Writing

My Writing Process

This week’s post was inspired by Magen Cube’s newsletter, Notes on Monstrosity, where they discuss their writing process. Finding out how other writers writer is something I find incredibly interesting, to the point that I will watch Youtube videos of writers trying famous authors’ processes or daily schedules. It’s fascinating how what works for one author would probably trample my brain into exhausted dust. In my creative classes, it’s a topic my students ask about and how they can best streamline the process. I’d like to make it clear that you will need to figure that out on your own and try what different writers do or venture out on your own and see what your brain jives with.

Some of you are going to read my process and be mad. So be it. My process is not what is preached by many writers. I do not hurdle to the finish line as fast as I can because, frankly, I am not fond of cleaning up the mess after. That’s it. I’m lazy. I do not have the mental fortitude to clean up the same draft 6+ times because I decide to speed through it the first time and now have a 100+ things I need to remember to fix AND do copy edits and such after. That’s not how this is going to go, so if you’re looking for how to write a book in 30 days or write 5k a day or whatever else the hustle culture is pedaling these days, this is not the blog post you seek.

Consider, I have written and published 7 (going on 8) books this way, so it works for me *shrugs*

The Beginning

Typically, my ideas start off with two characters or a single character, and everything sort of grows out of that. I spend a lot of time at the beginning feeling out who they are, what’s wrong with them, what they want, what their core personality is. From there, I think about how these characters would meet and interact because that will be the majority of the story. Then, I get stuck for like 2 weeks trying to figure out the conflict/plot. How do I figure this out? Usually thinking how I can best traumatize these characters. At the same time, I tend to start making a Pinterest board because I’m a very visual person. Once I start throwing together what they look like and where they are, more concrete aesthetic and plot things start to gel for me.

During this part, I’ll often try to start the story to better feel out the characters and have a few false starts. This happens more often with brand new characters than when I’m adding on to a pre-existing series, which makes sense because with new characters, this is more exploratory writing, not word count writing. During this early stage, I need to remember to be kind to myself because my first month or so of working on a book is SLOW. There is a lot of feeling in the dark until things make sense. At some point during this process, I can mentally see the ending or something toward the end to work towards. With that in mind, we get into the drafting stage.

Drafting

I want to make it very clear that I am a “slow” writer. Slow in comparison to the people who can bang out a 60k book in 2 months and have it ready for publication 2 months later. My books are usually 90k+, and I only write 500 to 1500 words a day with the latter being a *really* good day or me playing catch up because I skipped a day or two due to not feeling good. My monthly word counts average around 15k with the first month or two of a new draft often having less. Early on, I tend to write in 20 minute sprints, something akin to the Pomodoro Method. It forces me to write and move forward when I’m feeling hesitant.

But here is my cardinal sin, according to other writers. I EDIT AS I GO.

Yes, dear reader, I go back and edit what I wrote during my previous session as a warm-up. I do this because

a) I am an underwriter, so I need to add more detail. Often, after I’ve written a scene, that detail becomes clearer, and it makes more sense for me to add it now while it’s still fresh in my mind than 2 months from now when I don’t remember what the hell the room is supposed to look like. My brain is like a sieve or a browser with 25 tabs open and you can’t figure out where the music is coming from. I try not to over-complicate it if I can.

b) It’s less work for me later. Future Kara doesn’t appreciate it when Past Kara leaves cryptic messages in a draft that make no sense. [ADD CHAIR] For what, Past Kara?? Why and for what purpose do they need a chair?? I know some people can do this, I cannot. It just frustrates me. Then again, I am not a perfectionist, and as someone is who at least somewhat full of themselves, as many artists are, I tend to read my work and think it’s pretty good and editing it is just tumbling that shiny rock further. Ego is key for this process to work. I am self-conscious about many things; my writing is not one of them.

Once I have reacquainted myself with where I left off, it is time to write. As I said, I tend to write 500-1500 words a day, and this is either done in the morning around 10 AM or late at night with little in between. It’s when my brain works best.

Outlining or the Lack of

You may have noticed I didn’t mention making an outline. That is because I don’t make a traditional outline before I start writing. I do make a retroactive outline covering what I’ve already written, so I can go back and reference it as I move forward, which has been VERY helpful to me. I have a blog post about it here. Something I have been doing with The Reanimator’s Heart is using Sarra Canon’s Three Act Structure outline, which is based off Save the Cat! Writes a Novel and a few other structure books. I have been filling in scenes I think fit into the general structure to help me figure out the order of things and where I’m going, but I do this one act at a time. Act 1, then Act 2 part 1, Act 2 part 2, then Act 3 and not a moment ahead of time if I can help it. It is a very loose outline that is subject to change, but seeing everything laid out helps me keep the flow going.

Ironically, if I’m writing a short story, I tend to make a loose outline, but I think this is because, at most, I can hold about 30k words worth of direction in my head. Beyond that, my brain gets overwhelmed and sort of melts. My process is avoiding the brain melting stage at all costs.

To be continued…

Originally, this was going to be one MASSIVE blog post, but I have decided to break this up right here before the editing process. Truthfully, the drafting process and editing process feel very different to me, so it’s a good place to stop for now. In 2 weeks, the post on my editing process will come out, so I hope you will come back to read it.

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.

Writing

Plotter, Pantser, Gardener

If you have ever seen an author interview, very often you will see a question about whether the author is a plotter or a pantser.

A plotter is fairly self-explanatory. It means that the author plots out the points of the story before writing (some plot every point, some do only major points).

Pros:

  • Author always know where they’re going
  • Organized- less time spent figuring it out as they go
  • Easier editing (probably)

Cons:

  • Lacks spontaneity
  • Author may not feel the need to write as they already know the ending
  • Author spends a lot of time prepping and not writing

A pantser is named such because the author flies by the seat of their pants while they write, typically not making use of an outline or using a very vague one.

Pros:

  1. Plenty of room for change
  2. More writing, less planning
  3. More “fun” for the author who enjoys surprise

Cons:

  1. More editing (probably)
  2. The author may get stuck more often
  3. Messy, which doesn’t work well if the author is more of a structured person

Most authors fall along this spectrum of rigidity, but what about if you fall somewhere in the middle?

This is where the gardener comes in.

I describe a gardener as someone who begins with a basic plan but allows for a lot of wiggle room. It takes the best of both worlds when it comes to plotting and pantsing. Why call it a gardener? Well, a gardener has an idea of what they want the garden to look like when they start. They know where the plants will go and maybe what types they want. They plant the seeds (plot strings) and tend them until they grow to full-bloom. Along the they way prune or add fertilizer as needed. They may notice that a plant needs to be moved or gotten rid of, and they take that into consideration as they tend the garden. As a gardener, I have a hard time thinking of cons because the style of gardener varies greatly with the writer. It can be a bit messy and will lead to at least some editing later, but it lacks the rigidity of plotting and the “winging it” aspect of pantsing. Here is an outline I wrote while working on The Earl of Brass:

eilian-hadley outlinePlease ignore the crazy diamonds, I was marking off what I covered at the time. As you can see, the major points are plotted out with arrows from event to event. What you can’t see from the final product is that I actually filled in several major events that I knew I needed, and then I added the smaller events in between. This is the basic idea of a gardener. They know the major points and fill in the smaller ones along the way but not to the point of completely locking the plot. For me, I need flexibility while I write to let my characters breathe and do their thing. They often surprise me, and I haven’t been disappointed yet.

So are you a plotter, pantser, or gardener?


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Writing

5 Tips for Beating Writers Block

Sorry for not blogging sooner, but I have been under the weather for the past week.  Today’s post will be about the dreaded writers block.

Writers block can be one of the most crippling experiences for a writer, and after experiencing a bout of this recently myself, I thought I would post a few tips that may help to get through it.

  1. Ask, “Would your characters actually do this?”  Sometimes being stuck is caused by something as simple as trying to force a scene. Step back for a minute and think about how the scene can be reworked. Is your character doing something out of character? This can be the bane of a plotter’s existence because they have their outline and want to stick to it, but at times, a character can be whispering to you that they don’t want to or wouldn’t do what you are intending them to do.
  2. Free write.  Is another story knocking at your brain but you’re 2/3 into another one and don’t want to give up on it or throw yourself into a new project? Take a few minutes to let the scene out. Save the file in a separate folder of scraps or future projects and let it go. You can always revisit it when you’re finished with your current project, but for now, it’s out of your brain and on paper for later.
  3. Make an outline. Sometimes you need to see it on paper to get going. It’s often a case of where have I come from and where am I going? Draw out what you have thus far and then where you know you have to go. Typically, I use a blank sheet of printer paper and a brightly colored pen to stimulate ideas and remove constraints (no idea why it works but it seems to). Don’t put the future points too close together, leave space to fill-in with ideas. What do your characters need to do and how do we get them there?
  4. Look for visual inspiration. You have ideas, you know what you need to do, but the spark just isn’t there. Try going onto sites like Pinterest or Tumblr and looking for pictures that have to do with your story. If it’s set in the Victorian era, look up historical photos or vintage clothing. Is there a celebrity who looks like your characters? Look them up. Throughout the writing process, I create a Pinterest board of inspiration and look to it when I’m feeling stuck or meh about my writing.
  5. Read. One of the best pieces of writing advice I have ever gotten is to read. Reading will not only stimulate ideas, but it will be a refresher for craft. How does the author get to the climax? How are the characters built with depth and how do we find out about them? Read authors who inspire you and see how they did it. Learn from the masters, and let their words power yours.

Hopefully this helps you in your writing. The block is often caused by stress or fatigue and not laziness on the author’s part, but when you feel stuck, try some of the tips mentioned above and see if they help get you through. If nothing else, go for a walk and clear your head.


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