Wednesday, July 06, 2011

My writing process

Since I’m about a month into a new manuscript, I decided to make my July contribution to Romancing the Past all about my writing process.

The romance writing community is divided between plotters and pantsers. Plotters plan out their books in great detail from beginning to end before starting Chapter One. They make detailed outlines. Many, I’m given to understand, write character biographies or make Goal-Motivation-Conflict charts for individual scenes and for the book as a whole.

Pantsers, on the other hand, just get an idea and start writing it, often describing their process as “flying into the mist.” They don’t know what’s going to happen next, beyond that in a romance the hero and heroine will get a happy ending--though I gather sometimes they discover the guy they began the book thinking of as Mr. Wrong is actually Mr. Right--or in a mystery that the murder will be solved, even if they don’t know whodunnit when they start any more than the sleuth does, and so on.

As you may have deduced by my use of the word “they” for both camps, I don’t really fit either group. Instead, I’m one of those in-between people sometimes called “plotzers.” While I take the word of successful plotters and pantsers that their processes work for them, I’m frankly a bit baffled by the extremists on both sides. How can you not feel like you’ve already told the story if you, say, write a 50 pages outline before beginning your book? And on the other side, how can you go in without even knowing what your final destination looks like? It’d be like getting on the road and driving without a map. Which I suppose some people do, but I’m just not that spontaneous 99% of the time. I like to know where I’m going, whether my end goal is someplace nice for dinner or the manuscript for a novel.

So what does my personal hybrid approach look like? Well, at any moment I have anywhere from five to a dozen half-formed story ideas bouncing around my brain. I have characters in search of plots, settings waiting for the right characters to people them, historical incidents I can’t read about without thinking, “there’s a book in that,” and so on. I do my best to feed my imagination with a healthy dose of reading, fiction and non, to help add to my stock of ideas. Every so often, some of the pieces come together in my mind--a group of characters walk into a setting and enact a fictionalized version of a historical incident, as it were--and I know I have enough for a book.

At that point, I write an outline, at least loosely based on the Hero’s Journey. It’s nothing detailed, just a page or two to reassure myself that yes, there’s a whole plot there. I’ll spend a few days naming my main characters and coming up with a working title for the book. If I know I need major research, I’ll find enough to get me started online and begin digging deeper by ordering books from Amazon and interlibrary loan or sending polite emails to experts.

After that? I write, shooting for 1000 words/day at least five days/week. It’s as simple as that. If I get stuck, I look back at my outline to find out what’s happening next. My rough drafts are filled with bolded, all-caps notes reminding me to NAME THE HOUSEKEEPER or WORK OUT THE DETAILS OF JACK’S PRE-1804 COMBAT EXPERIENCE.

As I write, I research. I know my current manuscript is going to end up at Waterloo. That’s still a good 50,000 words away, but it’s big, and I want to get it right. So I’m reading or re-reading everything about the battle, including the run-up and aftermath, that I can get my hands on.

I don’t quite collage, but I look for visuals to bring the story alive. My WIP took on an added bit of life, for example, when I realized my hero looks like Richard Madden (Robb Stark in Game of Thrones, pictured above) and that the barn on his Northumberland family home is a bastle house, built for defense against border raids and home to not just the beasts but the family until sometime in the late 17th century (see below). Along the same lines, I assemble a soundtrack. So far the WIP’s just includes “A Pair of Brown Eyes” and “Holding Out For a Hero,” but I expect it to grow into a healthy playlist by the time I finish my first draft.

Writers, are you a plotter, a pantser, or somewhere in between, like me? Readers, do you think you can tell the difference by the finished product?


Susanna Fraser writes Regency romance with a focus on the Napoleonic Wars. The Sergeant's Lady and A Marriage of Inconvenience are available now from Carina Press.


D. F. Krieger said...

I think I'm rather like you, honestly. I may do a basic outline with pencil and paper, but I don't go into extreme details. I let those just come up as I write along. I do, however, always know my beginning, conflict, and ending before I start writing.

Anonymous said...

I work like you do too, but I find I work faster if I have a good outline. I resist the outline because for me it does take the magic of discovery away from the writing, and I have to push myself to finish a book I already know the ending of. But this is writing, right, not reading, so as writers we have to do the work, and knowing the ending keeps me on track.

Zee Lemke said...

I'm only just starting to write like I mean it, and part of that has meant outgrowing pure pantsing, at least for novels. I wrote a novel and then had to write the entire thing again because I'd pantsed it and it just didn't work. No amount of revision could untangle it. But the re-written version lacks spontaneity.

I like the feeling in a book that every character has an arc you can see from the beginning, so if you were just paying close enough attention you could construct the entire thing from the first chapter, or at least know where the holes were going to be. Oddly, I think pantsers can get there as well as plotters, if they're very careful and keep close to what they've done already. It's just harder.

There are some books that are obviously one or the other, but usually not the really fantastic books. Good revision sands off a lot of the differences. (Or I'm not trained enough as a reader yet.)

Claire Robyns said...

I'm pretty much down the middle of the line, too. I have to have a general arc of my main character's interaction with each other and how that will develop, and the rest just has to fall into place.

Was laughing at a blog post I read this last week where the poster was incredulous about authors saying they have no control over their characters ie the characters run amok and suprise them all the time - actually, this happens to me all the time, not as in I have no control over my characters, but things just seem to come together in a way I don't have the brains to plot for :)

Taryn Kincaid said...


I kinda like the journey.

Fenella Miller said...

I tell the story several times in my head and then write the first draft. I research as I go along and write notes to remind me of the minor characters names.
Second read pulls everything together and hopefully shows up the plot holes.
I aim for 1500 words a day -but sometimes manage 3000.