Flaking Out

A while back, my business partner (and lovely wife) Kathleen talked about pantsing your novel, writing by the seat of your pants. For all her positive qualities, and there are many, Kathleen is, obviously, crazy.

Pantsing sounds romantic. (I can’t believe I just typed that.) The idea of letting the muse carry you as words just spew forth from your soul is what a lot of people think writing is. A lot of people are wrong. The muse does help, but you have to show up. And if you want to get anything accomplished, you need a plan. As Kathleen herself pointed out, pantsing gets you started while the idea is still fresh, and then all too often it leaves you stranded about 40,000 words in with no idea how to finish the story you’ve spent weeks writing.

I don’t like to waste time. In fact, for a lot of my young fiction-writing life, I didn’t even like revisions because back then, rewriting meant retyping, and physically typing the book all over again seemed so stupid. I’ve since realized how valuable editing can be, but I’m not going to lie and say electronic word processing didn’t make that a lot easier to swallow.

I also believe in good design. That’s why I use Apple products, and that’s why I write my fiction using the Snowflake Method. Randy Ingermanson has come up with a 10-step iterative process that takes the guesswork, but not the magic, out of writing novel-length fiction. I suggest reading his entire article, twice, but I’ll briefly summarize the steps here.

  1. Write a one-sentence summary of your book. Similar to an elevator pitch, this is 25 words or so that capture what the book is about.
  2. Expand that one sentence into a 4 or 5 sentence paragraph, with the setup, three acts and conclusion.
  3. Write a brief summary of each of your characters; their backstory, what they want, what stands in their way, and their story arc through the book.
  4. Expand each of the sentences from step 2 into a full paragraph to create a one page synopsis of the book.
  5. Working from your plot synopsis from step 4 and character summaries from step 3, write a one page “character synopsis” for each major character, the story from their point of view. Do a half page for each minor character.
  6. Expand out the synopsis from step 4 into a four page treatment by turning each paragraph into a full page. This lets you get into more detail and find plot holes, while still saving some fun problem-solving for the draft.
  7. Expand your character synopses into full character dossiers, with everything there is to know about each character. This builds your “story bible,” and gives you a place to make sure you establish that John has blue eyes and graying brown hair, and that Finch walks with a stiff, distinct limp (and why).
  8. Go through your treatment from step 6 and create a stepsheet, a linear list of every scene in your novel. This is often done in a spreadsheet.
  9. (Optional, but useful for beginners) Go through your stepsheet and write a full paragraph description for each scene. Include setting, characters, even lines of dialogue you think will be important.
  10. Using either the stepsheet from step 8 or narrative description from step 9, write your first draft.

Again, go read Ingermanson’s blog post for more detail, but this works for me. It gives me a deep understanding of my characters (and make no mistake, story is character), it gives me a linear set of scenes to write, but within each of those scenes I still have the magic of discovery and room for my characters to surprise me. And I have to say, the writing is a lot more fun knowing that there are no gaping plot holes or other flaws that will lead me to scrapping it and starting over somewhere down the road. Give it a shot for yourself.

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