Book from the ground up: Part 1 – Getting started and Plotting


I’m starting a new project and I thought it might interest you to know the steps I go through in writing a novel. Of course, I’m only one writer and there are as many ways to go about writing a book as there are authors, but seeing my process might give you some different ideas to try.

For this blog series the project I’ll be working on is a book in one of my existing series. If I were working on a brand new series, my first step would be world building and character development, but for this project,  the rules of the world have already been established in previous books and I know the main characters rather well. I will be adding more depth to the world as the characters go new places and experience new things and new characters will make appearances in this book, but at this point in my process, I don’t yet know what or who the characters will run into. I’m a plotter, so I do know my series arc and where I plan on my characters to be by the end of it, but I don’t plan out my individual books in advance. That means, when starting this book, my first step will be to figure out the plot. But before I start, I have some basic “house-keeping” to do.

I write in scrivener, but don’t start a new file with each new book. Instead I open the previous book (in the series) and rename the file the working title of the new book. Then I move the previous manuscript out of the active area and into a section I’ve created called previous manuscripts. Each already written book in the series is saved in that section in a folder with it’s title. This makes it very easy to go back and reference the previous books. (One caveat with this – once the books get to the line edit stage, I can no longer work in  scrivener and must use the word file from my editor. This means that the files I have in scrivener are not the final version of the book that goes into print. If I need to know exactly what I said in a previous book, I reference the printed version. But for most things, the files in scrivener will be close enough.) The other benefit to continuing in the same base file as I have been using since the first book in the series is that all my research and character notes are already there. Also, any keywords I’ve used in the past are still attached. At this point I might go through some of those reference files and update them with information from the previous book, but honestly, I’m terrible at staying on top of my ‘world bible’ and right now I’m anxious to get started, so I’ll save that for some time in the future when I’ll likely use it as an excuse to procrastinate real writing.

Okay, house-keeping is done. On to plotting.

Because this is a book in the middle of a series, there are several plot threads I’ve been layering through previous books that I already know I’ll be carrying into this book. I don’t know any actual scenes for those threads yet, so I’ll just jot them down in the project notes so I remember that I want to include them. I’ll also scan the last book’s notes at this time for any important information I left for myself. I see that I left myself a couple ideas of where I wanted to go next, so I’ll also put that information into the current project’s notes. At this point I have some idea what my subplots might be, but I still don’t have the main plot of the book.

Sometimes I know what story I want to tell before I even start the file, but not this time. Deciding on a storyline that interests me, fits the existing world and character, and moves the series toward it’s ultimate endgame can be the hardest part of writing a series — or the easiest part, as sometimes where I want to go next hits me before I finish the previous book. This time I only have a couple vague notions, so I get the feeling I’m going to have to work hard for this plot.

Going through my previous notes and existing story threads has already sparked a couple scene ideas. I don’t have a clear idea of the plot, but I’ve found that ideas are a lot like bunnies — start putting them together and they spawn a dozen more. I don’t know where these scenes will fit (of if they’ll fit) in the story, but I’m going to jot them down. I used to do this step on physical sticky-notes. I’d scribble down an idea and then stick it to the wall in no particular order. Once I got enough ideas, I’d look over my wall, rearrange the sticky-notes into a logical order, and fill in the missing scenes. I’m a visual person, so being able to see my plot laid out this way (and easily rearrange it simply by moving a sticky-note) really worked for me — though it horrified the head minion. These days I do this step electronically with scrivener’s corkboard view. It isn’t quite as fulfilling, but it is much more efficient as each notecard I generate creates a scene file and becomes part of the outline. I can also change the colors of the notecards as I decide on my main plot, sub plot, what will be an action scene, a romantic scene, etc.

Okay, I now have a dozen or so random, unconnected scenes. (These are not written out of course, but the general idea of what will occur in the scene has been added to each notecard.) I’ve also been hit with several what-may-be-clever-but-that-is-yet-to-be-determined bits of description and dialogue. Some of the dialogue goes with the scenes I’ve envisioned so I’ve added it to those files, but a lot of it is displaced or not complete enough to give me an idea of the scene surrounding it. I don’t want to lose these possible gems, so I’ve added them to a file called “muse droppings” where I can find them later and add them into the book. (Note, I’m not letting myself write full scenes–those I summarize on the note cards. These are just snatches of dialogue or very clear–but short–bits of interaction or description that hits me and can’t be ignored. Most are under a hundred words.)

A dozen or so scenes are not enough for a book, and while I have a good idea of my subplot, I still only have the slightest inkling of my main story. I think I know what the main conflict of the book will be, but I have no idea what steps my characters will take to solve it. So, I’m now going to pull out some of my favorite/recent research materials and thumb through the sections I’ve tabbed and highlighted to see if anything pops. Research can become a black-hole I get lost in, and I need to start this book, so right from the start I know I’m going to limit the amount of time I spend flipping  aimlessly through my research to no more than a day so I don’t lose too much time. When something strikes as potentially useful in this story I jot it down in my notes. I also add more scene ideas as they materialize.

I’m a couple days into plotting and I have some really cool scene ideas, but still only a portion of the plot. Time to really lock down and brainstorm. For this I use both my computer and a paper notebook. I use the pen and paper because I know from experience that if I don’t, I’ll likely sit there and stare at the electronic notecards. I need to attain a certain amount of momentum, and while I can type much faster than I can write on paper, the physicality of the pen and paper seems to help me at this stage. Also, while I brainstorm I write in a very stream of consciousness type of way. I fill pages with everything from what I already know I want the story to be about, to what the character arc in the story will be, to where characters who aren’t the view point character are while they’re not “on screen,” to questions I keep banging my head against. It would be less wasteful–an much more legible–to do this in a file on the computer, but these pages tend to be filled with lines leading off to new ideas and random notes in the margins, which would be much more difficult to accomplish on the computer. So I waste a lot of paper, but I also keep the computer close at hand so that as this jumbled madness called brainstorming turns up scenes, I can add them to the corkboard.

I now have most of a plot, and during the brainstorming sessions I’ve figured out where my earliest scene ideas fit. A couple of those scenes ultimately didn’t fit once I got the rest of the plot in place, so I move them out of the active manuscript area and into a new folder titled “cut scenes and scrap” (I never delete anything. As I work through the next stages of writing, this folder will get very large). There is still a little tweaking to be done to the outline, and while I know that once I start writing I will add and delete/move scenes as the developing story needs, I still want the most complete road map I can create before I start writing. At the same time, I’ve already put quite a bit of time into this story and I haven’t even started it yet. It’s time to finish up.

At this point I’m looking for any motivation or logic leaps that don’t work in the outline. If I leave any of those in and try to write toward them, I’m going to run into issues, so they need to be resolved now. I also still have some gaps linking scenes. If nothing hits me, I’ll put a filler there that tells me I need a scene that takes the story from point a to pointc. This might come back to bite me when I run into it later, but hopefully by the time I reach these missing links, the story will have fleshed out in such a way that a very organic transition will be obvious to me. (Note* none of these missing scenes are scenes I know will be major. I once left out of the outline how the characters  would finally confront the big bad because I just couldn’t envision it when I was outlining. As I was writing, I started subconsciously stalling in the middle of the book and I finally realized this was because I was very nervous about getting to that giant question-mark. Never again. It is faster for me to puzzle out the big pieces now–even if I ultimately end up changing them later–than to get frustrated and jump into the story half cocked and end up sabotaging myself while I write the first draft.)

Okay, my outline is shaping up and I’m just about ready to start writing. Hopefully the next two weeks will be very productive and I’ll be well into the story and ready to talk about first drafts next time. Happy writing everyone, and please share your own plotting process. It’s always interesting to see how people go about this crazy undertaking we call noveling!


14 comments to Book from the ground up: Part 1 – Getting started and Plotting

  • Pretty thought out. My method is much less involved. I used to be a pantser, or as I like to call it, organic, but I’ve moved to more of a plotter, or structured, style, yet still a bit chaotic.

    I open a Word doc and just brainstorm, starting with any characters I know are going to be in the story, simple descriptors followed by em dashes. William Reece—main character—dark hair—dark blue eyes, green shot—perhaps black Irish mix—maybe true firbolg blood in ancestry?—knows the secret arts—has a dark side that comes out when angered—etc.

    I usually run through at least the main characters that will make the most impact, main protagonist, any sidekicks/friends, love interest, antagonist/villain, main lackey. If there are any special areas I’ll deal with those characters, a beloved bartender, town constable, etc, etc.

    Then I get into the main brainstorming, almost stream of conscious-like. I’ll start from beginning of the story, but as I’m going I’ll ask myself questions right in the brainstorm, what is his magic? How does it work? Why should he care here? What does the BBU really want? What will this scheme mean to the rest of the world? Etc, etc. I’ll do this from beginning to end until I have the basic plot hammered out, between 5-15 pages or so. Ofttimes I’ll leave the question and then come back to it and fill in. If I think of a scene before its time, or if I already had one in mind that will happen later, I’ll type the basics, hit return several times, and leave it at the bottom of the page until I find the place where it fits.

    That done, I’ll add any odd features of the world just like the characters, with em dashes between points. Any odd tech, magic workings, etc. And then I open a new doc, put in the title, and begin to write.

    However, this last time, with my noir novel, I decided to do my brainstorming outline style and it worked pretty well, though it is much longer page-wise, so I may keep doing that for a while.

    One thing about this method, is that quite frequently, I can rewrite the brainstorm into an actual synopsis once I’m finished, because I already have the body of it with main points, albeit sloppy, right there.

    I think Rogue 5’s brainstorm was around 8 pages originally, but I ended up adding two or three more in other files as I delved into writing the actual novel.

    There’s still quite a bit of creativity involved in the final product, because the brainstorm is merely the skeleton. I still have to put all the good stuff in and still get hit with flashes of inspiration I didn’t foresee in the brainstorm.

  • Gypsyharper

    Thanks for sharing, Kalayna. I’m still figuring out my process, so I enjoy reading about other writers’ methods and seeing what I can adopt that might work for me. I used to think I was a pantser, but since I never actually finished a project that way, I’m trying out different methods. For my current project, I started working through my outline using K. M. Weiland’s Outlining Your Novel. I like taking notes by hand also – I feel like the brainstorming energy flows better that way. Plus, as you mentioned there’s that ability to take notes in the margins. 🙂 Of course, I also write down things that occur to me wherever I happen to be, which sometimes means on sticky notes, or if I’m at work, sending an e-mail to myself or creating a new Word document and saving it to Dropbox. I’m still working on how to corral all of those so I can find them when I need them.

    I also use Scrivener (which I love!). I’m just starting to use the cork board feature with this project and it’s definitely useful to have the scenes I’ve thought of so far laid out that way. I like your idea of keeping a whole series in a single Scrivener project. One of my favorite things about Scrivener is being able to keep all my notes in one place (assuming I remember to transcribe them there from all those other places!), and it just makes so much sense to me not to duplicate all the things you need for multiple books by creating a separate project for each one.

    Hopefully when I finish this project (which will be the first novel I’ve finished a whole draft of!), I’ll have a much better idea of what works for me and what things I want to do differently next time.

  • Megan B.

    First of all, let me say that I love the phrase “muse droppings.”

    I think I would really like Scrivener, but unfortunately it isn’t currently feasible for me. I don’t always write on the same computer, and I keep my working draft on a flash drive. I keep notes in a separate document, usually in Google Docs. It winds up being a rough outline with lots of random notes at the beginning or end. Totally inefficient. 🙂

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Thank you very much for this post. Plotting is definitely the area of writing that I feel (extremely) least confident about, so it’s definitely helpful to see how other people approach it.

    For all that, I suspect my method is moving in a direction very similar to yours, only with extensive use of excel spreadsheets rather than scrivener. I’m still very much in the learning stages, but I’ve now got a solid second draft of my first manuscript and took a break from that project to develop some of a new story idea, jotting down and organizing scene ideas and working on a map and world-building questions.

    When I started my first project, I just had to dive in as soon as a starting point presented itself, because I had no idea what I was doing but my learning-style still requires real doing on something really important. Now, for the new project, my hope is to have a rough outline of something like 30 scenes before I get going, with an eye to keeping a good balance between a couple different temporal sections of the story, whereas for the next book in my current project, my outlining is leaning heavily on excel to lay out about 4 separate character/plot-threads in parallel, which I can organize into a single story-line once enough of the details work themselves out. Hopefully that will make it take *less* than six years to write this time. 😀

    On a side note, any tips concerning how you hammered out that difficult final-confrontation scene you mentioned? I’ve gotten myself pretty clear on the next book for my current project, but the one after that needs to actually finish things up and absolutely *all* of my thoughts on it are vague, vague, vague…

  • Kalayna, I am not nearly so in-depth in my methodology, and I should be. I have never had a series that lasted as long as the Jane Yellowrock series and I am *disordered.*

    ‘Nuf said. I will start fixing my disorder in December, likely stealing wholesale from your method. 🙂

  • It’s great to hear / read how others actually work. I work in Google docs and usually start by creating a folder with several documents – character descriptions, a plot outline, notes and the actually book. From here it’s just a matter of filling each document with words! I’ve done this for several books, but for my NaNoWriMo project I’m just wingin’ it.

  • I love hearing how others organize and plan. Like several other commenters, I’m still searching for the method that will work best for me. Right now my process is very much a hodgepodge–I have Excel spreadsheets, sticky notes, Word documents, notecards, and several spiral notebooks full of brief descriptions and scenes. I’m trying to get all that more organized, but so far I’ve all done is manage to get all the hard copy notes into one pile on the floor by my desk, and one Notes file for the WIP.

  • that’s an excellent perspective into a plotter’s method. I’m still attempting to knock some plotting elements into my pantser ways, but the most surprising tempting thing in this entry was I now am curious to try Scrivener

    Thank you!

  • Megan B.

    I think I just had a small epiphany. I’ve been lamenting the fact that I tend to write short. My attempts to write novel length fiction usually come in at no more than 50k words. I really want to be able to write a long, epic story, but so far it just hasn’t panned out.

    Well, I think part of the problem is that I’m more pantser than plotter. I jot down a sparse outline, often while I’m writing, but I don’t generally keep a bunch of detailed notes and files. Plus, I don’t plan out the whole plot arc carefully in advance. The result is that I don’t know the story is too small until I’m well into it. Combine that with my tendency to be anxious to get to certain scenes…

    But being more of a plotter might be just what it takes to help me write longer stuff. 🙂

  • Hepseba ALHH

    @ Megan B.: I really know what you mean about wanting to get to writing certain scenes, but for me it can act as a goad to make me write and write and write until I get there. However, I remember Holly Lisle offering advice on her site to include what she calls “candy-bar scenes” interspersed throughout the working outline, so that there are plenty of scenes to look forward to writing as you go and as you plow through everything else the story needs.

  • Ken

    Thanks for sharing Kalayna. I’m still hashing out the exact process that works for me and I’ve got a feeling that I’ll be borrowing from your methods as well.

    Oh, and let me also give a thumbs up to “Muse Droppings”. I love that.

  • […] recent post over at Magical Words (Getting Started & Plotting). Kalayna suggests this will be part of a […]

  • Very interesting. I’m still figuring it out, like many, but on my current effort, in roughly the same stage, I am combining a word document with various subheadings (and a table of contents, to help keep track of it all) with a separate excel spreadsheet with text boxes (the cork board equivalent). I’ll have to check out Scrivener at some point, sounds like it could be a handy combination of those things.

    (Looking forward to your new book!) 🙂


  • quillet

    Thanks for telling us this. I wish my plotting were as organized as yours sounds. Mine has generally been a total mishmash involving notebooks written in ink, cue-cards written in pencil, plus lots of Word documents — often contradicting each other. Trying to make sense of it all made my head ache. I haven’t needed to do any serious plotting since I got Scrivener (which I LOVE) last year, but I hope the process will be a little easier now, or at least tidier. Long live cork-board view!

    Oh, and I too love “muse droppings.”