Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Get Up and Get Out: Finding Your Writing Process

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Everyone has their own way of writing, and this is so apparent when you ask a bunch of writers about outlining. When I first started writing, I didn't outline at all. I'd write up a page or two of how the story went, then would dive in and write it. It didn't take long before the story was going every which way and I'd lost sight of what story I was even trying to tell. (note to self--not a panster)

Then I started outlining like a madwoman. Every detail, every scene, every sequel, I had a form to fill out and line up. My scenes were so tightly controlled the life was squeezed right out of them. -strangled gasp- (note to self--not a tight outliner)

I ended up somewhere in the middle, and that's what works for me. I've found having a solid outline of the major events keeps me focused, but I don't plan out how those events unfold. That way, I allow for spontaneity and let the characters drive the story. I outline the framework, but kinda pants my way through it.

So how do you choose what's best for you?

The Seat-of-the-Pantser

If you find planning events stifles your creativity, you might try tossing out your plans and seeing where the story takes you. Let your mind fill in the blanks and don't worry how it all ties together. (That's what second drafts are for) This is also effective if you're not sure what your story is yet and want to explore it before you start nailing down the plot. If you have no troubles when you sit down to write, but stare at the screen with a terrified look on your face when you try to plot, this could be the way for you.

The All-the-Ducks-in-a-Rower

If writing without a plan leaves you with a mess of scenes and no coherent storyline, consider drawing a map so you don't get lost. List how each scene starts, how it ends, and what happens in between. Jot down those emotional sequels that link those scenes together so you know exactly how your protag feels after their ordeal. This is great for those who know exactly where their story is going and want to make sure everything stays on track. It's also a great way to see if your story has legs to make it to the end.

(Here's more on understanding your writing process)

The Let's-Build-a-Houser

If you like structure, but don't want to know every detail before you write, you might find happiness in the middle. Like a house, build the foundation and the walls of your story, providing a framework in which to work. But don't worry about the color of the walls or the carpet until you get there. This is a great compromise that lets you control the story without the story controlling you. You know enough to guide your writing, but the mystery is still there to unfold.

(Here's more on reevaluating your writing process)

The People-Who-Need-Peopler

If you know your characters inside and out, but don't always know what they're going to do, you might enjoy letting them chase after their dreams and see where they take you. This is great for those who know what their characters want and need, but aren't sure of the plot events to get them there. Wind them up, let them go, and see what they do to get their heart's desire.

The Scene-Sewer

Do your stories come to you in bits and pieces in random order? You might prefer jumping around when the mood strikes and sewing up your story later. This is great for those who don't think in chronological order, and let inspiration strike (and write) whatever part of the book hits them first. See it in your mind, get it on the paper, and worry about how the puzzle pieces fit later.

(Here's more on writing out of order)

Know which type you are, but not sure how to outline?

Well, a good way to start is to look at character goals. Goals drive a story, and what a character does to achieve that goal is what makes up your book. List (however you want to) what your protag wants. (Stop here if you're a pantser. Heck, you might not even get this far if you're a panster) Then list what she's going to do to get it. Now write down what happens to keep her from getting it. Next, write down what she does in response to that, which is the next goal.

That's your basic story structure, and knowing those things should be enough to keep your story moving, regardless of how much or how little you like to outline. It's okay if the goal is pretty vague. "Stop bad guy" works to let you know where you're going and still allows for a lot of leeway in how's that's fulfilled.

Getting it Down

Just as there are a variety of ways to think, there a variety of way to put it on paper. Some like to use software like Scrivener, others spreadsheets, some like post-it notes or index cards. I like to do a chapter summary and get the general overview for each chapter.

Chapter One: Bob finds a zombie in his kitchen. He screams, throws a pot at it, and runs searching for the shotgun. His wife Sally barges in with her nine mil and blows the zombie's head off. They think they're safe until they hear groaning outside. They decide to head for the roof to jump to the neighbors and run out their front door.

Or you can try a more traditional outline form like we learn in school.

A-Bob finds zombie in the kitchen.
   1. He screams.
   2. He throws a pot at it.
   3. Sally comes in with gun and shoots it.
   4. They hear groaning outside
B-Bob and Sally head for the roof.

Or you can mix the two and summarize your scenes.

Scene one: Bob finds a zombie in his kitchen and fights it off until his wife gets there.
Scene two: Bob and Sally race for the roof to get to the neighbor's house.
Scene three: Bob and Sally lob grenades off the roof.

There are also several ways you can work with your chosen outline technique. List it in Word (or the program of your choice), lay it out in an spreadsheet (helpful for those who have tight time lines and need to see everything that happens at certain times), or write out scenes on index cards for easy shuffling into the order you want.

Whatever you choose, never worry if it's different from what the writer next to you is doing. There is no right way to write, and the best way is the one that works for you.

What's your process? Is there anything you'd like to do differently? Anything you do that really helps?

For more help on plotting or writing a novel check out my Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

Go step-by-step through plotting and writing a novel. Learn how to find and develop ideas, brainstorm stories from that first spark of inspiration, develop the right characters, setting, plots and subplots, as well as teach you how to identify where your novel fits in the market, and if your idea has what it takes to be a series.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure offers ten self-guided workshops with more than 100 different exercises to help you craft a solid novel. Learn how to:
  • Create compelling characters readers will love
  • Choose the right point of view for your story
  • Determine the conflicts that will drive your plot (and hook readers!)
  • Find the best writing process for your writing style
  • Create a solid plot from the spark of your idea
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure also helps you develop the critical elements for submitting and selling your novel once it’s finished. You’ll find exercises on how to:
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  • Develop a solid working synopsis And so much more!
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is an easy-to-follow guide to writing your novel or fixing a novel that isn’t quite working. 

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. I'm definitely a Let's-Builder-A-Houser. I like to know the 'big events' that will shape a story before I start, but some of the best stuff I come up with actually pops into my head as I'm writing a scene - I've created whole new (decent) characters that way. Meticulous planning would stifle me too much, I think.

  2. I'm a Let's-Build-A-Houser, though I'm sure many people would guess I was an All-the-Ducks-in-a-Rower! And sometimes I find myself building an addition to the house...or demolishing part of it... that I hadn't initially intended for, but hey, that's the fun of it!

  3. Looks like I'm a mix between a Houser and a Peopler :)

  4. I'm a seat-of-the-pants type writer, but I do believe in writing the synopsis first, which might put me in the middle of it and ducks-in-a-row.

  5. Hehe, cute post!

    I'm a reformed All-the-Ducks-in-a-Rower, now a Let's-Build-a-Houser.

  6. You forgot me! I'm a scene-sewer. I'm very character driven, so I could be a People-Who-Need-Peopler. However, I find that scenes come to me (whether they be at the beginning, middle, or end) and I write them down right away. Then I sew them all together. Sometimes a scene comes to me that I hashed out to connect two other scenes. I quickly replace that section, because the scenes that come to me are so much better than the writing that sews them all together. How do I outline for that?

  7. I'm a Let's-Build-A-Houser for sure. Thank you for giving us a couple more options here. I've only ever seen the two extremes, and had to always say, "Well, I'm king of just in between those two." Now I have a REAL label! Haha.

    And I agree, character goals are what make up the plot. Excellent post! :)

  8. That's "kind" not "king"...although, I guess "king" kinda works, too. :) Sorry, it's early for me. My fingers aren't quite warmed up yet.

  9. Tina, I can't believe I forget the Scene Sewer (great name). A good friend of mine does that too. All fixed now! I'd outline same as you write. Just list out/summarize (however you like to do it) the scenes as you see them. You might think about putting them on index cards, that way you can shuffle them around and put them in order when you're ready.

  10. Those are some great names.

    I think I vary depending on the story. My YA novel started out as a variety of pantsed, scene sewn, and peopler, but what it really needs is to be housed. But my SF short-story-turning-novella is essentially a peopler, having started with a character and a destination and then running along from there with a vague ending in mind.

    One thing I am not at all is the Ducks-in-a-row. I can't stand formal outlining, noting every detail in advance. Let's Build a House is as close to outlining as I get.

  11. I'm definitely a Let's-Build-a-Houser. And I agree with Lydia: it's nice to have names for the people in the middle of the two extremes. I feel so...identified. ;)

  12. You are pure awesomeness!!!

  13. Thanks! I do try, LOL. Outlines definitely resonated with folks, so I'll have to do some more posts on it.

  14. I'm a combo, a People-Who-Need-Peopler who likes the seat of her pants and sometimes has to sit in concrete. I also need people (friends) who I can bounce ideas off of. Their questions and (lack of) interest can help me navigate problems before I get to 'em.

  15. Used to be strictly a pantser. I just had an idea in mind of where I wanted to end up. How I got there was an adventure.

    The more I write, the more I need to prep! I've become a Build-a-house-er more than anything. I just need some kind of structure without planning out every minute detail.

  16. I'm mostly a pantser, at least when I start a new book, but then the scene ideas start popping into my head as I work. I can't help it. I've already worked out how the 5 sequels to my first novel are going to go, more or less, and hardly written any of it down. It's mostly just ideas rumbling around in my head.

  17. Just a note on planning/outline: I've discovered that the means used to do it makes a lot of difference.

    For example, I never could work with a numbered outline. Once I had things numbered, I couldn't envision it any other way. Even with my school essays, I always worked better with bullet lists…

    But I worked best with 3x5 cards. Even bullet lists, I could easily get locked into the points and not be able to add or remove anything. With 3x5 cards, my brain more readily accepts them as temporary. I can rearrange, remove, and add easily.

    Interestingly enough, Scrivener's "Outline" function acts the same way for my brain, too. Not so much it's 3x5 card function—and I can't work with a more conventional computer outline, either.

    I've heard of other writers who need sticky notes, dry erase boards, mind mapping software—all sorts of things. So that's something to test out, too, if you feel like you need a plan but are sick of banging your head against an invisible wall.

    (Personally, I favor sticky notes for to-do lists.)

    As far as my personal type, I'm probably a People-r/House-r. I generally start out with a situation/purpose/theme, then figure out my primary characters (less knowing all the details about them and more getting an emotional/personality "read"). From there, I add on structure as I need it.

  18. One thing I've found that really helps me a lot is to have (and maintain) reference sheets for characters, settings, items (magic or high-tech as applicable), and culture (including the political and religious systems in your fictional world). I used such things for role playing games when younger and they are really a great help when building scenes for my novels.

  19. I have outlined as I go in the past . Next time I'm going to have a basic outline of the key plot points. I'm hoping the structure will help with my word count too.

  20. Definitely a Houser and followed the same path of destruction as you to get there. I find that giving the kids (characters) a defined but free playground (structure with open space) brings the best results.

  21. I am totally in the middle.

    Like you I would just write. And write. And write.

    What would happen is that I'd end up with so many scenes, and so many things crossing each other, I had a hard time following things.

    So I started to outline... a little.

    I'm not a fan of a full outline, writing things in detail. But I do believe you need some sort of plan on where the story is going. The big moments, the setting, the flow. And even some of the smaller things. I really like character writing.. I'll take a notebook and write out all my characters. It gets me to get to know them!

    Great post here, with great advice.


  22. Love this post, but is it a cop out to say "all the above"?

    I always think I'm just a pantser, but that's not always the case. I typically know the beginning, and usually have a notion of the end. At some point (usually around page 100, no matter what), I have to go back and outline because I start to forget what I was doing, where I was going with this, etc.

    But I also have a habit of just getting people together to see what they do. Sometimes, they actually surprise me.

    So I guess I'm a pantser/builder/peopler/outliner...this explains my uncanny knack for not finishing things.

  23. Carradee, I so agree with that. I tried so many different things and none of them really worked for me until the paragraph outline. It's important to try different styles if one isn't working for you. Kudos to you for finding yours!

    DL: Oh, character sheets would be helpful. I used to use my old D&D books to help me there, so that does work :)

    Natalie, structure really helps me with word count. I can see at a glance how many chapters or scenes and what I'll be aiming for, so I can see a general word count total. What goes into a chapter also lets me know how big a scene will probably be, as if it's an intro scene or a revelation scene. Those tend to run similar sizes, so I can see how much would be left in that chapter.

    EP, I don't think so. I think we all do a little of everything here. And every book is different. If your idea comes from a really strong character you might write the book one way, but a more plot focused story might be written another way.

  24. This is such a wonderful post, Janice! I'm a seat-of-the-Pantser, but occasionally am a Let's-Build-a-Houser.

  25. I have a general idea of where to start and the middle and the Ending is solid. I pantser my way to that solid ending: I don’t know what might happen in between but the awesome ending is what drives me to finish my work… if I know how it “should” end I carry that excitement all the way through, plus it helps me not to get bogged down.

    I know the light at the end of the tunnel is a train, but I still need to find out if my characters get hit by it.

  26. Thank you! This helped me so much!!! :D *bookmarks page* Now if I could only pluck up the courage to write till the end of a novel .... (i usually get discouraged half-way through)

  27. And I think I'm a cross between an All-Ducks-in-a-Rower and a Let's-Build-a-Houser :)

  28. I think I've finally had a major break through. I'm a seat of the pantser -- I learn the story by writing it. But it's been challenging, I think, because so much of the advice is wrapped up in elements that come from the assumption of outlining. There was a great article in Writers Digest this month called "Go Organic," and it had some very different techniques that really clicked for me.

  29. Linda, that's awesome you found something that works for you. I'll have to check out that article. I actually feel bad for my pantser readers because I know I'm such a structure gal, so much of my focus is there.