My process has always been manic.
It’s 2010 and I’m a plotter, ’cause that’s obviously the way to go! My first novel was a mess even though I outlined it, but that’s only true because I wasn’t thorough enough. “Thorough in what way?” you ask? Why, thorough with my characters’ micro-expressions, of course! This new outline for my rewrite has everything worked out down to gasps and eye rolls!
Of course, the moment characters deviated from that outline (within the prologue) I knew that level of plotting wouldn’t work.
So, it’s December, 2016 and discovery writing is *clearly* the best. My characters are free to do whatever they want without having to adhere to a plot. It’s beautiful, natural, and I finished an entire novel in one month for NaNoWriMo 2020. It’s so comforting to have found the approach that works for me. A little surprising that it’s discovery writing (considering I’m such a chronic organizer when it comes to other projects), but, hey, whatever works.
Only it didn’t work. The plot was incredibly muddled. The intro was especially confusing. Plot lines, intended or implied, were established and then dropped because I didn’t manage them at all (I didn’t even think to because I was so set on the idea that plotting didn’t work).
After that, I spent a long time just thinking about my process. I knew that I’d have to outline whatever I did next, but I also knew that I had to leave it open-ended. I was afraid to tank another few years into another failed novel, so I worked on story structure across a group of short story ideas instead, considering a rewrite of my NaNo 2016 novel on the back burner.
It’s 2020 now and I am very tired. I know that, inherently, there’s something I’m not getting about the writing process. I know that I have a hard time maintaining my plot lines, but I also never want to force my characters to adhere to something. I do not have time to do both of those things, back and forth, to see what works, and I am too busy at work and dealing with my bullshit life to think outside of the box.
Oddly enough, it isn’t until I’m a few months into quarantine, in the heart of a terrifying time, that I find hope.
I’ve already talked about stumbling onto lectures by Brandon Sanderson on YouTube. Those lectures presented his process: a loose outline. Sanderson plots, but is always ready to completely change that plot if his characters aren’t following it. Or if there’s something wrong with its structure. Beyond just talking about it though, Sanderson detailed his process, provided links to his own outlines, answered student questions.
I don’t know if it’s because I was in the middle of quarantine, or if it was because I was listening to my problem being solved by a pro–for free–because he decided to upload videos with the express purpose of helping other writers, but after years of struggling and repeatedly hitting walls, I cried. I know that’s probably weird, but, at a certain point during that first lecture, I teared up.
Because, 20 years into my career, it was the first time I found a professional offering a helping hand (without it being locked behind a contest or a paid seminar), and I could not believe it was exactly the help I needed. If ever there was a moment in my life that felt contrived by fate, that was it.
The interesting thing about those lectures, however, is that Sanderson points out, repeatedly, that his way is not the only way. While talking about his process, he made it clear that there are famous pantsers out there too. And that other plotters might have a completely different process from his.
Which was amazing to hear because I knew some of his approach wouldn’t work for me. So, instead of just emulating his to a T, I sat down and devised an outlining process that works for me.
And I figured I’d present that here (and continue presenting it as it evolves), because I need to contribute to this effort of helping other writers in whatever way I can.
So, here, as of August 31st, 2020, is my process:
The “Promises Outline”
My major takeaway from Sanderson’s lectures is that you need to keep track of the promises you make to your readers. My problem was that I’d never even thought of “promises”; I dealt in plot lines, which are different.
A plot line is a facet of the story that you establish and maintain.
A promise is an event that your story implies will happen, whether you intend it to or not. Promises are conveyed by elements of your story that the audience has seen before and thus make assumptions about, and managing those assumptions is essential to composing a novel.
And, yeah, that sounds pretentious, but it’s just the right word; being aware of your promises allows you to direct the reader along the experience you want them to have.
Promises and plot lines often overlap, and that’s fine, because that’s what you want them to do.
That said, let’s get to my process:
Step one, as per Brandon Sanderson, is to start my outlines with a Story Archetypes section:
Note: I’m using Grounded just as a quick example here (I’m not into novelizations, but I have been playing Grounded a bunch lately and this was the quickest route to an easy example. Also, I probably shouldn’t have listed Bug Buddy as a story archetype, but I was extremely excited for lady bug friend.
My goal with Archetypes is to just lay out what’s been done by other stories similar to mine. If my story features a Terminator-like character, for example, I jot down a heading like “I’ll Be Back,” think about the iconic things the Terminator did in Terminator or Terminator 2 (depending on whether my Terminator is a robotic killing machine or a robotic hero), and then I try to summarize those iconic things.
And I do this not so I can emulate those things, but so I can more easily pare them down into Promises:
The name of the game here is trying to come up with whatever trope events happen in the story archetypes I’ve listed.
Typically, my design standard here is:
Number of the Related Archetype) Heading Summarizing the Promise: Explanation that details how I meet that promise, or why/how I’m going to subvert it (as I did in the “Ol’ One Eye” example above).
Now, when I got to this point during my Memory rewrite, I wound up sitting with Promises for a while, honing them into a framework; with the plot ideas and worldbuilding that I’d already done (on a totally different part of the spreadsheet [and yeah, I use spreadsheets]), I considered what I wanted my story to be. The tone, the arcs for my characters, the balance of the villains.
In the end, when I worked the promises down into a set that I knew I wanted to keep, I started the actual outline like so:
Chapter Number: Chapter Title
Chapter Number.Scene Number
Beat Number (and then, in the next cell) Outline Copy
I have to clarify that this is just my current layout. This has changed while outlining Memory 2.0; initially, I also used color-coding and underlines to signify two different things (which I so dropped).
What I’m trying to say here is that I’m still adjusting, and that’s a good thing. This layout is closer than I’ve ever been to working out a process that I can use forever. It is not perfect, but it’s better than writing blind and over-plotting. With this layout, I’ve been able to do what I think of as taking the wrong path (writing a chapter or two that ultimately lead in a bad direction that didn’t work) multiple times with extremely minimal repercussions–losing a day’s worth of work deleting two outline chapters instead of two weeks’ worth deleting two draft chapters. For me, that’s huge.
But, that’s not why I wrote this post; I’m not trying to sell you on this weird, repetitive process I’ve drummed up for myself. What I want–what I’m hoping for–is that someone sees this and goes, “Oh . . . Yeah, wait, I can make my process whatever the fuck I want!” because yeah, you can.
I spent so long jumping between extremes for some reason–trying out other people’s approaches–but the best thing that I did for myself, as a writer, was realize that I could customize my process to work for me as long as I was honest with myself. Everything about it is devised by my preference, from its weird formatting down to the fact that it’s a spreadsheet (it wasn’t just a weird design choice–I love spreadsheets!).
But the key there was self-evaluation. “How do I want to write?” “Is this working for me?” Never, “Am I doing this right?” Never, “Am I following the directions perfectly?”
I have no idea if this process will always work for me, but I know that I can just keep changing it so it will.
And when I do, if I feel like I’ve actually made a template that would work for a lot of people, I’ll absolutely post it here.
And, please, if you have a weird process of your own, I hope you’ll consider sharing it somewhere too.
Because writing fucking sucks. It’s hard, depressing, secretive and shallow. It’s so easy to feel like nothing’s working and there’s nowhere you can go for actual help. I’m not conceited enough to think my process pulled someone out of a rut, but if you are struggling . . .
. . . it’s cool. So am I. We can figure this out together.
I’m getting this one in just after the buzzer, but I hope you enjoyed regardless. I will be continuing to post about my process as it changes–under the title “Process in Progress”–so although I don’t have a time frame for it, I will be continuing this series in the future. If you enjoyed this post and want to be notified when I post again, please consider giving my blog a Follow.
For next week, I have a bunch of posts lined up, but instead of tying myself down to one by name dropping it now, I’m going to leave my options totally open. I will be posting something next Sunday and it’ll either be really angry or really chill depending on my mood. I hope you consider stopping by.
Until then, please stay safe and take care!