Writing Process; Getting it All Out

Writing Process; Getting it All Out

A friend recently asked me about the process I use when writing my novels. As promised, here’s the second half (first post here).

Step 4: Outlining
Once you have all the pieces of your puzzle, it’s time to start putting them together. This will be the first, rudimentary draft of your story. When you put a puzzle together, you start with the straight edged pieces. They form the backbone for putting the middle together. An outline gives your novel a rigid structure to fit into. Without it, things will wobble and fall apart.

I used to skip the outline step altogether and just start writing. The story, I thought, will form as I go. While this is true, it rarely forms in order. If you don’t write the details down when you think of them, you’ll likely forget them by the time you get to them. If you try to write things out of order, you risk the story not making sense when you put it together in the proper order. If you’re trying to write a part of the story that hasn’t yet formed, you might just meander and not actually accomplish anything. Outlining is the final stage of that thought process, putting all the nebulous ideas that form the story together into a solid form.

The form the outline takes is up to the individual. J.K Rowling used what she called plot sheets, which she apparently hand-wrote. Some writers like to draw a timeline. Unless you have a dry erase board that no one’s going to screw with, I recommend a digital format. Without the ability to edit something easily, you might decide not to make the effort. Drawing lines all over the place on a timeline you don’t want to completely rewrite will be messy and confusing. In the digital world, edits are as quick as drag and drop. Mistakes can be fixed with an easy ‘undo’ command. Edits in the outline stage are worthwhile because they’re going to save you a lot of trouble when you hit the editing stage. It’s much easier to move a scene or change its purpose before you write it.

Despite my description of the outline as a rigid structure, you don’t want it to be concrete. The outline has to be fluid. As the story develops, it will change. Pieces may slide up and down the timeline. Purposes may change. Some scenes may have to be cut. It’s easier to do this while they’re single sentences on a page than it is when you’ve devoted three hours to a beautiful, well-written scene you then discover serves no purpose. It hurts to cut that prose. It’s painless to erase the sentence describing what might happen.

My outlines are nothing fancy. I tend to think of the structure of the novel (What are the natural breaks in the story? Will they become parts which are later subdivided? Or just chapters? Are they named?). Then I write a description of what happens at the widest division of the novel. Most of my novels so far have three parts, so I write a brief description of the plot for each part of the novel. Then I slowly zoom in, writing a few sentences about what will happen in each chapter. As the plot takes form and shape in my mind, I write a few sentences for each scene that will appear in each chapter. I often have to move scenes earlier or later in the book to make sure the plot makes sense.

I’ve read a lot of blogs recently about questions to ask yourself when you finish your first draft. What is your main character’s goal? What is your first plot point? How does it change your main character? I would argue you shouldn’t wait until the first draft is finished to ask those questions. Ask them now. Have I provided enough details for the plot to make sense? Have I fulfilled the goals I described for each of my characters? Do the events taking place make sense in the order I’ve put them?

True, it will be impossible to make sure everything’s right until you write the first draft. But that shouldn’t stop you from trying. Everything is easier do deal with while it’s an idea. As soon as you’ve put work into writing it, it’s going to be a lot harder to change or remove.

Step 5: Writing
Finally, we arrive at the point. Despite being the meat and potatoes of the whole process, there’s very little I can say about the writing part of the journey. Everyone writes differently. People ask me how I do it. The only answer I can give is: I just do.

For me, routine helps. If I devote the hours between 3PM and 6PM to writing, I try not to allow myself to do anything else in between. That way, if I’m not writing, I’m not accomplishing anything else either. I’m not having fun. I’m just punishing myself or wasting time. If I waste my writing time, I try to force myself to make up for it during my fun time so that, next time, I won’t waste my writing time. Eliminating distractions is useful, but breaks are also nice. I write best in the afternoon and evening. Some of my best work is done between the hours of 10 PM and 2 AM though, because it interferes with my sleep schedule, I try to avoid making that my regular work time.

I think it helps to set a reasonable writing goal and try to reach it each day. While I’m not working, and therefore trying to make writing my full-time job, I try to write a chapter each day, with a total of about 4 chapters a week (I need to leave sanity time and time to clean the house). I average about 3.5K words per day 4 days a week for about 14K words a week. When I worked full-time, I wrote much less than that. If you set unrealistic goals for yourself, you’ll get frustrated and you’ll only get in your own way. Having said that, everyone’s different. Set a goal that works for you.

The only advice I can give here is: try to get the whole draft out, beginning to end, before you start making major changes. Despite best efforts in the planning stages, ultimately the only way to know a story is to write it from the first to the last. A friend recently told me she was having trouble with her manuscript. She’d gotten about halfway through and feared the story wasn’t strong enough, but she wasn’t sure how to fix it. I encouraged her to finish the novel before she started worrying about fixing it. Unless you’re at the point where you feel the entire story is wrong and you need to scrap it and start over, keep going. Often, the problem is smaller than you think. If you assume it’s a large problem and try to fix it before you have the whole picture, you might only make the problem larger.

For this reason, I try to keep editing to a minimum while I’m writing. If I make a major mistake, I’ll go back and fix it. Last week, while attempting to write a scene, I realized I was doing it wrong. I scraped almost two hours worth of work and went back to square one. But I wrote the scene correctly in half the time afterward. Beyond incidents like that, I try not to go back to earlier in the work and improve things. That’s what editing is for. Sometimes, if I realize I’ve made a mistake in the past, I’ll write it down with notes on how to improve during editing. That way, by the end of the story, I not only have an idea of the full picture, I have thoughts on how to improve things the second time around.

However you have to do it, get the whole novel written one time from beginning to end. You’ll never get anywhere if you never finish anything.

Step 6: Editing
Many people are of the opinion once you finish the writing part of the process, you’re done. That’s it. Finished. No one ever writes anything perfectly the first time. I used to be confounded by the editing process. I could never figure out what to do. I knew my work wasn’t perfect, but I didn’t know how to improve it.

The main problem with editing, the main reason everyone hates it, is that it’s hard to change something you’ve spent hours putting together. Once you’ve written something, you might fall in love with how it reads. There’ll be a sentence or a scene that you love to pieces. There’s so much of you in it and every time you read it, you smile like crazy.

Until you realize you need to get rid of it in order to make the novel better.

It’s devastating. You resist it. We all do. But it must be done.

Editing is more than sentence structure and grammar mistakes. Editing is more than making sure you’re not repeating the same words over and over and that you aren’t using awkward phrasing that will distract the reader. Editing is about the flow of the story, how it moves from the beginning to the end. Editing is how you get the reader from A to B making sure that everything is properly explained along the way. Editing is where you remove the weak links and replace them with stronger ones. Editing is where you fill in all the plot holes. Editing is where you take the scene that makes the reader sniffle and turn it into the scene they’ll struggle to read through their tears.

In order to be successful at the editing stage, nothing can be safe. Everything has to be on the chopping block. No holds barred. Anything goes. Of course, if you discover something is missing, this is also the stage where you edit it in. It’s not all about cutting.

This is why I say it’s so important to try to make all the difficult decisions in the outlining stage. As soon as you write something, you might attach yourself to it. It’s twenty times harder to change once you’re in love with it.

Editing is my least favorite stage of the process. I find it hard. I always move through it slowly. I often don’t want to do it (as in spend the time doing it, rather than not wanting to edit my work), but I do love the outcome of having done it. My stories come out the other end polished. They may not be perfect, I can’t claim to be a professional editor, but they’re a lot better than they were when I finished the first draft.

Unfortunately, the step that causes the most headaches is also the step you have to repeat the most. When you’re finished editing, let someone read it, then edit it again. Rinse, repeat as many times as necessary. When I wrote the novel I’m trying to find representation for, I edited it three times. The first time was such an overhaul, I almost re-wrote the piece! Then I let my beta-readers get a taste of it, then I edited it again. Then I edited it one more time for polish to make sure I thought it was ready to go out to agents.

What you do with it when you’re finished is a whole other bag of worms, but I’ll wait until I’m further in my journey to make comment on that.

So that’s my not-so-secret. That’s how I do it. Each novel is different and trips me up in different places. Sometimes it’s fun, sometimes it’s a nightmare, but in the end I wouldn’t trade it for anything else. I love writing. I love what I’ve got at the end of all the steps. I look forward to doing this for a very long time.

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