Do I need an outline? Do I have to develop a character questionnaire? Where do I start?
So many questions, so many conflicting answers out there. I have good news and bad news. The bad news is that I don’t have a correct answer for the above questions. The good news is that it doesn’t matter!
Just as every writer possesses their own unique voice, they also have their own writing process. Writing a book is hard and painful, but can and should be a heck of a lot of fun. In order to keep the writing fun and less painful writers usually find a process that works for them and stick to it. Dare I say it, a writer finds structure.
“But… my writing is a free-flowing beast that cannot be held captive by such a thing as structure.”–Someone
…probably me when I started writing
I’m not saying that there is a single formula that can be used or that there is a magical process to create a perfect novel. There are just a few simple truths that are universal enough for all writers to consider when thinking about their writing process.
Have a plan for your characters…
Whether you keep a detailed account of your characters or invent them on the fly, a good story needs good characters. The reader wants someone they can relate to and root for. They want characters with dimension. They want characters with interests, passions, backstories, goals, motivations, etc. At some point in your writing process (preferably somewhere early on) you are going to have to think about your characters and breathe those qualities into them.
On the structural level, this type of forethought can come in several methods. I like to keep a spreadsheet of character bios. This will include details such as physical descriptions but also will include non-physical attributes (flaws, goals, skills, etc.). Then I plunge a little further and think about the character’s backstory, what made them the way they are, and how they might change over the course of the novel. I also think about the character’s voice and what influences how the speak, think, and act.
Of course, you might prefer to reveal more about your character as you are writing your story. Developments can come as you throw characters into new situations and see how they react. This is often the pantser approach. I am far from a pantser, but kudos to you if you are able to create immersive character backstories while diving in head first into the story.
Have a plan for your plot…
In the book Save the Cat! Writes a Novel, Jessica Brody compares writing a novel to taking a cross-country road-trip from California to New York. The task seems long and daunting, but is much more manageable if it is broken into a variety of road markers. Think about how stressful it would be to make that journey without a map (or google maps since we live in the modern era).
An outline is your map. And no, it is not a requirement, but it’s certainly going to help. An outline can be extraordinarily detailed and span multiple pages to break down everything scene by scene; or an outline can be a brief sketch of the story’s major beats. I prefer to have both, a full detailed overview of what I anticipate happening AND a list of beats I know that I will have to hit.
There is no right or wrong answer on what an outline has to look like. Some people might even freeze up at the term “outline”. But whatever you want to call it––pre-writing, story overview, concept sketch, etc.––having direction on where things are going is vital. Having an idea of your story structure will make your life a lot easier while writing your first draft and editing the drafts that follow.
Your plans will change…
Even if you have the most detailed outline and in-depth character overviews, things will change as you write your first draft.
“The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.”–Terry Pratchett
The best thing you can do is to be flexible and allow yourself to pivot. Trust your gut to determine which changes will make the direction of your story better. As you write and discover more about your story, plot, and the characters expect things to shift. Then expect things to shift again while editing. And expect it to change when you release it to beta readers, and again if an agent or an editor gets to it.
Incorporate change as part of your writing process. Allow yourself to pivot. It can be scary to do, especially if you are hardwired into your story outline. As you develop your writing process, make sure that you let yourself be open to changing details that allow your story to grow.
What is my writing process?
In the content above I’ve shared a little bit on how I attack my novels, but here is a little closer look of my personal process.
- Disclaimer: this only overviews my process of writing my first draft. The steps of editing and peer reviewing are another chunk altogether.
- Second disclaimer: This is my PERSONAL approach. This does not mean that it is right, wrong, or suitable for everyone. It is just what I do and seems to work for me.
- Third disclaimer: I definitely lean toward the plotter style of writing.
First, I start with a concept
While that doesn’t sound super groundbreaking, I find it interesting that I can trace my stories back to a single-line concept. In my current WIP, my single-line concept is: there are sorcerers in the world, but if their magic is discovered they die. What started as a simple and clean idea grew into characters and conflict before my very eyes. But the seed of the concept is still there.
Next, I have a massive brain dump
When I create a general concept, a few other concrete ideas bubble up. Early on, I make decisions on who my main character is and where they will be at the beginning and end of the story. Then I pull out all the other ideas that are bouncing in my head and put them on paper. It tends to be scattered and I certainly do not keep all of the ideas, but the basic framework of my novel starts to emerge.
Then, I pre-write
While in the pre-writing phase, I simultaneously develop my characters and plot. I usually start with a bio of my main hero, because their journey is what drives the plot. But I like to flush out both my plot and characters at the same time to keep me from running too wild with one and forgetting about the other.
Finally, the drafting begins
With my outline(s), character bios, and other resources I created to help with my world building (e.g. roughly drawn maps, setting descriptions, and research documents), I am ready to start the invigorating process of diving into my first draft. I often start at chapter one, but I do not stay there. It is important to write your first chapter and move on. I like to write at least all of my first act before I even let myself go back to editing chapter one.
I prefer to write each chapter in order, but I do jump around when needed. Sometimes if I get stuck in a particular scene, I will write something that happens in the next scene. It is easier to get unstuck by connecting the points in between those two scenes.
When I sit down to write I will read over what I had written in the previous scene to get me in the right headspace. While I skim, I fix the occasional typo or enhance some weaker sentences. I cannot resist editing while plugging along the first draft; however, I don’t like to go too deep into editing while drafting. If I edit while drafting, I might restructure a chapter or a scene that I can sense that my writing is pivoting.
Thousands of words later, I have wrapped up my first draft! THE END (the two greatest words to a writer’s ears other than “signing bonus”). Yet, there is still plenty of work and we will get to editing strategies on another day.