How to Write a Novel: For Non-Pantsters
Everybody has a different process for how they write a book. You know, by now, that some people are Pantsters who sit down with the gem of an idea and write with abandon, letting the story unfold as it comes through their fingers. I admire the hell out of that, but I am incapable of pantsing without screwing it all up.
At the brainstorming meeting I went to last week, a few people expressed interest in the completely nutso, anal process I go through to plan ahead. It seems like a good idea to share it here. If it helps you, feel free to try it out. If it makes you laugh uncontrollably at my idiocy, please share that. I love to laugh at myself. I know I’m a total dork.
Tools: Long car rides, voice recorder, small wipe-off board, a buttload of index cards, a nifty mini file folder to hold the cards, a kitchen table, Microsoft Word, a printer.
1. Spend a month or two, at least, talking to yourself in the car, trying out plots, characters, and descriptions. Gesture wildly when you have a good idea. Nod and smile at the people in other cars staring at you.
2. Have the voice recorder ready on the seat beside you. Make sure it has fresh batteries. Totally ignore it and don’t use it.
3. Ask yourself questions. Who killed Cock Robin? Why are the zombies congregating in the town square? What’s the power structure behind Grim Reapers? Type up all the questions you have no answers for. Print them out. Tape them up over the fireplace and mumble to yourself as you pace around in circles coming up with all the answers. Go back to the computer and write the answers.
4. On your white board, write the names of every character. Consider which ones are main or secondary characters integral to the plot, and which ones are just there for support. After each name, write what that character wants/needs/is after in this story.
5. Once all characters and their goals are situated, transfer each one to their own index card. Erase the board.
6. On the clean board, write down the main story line. Below that, write down every other story line, no matter how minor. In the case of my current work in progress, it’s book two in a three book arc, so I separated series story lines from book story lines to be sure all bases were covered in each one.
7. Make sure there’s enough going on. Compare the story arcs to the characters on your cards. Did everybody get covered? Good. Transfer the story lines, each to their own index cards. Wipe off the board.
8. Â One at a time, examine the story cards. For each one, briefly describe the major events for each arc. Write each one on a card. Wipe off, and do the same for each arc.
9. You now have a pile of events. Lay out the events on the kitchen table and shuffle them around. This is where story lines merge and become a single story. Put them in the order you think they should occur. (Some people I’ve read about actually color code their story arcs. This way, once you’ve got everything in chronological order, you can see if you’re a little light on events in a particular arc. I like this idea and may use it next time. Have I told you how much I love office supplies?)
10. Look for holes. Move things around. Use this bird’s-eye view to check for continuity, gaps in the story, and unanswered questions. Adjust and add as necessary.
11.Â You now have an outline for your novel spread across your kitchen table. Type up the outline. If you can break it up into chapters, so much the better. Don’t worry if you don’t have enough chapters for a whole novel. More stuff will come later as you’re writing.
12. The events on your outline are road signs. When you write, wander off all you need to, as long as you keep one eye on your next road sign. These are markers to keep you going on the right path to the big climax scene. Things will change along the way, and that’s OK, as long as you keep updating the outline to reflect the changes and make sure the next road sign/event is still in site.
13. Stop screwing around with office supplies and write the damn novel already. You’ve already wasted two or three months. Are you insane?
I am actually trying to find a happy medium for NaNo. I have done much more planning than I ever have before. I even did character sketches the other day. I have no doubt I can get the word count, but I would really like it to be salable when all is said and done. I don’t want 100,000 words of nonsense that my mother wouldn’t even read.
See you at the write-ins. Good luck.
Thanks, Jack. Good luck to you, too. You’ve got reams of short stories under your belt. This isn’t much different. You can do it. Last year was my first time at it, and I managed it. You’re already on your way.
Rachel, you never fail to make me giggle – #1, #2, and #13 had me laughing out loud. But I would never dare mock you, because obviously your process works! It’s interesting because I’ve tried writing stories both ways: obsessive outlining and completely pantsing it. Both have had varying degrees of success. I’ll let you know if I ever figure out a happy medium!
I’m glad it made you laugh. 🙂 I think I scared Jack half to death. I know it’s extreme, but my brain is such a mass of disconnected thoughts, I have to wrangle them into order. You’ve written a novel now, and I’m so proud of you. You’ve already got a process!
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