My novel writing process: EXPOSED!

You’ve come up with the perfect idea for a novel. Now it’s time to sit down and write. You open your word processor, type in your working title and name (can’t start without that), go to page one and…. freeze. What now? Do I just write? Where do I start? How do I know where I’m going? I’m using Word, do other writers use Word? And…. and… and…

Who knows, maybe when you started your first novel it was a breeze. You just started typing and it felt right. But if you’re anything like many new writers out there, you might not be aware of the many ways novels get written. And even if you do know, you probably don’t know what works best for you until you discover them and give each a shot.

Over the last fifteen years, I’ve given several writing methodologies a shot. My process is ever evolving as I try to find the balance of several aspects, which we’re about to dive into.

In this blog post we’ll answer the following questions

  • How can I plan my novel without getting too bogged down in the details?
  • How can I plan it and still maintain the freedom of free-writing?
  • How can I create a basic elevator pitch before I’ve even started writing?
  • How can I plot my novel and ensure my characters have a compelling arc?
  • How do I make sure each scene feels complete?
  • What word processor should I use to organize all of this?

This is a medium-depth overview. I’ll expand on each point in future blog posts, but for now this’ll be a great jumping off point if you’re wanting a crash corse in novel-writing.

Last note before we get started: this is my method, and my method is constantly changing as I hone it to suite my needs. Your method may turn out quite different from this. Use this as a jumping off point, and then change it to match your style.

Planning your novel

Gasp! I said ‘plan’. If you’re among those who fear or despise this word, worry not! Read on and you’ll find a most satisfactory compromise. You see, I used to hate planning as much as anyone, I still don’t love it. But I’ve discovered a hybrid method that will work for even the most hardened hater.

Planning vs. Pantsing

For those of you who said, “huh?” to the paragraph above, let’s touch on case of plan v pants for a second.

Planning refers to preparation before writing, often in the form of an outline, sometimes in the form of lore or backstory, etc. You might also see it called plotting or outlining.

Pantsing refers to “writing from the seat of your pants”. It’s also called discovery writing — but really, who uses two words when they could use one. In essence, it’s writing without preparation H… I mean a preparation stage (stupid autocorrect ).

I’m not going to spend too much time exploring planning vs pantsing since it’s already been discussed ad nauseam on every writers blog on the planet. And, frankly, it doesn’t interest me. If you want more a more in-depth study on the subject, google it.

What is interesting to me is why, after years of being a staunch pantser, I’ve become something of a hybrid. So let’s talk about that.

The early years, or writing without a plan

The first three novels I wrote were 100% done without preparation — 2 unpublished, the other is Discovering Aberration which you can get for free in the doobly doo below. It felt great. When others talked about planning, I scoffed. I couldn’t understand how anyone could cage themselves with an outline.

Then came revisions… I found my plots meandered. It lingered on some plot threads long past there due, lacked proper foreshadowing, and the pacing was all over the place. In the end I was forced to do several major rewrites. I mean major. It was a bummer and added at least six months to the writing process.

Attempting to outline

Eventually I attempted a full outline for another project, The Gin Thief, but as I wrote the mid to late sections, everything felt like a guess. It’s hard to account for character reactions before your characters are even written.

When it came to drafting, I found I deviated far from my plan and all that work planning seemed wasted. Furthermore, I felt confined by my own preparation. Turns out, plot ideas may sound great in the outline phase but in practice feel forced. There’s too many unaccounted for variables early on.

So I abandoned the hardline planning approach, and today follow a hybrid method that’s working extremely well for me.

The hybrid approach to planning

Today I’m somewhere in the middle. I plan just enough to give me direction, but not enough to box me in. Let’s dive in to what this process looks like.

Acts in bullet point form

First, I break down my novel into three simple lists of arcs organized by Act. Three’s just a number, you can do five or seven or whatever the hell you want. The three act structure is common and it’s what I find myself gravitating to recently, but Shakespeare wrote in five acts and he’s pretty good.

Below is an example. It’s the three acts of my novel Grim Curio, which I’ve nearly completed writing. Spoilers below, but it wont ruin the book even if you know the vague details.

Act 1:

  • James and Simon save a village from a strange, alien disease which came from another reality. It doesn’t go well.
  • Nat joins nihilist cult.
  • Scientists experiment with the nature of reality.

Act 2:

  • James and Simon struggle to return home. When they arrive their home is drastically changed.
  • Scientists open a hole in reality.
  • Cult attacks scientists.

Act 3:

  • Revolution has broken out. Simon is caught up in it.
  • Reality is torn, leaking. James tries to fix it.
  • All hell breaks loose.

Notice how simple it all is. Just the major beats of the story in a loose arrangement. Best of all, before I’ve even written my novel I can give an elevator pitch. It’s not as refined as it will be later in the process, but having these bullet points gives you ammunition when anyone asks you, “so what’s your book about?”

Here’s an elevator pitch built from the bullet point list above: “Grim Curio is about these guys who save a village from an otherworldly disease and get punished for it. When they return home, everything has changed. Reality is torn, and a revolution is on. And that’s not mentioning the nihilist cult in the middle of it all.”

Fleshing out characters

Now we know the basic arc of our novel. You have a lot of options at this point. If you were a hardcore planner, you might start a flowchart of every scene. If you’re a lore geek, you might start nailing down all of the back story. If you’re a pantser at heart, you might just start writing.

As for me, I’m obsessed with character. I believe characters are why we read books. Everything else is just sugar on top, plot included. So my next step is spending some time getting to know them.

A characters beginning and end

First thing I like to do for all major characters is determine their starting and ending state of mind. This doesn’t need to be overly complicated. Could be, “Jill starts out bad, becomes good,” or “Sam hates dogs, learns dogs are man’s best friend”. That kind of thing.

And then there are characters who don’t change, static characters. There’s nothing wrong with a static character, but you should know before hand if your character is going to be unchanging, and why.

In the case of Simon, from Grim Curio, he starts as a man who believes he understands the world but has little affect on it, and ends as a man who realizes he knows nothing but the masses follow him regardless.

As for James, he’s more static. There are changes, but its much more subtle and internal. James is a man who always needs to be working, being stagnant leads him into depression. He begins believing in himself but even as his successes are marred with terrible consequences. Because of this, he stops believing in himself, continues trying anyway, and finally gets things right.

Creating character arc through sign posts

We now have our major characters beginning and ending state of mind. Time to fill in the rest with sign posts. These are plot points you can aim towards while you’re writing your scenes. If you know that Jaclyn is an asshole who becomes a saint, then each of these sign posts are the moments where small amounts of change occur. By the end of the novel, all of these small moments of change will build up to a big revelation.

If you want more information on this, I recommend reading Creating Character Arcs by K.M. Weiland and watching these two Brandon Sanderson lectures. These resources changed my outlook on crafting character, and I consider them required reading/viewing.

Character

Plot

Do I really need to do all this work before I start writing?

HELL NO! You don’t need to do anything you don’t feel like. Jack Kerouac famously wrote On The Road in a single drugged out session, and that’s considered a masterpiece. So go do that if you feel like it. Doesn’t matter how you write it as long as it gets written.

There are zero rules to writing other than you need to put words on paper — or e ink. Don’t let anyone push you around with their rules. Your weird unheard of method may result in a best seller or critical darling. I don’t know, and neither does anybody else.

I don’t even always stick to my own rules. They are there to service me, not the other way around. So I deviate when I feel like it. But I’ve found having these methods in mind greatly helps me, even when I don’t follow them.

Post continues below.

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The drafting process

If you’re following along, you’ll have bullet pointed your major arcs, you’ll have created you’re major characters with beginnings and endings in mind, and you’ll have some scenes you can aim towards via character sign posts. Now it’s time to actually write.

If you’re brave, you can start by writing scene one all the way through and then move on to scene two. This is the most straight forward approach. But I’ve found simply drafting an entire scene from scratch is fraught with flaws. It takes too long, has too many uncertainties, requires too much mental gymnastics as I attempt to account for later scenes, and is prone to unexpected bouts of writers block.

But I made a brilliant discovery. Write descriptions of scenes before writing the scenes themselves. I’m pretty sure I didn’t come up with this. It’s been a long time since I read Write. Publish. Repeat. by Sean Platt and Johnny B. Truant, but as I recall they have a similar method.

Before we talk about that, let’s take a look at our most potent weapon, the word processor

Sorry. This bit sort of comes out of nowhere, but I want to make sure I include it because it’s such a fundamental part of my process these days. Let’s talk about Scrivener for a sec.

Scrivener is a word processor that’s built with novel-writing in mind. You can organize things by act, scene, character, tag, and so much more. Drag and drop whole chapters at a time. It’s well worth the $45, and is by far my tool of choice.

Above is an older version of Scrivener (I need to upgrade to version 3). What you see is Grim Curio broken up by act, and each act broken up by chapter, and each chapter broken up by scene. This is how I write, and I find it invaluable. You’ll see why next.

Creating scene descriptions

Let’s say today is the first day of drafting for my new project. I have my characters in mind with some sign posts to aim for. What I do now is create a new scene file, but rather than start writing a fully fleshed out scene, I write a very short description of the scene I’ll eventually write. My goal is a rough idea of the scene in a couple of paragraphs.

Here’s a contrived example:

James enters the village, and immediately is struck by their strange customs. Everyone is gathered around a great dead tree that’s scorched black. The people are coated in mud and dirt, and as they work they toss more dirt on their skin. Their homes are burrows in the ground.

As James approaches, they notice him and send someone to intercept/question him. He makes some basic mistakes, but recovers a little. They lead him to talk to the village elders, but their conversation is interrupted by screams.

I’m not trying to write well here. I’m just getting a basic idea of how the scene will progress. When that’s done, I create the next scene file and do it again. I’ll do this as far as I possibly can before it feels like I’m forcing it. Usually this is a few chapters worth of scene descriptions.

As I read through the descriptions, using Scrivener I can rearrange them easily if needed. Later I’ll come back, go back to scene 1, and start fleshing it out.

Writing the scene

From here, it’s pretty straight forward. Go through your description and expand. Don’t worry about writing perfect prose. Just get the scene done and feeling pretty good. Then move on to the next scene description and expand that. Do this over and over until you reach the end of your written scene descriptions.

Now that we have a series of drafted scenes, I go through several passthroughs to improve them.

Phases of rewriting

I tend to go through my scenes at least four times. Each time, I focus on a different element of storytelling.

First passthrough I focus on character. I make sure motivations feel legit, make sure dialog feels real, and generally just try to keep each character inline with their personalities.

Second passthrough I focus on descriptions. The best narration engages the senses, so I try to mimic what I consider the best. That means making sure every scene not only has a look, but a feel, a sound, a scent. If a character touches a wall, I want a line about the texture. If they enter a kitchen, I want a line about the scent.

Third passthrough I focus on prose. That’s the words themselves. I like books with good word economy, meaning never using two words where one will do. This doesn’t necessarily mean using big words all the time, but I also don’t shy away from big words if they feel right.

Forth passthrough I just refine and cut. If there’s anything extra that doesn’t service the characters or the plot, I cut it. Even if it’s really good on its own. Doesn’t matter. Cut mercilessly. After all this work, you’re gonna have paragraphs that you labored over that don’t fit right. Don’t be sentimental. Cut the shit out of them.

Bear in mind that four passthroughs is on the low end for me. That’s a straight forward scene without too many complications. The first and last chapters of Grim Curio both had at least 10-15 passthroughs, as well as some all out rewrites. Keep massaging it til it feels right.

If you want some points to focus on while you rewrite, checkout out this list of questions to keep in mind while drafting.

This + 1 year = NOVEL!!!

Continue this cycle over an over again for about a year, and you’ll have a damn fine novel. When you’ve written up to the end of your scene descriptions, start writing descriptions again and write towards your sign posts. Then expand and refine. And again and again.

That’s it. That’s my process. If you want me to get more granular on any topic, let me know and I’ll make time to do so. If you like this post and want more like it, then please share through your favorite social network. If you want to support my work, buy a novel using a link to the right, or sign up for my mailing list in the doobly doo above. Until next time, I’ll see you around.

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Book Review of The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson (Mistborn #1)

Note: This review was originally posted on Goodreads on April 10, 2017. It has been slightly updated here.


The Final Empire is an excellent fantasy novel which far exceeded my expectations. I’m new to Brandon Sanderson with one exception.

I’d tried to read The Way Of Kings last year, and I put it down after 5 chapters because I found one of the characters very trite and annoying. But after reading The Final Empire, I may need to go back and give it another shot.

Our belief is often strongest when it should be weakest. That is the nature of hope. –The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson

My wife recommended The Final Empire, and I realized this was the same author a few chapters in. The opening didn’t grab me here either, but she insisted that it would be worth slogging through. Lucky for me I gave it a chance because what I read was would become one of my favorite fantasy series ever.

The beginning

Action as a hook doesn’t work for me because there’s no emotional resonance. Until I care about the characters, I really don’t care about the action. But once you pass this brief requisite “hook”, the characters start to connect and the setting begins to get interesting. Next we’re front-loaded with world building, still without a character to really hold on to. More trudging on.

But after you climb these early, awkward steps it starts to get interesting. And then it gets fascinating, captivating, magical.

The Plot

The plot itself isn’t what’s engrossing here. It’s a standard hero overthrows the evil villain story. What’s interesting is how Brandon Sanderson is able to craft a standard villain into a believable human being with doubts and insecurities. It’s equivalent to making Sauron from Lord of the Rings a character you can relate to.

He does this in numerous ways, but primarily through the use of journal entries. As we read the diary of a man who’s about to rise to supreme power, we see that he was not always the evil emperor who enslaves us today. There was a time where he was just a person like you or me.

I consider myself to be a man of principle. But, what man does not? Even the cutthroat, I have noticed, considers his actions “moral” after a fashion.

Perhaps another person, reading of my life, would name me a religious tyrant. He could call me arrogant. What is to make that man’s opinion any less valid than my own?

I guess it all comes down to one fact: In the end, I’m the one with the armies.
The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson

There are many revelations, and I won’t give any of them away, but they culminate into a brilliant “Ah ha!” moment when the reader finally sees [not a spoiler, you learn this in the beginning] why the Hero of Ages is now the Lord Ruler. Brilliant character development and story telling here.

That’s all subtext though. I know.

The actual plot follows a thieving crew who’s been hired to overthrow the lord ruler. It takes a fairly predictable path, but that’s ok. What’s interesting are the two protagonists whose relationship grows so subtly throughout the book.

There are probably a thousand different moments of slight character progression as they transition from one mentality to another, or as they loose or gain insecurities, or grow just a little closer to another character. It’s fascinating to see all this constant movement feel so natural, and it’s brilliantly done.

Setting

This is fantasy, and it contains a unique magic system. It’s fun, limited, and believable. Some people have one magic ability, others have many, and the rest have none. I enjoyed the fact that the magic behaved differently than magic I’ve seen before. It turned out to be a mix of Jedi and Matrix powers, and the combination was fun.

The environment is believable enough. It doesn’t stray too far into fantasy lane, meaning there aren’t any elves or ogres or goblins, etc. The ash the constantly falls from the sky was a really nice touch, and the mist itself is an ever-present thing. I enjoyed how the mist felt like a character at some points. It’s these details that carry the setting and keep it interesting.

Writing Style

Brandon Sanderson’s writing is direct and clear at all times. He doesn’t really get bogged down with metaphors or imagery, opting instead to be clear and concise. Prose flow well without getting in the way. It works well when there’s so many intricacies to the plot that any confusion would hamper the story.

He smiled despite the grief he felt at the deaths of his men; he smiled because that was what he did. That was how he proved to the Lord Ruler-and to himself-that he wasn’t beaten.
The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson

Some writers like to get readers to think through their prose, but Brandon Sanderson likes to get writers to think through his characters and their relationships. I guess what I’m trying to say is: the writing never stood out to me in a bad way, but never stood out in a great way either. It works well and delivers the ideas it needs to effortlessly.

Conclusion

Read this book! Other than the beginning, I don’t have any gripes. This was one of the best fantasy books I’ve ever read, up there with Name of the Wind (if you know me, you know how high praise that is). So give the man some money and have a great time reading.

Mushi-Shi - Scene from the Anime

The Three Greatest Influences on Grim Curio

This week I reached a major writing milestone in Grim Curio. I wrote my 50,000th word. This is a big step in the process and to celebrate I’m going to share some of the works that have influenced me over the past few months.

What follows are GC’s three greatest influences, which is by no means a complete list. Each of these books feature specific elements in the area’s of tone, character arcs, and genre elements that I’ve taken, made my own, and tried to emulate. Let’s get started.

No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy

No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy - Book CoverEvery Cormac McCarthy novel has blown me away. The guy is a master of prose, at genre subversion, and at non-conventional storytelling techniques. He has a voice all his own and manages to write genre fiction with deeply embedded literary flair.

Of his works, you might expect The Road to be the greatest source of inspiration. It shares the Post Apocalyptic genre with Grim Curio, and it’s probably his most well-known book at this point. And while The Road is certainly a book that makes me aspire to being a better writer, there are only really superficial similarities between that book and mine.

No, the McCarthy book that had the greatest impact on GC is easily No Country for Old Men. From the tightly paced narrative and the interesting moral dilemmas to absolutely stunning prose and fantastic character arcs, there’s so much to draw on.

Is No Country for Old Men an action novel? You could argue that it’s an action subversion, taking the guise of an action narrative while flipping all the tropes on their heads. Or perhaps it’d be better classified as post-action, especially in the way the book ends. Whatever it is, it’s a damn fine novel, and one that inspires me continually as I write.

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The Mistborn Trilogy by Brandon Sanderson

The Hero of Ages by Brandon Sanderson - Book Cover

Switching genres, the next major influence is the Mistborn trilogy which consists of The Final Empire, The Well of Ascension, and The Hero of Ages. These books feature an epic fantasy plot with a unique magic system and massive twists all along the way. But it’s not really these elements that inspire any element of Grim Curio.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved every aspect above, but what really caught my eye was the near perfect character arcs. While reading I kept picking up on these often subtle character changes. Almost none of the major characters are static, they all end up as drastically different people than they started as, but the progression feels so subtle and natural.

Taken by the character progression, I ended up watching a series of novel-writing lectures from Brandon Sanderson on YouTube hoping that his secret would be revealed. Turns out it totally was, and it changed the way I write.

He has a unique approach to novel planning which I’ll dive deep into in a future post. It involves listing out all the major moments in a characters arc, then figuring out how that a character will earn that plot point. Each of these will turn into a scene. The end result, when done well, is subtle character growth leading to major changes over time.

While Grim Curio isn’t going to be anywhere near as long as Mistborn, I hope it still carries elements of this kind of character progression with all the major characters.

Mushishi

Long time followers may have guessed Mushishi would appear on this list. Mushishi is a quiet, contemplative and amazing piece of entertainment. Some may criticize it for being slow, but to them I say “no one asked you!”

Mushishi follows Ginko, a sort of traveling medicine man in feudal Japan. He wanders the rural villages to cure the ailments brought on by Mushi, creatures that exists in a different plane, yet affect our world in sometimes subtle and sometimes drastic ways.

While this one isn’t at all an edge of the seat thriller, it does instill the viewer with a sense of awe rarely felt while watching TV or movies. While technically Grim Curio will likely be categorized as Post Apocalyptic Science Fiction, it’s really Fantasy masquerading as Sci-Fi. The fantasy elements are all written through a Sci-Fi lens, but really it’s closer to Mushishi than any sort of hard science fiction.

GC attempts to take these small moments of wonder, and then build and build upon them until the scale is massive and the stakes are higher than ever. But it also seeks to capture periodic quiet moments of contemplation.

Mushi-Shi - Scene from the Anime

Mushi-Shi - Scene from the Anime

Conclusion

There you have it, the three biggest influences on Grim Curio. If you’re interested in learning more about inspiration, be sure to check out this post where I explore how to live a lifestyle that encourages constant inspiration and idea generation. Or if you’d rather get more peeks behind the scenes of Grim Curio, check out Building the Plot & Structure of Grim Curio.

Building the Plot & Structure of Grim Curio

It’s been radio silence on my end for the past few weeks, which isn’t cool at all. So today I’m jumping back into the game, filling you in on what’s been going on in my world, and update you the production of Grim Curio.

Mo’ House, Mo’ Problems

Last month I bought my first house. Woohoo! It’s a bit of a fixer upper, and I’ve been doing a fair share of the work myself as well as juggling contractors, suppliers, and getting the whole furniture situation worked out.

This effectively destroyed all of my blogging and social media time which is why there’s been little coming from me lately. Worry not. My actual writing progress has been as good as ever despite the work. Setting aside two hours a day four or five days a week has become an ingrained habit. Social media and blogging, isn’t on that level yet. Maybe one day.

Grim Curio Progress

You may remember the major rewrite I undertook about two months ago. It was an attempt to better establish the setting, as well as shift from first to third person perspective and from past tense to present tense. That work has finally been 100% completed!

On top of that, there used to be quite a bit of stuff I’d written that I realized would never make it to the final version, but I held on to it for a long while. All the dead text has been stripped away. I ended up cutting around 15,000 words and adding around 20,000.

The result is a tighter, more immediate story that can effortlessly shift perspectives and weave an intricate plot. There multiple perspectives and several storylines that affect each other, subtly at first then more pronounced as the story progresses, and these changes made that structure much more natural feeling.

Plotting

When I first started writing Grim Curio I had beginning, middle, and ending scenes in mind, but nothing outlined. I simply started writing by aiming the plot in the direction of the middle scene, building future scenes in my mind as I went. Some writers call this method “pantsing it” or “discovery writing”, and it’s the way I wrote Discovering Aberration.

This worked fine for Grim Curio so far, in fact I think it’s the best thing I’ve written. But sometimes it’s nice to have a better idea of a slightly more granular view of where things are going.

Recently I read about one of Brandon Sanderson’s plotting techniques (then quickly began watching his writing course on YouTube). Basically he writes a list of his most important scenes, then adds bullet points as to how the characters will “earn” each of those scenes. The bullets points are then turned into their own scenes, and boom, he has a plot.

I’ve never been a fan of traditional storyboarding, but this method sounded great to me, so I gave it a shot. The result is the fully plotted story structure of Grim Curio. I have to say that I really like this method so far, we’ll see if that holds true as I continue to try it out.

Structure

Now that this plotting exercise is complete, I have somewhere between 40-50% of the story written. What’s done is the first act (which is generally the longest act in most stories). Act 1 is mostly a self contained story with a side plot which will build into the meat of act 2.

Act 2 introduces new characters (Tannea and Simon, two scientists experimenting with parallel universes) and a new conflict which will permeate the rest of the novel. James will be drawn into this conflict in a much different way than he was drawn into the conflict of act 1.

However, Nat (antagonist who’s had the second most screen time of all the minor characters) will be incorporated into this conflict as well, but her screen time will be shared by the newly introduced characters as well as the rest of the Sisterhood.

Act 3 will be a doozy. By act 3 I think we’ll have the final set of secondary characters established (namely the government officials who’s actions drive much of the conflict of the final act). The conflict will build on what came before in act 2, but the stakes will be much higher than at any other point in the story (as might be expected from the climax). I even have an idea of what the last few sentences of the novel might be.

Stay tuned for more.

Hopefully that gives you a peek into my progress without giving too much away. But there’s more I’ve been preparing aside from Grim Curio. Recently I’ve been thinking about my publishing career as a whole and what I can do to right the wrongs I’ve done in the past (ie. not finishing The Gin Thief). There’s a lot I have on my mind, and a lot of planning that needs to happen, all of which I’ll address in the near future. Till then, you all keep reading!