Note: Most of this post was originally published in January 2014 on a now-defunct blog. My process hasn’t changed significantly since then, only now I have the experience to understand exactly how hard it is to write when I deviate too much from this process. Lessons learned!
Yesterday*, I promised to share the techniques I used to plot and write my first novel, in the hopes of helping another would-be author who’s having similar problems. I didn’t expect for that post to come today, but that’s the idea I woke up with this morning, so here goes.
First, a little background. I’m a professional genealogist. As part of my “job” (I’m self-employed, so defining my work duties is entirely up to me) I write non-fiction genealogy-oriented articles and edit a small genealogical society newsletter. I also have a genealogy blog, where I share whatever comes to mind related to genealogy. Sometimes that’s information about my ancestors; other times, it’s thoughts on genealogy as a profession. My blogs suffer when my mind is focused elsewhere, it’s true, but the way I write posts is similar to the way I write other non-fiction. Since that’s important to the process I used to write my first novel, I want to take just a moment to provide an explanation. This reads a bit like one of those stupid infomercials, and I apologize for that. I did try to cut some of the you won’t believe what happens next crap out, but there’s only so much you can do with a this is how I did that story. Please bear with me while I explain.
Writing Non-Fiction Begins with an Outline
Yes, the dreaded non-fiction outline, the bane of school children everywhere. Or, at least, it was in my day. Report-writing is so uncommon in schools now that the lack draws criticism from educators everywhere, including Will Fitzhugh, editor of The Concord Review, the only academic journal devoted to publishing original historical research papers written by high school students. If you think students shouldn’t write non-fiction in high school, I’m about to change your mind because understanding how I write non-fiction was KEY to discovering my fiction-writing process, and that all begins with outlining…which I learned how to do in school, thanks to all the report-writing I was required to do back then.
I’ll spare you the grisly details of all that and jump right to the good stuff: outlining the non-fiction I write today. When I write a non-fiction article, the first thing I do is jot down ideas about the content. I then refine those ideas, adding or deleting where needed, and arrange the ideas into a logical order. This forms the basis of my outline.
For example, this morning, I jotted down ideas for an article I’ll likely publish in the newsletter I edit. The working title is “Researching Hidden Ancestors” and is based on four ideas I brainstormed this morning (right before I brainstormed this blog post): analyzing every record; expanding research; reading records rather than relying on indexes; and researching the FAN Club. From there, I developed an (informal) outline that looks like this:
- Defining “hidden” ancestors
- Focus on using records as much as finding them
- Techniques described can be used for any ancestor
- Thoroughly analyze every record
- Deep record analysis
- Example: ?
- Using non-typical records; going beyond Federal censuses and “low-hanging” fruit
- Example: Fletcher brothers (no land; tax records explain)
- Hidden ancestors hidden because records aren’t necessarily in their name
- Indexes therefore useless; read every record if no reliable abstract available
- Example: Sally Hemphill’s deceased child
- Many hidden ancestors can be found through their Friends/Family Associates and Neighbors (i.e. FAN Club)
- Example: Amy (Nichols) Ledford
None of this means anything to non-genealogy readers, but it will mean something to its intended audience (none of whom will ever read this, so there’s no worry of spoilers). Now, I’ll use that outline to write the article, which will probably end up being around four pages long. Not bad for half an hour of brainstorming, eh?
What does outlining non-fiction have to do with writing fiction? Simple. My main problem with writing fiction was not with character development or world-building or lack of ideas, but with plot. I always ran out of plot a few pages into the story. One day, I realized that a non-fiction outline serves the same purpose as plot in fiction. The outline is simply a list of things discussed; plot is what happens in the story, i.e. the things you “discuss” while building the story. Same thing, different application. I already knew how to build an outline thanks to writing non-fiction. Applying it to writing fiction was really very easy, once I made that connection.
That was just the first step. Now, I had to figure out how to actually develop the plot in a fictional work, and for that, I had to figure out why I was having such a hard time getting from great beginnings to great endings. I don’t know why, but it hit me that I needed to actually see the story’s outline. Fictional stories have too many plot points to fit handily into a one- or two-page outline. So I brainstormed, did some research into how others handle the same problem, and came up with the next two keys.
Visual Plotting with Index Cards
Because I needed to “see” the story, I had to figure out a way to get the story into a larger format. I already knew a computer screen was too small because my favorite method of outlining non-fiction involves my computer. Handily enough, I have a free wall in my home, down a hallway, that was just large enough to use as a story board of sorts. I also remembered another technique I learned back in high school: using index cards to jot down research notes. I combined the two and came up with a workable system for visual plotting by pinning index cards, with ideas jotted on them, to my big wall. I pinned cards from left to right as to where I thought they would go in the story, with “uncertains” off to the side or pinned above the main story. If I had idea cards that were too vague and needed more definition, I pinned them to the side as well.
For example, one of my “big idea” cards read something like “Hero and Heroine fall in love.” That idea needed a lot of defining, but it was something that had to happen in the story, so I pinned it to the side and kept that in mind as I worked. Once I finished putting all my ideas on index cards and arranged them into a logical order, I began developing the plot, something I’ll describe in the next section.
When I was finished, I pulled every single card down, keeping them in order, and put the “outline” into a file in OneNote. I rubberbanded the cards and pulled them out when I got ready to write for the evening. Between this, a spiral-bound notebook (for jotting down ideas about what I want to write that night, a la Rachel Aaron), and things like character files (also in OneNote), I had everything I needed to actually finish the story.
The great thing about using this system is that I could move the cards around, and I did. A lot. As my idea of how the story should go developed, I did a lot of rearranging. I could also “see” that the story fell into three distinct “acts” and could plan accordingly. This helped develop the flow of the story, the ups and downs that naturally occur and thus make the story interesting.
Visual plotting is not by any means a new technique, nor is using index cards to plot, so this isn’t some unique idea I developed. Use your favorite search engine and you’ll see what I mean. What is unique about this is how it fit into my brain. That’s it.
Still, my process wasn’t quite complete. I took Rachel Aaron’s advice and wrote down every single thing I could think of in my story when I first pinned cards to the wall, but still had a lot of holes. That’s where the next key comes in.
Plot Points vs. Scenes
I’ve read a lot (and I do mean a lot) of books and articles on writing fiction, and nearly every single one of them emphasizes plotting using scenes. Holly Lisle, for example, describes a way to plot under pressure by writing down scenes on index cards. It wasn’t until after I’d unpinned and collated all my index cards that I realized I wasn’t jotting down scenes per se but plot points, and there’s a whole world of difference. When plotting via scenes, you have to think of every single element that goes into the scene. That means that the author has to know who’s going to be in a scene, where it’s going to take place, and what’s going to happen before figuring out the entire story. That absolutely doesn’t work for me, for a reason I’ll explain in a moment.
With plot points, on the other hand, you don’t have to figure out how to integrate them into a scene until you actually hit that point in the story. That leaves a lot of leeway for character and story development that wouldn’t necessarily take place with a rigid scene-by-scene outline.
Now, that’s not to say that I didn’t have ideas for scenes as I was plotting, because I did, and when I did, I made sure to jot down enough information on the pertinent index card that I could recreate the scene when it came time to write it. Honestly, though, a lot of my index cards looked like these examples (I removed spoilers):
- Thwarted sex #1
- Confrontation between Hero and Heroine over (specific underlying theme)
- (This character) tells (that character) about (problem in story)
- (Other character) gets upset because of XYZ
And so forth.
To develop the plot, I began with my initial ideas, written down and scattered across my wall, then identified holes in the story and filled those in, working back and forth using logic and basic story formulae (e.g. the first kiss, internal/external conflict, reactions from other characters, set-ups for additional stories, etc.) until I had a workable book-length plot. But I didn’t focus on scenes. I focused on things that had to happen to make the story logical. Having those plot points allowed me to move rather quickly through writing the story, in spite of the fact that I didn’t know exactly how I was going to integrate the PPs into the story, which brings me to my next point.
Plotters vs. Pantsers
I’ve known for a while that I prefer writing fiction by the seat of my pants (Pantser) rather than following a fully developed, rigid outline (Plotter); technically, I consider myself a hybrid because I combine the two for a very organic approach to writing. Even in non-fiction, my outlines are rather loose. I only developed the example above as much as I did to give you an idea of how I outline and then write non-fiction. Normally, I’d take my basic ideas and begin writing, but here I wanted to show you my thought process because it’s important to how I learned to plot fiction.
Now, being a hybrid Plotter-Pantser doesn’t mean I hadn’t put a lot of thought into the story because I had. I’ve been developing this story world for about two years and I had already made a rough outline of the seven-book story arc (titles plus one or two sentences on what happens in each story, but no detailed notes as to characters, etc.).
So, I already had a good idea of where I wanted the story to go. I just needed to develop that idea better and that’s what I did with the visual-index-card-plotting system I described above. As I wrote, I used the story’s plot points to pull myself through from one scene to the next, developing the characters, adding back story (often unexpected revelations), and deepening story lines as I went. I often found myself adding plot twists and characters, too, such as three men I dreamed up when I realized my Hero needed male friends. I hadn’t planned those characters at all in my initial plotting and planning. When I sat down to write one night, it suddenly dawned on me that I wasn’t showing enough interaction between my main characters and the rest of the community. (One of my favorite sayings in genealogy is, “No ancestor is an island unto himself.” This applies very well to fictional characters as well.) It turns out that those three characters all have critical roles to play in upcoming story lines, although only one (probably) will actually have his own story written out (Book 4).
When I finished the first draft, I discovered not one superfluous scene. Not. One. In fact, I had to add a scene, one that I had down as a plot point but accounted for in another way in the first draft. When I looked over my scenes list, I realized the story would really benefit from having that plot point expanded and explained in its own scene. The organic approach does have its advantages!
One of the big concerns people have with systems that produce first drafts quickly is that the writing quality suffers. I did not find that to be the case at all. In fact, the changes I made to my first draft were minor: typos, grammatical errors, tightening phrases, and adding small (and I really do mean small) fixes for plot holes or, more often, for stories yet to come in this series. Here’s the breakdown on time spent writing the first draft:
- 33 days total writing, 68895 final word count (for the first draft)
- 77.02 hours total writing time, or 2.33 hours per day
- 2087.73 words per day, or 894.51 words per hour
Now, I did my math late at night after putting in a 4540 word day, so it might be a little off, but you get the idea. This is nowhere near Rachel Aaron’s 10K-word days, but I did manage to write an entire novel in a little over a month’s time by putting in 2 1/3 hours per day on average. To be fair, I did revise a little as I went, so my first draft was more like a first-second draft. But, it was really solid work, and I credit that to the plotting and writing system I used.
And Other Stuff
Each night when I sat down to write, I didn’t set a time limit or a word count goal. Instead, I focused on producing at least one well-written scene per night, and sometimes even managed two scenes, if I had enough time. I know, I didn’t plot based on scenes, but the one-scene-per-writing-session was a goal that helped me focus well enough to get from one night’s writing to the next. Many, many times when I finished writing, I would have ideas for the next scene, which I would write in my notebook or on the pertinent index card. Or I would wake up in the morning with an idea for the next scene, or I would brainstorm it during the day while doing something else, or…
Another key factor was enthusiasm. I know I keep referring to Rachel Aaron, but here’s where her system really made a difference for me. My enthusiasm ran pretty high during that first draft, in part because I was finally writing the way I always wanted to. I’m pacing myself a bit more with the second book, but my enthusiasm is still pretty high. I love my characters, I love the story, and I love the story’s world. I’m having a fantastic time writing about the people who’ve been hanging out in my head for a couple of years now. And in February, you’re going to have the chance to meet them because that’s when I plan to release the first book. Anyway, that’s it. That’s how I plotted and wrote the first draft of my first novel in seven weeks. I hope this overview is useful.
* Addendum: 18 April 2015
I wrote the above in January 2014, just a couple of weeks after completing the first draft of my first novel, The Prophecy. Since then, I’ve refined my writing process even more and learned an awful lot about what constitutes good writing. I learned so much, in fact, that I completely revised The Prophecy. The story didn’t change. That was always solid, but the way I told it changed a lot. I’ll eventually discuss how I revised The Prophecy elsewhere, possibly as part of how my writing (and the way I look at it) changed over time.
I’m also no longer a professional genealogist. Believe it or not, I’m making more money as a writer than I did doing research-for-hire. I’m still fairly well-known for it, among certain circles, and hope to one day return to the field and complete the many methodological articles I’d like to write.
** Regarding Writing Speed vs. Writing Quality
There’s a huge debate going on in the writing community juxtaposing the speed with which the first draft is written vs. the quality of the finished product. Other people combat those misconceptions far better than I could, including such heavy hitters as Russell Blake and Dean Wesley Smith.
The longer I write fiction, the more I realize that I have a comfortable, natural pace, usually around two to four thousand words per day (I still try to write complete scenes, so that’s about two to three scenes), five to six days per week, or about two to four hours a day. Sometimes I write longer. Occasionally, I don’t write at all, but even then, I’m doing something writing related. This system has allowed me to publish (as of April 2015) nine novels and one novella as well as a spattering of short stories.
I’m sure someday I’ll discuss my exact writing process, but the biggest point I want to hammer home is that the quality of the first draft has nothing to do with the quality of the finished product. All good writers edit and revise their first drafts at least once, all of them. I revise as I go along, refining ideas and story, developing characters and the story world. etc. Once the first draft is completed, I go over the entire thing twice, send it to my editor for a good look-see, then go over it again at least once prior to publication.
Almost everything I do after finishing the first draft is refining the writing. That’s what works for me. Other writers may do something different, and that’s fine. It’s great, even. What works for one person isn’t going to work for everyone else. That was the most important lesson I learned while writing my first novel. After years (decades, even) of reading writing how-to books, I realized that the rigid structure-first, story-last formula didn’t work for me. In fact, nothing about my writing process is rigid except that I devote time each day to my writing business, whether it’s writing (and I do try to write every day), editing and revising, formatting books for publication, blogging, learning (yes, I’m still learning; hope I always am), marketing, creating my own covers and teasers… I usually put in ten to twelve hour days, all totaled, but that’s part of being self-employed. I love what I do, love it so much, I hope I never have to stop. How many people can truly say that about the work they do?