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!