Monday, May 2, 2016


A funny thing happens when you become a published author. People start asking you for writing advice.

Personally, I don't presume to offer advice; if I was so smart, it wouldn't have taken me so long to get published!

But one useful thing that writers can do for each other is share experiences and strategies. One writer's process may not work for anybody else, but the act of sharing them lets us know that we're all facing the same challenges, and not just toiling away in wretched isolation. At the very least, it may be encouraging to know that someone else's methods are even more haphazard than your own!

Recently, I was asked two common questions:

1) Do you outline?

I never used to, which is probably why it took me 8 years to produce a book! But these last couple of years, I've been lucky enough to work with editors who ask for fiction proposals (that is: a lengthy synopsis of the plot as a means of getting an idea approved — as opposed to having to write the whole dang book first!) And having now written 3 of them, it makes SO much more sense to actually know where the story is going BEFORE you start writing it!

Still, my process is chaotic. I start with a doc of Notes, where I put random details that occur to me about storyline, characters, setting, backstory, whatever. Pretty soon, I start another doc called Outline, where I pick out the most important notes and file them in some sort of chronology, to give myself some idea of the shape of the plot.

In Outline, I also try to see where the gaps are that I need to fill to hold the plot together, and figure out what kinds of scenes need to be added. And then, when the Outline gets too wordy, I start a Proposal doc, where I extract the best stuff from the Outline, and put it in an order I hope will be coherent enough to show the editor.

Of course, I'm always working on all 3 docs at once, because I'm not yet organized enough to make a stately progress from one to the next! But the good thing is, once I've streamlined my ideas down this way, I have a pretty good idea of what my story's beginning, middle, and end will look like.

And it doesn't matter if it's not all there yet (the midsections in my proposals are notoriously weak). Because, here's the thing: it's all going to change during the writing process anyway, and everybody understands this. So what you're doing is writing a blueprint for a story you want to tell, and giving yourself a general road map to get there.

2) Do you follow any of the plot structure methods that exist out there?

The ones I've encountered seem like arcane voodoo rituals to me. I tried the 9-box plot thingy recommended by a couple of friends, but the only time I found it useful was to diagram a book I'd already written, to see how well it followed the structure. Attempting to apply it to an idea for a book, hoping to somehow manifest plot, just didn't work for me. 

But it might work for you; like I said, my approach is chaotic, and I don't recommend it. If a box, or a graph, or a diagram, or whispering the lyrics to "Paperback Writer" over a smoldering cauldron of chicken bones unleashes your creative juices, then go for it!

There isn't any right or wrong approach. All that matters is getting those words on the page — how they get there is up to you!

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