Sunday, October 12, 2014

Interviewing My Story, Finding the Plot Thread, and Understanding My Characters

The confession behind this blog: Read here. 

This week, I had a major break-through: I DON'T NEED TO WRITE AN OUTLINE BEFORE I WRITE THE BOOK.

Yes. That's right. The pre-writing tool we've been told must be done before we write anything? It has now become a post-writing tool.

And I thank my years of teaching college English courses.

What I Used to Do

This was a majorly mind-blowingly development.

I had always done (or rather, NOT done and felt guilty about not doing it) proper outlines and character interviews pre-Draft 1. I thought pre-writing was for anal idiots, and I was not an idiot. 

I wanted to jump into the story. Feet first, of course. (Because I was not an idiot.)

This is not to say I write by the seat of my pants. I always need a plan, a Pinterest Board, a Polyvore collage. 

I just don't want a 100-pages of outlines and character notes. Or, as I call it. The Book Before the Book.

And yes, I would write an outline of sorts. I would outline until I was tired of outlining and began writing Chapter One.

It sort of was like playing a game. I don't want to listen to the rules. I want to just play and make mistakes as I go and learn from those mistakes.

This worked. I'd get a book done. Actually, I got three books done in this manner. Two for a publisher. One that's The Amateur Sleuth I Shall One Day Rule Over (Just Not Now).

But I felt the stories could have been more. Deeper. Heartier. More of what I envisioned.

And so I reviewed what I was doing and made changes. 

What I Changed and Do Now

So this is where I talk about how teaching college English made me understand something about fiction outlines.

I would continually tell my students to use the guidelines for each assignment as a checklist AFTER they had written their papers. This was the time to be very cognizant of structure and rules. And if they proofread against the guidelines/checklist, they would turn in an above-average product.

This made me look in the figurative mirror and say, "Okay, Miss Know It All. Practice what you preach."

And so I did.

Change #1: I began to write my Draft 1 more quickly, with fewer revisions as I wrote. I made peace with the fact that I was writing down the framework of the story and it wasn't actually the story yet.

Change #2: I let the story sit while I wrote Draft #1 of another story. (One caveat: Make it a story from the same world. For instance, I wrote His Favorite Inconvenience after His Favorite Regret. It was The Second Story that was still in The First Story's world. And trust me, I have also written another series as The Second Story. Ow. It made my brain hurt trying to remember both worlds.)

Change #3: A few weeks later, I would come back to Draft #1 of The First Story. I put it into Scrivener. I printed out chapters. I collated each chapter. I wrote down the story arc based on what I had written.

Change #4: I sat down and answered questions about the story. 

Change #5: I sat down and answered questions about my characters.

Change #6: I created a checklist for the story based on those answers.

Change #7: I approached the revision of The First Story with this checklist.

Change #8: I inserted these revisions, and Draft 2 became The Story That Was Outlined After Draft 1. 

*The Only Thing I Didn't Change: I still made a rudimentary outline that followed The Hero's Journey. The outline is approximately one to two pages long.

I took a writing pause to support local authors at a signing at the library in Eliot, Maine.

What I Think About Those Changes

My storytelling has gained so much from this new process. Is this new process saving me time?

Honestly, no. I actually feel overwhelmed by this process, as I do with any kind of revision I do. It's part of the process known as Geez Louise, Can't You Just Be Perfect After The First Draft, You Stupid Story?

Taking a walk and forgetting about the revision pain.

Shuffling through leaves helps the revision pain. A lot a lot a lot.

And there you have it. I interviewed my story after Draft #1. I created a better outline (one where the motivations were made clear and the stakes were made ORGANICALLY higher). And it hasn't sped up my revision process.

But it has made it better.

Does anyone else have a wonky revision plan to share? We won't judge.

P.S. To leave a comment, Blogger isn't very clear about what to click. So let me help! Click on "Comments," which is located after the time stamp below.


  1. Your process sounds sort of similar to mine. I'm glad, because it seems crazy to me, and it's always nice to not be the only one. ��

    I like to plan as much as possible, but once I start writing, things really start to happen from a creative standpoint. I've started to think of my first draft as a detailed outline, and once that's done, I pretty well start over with planning and character profiling. So far, I've repeated the process with a second draft, although that was slightly less time-consuming, and I'm hoping a third draft can be sent to beta readers because I need to know if it makes sense to anyone besides me before proceeding further.

    I've written a lot of other things, but this is as far as I've ever gotten on a full-length novel and I'm amazed at how time-consuming (and fun!) it is.

    It's very encouraging to see someone like you who is completing actual books work successfully with a similar process.

    I keep trying to remind myself that it doesn't matter how long it takes as long as the end result is good.

  2. Christina--I think we write a lot like Elizabeth George. Did you read her writing book, Write Away? It's awesome, by the way. She, too, writes these free-written pages for each chapter which are essentially her chapter but that she calls notes/outline.

    I can't even let my beta readers read anything until the sixth draft. (I do eight in all.) My mind is too much of a mess. :oD I embrace it, though.

    And hang in there with your process and just know the process can change for the next story you write. But for the story you're writing right now, this is the process working best.

    One day, I can't wait to read that PUBLISHED story you're working on!


  3. Sydney,
    Glad to hear this -- thank you for sharing! Much as I would like to be an outliner -- as I fantasize that the revision process would be simpler, or at least more straightforward -- it just doesn't seem to be part of my writing process. So for now, I am going with the flow and trying to figure out what works for me. I have a feeling it will look much more like the process you describe.

    1. Valerie--I think we get into this role of what we SHOULD do based on what all the books say to do. And make sure to log what you do. I do this and look back right before I start the next book and go "Oh, I asked my story questions in Draft 2!" and "Oh, I had a major slump after Draft 2 where I did nothing but think 'This is too hard! I must curl up in the fetal position!'" and "Oh, once I get to Draft 5, it's all downhill to the finish line!" ;o)



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