Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Writing pace and plotting

This week I'm taking a break from writing Jesse (working title of my novel-in-progress) to do some brainstorming, scene-scaping, and plotting out in more detail of the last two-thirds of the story.

I've never taken a novel that was only one-third written and plotted it out, scene-by-scene, all the way to the end, but I feel the need to do so this time around. My usual method is to keep a sketchy outline, which I  expand into a more detailed scene-by-scene outline--but only a chapter or two ahead of where I'm writing.

That is, when I write a novel linearly (from Chapter 1 straight through to The End). I've been known to jump around and write a novel in out-of-order chunks. Doubtful if I'll ever write one that way again though.

During my recovery from chemo fog, when I was retraining myself to write, writing whatever scene I could see clearly, no matter where it might happen to fit in the overall story, was what I had to do to keep myself engaged in the process of coming to the computer every day, to beat down resistance and keep my spirits up. It worked very well. I did finish that novel, and called it Kindred. But the first draft came in at a whopping 325,000 words.

After a lot of sweat and tears, it's a much slimmer 126,000. Most of the excess that needed trimming came from the fact that writing it out of sequence, I never knew in any given scene what might prove important later, and what wouldn't, so I chocked those scenes full of anything and everything that seemed interesting or relevant. For me, writing in chunks without an outline equaled an extremely overwritten manuscript lacking in focus, until I began hacking back that excess, with a great deal of help.

While it enabled me to write again after a long frustrating dry season, that sort of editing is not a job I ever want to tackle again. Hence the plotting. My guess is that in the long run I'll have much less anxiety during the first draft writing process than I'm prone to have when I can't see as clearly where I'm headed with the story, and hanging over me like a sword is the knowledge that there's a word count cap publishers prefer an author heed, but that I'm liable to blow past and leave in the dust if I give myself too much freedom in the first draft.

Many authors will advise new writers not to edit themselves in the first draft, to give themselves freedom. I see the wisdom in that in most cases. But for me? It leads to excess, and more work and worry later. I think I'm going to have to be a plotter, unless I want to take five years to write each book, which is how long Kindred took me to write and then cut back into a publishable form. The book I wrote after that, which I plotted quite a bit more and wrote linearly, took eighteen months and came in at just under 130,000, which I then cut back closer to 120,000.

Jesse, I'm hoping, will take me less than a year. I began writing it on February 8th with a more detailed outline than I'd ever started with before, and by May 8th had written a third of the story. If I can keep up the same pace, I'll have the first draft written in nine months. That would be very very cool. But a year is my goal.

I wonder if anyone else has experienced a morphing of their writing process over time. I've had twenty years and a shot of chemotherapy in the middle of things to change how my brain works out this complex process of novel writing. Anyone else find themselves changing from a plotter to a non-plotter (a seat-of-the-pantser), or vice versa?


  1. Lori, I'm a pantser turned plotter. I wrote my first five stories with no more than a general outline in my head. I rewrote one of the stories twice, received an offer of representation, and learned I had to ditch the final 3/4ths of the story and start over, which I did. I learned many valuable lessons as a result of that process, one of them being that I'd prefer not to have to go through it again. Now I plan my stories before I write them.

    I wish you well as you plot Jesse's story.

  2. Thanks Keli. Wishing you well as you go through your first novel debuting. I'm looking forward to it!

    "I learned many valuable lessons as a result of that process, one of them being that I'd prefer not to have to go through it again."


  3. A great lesson learned, Lori. Monumental,really. Like you and Keli, I've learned some hard lessons, too, that have transformed my writing from to more of a plotter now. But I just can't help going with it when the inspiration moves me to write. Often that is the first few chapters and THEN I need to start plotting to figure out where it's all going to go. It's very hard now that I'm writing proposals on synsopsis to have to plot the whole story out. It seems like such an impossible idea, so I just sit and let the thoughts simmer a while and see what comes of it. So challenging, and uncomfortable, but then when I've done it is the most helpful thing as I write. It is a great way to keep me focused and on track with the story. But even so, I have over written 10% past my word count max and had to do some painful trimming.

  4. Wow. I don't think I could ever be a pantster, at least not in the first draft. I'm just awed by how much you cut. And here I am worrying about getting a 140,000 word MS down about 10,000 words!

  5. I see Blogger is back up and working today, but stripped away a comment I'd left in response to Keli. Thanks, Keli, for your thoughts. I think anyone who's gone through a difficult and painful editing process will find ways to keep that from happening again. :)

    Deniz, it's all down to Lauri K. that I was able to cut so much. She showed me how, and I ran with it. You'll be surprised how much falls away just line by line when you start evaluating every word, phrase, and sentence. I made no huge story structure changes in Kindred. Just tightened up sections (mostly the first half), cut or summarized a few scenes that were there because I fell in love with a minor character who didn't add anything to the story. A few scenes I took out that I still grieve over, and think should be in there even thought they don't move the story forward! Oh well. My little darlings. They aren't killed, just locked in the closet.

  6. Locked in the closet, I like that. Sometimes you actually need to go back and pull some of those old words out to the latest draft. Still working on my synopsis...

  7. I am definitely not a plotter...but I know I need to be. Like you I have a rought outline in my head and the first and last chapter really fleshed out. Oy -- I am seeing now how unfocused that has made me. Way over word count and a jumble of scenes that lead to deadends. I've come to the realization that there's more than one book in there. Now I'm wrestling with pulling those story threads apart and making sense of what's left. Ouch -- I'd almost rather start writing all over again.

  8. Kav! I do feel for you. That's something I seriously considered doing with Kindred... or splitting the book into two. But it already begs a sequel and while I'd love to write the sequel (have it already worked to the proposal stage, just in case), I don't want to write a long series. I prefer writing stand-alones that have some connection but can still, well, stand alone as separate stories. Every time I tried to split Kindred I couldn't make the front half stand on its own. Oh, the frustration. You have my prayers!

  9. When I first started writing, I read in a book that the only way to write a novel was to outline it first. OK, I thought. My outline was a chapter-by-chapter summary of everything that was going to happen. The outline wrapped up after thirteen chapters. I remember being worried that that seemed a little short.

    I also read that I must write character bios, so I dutifully started a notebook with character bios. I had a terrible time putting information into it, though. It seemed like I was, well, making stuff up. [g] Everything felt contrived; none of it was real or deep.

    But oh well. This is what a real novelist did, so I would just have to learn to do it.

    OK. I started the actual writing. The end of the second chapter took a sharp left turn from the direction it was supposed to go, and the story and the outline were parted for all eternity. That's when I discovered that stories are grown out of conflict, as opposed to plot events, and that characters have to be nurtured in their own setting, and do not spring fully-formed out the pages of the character sketchbook. (This is why I cannot write scenes for my characters out of their natural habitat. They exist only there.) Quite suddenly, as they spoke and thought and worried and grasped at dreams just out of reach, they became real, with secrets they sometimes didn't share even with me, at least not with my conscious mind.

    The story I outlined was a superficial affair, because I wrote it without knowing anything about the characters--who they were and what they wanted. And I wrote it without having yet met some of the characters who would prove to be major movers and shakers. So clearly, I am not cut out to be an outliner because I just can't create a story out of whole cloth, in advance of writing it. (Oddly enough, however, I'm a fairly good brainstormer, particularly with other people's story ideas.)

    This also showed me that if I plan out a story in advance, or casually discuss upcoming story events with a friend, or even daydream the story in too much detail, my mind considers the tale told already and I lose interest in writing it.

    I write the way I read: to discover the story. I do see certain events looming in the distance, like the tips of icebergs poking up through the sea, but I try not to look at them too closely. I just set the story compass for that general direction and see what happens along the way.

    Now as you know, this has resulted in a huge book. In its defense [g], because I wrote it in order, building it one stone upon another, as it were, there are no superfluous scenes (all dead-ends and non-weight-bearing structures have long since been removed). The length is largley because I have eight POV characters, some major and some minor, each with his or her own arc, all woven into the larger story. Eight story arcs take space to develop.

    I think next time around, though, I'll have a better idea what can happen and perhaps try to curtail architectural extravagances somewhat. [g]

    At any rate, that's how I went from being an outliner to a pantster. Not a chunk writer, mind you; I still have to write things in order.

  10. That's what happens to me too, Beth, if I overplot - I think the story's over and I have no interest in pursuing it.

  11. Beth, love hearing how your storytelling process works. Very different from mine. It's hard to explain, but both what I described in plotting out the story beats, and what you describe, discovering the story as you write and discover the characters, are working for me at the same time, to different degrees at different stages. I can start writing with only a vague notion of how the characters are going to get from point A to point B (my story hanging on an actual historical event, so there is only so much just seeing where the characters will lead that I can allow). I write about 40,000 words, then need to pause and plot a bit more, then write another huge chunk (in order), pause and plot out the end. This is what worked for my last novel, and is working so far with this one.

    One thing I can't do is over-dream or over-plot my scenes and stories. The more daydreaming time I devote to them, the more compelled to write them I become.

    It's such an organic process, and changes some from novel to novel. I say, whatever works, do it. If it stops working, try another method until you find something that works again, and helps you put those words on the page. I don't like to read any writer putting forth their particular method as the only way to write a novel, even if it's just implied between their words. There are infinite ways.

    And I'm so glad I never read a writing craft book until I'd written about 500,000 words without one. I love writing craft books now that I'm strong enough to let roll off my back anything that doesn't sound like it will work for me and embrace what does, but in the beginning it was best for me to just dive in and write. Glad to hear you figured that out pretty quickly. Thanks for sharing how you came to your process. It reinforces what I believe. No one right way to write.

  12. Part of learning to write, I always say, is figuring out which method works best for you.

    I did read some craft books early on that were enormously helpful. They allowed me to circumvent years of bad writing. [g] But they were not oriented around how to write a novel but rather on what good writing is, as well as the pitfalls.

    The two that helped me the most are out of print now, unfortunately. But they might be available used, if anyone is interested:

    Beyond Style, by Gary Provost and Stein On Writing by Sol Stein. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King was also helpful. There's a new edition of that one, I think.