I started another book tonight, when I should have been studying for my Finance exam. The working title is The Eight Greatest Fears of Sam Reichardt. I’m hoping by the time it’s written, long titles will be back in fashion.
This makes three active projects: No Chance in Hell (in drafting), The Falcon and the Bluebird (outlined, with chapter list), and the Eight Greatest Fears (in outline). This is probably not a great way to work, but once I get an idea, I am terrified of forgetting it, so I have to start developing it and writing it down right away.
I don’t go through this beginning process all that often, and I was having thoughts about it, so I feel like it might be worth documenting here.
I have seen writers try to divide themselves into Pantsers and Plotters, that is whether you sit down and just start writing, or whether you make an outline first. I refuse to choose. I think both are useful tools in the writer’s arsenal, and that both are skills every writer should learn, because they lend themselves to different developmental problems. Thus, I am both.
But the outline isn’t the beginning.
In the beginning, there’s an idea. A mood. A theme. A concept that the writer wants to express in narrative. I work on this idea until I can express it in a one-sentence narrative. In this case (spoilers? but you’ll have forgotten all of this by the time the book is published, I’m sure) the idea was exposing oneself to fear, and the vulnerability inherent in bravery. There’s more to it than that, but this is the root of it. I work that into a narrative sentence: a woman sets out to face down her eight greatest fears.
The number eight has no significance here; I just liked how it sounded.
Now I start fleshing that out. Why does she do this? What does she stand to gain? What does she stand to lose? What obstacles does she face?
Note: I have not written anything down yet. This is all brain work, and most of it is back of the brain work.
Once this idea has ripened in the back of my head sufficiently, I begin laying out the structure. I can’t tell you when your idea is ripe. It is a feeling, more than a specific stage of development. I often have to resist the urge to sit down and start writing, because if I write before my pre-writing is done, there will be a mess to clean up.
This process of laying out the structure is not really the outline; it’s what comes before the outline. I decide which structure I want to use, and start sketching it out on a notepad I keep on my desk. I almost always start with the three act, eight sequence structure from screenwriting. It’s very straightforward and without it I often struggle with pacing. The three act eight sequence structure helps me keep things tight.
I start mapping out the main plot points on to the eight sequences. I always, always have missing pieces here. It’s part of the process. It’s like you’re putting together a skeleton and you have missing bones. So where the bones are missing, I write down questions.
Then I usually map this on to Dan Harmon’s plot embryo in order to square up thematic elements. The plot embryo is based on the Hero’s Journey, which as conceived by Joseph Campbell is kind of out of date and a little sexist, but the plot embryo kind of modernizes it a little bit, in my opinion, by loosening it up.
So now I’ve got my plot points and my questions written down, and I’ve set up some thematic elements to include and have decided how the events in the story will reflect those themes.
Let it Age
This is the only solution I have to coming up with the answers to my questions. This is more back of the brain work. I have come to understand that a great deal of this creative work happens when I’m not looking. This is where those ah-ha moments come from; they are not bolts from the blue. Your brain has been working on these things while you’ve been going about your day, and when the work is done, the egg timer in your head goes ding, and the new answer is served up hot and fresh into your conscious mind.
This can take days, or it can take weeks. Don’t rush it. You’ll regret it if you do.
Flip back to the page of the notebook with your structure on it. Re-read it. Start jotting in the answers to your questions. This may bring you additional questions. If so, great. Write them down and start this step again. You are iterating. It is fine.
What happens if the answers don’t come?
There are two possibilities.
One, your idea might not be very good, or it might be incomplete. There are a variety of ways to build out an idea, including mind-mapping and brainstorming. I also particularly like telling someone else (a non-writer, that’s very important) my ideas and seeing what they come up with.
Two, your idea is good, but you’re not ready to write it yet. You don’t have the requisite experience or understanding. That is also fine. Put the page you were working on away and come back to it when it creeps back into your awareness.
Now it is time to outline! Take your plot points, your thematic elements, and your questions and answers and open a file in your word processor of choice.
Start with the biggest simplest structure. For me, that’s Acts I, II, and III. Break it down a little smaller. for me that’s the eight sequences. Break it down a little smaller than that. For me, that means putting in all the little things I know I want to include that aren’t big enough to be main plot points. These can be in there for a variety of reasons; they can lead to a plot point, or support a thematic element, or whatever.
Keep doing this until you’re at the end of Act III.
The Chapter List
I always write a chapter list before I start writing. I think about how long I want the book to be, and then I think about how long my chapters are likely to be on average. This depends on the kind of book, usually. Faster paced, more action oriented stories are likely to have shorter chapters, and more literary style books are likely to have longer chapters. Maybe I want a 150k word book, and I estimate that my average chapter length is going to be 3k words. I know I’m going to need around fifty chapters.
I know that Act I is going to take up the first quarter of the book (37k-ish words, in this example) and that tells me what needs to happen within those first twelve to thirteen chapters according to my outline. So I start writing down a one sentence description of what happens in each chapter. Some chapters will be blank right now and that’s okay! You’ll fill them in as you go.
This is important: you will not follow this chapter list to the letter. Things will change as you write, and that’s just part of the process. But the glory of the chapter list is that if I get stuck somewhere, I can skip a head (or go back) to a different chapter and keep writing while whatever I’m stuck on eventually gets resolved in the back of my brain.
There. Now you’re ready to write your first sentence.