Darynda Jones — The Writing Process of An OCD Plotter

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Thanks so much for having me! I thought I’d talk about my writing process today because it’s a doozy. LOL. And I have learned NOT to mess with that process lest I bring the wrath of the gods of writer’s block down upon my head. Here is my step-by-step to creating a book. (Pantsers [aka, people who write by the seat of their pants] might want to skip this part. It could give you hives.)

Just for the record, I plot like there’s no tomorrow. I barely start a book without three distinct outlines.

  1. The Skeleton Key: This answers four basic questions: Where are we? What time of day is it? What major event happens in this scene or series of scenes? And in what order does the story unfold? (I like this because it helps me quickly find where I’m at in the story.)
  2. The Outline: This is a brief synopsis of the entire book. It is usually about 5-9 pages long and is what I send my editor for approval before actually starting the book.
  3. The Detailed Outline: This is where I take the skeleton key, plug the outline into the appropriate areas, then add any details I’ve come up with including specific scenes, little extras I want to reveal here and there, funny lines or situations I want to use, and even internal and external motivation. These outlines usually run between 40 and 60 pages, but remember that part about adding scenes? Yeah, by this point I’ve already written a nice chunk of the book. (I now use Scrivener for this part and I LOVE it!!! I highly recommend at least giving it a chance. They have all kinds of tutorials on their site, so check those out because there is quite the learning curve. And there is a great book by Gwen Hernandez on Scrivener called Scrivener for Dummies. It’s an excellent resource!)

Next, I take the final detailed outline (my compiled notes and texts in Scrivener), copy and paste it into my manuscript (I write in Word), and delete as I go. This way I never stray far from the conceived story. I don’t wander around aimlessly, wondering where I’m going. I know exactly what is coming next, and very often, if it’s a “hard” scene (meaning I’m too lazy to write it at that moment), I’ll jump to another scene. I don’t get bored and/or stuck very often and I rarely pull my hair out by its roots. I’ve tried pantsing it. It wasn’t pretty. I had writer’s block by the time I got to page three.

Darynda CoverAlso, plotting this tightly keeps my middles from sagging. The story is always moving forward so my reader (hopefully) doesn’t get bored.

And just for the record, I don’t stick to this outline 100%! I add and take away scenes and story threads as needed. I’m always coming up with fresh twists I didn’t see coming as I write, so I incorporate those. Having an outline does not in any way inhibit creativity. Just the opposite, IMHO.

NOTE: Let me just say that I write ALL over the place. I do not write linearly in any way, shape or form. By having such a detailed map of where I’m going, I can write on chapter two one day and chapter nineteen the next. Another (possibly more important) advantage to this technique is that there’s never a dull moment. Each scene has a purpose. Each scene moves the story forward. This makes the book tight, the pacing strong, and the story smooth. Just sayin’.

 Darynda author pic  BIO — NYTimes and USA Today Bestselling Author Darynda Jones has won numerous awards for her work, including a prestigious Golden Heart®, a Rebecca, two Hold Medallions, a RITA ®, and a Daphne du Maurier, and she has received stellar reviews from dozens of publications including starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist, and the Library Journal. As a born storyteller, Darynda grew up spinning tales of dashing damsels and heroes in distress for any unfortunate soul who happened by, annoying man and beast alike, and she is ever so grateful for the opportunity to carry on that tradition. She currently has two series with St. Martin’s Press: The Charley Davidson Series and the Darklight Trilogy. She lives in the Land of Enchantment, also known as New Mexico, with her husband of almost 30 years and two beautiful sons, the Mighty, Mighty Jones Boys. She can be found at www.daryndajones.com.

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26 comments to Darynda Jones — The Writing Process of An OCD Plotter

  • Andrea

    Hi Darynda,
    Thank you very much for sharing this. Wow, and I thought I was a plotter 🙂

    I work in Word, too. I have tried to start in Scrivener, but I found that yWriter has some possibilities I’d like to use (on scene level) that I couldn’t find in Scrivener, so I am preparing to export my novel to yWriter, and use this to revise it.

    All the best!
    Andrea

  • Janet Walden-West

    I love that you write out of sequence 🙂
    The first writer’s group I attended, the speaker made it very clear that books couldn’t be written that way, that all you’d end up with was an unfinished hot mess, and it was utterly unprofessional.
    I tucked away my written-out-of-sequence, finished MS and crept out.

  • Ken

    Welcome Darynda 🙂

    Wow, you do some pretty hefty outlining. I’m still discovering what works best for me (Hey, aren’t we all?) and I’m leaning towards somewhere in between a full outline and what you dub the “Skeleton Key”.

    So far, I’ve only tried writing linearly. I think it keeps me focused when the going gets tough in a delayed gratification sort of way. I might give it a shot on the next WIP…maybe.

    Thanks for sharing your process with us and, again, welcome aboard 🙂

  • Welcome, Darynda!

    Hm, you’ve given me something to think about. I think I need to make a more detailed outline specifically so I can try writing other scenes that are in my head even if I haven’t arrived there yet. I’ve been chipping away at the opening after making a skeleton, and it is really starting to feel like a slog, especially after the crazy month I had last month. But I need *something* to get me back into it, and this sounds like it could work. Thanks! 😀

  • Tom G

    The only think I pants is the outline. I can’t write a short story without an outline. But you are way more OCD than me. You’re my new hero.

  • Tom G

    If I had outlined my comment above, I bet that typo wouldn’t have been there. Does anyone need any more proof of the power of outlines?

  • Razziecat

    I wish Scrivener worked as well for me. I find it confusing, and it’s eaten stuff twice when I tried to drag & drop text. Then my hard drive died, and I have yet to reload Scrivener.

    I’m about half outliner/half pantser, and it works for me. The other thing is – I write backwards. As in, I often write a middle scene of a new story first; I keep going until I get stuck. Then I go back to somewhere near the beginning and figure out how the characters got to that middle scene. Eventually I write the beginning; and this seems to work better for me than trying to write in sequence, as long as I go through and make sure it all lines up 😀 If I try to write the beginning first, I tend to spend too much time on it and can’t get past it.

  • quillet

    Welcome, Darynda! Fellow plotter here (um, that sounds slightly evil, heh heh). I currently use your 2 and 3 but not 1. The Skeleton Key! I love that, can I copy it? And I completely agree with you that an outline does not inhibit creativity. It’s just a matter of preference, I think, but knowing where I’m going gives me confidence and causes inspiration to hit.

    I also love that you write out of sequence. 🙂 I do it too. If I get the idea/inspiration for a scene, no matter where it’s supposed to take place in the book, I’ve learned to write it down before it vanishes. I can fit it in with other stuff later, or edit it later — but recapture it later? Nuh uh.

    I also use Scrivener, which lends itself beautifully to this approach. Scenes can be joined up to other scenes, or split away from them, and rearranged to my heart’s content. Yet navigating and finding stuff always remains easy. So far, I’ve found no need to use any other software for writing. I waved good-bye to Word a couple years ago and haven’t missed it yet.

  • I’ve always written in a non-linear approach, but until the current WIP I’ve never outlined much. With the outline I am finding it much easier to write scenes as they occur to me, or when I’m in the mood for them. There’s not nearly as much flailing around wondering where the scene I’ve just written fits into the narrative.

  • Thank you. I’m with you on the fact that outlining does not have to stiffle creativity. Someone ought to come up with a better word than outline because what you describe is nothing like we were taught in school.

    A question: How do you handle characters? I find I need a separate document where I list each character–even the minor ones–not just to keep from spelling names differently at different times, but more importantly to describe important information about each person, which can include their age, family background, physical characteristics, psychological profile, skills, personal tastes, etc.–a lot of which is never used, but some of which comes in handy to make a person come alive (“You still drink green tea with honey?”) and helps me make each character distinctive.

  • Darynda, I have never written out of sequence and I admire anyone who can keep their brains wrapped around that process. I’m an outliner gal from way back. Weeeelll. Okay. The WIP has deviated from it in major ways so far but I’m about to whip it back into shape!

  • Wow, Darynda! I consider myself a plotter, but by comparison you make me look like I’m winging it. I totally agree about each scene having a purpose, preferably two or three purposes (character development, plot, background) — that, to me, is the fundamental rule of plot construction. Great to have you here.

  • Darynda

    @ Andrea: Oooo, I haven’t tried yWriter! I’ll give it a look see. Thanks so much!

  • Darynda

    @ Janet: This kills me! There is NO WRONG WAY TO WRITE! I can’t believe other writers fling that crap. If it works for you, then it’s right. Period! I’m sorry you had to experience any self-doubt of that drivel. Unprofessional, OMG!

    Okay, I’m done. That just kills me. If it feels right, it’s right. You go, girl!

  • Darynda

    @Ken: Yes, I must have my outlines. I just don’t get very far without them. I meander. LOL. And if linear writing works for you, don’t change a thing! I do love my skeleton keys. They keep me moving forward more than anything.

    Thanks for stopping by!!!

  • Darynda

    @Laura, I hear ya! My opening for my current WIP, 7th Grave which was due, like, yesterday, went from 5 pages to 50. I never do that. I’m a little worried about it now. I had skipped a vital step in my process: The skeleton key. I had to go back and type one up. Now i’m moving forward just fine, but oy. I’ve learned my lesson. LOL.

    thanks so much!

  • Darynda

    @Tom! Bwahahaha! I love that I’m your new hero! We outliners must stick together.

    Thanks for the giggles!

  • Darynda

    @Razziecat, clearly you are a genius to have figured out how to keep moving forward. Good for you. I often write scenes in the middle first too and sometimes I start with the ending. Beginnings are my weak point. Don’t even get me started. LOL.

    Thanks so much for sharing your brain with us! ~D~

  • Darynda

    @quillet: Thank you! And you can absolutely copy anything here. I hope whatever I do helps. And you nailed it with how plotting causes inspiration. I couldn’t agree more! For me it is a way to not worry about what I’ve already thought up and I can move on to bigger and better scenes. I don’t have to try to remember anything. I can barely remember my children’s names, much less a scene I came up with while lying in bed at 2 am. Just not going to happen.

    I keep hoping to actually do my wiring in Scrivener too. I love it so much for plotting, but haven’t quite made the full switch over. I still write in Word. Maybe my next ms I’ll try it. You’ve inspired me!

    Thank you again!

  • Darynda

    @Sisi: I agree! I can write wherever the muse leads me. I love my outline. I really really do.

  • Darynda

    @Xmanpub: Oh, yes, I must have a separate document for my characters. It’s a table with the alphabet so I don’t get 17 names that begin with R. It allows me to name people based on what letter I have open. LOL. I keep a running one for the Charley Series and add and delete with each book as needed.

    I will also put the basics on this doc, but I keep another doc with my main characters, their history, etc. You are right, those tiny details make characters come alive and give them their own personality.

    Thanks for joining!

  • Darynda

    @Faith: Yes, my WIP deviates quite often. I am constantly tweaking my outline so I don’t lose a threat or a thought, but it’s worth it as I turn in fairly polished mss most of the time and I can keep track of all of the ideas bouncing around my head. LOL.

    Thanks so much for having me!

  • Darynda

    @DavidBCoe: Thank you so much for having me! And yeah, I’m a tad OCD about my outlines. But you are right on the scenes. They actually do serve several purposes and the more purposes they incorporate, the tighter the scene. Gawd I love talking about writing. LOL.

  • mudepoz

    I think I wear pants to plot. Somehow I need to get out of the mud.
    Do you have a thing for skeletons? I mean, you a have a grim reaper, a skull cover, and now a skeleton key.
    So, how do you keep all your characters straight, and how come you have a blog devoted to an outline of your characters?

  • Jean Percy

    Thanks so much for sharing, Darynda! I think after a couple years of trying a little of everything, I decided, I’m a “snowflaker.” Meaning, I write a little, then plot a little, etc. I can’t just pull a whole story out and piece it together without writing something down first. Like a piece of beef; I don’t know what I’ll cook until I look at the cut. If an idea comes to mind, I start to clifnote it in Evernote, then later I make a whole scene from it. If the scene flows, I’ll go ahead and make a little index card somewhere and save it for later, then go back to my notes and see what else I can play with. I find “writing” this way to be easiest for me. Nothing feels forced. The largest problem I have though is the dreaded edit. ::pulls hair out:: The scenes most often don’t mesh, they have discrepancies and I’m sitting there thinking, “Hmm, which darling scene should I kill?” It’s probably a waste of time, but I guess it’s faster than plotting hardcore, for me anyways. Also, something about “pansting” allows me to figure out who my characters are. I’m sure once I’m done with my current WIP, I’ll figure out a good method for plotting and really consider your method! But until then, I’m surrounded by index cards, posted notes, and journals of endless information.

  • I was expecting something a bit different going off of the title. I’m kind of wondering, do you actually have OCD, or is that just a metaphor for being very particular about your writing process?