and explore until you figure out the way this project wants to be brought into being.
What’s the worst that can happen?
You could learn there are two or more ways you like to write, giving you options that otherwise you wouldn’t have in your toolbox when you run into a balky project.
Today’s post was inspired by the topic “Preparation is everything (whether you pants or plot, how do you get from idea to writing?)” — June’s topic in Forward Motion’s Merry-Go-Round Blog Tour. Links to additional posts in the series will be added below: