Writing

Fighting the Process

I love writing.

Now, picture me grimacing as I say it. I do love writing, but toward the second half of a book, I find myself fighting the process as it changes.

To me, there’s a big difference in how I write the first half versus the second half of a book. Think about the first half as laying down railroad tracks. I need to set everything up, I’m building, I’m adding. It all has to make sense and get me to a certain destination. Now, the second half is driving the train on those tracks. It’s more dangerous, it requires more focus, and I need to slow down around certain turns or I might run us off the tracks completely.

Every book I resist the slow down in the second half of the book. I know that the second half of act two needs the most careful attention because it’s where everything gets more complicated, but those complications have to rely on things I’ve already laid down in act one and the first half of act two rather than new things. Loose ends must be braided together, they have to make sense, and some mysteries even need to be tied up before the third act. It’s a complicated balancing act, and as someone generally lacking in forethought, it creates a bit of a problem because I need to parse out where I’m going before I start writing.

This leads to the bottleneck problem. I don’t want to just write anything to get my daily word count in, so I get stuck, stop writing for a few days, and fall behind. This leads to me freaking out that I’m falling behind and things are horrible. I start questioning the quality of the book or if I’m smart enough to figure out how to get it to the end. I become a mess. Sadly, this is also part of the second half of act two process. Don’t worry, I’ll think I’m brilliant again in act three when words pour forth with relative ease. But for about 20,000 words I’m very annoyed at myself because bridging the gap between all I’ve built and where I know I need to end up isn’t easy.

I would argue that the second half of act two is the hardest part of writing a book. It runs from midpoint to climax/final battle, and everything you build in the first half of the book needs to come to an emotional and physical head here while still making sense. The third act is probably the easiest for me. It’s all downhill from there. Everything I’ve written is coming to a crescendo, and typically, I know where I want the story to end up fairly early on. It’s the amorphous middle that causes me the most stress.

Something I’ve noticed with my last few books (because I’ve been trying to pay more attention to the process aspect of my writing) is that what works in act one and act two part one does not work in act two part two. At the beginning, I just sort of wing it, then tidy, then wing it, etc., at the halfway point I do a major edit, and while I write, I create some semblance of organization by creating an outline of what I’ve already written (I have a whole blog post on this). This helps me to avoid rereading my book over and over as I move forward. This is a process I’ve been doing since I started writing. It feels natural and works for me. The problem is that none of this works in the second half due to all the loose ends.

I struggled really hard with the second half of The Wolf Witch and Kinship and Kindness, and unfortunately, The Reanimator’s Heart is following in their footsteps. What I’m trying to do now is not fight the process and do what might actually help in the moment. There’s often a disconnect in my mind of what will help and what I think will help. I tend to assume I don’t need to make a small outline or I don’t need to take notes, I’ll remember (famous last words from someone whose brain is like a colander). What I’ve found that is helping is, shockingly, TAKING NOTES on what I need to make sure I incorporate in later chapters or things that I’ve introduced that need to be tied up later. My other go-to is making index cards with scenes on them because I find it difficult to figure out the order of operations with the major moments I need to hit.

I’d like to parse out why I suddenly become resistant to changing tactics in order to move forward. Part of it is I don’t want to admit that I am struggling with a particular part of the book. There’s a lot of internal chanting of “the words will come if I just relax, refill the creative well, and let them flow.” If it’s been more than a day and they haven’t come, they need to be forced out (unless you’re burnt out). The first step to writing more is admitting you are stuck. The other issue, I think, is a little more convoluted. Sometimes I think not changing tactics is almost self-punishment, like I can’t not be trying to write. How dare I take time away from staring at Word to do anything else! I catch myself doing this a lot.

What I’m trying to do now is when I feel myself getting stuck but pulling toward a certain tactic, I lean into it. Subconsciously, I must know I need it or that it might help, but I’m always afraid that I’m just procrastinating by making cards or writing out bulleted notes, etc. I’ve noticed that often when I get stuck, it’s because my subconscious has realized I messed up and my conscious brain needs to catch up. The problem is trusting that inner voice and actually listening to it because the part of my brain focused on productivity just wants to plow through.

This post is really me trying process what I’ve been dealing with these past few weeks as I dive headfirst into the second half of act two.

I must trust the process.

I must be willing to put in the time to create aids that will make writing easier.

I must understand that refilling my creative well and those aids are necessary for my process.

Finally, I must understand that the writing process changes depending on the stage of writing I’m on, and that I must be willing to be flexible and adapt to what is happening me in the moment.

organization · Writing

How to Outline as a Pantser

I know the title looks like an oxymoron, but just bear with me for a moment.

Before I get into detail about what I do as a pantser, I want to talk about what I mean by a pantser, gardener, and plotter, which are terms I’m going to use throughout this post.

A pantser is someone who “flies by the seat of their pants” while they write. Meaning that they do no pre-writing or minimal pre-writing. Pantsers typically don’t use outlines, though they may have some idea of the direction of their stories when they start.

A plotter is someone who uses outlines, pre-writing, and various organizational methods to sort out the plot of their book before they start writing.

Gardeners, or plantsers as they are often known, fall somewhere between plotting and pansting, meaning that they may use some organizational techniques ahead of time but they may be scant or only used sometimes.

The problem a lot of pantsers and gardeners often run into is that they don’t like to outline because it sort of sucks the magic out of the creative process. Half the fun of writing is discovery, so when you get told everything in the outline, there’s no drive to discover. Then the next problem that arises is, if I have a beginning and end, how do I bridge those two pieces if I don’t have an outline?

What I would catch myself doing is constantly rereading what I had written in hopes that I would figure out how to get to the ending I imagined. As you can probably guess, I wasted A LOT of time rereading the same passages, and as the book got longer, I found myself skipping writing days to reread 100 pages, which then put me behind. A few times I tried to outline like a plotter when I got stuck and found myself staring into the void because I still didn’t know how to get to point B from where I was. I wasn’t a plotter and would probably never be, so this type of outlining didn’t work for me. Luckily I did find something that helped a lot: reverse outlining.

I highly doubt I am the first person to come up with reverse outlining, but I figured out this sort of retroactive outlining technique on my own after having reread the same draft every day for 3 days. What a reverse outline is, is writing out what happens in each chapter as you write them. So I make a bulleted list with Chapter # as a header, then put a bunch of bullets under it of the major things that happened. Sometimes I also include character descriptions, important objects or settings, etc. You can do this digitally on a Google/Word Doc or on Scrivener or you can make one by hand in a notebook or on index cards. Something I started to do as my story got longer is to color code the events. General main plot got one color, the romance arcs got a different color, subplots another. You could also do this if you shift point of view as well. That way, you see main points and how they work together at a glance. Here’s an example from my current project, THE REANIMATOR’S HEART:


Chapter One: Foolish Choices

  • Oliver Barlow introduction- he is the coroner at the Paranormal Society and is also a necromancer
  • He autopsies Mr. Hezekiah Henderson who was apparently killed by his own pet tigers (could talk to animals). He gets this info by reviving him briefly
  • His BFF Gwen comes in, she’s in the midst of an asthma attack. Oliver helps her, and she tells him that Felipe Galvan is looking for him. Oliver is flustered because he likes Felipe but begrudgingly agrees to go

This reverse outline can be as detailed or scant as you wish, but it should help to cut down on having to reread and reorient yourself constantly. For some chapters, these entries can be quite long, but it’s worth it. I tend to write these out after I’ve finished a chapter rather than after each writing session. This reverse outline should also help during the editing process as you can target where certain plot points/threads that need to be adjusted at a glance.

Something else you might consider after reverse outlining that helped me was micro-outlining. Half of the reason I use the reverse outline is because I’m not good at thinking too far in the future, but I often have scene ideas along the way with no means of connecting them. I tend to have a detailed reverse outline on a doc and another one of just major events written on index cards. Once I have the preexisting bits done, I make cards for future events I have in my head. As I work forward, the stepping stones to get to those events become clearer, so I start making notes (or note cards) for myself of what I need to do to get there. I think of this as micro outlining because it doesn’t take away from that discoverability aspect that I enjoy with being a pantser, but it keeps me moving forward more smoothly (as someone who forgets things, writing ideas down is key to actually using them later). It also helps me to figure out where to put things I want to include. If you’re someone who is very visual, I highly recommend using an index card based system for reverse outlining. It just makes it a lot easier to visualize what comes next. Plus, moving things around can sometimes jog ideas loose. If you are afraid of losing your index cards, Scrivener also has a digital index card feature.

If you’re a pantser or gardener who is constantly rereading your work or forgetting what you’ve done, I hope you’ll try using a reverse outline to mark out where you’ve been and figure out where you’re going.