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.

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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.

Check out this post on how to #write a #novel. It covers planning, character arcs, refining and more. #writing Click To Tweet

Grim Curio Writing Goals – A Deep Dive into the Ideas Behind The Process

When writing any work, it’s a good idea to establish goals. Some authors may focus their efforts on exploring the entire life of a character in a compelling way (Patrick Rothfuss and Name of the Wind). Another may focus on terse, expressive sentences and a relationship between father and son (Cormac McCarthy and The Road). Another may focus on exploring an interesting city and all the varied inhabitants therein (John Berendt and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil).

Of course I can only guess if those goals were established by their authors. I haven’t talked to them about this or anything, but Pat, if you want some free coffee or beer, hit me up and I will gladly buy 😉. Either way, it’s a safe bet that these authors followed guidelines set up by themselves at some point during the creative process.

3 Novels Inspiring Grim Curio by S.C. Barrus

What are my goals while writing Grim Curio?

I’ve been considering my goals for Grim Curio for quite some time, and I have a pretty solid idea of what I want out of the book, at least in this stage of the process. Things may change, and that’s ok, but for now these are the driving So let’s dive in.

Minimalist style

A post apocalyptic world is a barren, caustic place, so the sentences should match.

Discovering Aberration by S.C. BarrusMy writing style morphs a bit from work to work. While writing Discovering Aberration my goal was to write as though I were a steampunk Jules Verne and Robert Louis Stevenson love-child. I wonder what those two would think of that sentence. I believe form should match content. A post apocalyptic world is a barren, caustic place, so the sentences should match. This doesn’t mean writing as many three word sentences as possible, but I do like the occasional one or two word fragments for emphasis. The trick is not overdoing it.

The final thing I enjoy about minimalism is the rhythm. By the time I get to a third or forth rewrite, the rhythm and flow gets really established. It’s fun to establish a series of short and medium length sentences, then subvert that with a long, flowing thing that builds the scenes and expands the action. Then short again.

Relatable Antagonists

Like many disenchanted teenagers, Nat deals with harsh reality by destroying things.

One thing I loved about the novel The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson was the eventual relatability of the villain. There’s something special about a story where even the bad dudes give you the feels. I want that in Grim Curio, but in my own way. There are a few antagonists in Grim Curio, but one of the major ones, who is introduced in the second chapter, is Nat. She is a sixteen year old girl who’s still figuring out the world she lives in. Like many disenchanted teenagers, Nat deals with harsh reality by destroying things. It starts small, smashing windows, but what happens when she’s adopted by an extremist group?

If I do my job right, you’ll love her and hate her. You’ll want to give her a hug, or wish someone would shoot her. The same goes for my other, secondary antagonists, but in different ways. Each should be understandable, relatable, even when they’re doing something terrible.

Perdido Street Station by China MievilleStrange but familiar

All of the fantasy elements are grounded in an in-world science.

I’m a huge fan of weird fiction, like Perdido Street Station by China Mieville. I love the effect of making the strange feel familiar. Now I’m not attempting to dive as deep into the strange rabbit hole as Mieville. Rather I’m drawing heavy inspiration from how fantasy is portrayed in the anime (and manga I suppose, though I’ve not read it) MushiShi.

So how is fantasy incorporated into MushiShi? Very naturally. All of the fantasy elements are grounded in an in-world science. The Mushi themselves feel like an extension of our own reality, like slightly more fantastic bacteria, strange sentient swamps, or parasites that grant supernatural hearing that drives people to madness.

If you’ve read any of my snippets, you’ve probably seen similar things. Namely the disease in Clayton that afflicts children, causing them to scream in the sunlight, slowly eating away at their consciousness. I want these fantasy elements to feel like an extension of reality, strange but familiar.

Great things from small beginnings

James motivations are often selfish, but when the time comes will he abandon those selfish desires, or will he give in to nihilism and abandon meaning in life, abandon the will to continually struggle to survive?

There is a type of story where the protagonist begins with a relatively small task, and from that is sucked into an epic adventure. One example of this is the movie China Town (and many other film noir or hardboiled novels). In China Town the detective begins with a relatively small case that expands as he uncovers… why don’t you just watch the film, it gets intense.

In these stories, an often reluctant hero must escape his/her comfort zone and rise up to the challenge, otherwise the results could be disastrous. Grim Curio will take on a version of this. What begins for our protagonist, James, as a small case in an inconsequential village will escalate into a story of survival for the last city on earth and the entire human race. James motivations are often selfish, but when the time comes will he abandon those selfish desires, or will he give in to nihilism and abandon meaning in life, abandon the will to continually struggle to survive?

Conclusion

So those are my goals for Grim Curio as I see them now. They may expand or morph over time. Writing is an iterative process, and what seems to work in concept doesn’t always pan out in execution. So I suppose a last goal is more of a process one: to have the ability to roll with the creative punches, to abandon any goal that isn’t working for the story’s benefit.

That’s it for now. What do you think of these goals? Let me know in the comments, and we can continue the discussion there.

41 Questions to Improve Your Writing and Critiquing

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When refining, rewriting, editing and critiquing, what should you be looking for? Sentence structure? Character believability? Setting? Sometimes it can be a bit much to keep everything in your head, so I’ve written the following list of things I look for (or need to remind myself to pay attention to) in order to make my writing, and my critiques of other writers, as effective as possible. Hopefully it works for you too.

Style

  1. Is sentence length varied?
  2. Do sentences flow naturally?
  3. Is the information being communicated accurately and effectively?
  4. Do sentences start and end with strong, evocative words?
  5. Are long, wandering sentences used effectively, or should they be broken into shorter, punchier and easier to follow ones (depends on the situation. Long is good for lists and important points. Short is good for immediacy and impact.)
  6. Are there too many -ing and -ly words bunched together (happening, doing, jumping, running, happily, excitedly, remotely)? Too many of these words weaken prose.
  7. Are there semicolons? Rip them out.
  8. Are there parenthesis? Can they be justified? If not, rip them out.
  9. Are the colons? Can they be justified? If not, rip them out too.
  10. Are two words used where only one will do?
  11. Are there phrases like ‘in fact’, ‘there was’, ‘she had said’, etc. Rip those out.
  12. Are the words on the page interesting in themselves? Trade common words and phrases for unique ones. Make the familiar unfamiliar and the unfamiliar familiar.
  13. Is the same word used twice in a paragraph? If so, there better be a reason for it. Clarity and rhythm are good reasons, lack of vocabulary is not.
  14. Does it read like I spent all my time looking at a thesaurus? Simplify.
  15. Can a dumb reader make sense of your complex ideas? Consider simplifying your explinations.
  16. Does a smart reader feel they’re being talked down to? Make your ideas bigger.
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Descriptions

  1. As a reader, can I inhabit the scene with the information given?
  2. Are all the senses engaged? Can the prose make a blind man see or a deaf man hear? If not, add more.
  3. Is the flow of narrative slowed by an overabundance of description? Pair it down or rearrange it.
  4. Are the details portrayed in logical order?
  5. Are descriptions of everyday things lending value? Again, make the familiar unfamiliar and the unfamiliar familiar.

Characters

  1. Do we know the character enough to justify the current scene?
  2. Does the characters actions make sense from the characters point of view?
  3. From reading the current scene, can I imagine how the character might behave in a different situation? If not, the character is not as well defined as it should be.
  4. Can I picture the character in my head? If not, add more description and do it early.
  5. Does character speech feel natural. Read aloud.
  6. What mannerisms does this character have? Do they have a tick, a habit, or feature that sets them apart?
  7. What does each character want? How badly do they want it? What are they willing to do to get it?
  8. Do character actions reveal something about the character, or are they superfluous?
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Scenes

  1. Is the current scene vital? Justify it, if you can’t, cut it.
  2. What is the purpose of this scene? Furthering plot, building character, etc. Every scene should do what it does well.
  3. Does the current scene feel familiar? Is it familiar to another scene in the work, or familiar to something from somewhere else? If so, there better be a really good reason.
  4. Where is the tension / suspense? (from wikipedia: Suspense is a feeling of pleasurable fascination and excitement mixed with apprehension, tension, and anxiety developed from an unpredictable, mysterious, and rousing source of entertainment) How many layers of tension / suspense are there? More on this next.
  5. Is there a basic level of tension? If there are two characters, they should each want something different. If characters have the same wants, then something should get in there way. If life is easy, then the read is boring.
  6. Is there a middle layer of suspense? Something else above the immediate scene should be looming. Something outside of the characters current control.
  7. Is there a grand level of suspense? There should be a singular overarching thing that drives the story, gives it a time limit, forces the characters to make difficult choices again and again. If it’s a villain, it better be a damn good one.

Cohesion

  1. Can each scene be explained in one or two sentences? Hone them.
  2. Can each chapter be explained in one or two sentences? Hone some more.
  3. Can the entire plot be explained in one or two sentences? If not, focus, hone, find the heart of the story and throw the rest away.
  4. Is the word count justified? The entire reading experience should feel tight, even if it’s 200,000 words or more. If there is a moment of boredom, cut cut cut.
  5. In the end, am I fulfilled but wishing there was just a little more. Perfect, time to start the next book.
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