Sound's picture
Sound from Azusa, CA is reading Greener Pastures by Michael Wehunt August 13, 2012 - 9:05am

Just curious. Most of my writing projects thus far have been short pieces (under 5K), due to the fact that I have poor plot mapping practices and also because I don't have a long enough attention span. I've had an idea for a novel (or novella) stuck in my head for about two months now and I dont't want to fuck it up, or worse, never begin it. I'm looking for any tips, suggestions, or just experiences with mapping out plots for longer stories.

Specifically, I"m looking for anyone who's been successful in actually finishing a longish piece of fiction (20K+ words). It doesn't have to be all about mapping out your plot, just tips in general for finishing that behemoth of a project.

So....How do you map out your plot?

OtisTheBulldog's picture
OtisTheBulldog from Somerville, MA is reading The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz August 13, 2012 - 9:37am

I'm only replying to this thread so I can continue to follow it in my "participated" column. I'm basically in the same boat and looking to start a longer piece this fall and not really sure how to go about it. And organization has always been my downfall. I'm more of a monkey on PCP.

Hector Acosta's picture
Hector Acosta from Dallas is reading Fletch August 13, 2012 - 9:53am

I don't generally map out my stories, which is probably why I'm like you and a lot of people in that I haven't finished a novel length story.

I'm trying again though, I'm so far I'm about 18K into a project, and I feel more confident about it than I have before. The biggest thing that worked for me was changing the mindset about the story itself. I think it's important to not put the story up in a pedestal, and just remind yourself that a poor first draft is better than no draft at all.  The longer you go without writing the story and keeping it locked in your head, the more daunting it's going to seem to put into paper. The writer's workshop has been great in letting me see that sometimes while the story you end up writing isn't great, there are tons of bits and pieces that can be extracted out to make a good story, and that's important I think.

I also been trying to be a chapter ahead of what I'm actually writing, so that at the very least I'll always have one thousand words ready to go by the next day. That's been immensely helpful, as it wipes away a lot of the doubts I used to have when sitting down at the start of a writing day-it's not about finishing the story, just finishing the chapter I'm in.

When I started, I looked up a bunch of websites, and there's ton of advice, from the snowflake method, to just regular outlines, etc. None seemed quite right for me, so I'm just going along in the writing, while at the same time keeping a notebook where I jot down any ideas or events that I randomly come up with. I know that if I finish this story, there will be some reediting to do, but that seems less daunting at this point.


Jack Campbell Jr.'s picture
Jack Campbell Jr. from Lawrence, KS is reading American Rust by Phillipp Meyer August 13, 2012 - 10:02am

I don't. I write my longer fiction the same way I write my shorter fiction. I sit and start writing and see where it takes me.

That being said, I've read several different methods. If you have an ending, you can work logically back from the ending, basically asking yourself what needs to happen to get you to the ending. If you have a beginning, you can write the beginning and ask yourself what would happen after that. If you just have a concept, then what would happen in that situation?

I know there are a lot of people that outline. I don't. I have a friend who has boxes full of notecards with scene notes for each of her books. I can't remember the last time used a notecard for anything other than a screenplay. Scrivner apparently has good planning features for writing longer fiction, but I don't use it, so I can't tell you for sure.

Literally, I sit down with a word processor and a notebook. If I think of something while writing, a character trait, a theme, a scene, that doesn't directly involve the scene I am writing at that moment, I jot it down. Otherwise, I write the entire story beginning to end and assume I'll need to restructure and reorganize things in subsequent drafts.

I find that outlining too much makes me feel constricted and invariably results in my looking at what is next rather than what I am working on at the moment.

The length of my story is determined by the complexity of my idea. I get an idea and then decide whether it is best served by a short work or a long work. Otherwise, I don't change much in my process.

I've occasionally used character backgrounds in planning stages. Knowing your characters well helps develop plotlines. Other than that, if you are looking to actually outline your plot before you write it, I am the wrong guy to offer advice. I pre-plot screenplays due to the constraints of the medium. I don't pre-plot fiction.

Really, you just need to write it. Don't worry about ruining the idea. Ideas are a dime a dozen and it isn't like you can never use the concept again if it doesn't work the first time. But it isn't doing you or anyone else any good to have it locked inside your head.

Sound's picture
Sound from Azusa, CA is reading Greener Pastures by Michael Wehunt August 13, 2012 - 10:15am

@Hector: Hope the 18K project is "Smeltertown".  It was a killer intro.

@Jack: Yeah, normally I'd agree with you, but after attempting so many projects that just fell apart by doing it the way you described, I think I've realized that it's just a method that doesn't suit me when my goal is to write a novel. It's gotten to the point that if I realize I can't tell my story in about 20 pages, I don't even try it. Or worse, think of ways to condense it. It works great for my shorter stories so far, though.

Michael J. Riser's picture
Michael J. Riser from El Cerrito, CA (originally), now Fort Worth, TX is reading The San Veneficio Canon - Michael Cisco, The Croning - Laird Barron, By the Time We Leave Here, We'll Be Friends - J. David Osborne August 13, 2012 - 11:56am

I never plot anything. I'm a chronically situational writer, and while I love it, it has potential pitfalls. You can end up with no plot of any kind. You can end up with inconsistencies you don't think about. You can invalidate stuff that's in your head for the future of your novel or things that have already happened. And don't get me wrong, those are pitfalls that exist in general, and plotting won't save you from them... but they're probably bigger risks depending on who you are.

For me, plotting tends to be where things fall apart. I've written elaborate plots that just never took off, never went anywhere, because the lack of mystery and surprise killed my motivation, or because where I thought I wanted to go didn't seem to be where I was going. My characters constantly surprise me with a range of motives and fears and flaws that I don't realize are part of them at the moment of conception. So if I just avoid much planning to begin with, things seem (mostly) to take care of themselves, and I'll only work on plotting small sections of something if I feel like I'm going off the rails or losing track of what's important.

La Emme Nikita's picture
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La Emme Nikita from Los Angeles is reading The Dream Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson August 13, 2012 - 1:53pm

Like Jack, I tend to start writing and see where it takes me. My process, inasmuch as it can be called that, has been simple: an idea comes to me for either a setting/character/plot. I write it down in a notebook along with any other information that strikes me at that time. I let it stew for a bit and when I'm ready to tackle it, I sit down and start expanding on it. When I first come up with the idea I generally also have some idea how long I intend to make its story (short story, novella). 

I wrote my Scare Us! short with no outline and only a vague idea of plot/characters; it started with the setting. It was the second piece I wrote for this contest; the first was a story about Marcel Proust, which I thought about for 2 weeks, did a brief outline for and wrote over the course of 3 days. I then had to scrap it when I went to submit because it wasn't set in my hometown- oops. I immediately set down and cranked out my submission "Crystal" that afternoon because I'd told myself I was going to be done and submitted on that date. (Crystal has since been revised twice due to feedback I received)

I've written the manuscript for one novel so far. At the end of the first complete draft I'm sitting on 85,000 words and 349 pages. I started out writing the story as it occurred to me; when I got stuck I would stop writing that section and skip ahead to something that I could write, then went back and filled in. I kept notebooks to record bits of dialogue or ideas that came to me when I was away from my computer. At around 75,000 words I was doing the final sweep of revisions and filling in the section connecting the last 80% to the ending, and I realized I didn't know what happened in that gap. I sat down with the manuscript and a notebook and wrote down each chapter, along with a 3-5 word summary of that chapter, and a short list of the main things that happen. In doing this I was able to identify where chapters could be condensed/expanded, which was immensely helpful. I had a quick roadmap to character introductions. I also had a "birds-eye" view of the story for the first time. By seeing where I'd been, and where I was going, I was able to find the inspiration to fill in the missing section and ultimately complete the manuscript. 

I've not outlined anything else, and I think I prefer the late-game outline to taking care of it beforehand, though. 

Courtney's picture
Courtney from the Midwest is reading Monkey: A Journey to the West and a thousand college textbooks August 13, 2012 - 2:05pm

I think I bring Scrivener up every time someone asks about a technical aspect of writing, but there you go.

If you're the type of writer I am, Scrivener is a godsend. It helps outline, organize, and bring attention to details. Notecards for each scene/chapter/part, an info pane for other details, an amazing way to store your research, it's just the shit.

This is a pretty good step-by-step explanation of how I map out my short stories:

1.) Create a new Scrivener document and immediately open and expand the Info pane. I write out the premise -- either as a synopsis or in detail -- in the blue info pane for the entire manuscript.

2.) Approximate how many scenes I'll need, double that number, and create that many new documents.

3.) Write a short synopsis of each scene on its designated note-card, then label each one "To-Do" and "Scene" in the meta-data, unless I'm doing something special like writing from multiple POVs or collaborating, in which case I erase all of the "Scene/Chapter/Character Notes" options and add whatever I need (say, each characters' name for a multiple-POV story) and label them thusly.

4.) Flutter back and forth from scene to scene and write what I'm inspired to write at that time. I cross-reference, edit the synopsises (?) as I go, label each draft as first, second, third, etc as I go, until each draft is at the same number (so I don't spend too much time on one and not enough on another) and finish.

If I have a word limit, I add the extra step of guesstimating (god I hate that word) how many words each section should have and make that the target for each document. Or if I have any other necessities for a particular story, I add that to the meta-data or Document Notes.

All in all, Scrivener saved my life as a writer. The longest story I've written was about 22k words, and the only way I was able to stay sane while writing it was by constantly re-organizing in Scrivener.

Mess_Jess's picture
Mess_Jess from Sydney, Australia, living in Toronto, Canada is reading Perfect by Rachael Joyce August 13, 2012 - 2:34pm

Scivener sounds great, I'll check it out. Right now I do all of that, just in a small notebook that is getting destroyed in my handbag/backpack/trouser pocket.

La Emme Nikita's picture
Class Facilitator
La Emme Nikita from Los Angeles is reading The Dream Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson August 13, 2012 - 2:54pm

Courtney- thanks for the info on Scrivener! It sounds perfect for the way I work, and I just downloaded it. They should pay you commission.

Courtney's picture
Courtney from the Midwest is reading Monkey: A Journey to the West and a thousand college textbooks August 13, 2012 - 3:12pm

God, I wish -- I've already converted at least five people.

I'm that obsessed with Scrivener. It's all I talk about when I discuss the technical aspects of writing.

cosmo's picture
cosmo August 13, 2012 - 3:16pm

How do you map out your plot?

On the page.

R.Moon's picture
R.Moon from The City of Champions is reading The Last Thing He Wanted by Joan Didion; Story Structure Architect by Victoria Lynn Schimdt PH.D; Creating Characters by the editors of Writer's Digest August 13, 2012 - 4:48pm

I write by the seat of my pants. I've tried outlining. I've tried note cards. I've tried writing software, which I loathe. All I need is Open Office and a flashcard. None of those other methods has ever worked for me. I end up deviating away from my notes, outlines, etc... an then all that time spent outlining was nothing but a colossal waste of time. I've had one page, one paragraph, one sentence or even just one word that has completely altered the direction of the story. Instead of wasting time, I just write. Cosmo said it best above: 'On the page.'

In the novel I'm working on now, I know the beginning (obviously), where my MC will end up at the end and maybe 3 or 4 major plot points. Subplots I let develop by themselves. I find writing this way makes the story exciting for me and keeps it fresh every time I sit down in front of a blank screen.

If you can write like this, great. If you don't where to start, start with outlining. I know having a solid foundation in which to work with makes things easier. I don't recommend writing by the seat of your pants for reasons that a few people have already mention. But for me, I wouldn't write any other way.

Bob Pastorella's picture
Bob Pastorella from Groves, Texas is reading murder books trying to stay hip, I'm thinking of you, and you're out there so Say your prayers, Say your prayers, Say your prayers August 13, 2012 - 8:21pm

Everyone here has great ideas. The one thing I can add to this is even if you know how your story is going to end, don't map out the ending. Try writing the idea of how you want the story to end on a single sheet of paper and put it aside. Try not to look at it while writing your first draft. No matter how hard you work towards that ending goal, the story is going to change. Your characters know their story, and it's your job to figure out what they know. If you map out the ending, it's set in your mind, and you may not be able to work around how your characters want things to end compared to how you originally felt it would end. If you just write the ending down in very simple terms and set it aside, I think you'll find you'll have a little more flexibility between your first and second drafts. With the second draft, if the ending works, you'll be able to tighten it up in the subsequent drafts. 

Renfield's picture
Renfield from Hell is reading 20th Century Ghosts August 13, 2012 - 9:49pm

Instead of actual plotting I just try to get the general premise solid or write a character sketch to keep me grounded in the story, then I'll just have a couple specific images I want to create in the reader-mind rather than plot points. Allows me to draft more freely and just follow the sentence/scene to the most logical next step without having to twist it to some unneededly concrete idea. Having a wordcount goal really helps with pacing though, to know that I'm aiming for 20k or whatever. In some of the past-100 page stuff or a more complicatedly framed short story I will just write scratch notes on a legal pad and explore some of the topics and themes, to have them at the front of my mind when a scene looks like it will be a good fit for one of them. This still allows a lot of the free-form that me and other people here like when writing but I feel confident that I'm still on the tracks most of the time. Even people who outline every work I think can fall into outlining too much, too far ahead or too meticulously that when they lose track or something unexpected happens their head goes all Scanners explodey. Happened to me a bunch, it's why I through out outlining altogether.

Bill Tucker's picture
Bill Tucker from Austin, Texas is reading Grimm's Fairy Tales (1st Edition) August 14, 2012 - 7:43am

I agree with much of what's being said here.  For me, the story sculpting is in the editing process.  I'm like many people here in that I don't like to limit my stories in outlining, although I imagine I'd be more prolific if I did so.  For me, the first draft is the discovery process, where I learn about the characters, the settings and situations by letting them develop naturally.  No mental restrictions, no internal critics telling me how shitty the word play is.  Once I have a pile of stuff on the page, that's when I take my chisel and start hacking it into something readable.  Just how I approach things, which may be why my stories take so long to write.  Again, it's all about finding what works best for you!

drea's picture
drea from Rural Alberta, Canada is reading between the lines August 14, 2012 - 8:44am

I've done both writing by the seats of my pants and a literal map between the characters/forces in a story with lines connecting the relationships/conflcts between each to help identify places to exploit those interdependencies. 

Suzy Vitello came up with this story board, breaking the work down into acts with pretty visual prompts along the way


Sound's picture
Sound from Azusa, CA is reading Greener Pastures by Michael Wehunt August 14, 2012 - 9:37am

I'm liking a few of the suggestions. Courtney, I'll try yours first and see where that gets me. Bill, I like yours too, but it seems a little like what I do now and I'm not getting where I want to go fast enough to suit me. I may try blending techniques together and see what I get...

Strange Photon's picture
Strange Photon from Fort Wayne, IN is reading Laurie Anderson lyrics August 14, 2012 - 10:38am

Courtney, along with a conversation with Mike Riser, has convinced me to download Scrivner. They have an AWESOME free trial that lets you use the program for 30 days - and not 30 contiguous days, but 30 days of use even if you use it once a week for 30 weeks. That's confidence in your product.

Renfield's picture
Renfield from Hell is reading 20th Century Ghosts August 14, 2012 - 11:14am

Couple weeks ago i finally got the full Scriv. Went through all the betas for Windows then never dropped the money until now. It's okay. Still need to hit every single tutorial to really get the thing running clean. Most of the cool stuff it does is pretty superfluous though.

Hector Acosta's picture
Hector Acosta from Dallas is reading Fletch August 14, 2012 - 11:22am

I'll probably try scrivner too. My thing with those programs is that I can be slightly OCD, so I find myself spending much more time fiddling with them and the outline than actually doing any concrete writing.

ReneeAPickup's picture
Class Facilitator
ReneeAPickup from Southern California is reading A truckload of books August 14, 2012 - 11:33am

I never map out shorts. It doesn't work for me at all. With longer projects, I used to just let the writing take me wherever it went, but that lead to a lot of stops and starts and some really crappy "filler". Now I try to "map" with bullet points. Things that need to happen, where I intend the story to go, etc.

I am not a fan of detailed outlines, it plays a mental trick on me and I find it difficult to adapt if the story starts going a different direction. Nice & vague, I've got somewhere to go when I hit a block, but if the story takes me somewhere else that's okay, too--I just write down some more bullet points.

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like August 14, 2012 - 1:30pm

I can most identify with R.Moon and Renfield. 

I find outlining is either too general or pointless. In other words, I can keep the general idea in my head without needing an outline; and if I've already got the specifics, I'd rather just write them out than fool with an outline.

Michael J. Riser's picture
Michael J. Riser from El Cerrito, CA (originally), now Fort Worth, TX is reading The San Veneficio Canon - Michael Cisco, The Croning - Laird Barron, By the Time We Leave Here, We'll Be Friends - J. David Osborne August 14, 2012 - 3:20pm

Scrivener is definitely one of those things that's got features you may never use. And if you're OCD, you could potentially waste a lot of time. This was why I switched from Liquid Story Binder, which was about 3 times as bad. It had tons of features, but I didn't need 90% of them. If you use them, though, you couldn't ask for better.

I really just like Scrivener because it isn't Word and it feels a lot more nicely put together than the OpenOffice writer. Which is nothing against OpenOffice. The writer is absolutely functional, and I use it regularly to view DOC files and put comments in LBLs. But I like the more polished environment of Scrivener.

Sound's picture
Sound from Azusa, CA is reading Greener Pastures by Michael Wehunt August 14, 2012 - 6:00pm

I love Scrivener, but most of the benefits I've drawn from it have been when I start the editing part. I haven't really tried outlining with it yet, though.

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies August 15, 2012 - 10:08am

I don't. I often start with a "what if" or a general idea or situation. on my longer project, novels, i may know more information. with Disintegration i knew it would be one guy, unnamed, who loses his family and falls apart. i knew i'd set it in my old apartment in Wicker Park, because i knew the neighborhood well. beyond that, i had no idea beyond the voice, that there would be sex and violence and drugs, and that it would be a tragedy.

Courtney's picture
Courtney from the Midwest is reading Monkey: A Journey to the West and a thousand college textbooks August 15, 2012 - 2:08pm

I'm glad that there's so much Scrivener love going on. I'm excited every time I open up a project on there because it's truly the best thing that's happened for my writing.

The anxiety about tweaking my outlines, etc. and not getting any actual writing done was pretty prominent in my mind, but I don't think I do that with Scrivener. The things you can tweak are so standard for my style -- scene ideas, chapter ideas, meta-data like draft number and style or voice, research and character profiles, etc -- and once I get them out, I don't mess with them until my second draft when I revise what's necessary.

The character/setting profiles are great, but I only use them for longer works with multiple things that need to be kept track of. I try to keep a file for each character and it even lets me stick a photo on there instead of a notecard.

Also, I'm a terrible person and got my version of Scrivener by torrenting. I fully plan on buying it to support the company, but I don't have the money right now.

OtisTheBulldog's picture
OtisTheBulldog from Somerville, MA is reading The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz August 15, 2012 - 2:30pm

I actually picked up the Scrivener demo because of this site (and probably you, Courtney). I'm due to buy the full version now. I used it to write my submission for the Scare Us event. I didn't take a lot of time to really learn it or fool around, but even using it's very basic features and being lazy with it, it's a great tool. Once I stop being lazy and get down with it, I see it as being extremely valuable.

I plan on expanding my Scare Us submission into a novel or novella. There are themes and ideas that I just need to do that i can't do in that format. I'm just not sure how to go about preparing and starting to expand on some of this. But I'm going to have some Scrivener fun just developing characters and using those worksheets.

I think I'm more of the mindset of not plotting too much. Having a loose idea of where it's going and some key plot points would probably work best for me, and never really committing too much to them in the first place. For example, I have the final scene and a loose final paragraph worked out in my head and i have it written down. I think no matter what happens in the middle, it will always end up there as it's a fitting end (I'm going to blow up my hometown, nature wins). 

In the meantime, I need to figure out some key scenes or ideas that will advance it to the conclusion and jot them down and just roll with it, changing things, scrapping things and adding things as the story demands. 

Scott MacDonald's picture
Scott MacDonald from UK is reading Perfidia August 15, 2012 - 3:05pm

If it's short fiction I'll write and see where it takes me.  I like to wrap up a short story with something that brings the rest together, so I try to have an idea of where it will go, but generally I'll just start writing and that will spark an idea that then needs the a rewrite of the earlier parts and the whole lot just grows.

I've managed to finish one novel length piece of work - 132,000 words - and it flows fairly well (most of it, anyway) and works logically (after about forty rewrites) and the only way I managed it was a kind of "fleshing out" process. 

I had an idea of the plot and scribbled down an incredibly rough idea of what I wanted in about 1,000 words.  That sparked ideas and I went back and added them (sometimes it was entire plot lines and characters, sometimes merely sentences that I kind of liked).  This gave me an idea of the characters I would need to ensure that the story would progress properly.

From that point I had my basic set of characters and I then set about writing detailed character descriptions in a notebook form that I could refer to as I went along (from likes/dislikes, to character history, to how they took their coffee) and made the length of each of these proportional to their input into the story.  Sometimes characters took on a life of their own and I realised that they needed a bigger part in the story or that they could be used again for a story of their own.

Once I had this I then started separating out points that were key elements to the story and fleshing these out with more detail, basically layering each "event" that was key to the plot.  This often led me to go back and add additional elements that would draw the later elements together (ie. the character will act like x towards the middle of the story, therefore that action needs to be justified by history y in the earlier part of the story).  This went on for some time.

After looking at this, there began to appear obvious chapters to the story, where break points would be needed.  So I separated out each of these areas.  I ended up with 32 logical chapters and a series of notes that basically said chapter 1 begins at point a and ends up at point b and actions c,d and e need to take place during that chapter.  This meant that I could work (if I chose) on individual chapters out of sequence and refer back to the actions in the notes. 

The notes, all the while, kept expanding, so I had reference points to avoid as much contradiction as possible (it didn't always work and rewrites had to be employed to iron out discrepancies - in one particularly noteworthy moment I realised that I had mother remembering her daughter waking in a specific house when earlier in the story I had clearly said that the girl had died before the family had moved to that house...ooops).

With this particular method I felt that I could then set myself targets and timescales to aim for (ie. I would finish chapter 1 by such and such date etc) and also plan an expected end point for writing the first completed manuscript, as I knew the approximate length of the book.  This helped immensely as I had a date I was working towards and could check that I was on target.  This gave me the discipline to keep writing as it meant that if I ended up ahead of schedule I could take a couple of guilt-free evenings off from writing without feeling that I was procrastinating.  I simply set myself up a very basic excel spreadsheet to log what I had written that would flag if I was falling behind.

I also found that this particular method, for me, meant I could focus on crafting sentences and getting a feel for the story.  I've not been completely successful, but it did mean I could hunt for that elusive "voice" of the story within the writing, instead of feeling I had to barrel forward focusing only on story progression.

I also managed to surprise myself by turning out the first draft in about three months and also avoided the particular pit-fall that I used to find, whereby I would get about 80,000 words into a story, with no end in sight and no particular clue of how it was all going to wrap up (I have about six manuscripts, fitting this description, that are sitting there waiting for some sort of closure).

I'm not sure that this would work for everyone, but for me it resulted in a completed manuscript that I'm not too ashamed of and a process for mapping out a second book.

Hope this helps.

OtisTheBulldog's picture
OtisTheBulldog from Somerville, MA is reading The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz August 15, 2012 - 3:12pm

Scott - awesome, thanks for the input & insight.

Renfield's picture
Renfield from Hell is reading 20th Century Ghosts August 15, 2012 - 7:10pm

Also, I'm a terrible person and got my version of Scrivener by torrenting. I fully plan on buying it to support the company, but I don't have the money right now.

Thing's $40. Eat cuppa noodles for a week or two.

James McArthur's picture
James McArthur from Potato is reading a book August 15, 2012 - 7:38pm

When I began writing my novel, I had a basic outline of the plot. By basic, I mean I had two plot points: espionage agent working for illegal agency, narrative climax takes place in Chicago. That was pretty much it. When I started writing it and getting into it, sub-plots happened, characters evolved, a romance blossomed that was not planned, a romance I had planned on developing died before it was born. A character I never thought of in the original plan came to life and had a great impact on the development of the protagonist. I came up with a backstory for one of the supporting characters pretty much on the fly and while doing that, realized I had just come up with the seed for an important plot element in the second book. At one point I realized I had no idea how the plot was going to get from one point to another point at the rate I was going, but I was a few thousand words from having to worry about that (I write chrnologically for the most part) but I didn't worry about it. I figured I would figure it out by the time I got there and I did. It was all pretty much by the seat of my pants and unplanned. It began as a short story meant to be a few thousand words long and end up as a self-published piece on Amazon, now it's an 110K novel (which I think is pretty good) I'm working on the second draft of with the ultimate intention of publishing (not on Amazon). I apologize if that made no sense. I don't revise stuff like this.

Chris Johnson's picture
Chris Johnson from Burlington NC is reading The Proud Highway August 15, 2012 - 8:58pm

One day I started writing. I knew it was going to take me forever after six pages. I wrote this story longhand because I was incarcerated at the time. My hand was aching, but I had to get the story out. I couldn't work out, couldn't think right, people were asking me if I was depressed or something because I was thinking about the story all the time. It's okay to not know where it's going to lead, just don't force the ending. That's the kiss of death. Be okay with being on the road to somewhere. Writing is fun, man. I have a blast while I'm doing it. I go back and I think "this is terrible" and I rewrite, but that's later. Don't worry with plot. Just write your story. If you know what happens, and what you want your story to be about, then just start writing. One word at a time and then build your paragraphs with sentences that form chapters or if you're really ambitious, pull a Dolores Claiborne and string the whole thing together that way. Sorry to be a smartass but you need only a vague idea of what happens first and what comes after that, and what you want the overarching theme to be about, but if you write from the plot, that's all people are going to see. Write from the characters. Give them life. Play God with your characters, write from them, and then you have a good story. Worry about plot and theme when you come back with the rewrite. My story I wrote when I was in the hoosegow? 150 handwritten pages and my hand cramped for a week. It was worth it. I'm still rewriting it, but it was totally worth it. Just write. Whenever you can, just stop what you're doing and burn that story out as fast as you can. Be okay with not knowing how everything's gonna turn out and just write. It'll come. If it doesn't, force it. Use various disciplines you've read about. The egg-timer method. It's not a bad idea. What else are you gonna do? It's gonna read like it's been processed if you worry too much about plot. Write organically. Trust me on this. I didn't read everybody else's statements but if somebody said the same thing, I agree with you.

Bradley Sands's picture
Bradley Sands from Boston is reading Greil Marcus's The History of Rock 'N' Roll in Ten Songs August 16, 2012 - 3:39am

I outline the entire thing. In the outline, a description of a scene can be anywhere from a sentence long to a page long. I constantly go back and rewrite the outline as I progress forward. It's much easier to do that than to have to do big rewrites of the actual prose. I'd much rather rewrite quickly/poorly written text in the outline than prose that I've labored over. Nevertheless, I never follow my outlines exactly and a lot of things get changed and scenes get added as I write the book. I also write character profiles before I start, including their past histories, descriptions of their personalities, and how they behave when facing different circumstances.

GaryP's picture
GaryP from Denver is reading a bit of this and that August 18, 2012 - 7:00am

I've tried both ways (outlining and seat-of-pants). Both have "worked," in that I got a finished product. Both failed in that said products did not sell. Obviously it's not the methods that're at fault.

My method for shorts is to just write. I've finished stories and sent them on their merry way. But I also have a bigger bunch that are unfinished, because I never have an ending in mind. Most of my shorts start with me doing some "free writing" and then a story emerges. But I don't know where it's going and so I don't finish it, because my biggest writing problem is storytelling. I don't know if it's a problem with plotting, there's a plot there, but the storytelling doesn't grab the reader by the [insert body part here]. My endings tend to be pretty predictable. And, yes, I've tried to come up with endings first, but my brain doesn't seem to work that way. 

The advice for this is simple:

  • Come up with an ending that's not predictable (not being an ass when I say this). Write out ideas for the ending. Throw all of those away because, as they were my first thoughts, they're too easy/predictable. Now come up with more endings ... I usually can't come up with additional endings and the story sits. And sits.
  • Most endings are an either/or. When I get to the end, my character can most obviously do either A or B. I need to come up with C--which is surprising, but still fits the story.

And so I continue with this "process" (trying tweaks here and there) in hope that something clicks in my brain and I suddenly "get it." 

Great, now I'm depressed. 

underpurplemoon's picture
underpurplemoon from PDX August 18, 2012 - 11:35pm

I start with the beginning and then write an epilogue. And then I go from there. Like choosing a destination to go on vacation. The fun part is in the middle. Once you get to your vacation spot, you finally relax and enjoy the fruits of your labor.

Nick Wilczynski's picture
Nick Wilczynski from Greensboro, NC is reading A Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin August 19, 2012 - 1:33pm

I tried to do a proper outline, hell, my original plan for Citizens was to have three or four proper graph outlines (one for each plot) but it didn't work out for me.

So, after a couple of drafts of the full novella I started doing scene lists. That worked out great for me. I would go through the whole story on my computer, write down a few words to title each scene and then I developed a series of codes to line up with various recurring qualities.

For instance, I labelled scenes as "Dialogue Heavy" or "Action Scene" "Plot Momentum" and of course the most important label for me was "A" which corrresponded to "Self Indulgent Philosophical Rambling" (anyone who has read my current draft in the Workshop is likely to be shocked at how many of those sections have already been slashed to ribbons).

I also broke them down thematically, for instance this scene focused on "$" or Money and Materialism, or "F" (Foreign Policy and Interpersonal Relations) or "Br" (Brainwashing and Madness). I also broke down which characters were involved in each scene.

Towards the end of my outlining work what I did was establish their locations in time, and how long each scene took. I have literally got a list of dates in 2009 that correspond to events in the book.

But traditional outlining never worked for me.