L. L. Lehmann's picture
L. L. Lehmann from São Paulo is reading The Quantity Theory of Insanity October 6, 2015 - 4:25am

I'm currently working on my first novel and I'd like some advice. 

What are some of your strategies as far as writing chapters in order or randomly (as inspiration dictates)? Is there a more "orthodox" way of doing it?

I'd appreciate any help!!

Gordon Highland's picture
Gordon Highland from Kansas City is reading Secondhand Souls by Christopher Moore October 6, 2015 - 5:38am

I do a fair amount of outlining in advance, so by the time I'm ready to start generating actual words, writing them in order isn't too much of a problem and I'm not waiting for inspiration to strike. A lot of my stuff has been nonlinear, but I still prefer writing chapters in the order they'll appear as often as possible, so I have a better feel for the reader's experience as far as what information is revealed when, as well as for the consistency (or evolution) of its voice. I use Scrivener software, and one thing I was most excited about is how much easier it makes working nonlinearly, but I still find myself not writing out of order very often. And with the first chapter being so important, I assume it'll be heavily rewritten once the rest of the book is done, so I try not to let that bog me down on the first pass. If more research is needed for a certain chapter beyond what I did in outlining, I'll usually stop and do it right then instead of coming back to it.

That's just me, though. A lot of people like getting as many words down as quickly as possible for momentum, while I'd rather get it (mostly) right the first time and don't like doing much rewriting.

L. L. Lehmann's picture
L. L. Lehmann from São Paulo is reading The Quantity Theory of Insanity October 6, 2015 - 6:10am

Thank you so much for such thourough advice. It is very interesting that you mentioned how much the first chapter might change and be reviewed as the book evolves. I do think I've been obsessed with my introduction, which is keeping me from moving on with the story.

Now, if I could pick your brain just a little more, would you mind sharing what type of outlining best works for you? I've been using a lot of free writing, but it seems like I'm mostly rewriting outlines than getting to a starting point..

Thanks again.


Gordon Highland's picture
Gordon Highland from Kansas City is reading Secondhand Souls by Christopher Moore October 6, 2015 - 7:34am

The types of things I find myself adding to the first chapter upon revision are a few bits of subtle foreshadowing (especially if there's anything from the final chapter I can bookend), putting the character in a situation that immediately illustrates the essence of their personality, and of course polishing up the voice if it evolved over time.

When it comes to outlining—for me—each chapter is a separate document in Scrivener, each of which contains its own notes pane and an index card. The index card I use for a brief chapter summary, because that's what I see in the master outline view with all the other chapters. The notes pane is where I do most of my brainstorming at the chapter level. You can also toggle that notes pane to show notes for the entire project, and that's where I jot down big-picture stuff, a few thematic ideas, things to watch for during revisions, etc. But at the chapter level, I'm brainstorming things like the types of locations that would most heighten tension, relevant bits of research (though I keep my master research clippings in other documents), traits of new minor characters that don't have their own dossiers, or any cool phrases or dialogue snippets that come to mind.

Most of the "free writing" I do in my head, and just type in the good stuff that sticks with me. I'll end up with two or three plot points per chapter in my outline (much more will actually happen than that, but it's all I need to get me started). When I'm done with the outline, right before starting to write a scene I'll note what each character wants from the other (their "motivation") so I can get the subtext right when they're being manipulative. I also delete notes once they get implemented. 

The reason I outline so much is because I'm a very slow writer of prose and don't have time to explore a lot of dead ends, so I'd rather lose those at the idea stage instead of the writing one. It can be frustrating holding yourself back when you really want to start writing (outlining isn't for everyone), but for me it's worth it. As the old expression goes: "If I had six hours to chop down a tree, I'd spend the first four sharpening my axe." If you're feeling desperate to write while outlining, you could write some short stories exploring the different characters; that could be useful.

Thuggish's picture
Thuggish from Vegas is reading Day of the Jackal October 6, 2015 - 9:57am

I've tried the totally out of order thing, it's hard for me. Doing things mostly in order is far easier, but sometimes I skip ahead a little if I'm not sure what needs to happen next, then go back and fill in. And if I'm feeling super inspired about something I'll write it while in the mood. (Why wouldn't you?)

When I outline, which is pretty loose, and I don't always, I use bullet points. Usually this is either when I'm trying really hard to push forward (i.e., not inspired), or outlining what I've already written so I can look over it easier and track different plot threads.

It's a "system" that's working for me.

I don't think there's much of ANY orthodoxy in this craft, though.

Brandon's picture
Brandon from KCMO is reading Made to Break October 6, 2015 - 10:18am

The first book I wrote was about 270 pages and took three years to write. My second one ended up being 450 pages and took only one year to write. The difference? Outlining. I'm a consummate outliner now. I have one document that's all about character profiles: main, supporting, and small. I've got another doc that has my chapters and short summaries of those chapters. I've got a brainstorming doc which is more or less my freewrite space. I've got an outline doc where I've laid out everything that's going to happen. Then, of course, is the current chapter outline which I keep in the manuscript.

Essentially, I know where I've been, what I'm about to do, and where I'm going at all times. I'm like Gordon when it comes to drafts: I want to get it as close to perfect as I can the first time. That may mean I only get 500 words typed that day, but those 500 are going to be as close to final edit ready as possible. Also, there's a lot less time spent in the chair deliberating on what I'm going to do next. Less writer's block.

Gordon Highland's picture
Gordon Highland from Kansas City is reading Secondhand Souls by Christopher Moore October 6, 2015 - 12:28pm

Yes, all of that. Writing's a lot more fun once I'm spending my time coming up with the words instead of scratching my head over plot. It's a delayed gratification, for sure, but what's a couple of months compared to the next couple of years? Also, talking about character dossiers, I assign known actors to each of them, with a little pic open at all times to keep me consistent (just appearance, not personality).

How timely: today's Chuck Wendig blog post details several methods for outlining. Mine is basically the "scenes and sequences" method. 

Chacron's picture
Chacron from England, South Coast is reading Fool's Assassin by Robin Hobb October 6, 2015 - 1:26pm

I always write the chapters in order. Occasionally I want the order of events to change in later drafts, so sometimes later chapters become earlier ones, or visa versa. I'm a discovery writer, I don't do outlining at all. I have an idea in my head for an ending but it usually changes. I do write notes and ideas and sometimes some good lines that occur to me before I reach the right place to put them, but apart from that, there's no plan. I write such long books that I like to get the first draft as good as possible, but I tend to need more than one. The last book I wrote had two, and the third and final was a tidied up and gutted version of the second. The chapter order didn't change much there while I was writing, but the order of events I had in my head came out a little differently, but this was fine.

L.W. Flouisa's picture
L.W. Flouisa from Tennessee is reading More Murakami October 6, 2015 - 2:38pm

When I wrote Uploaded Fairy, I had written the short stories first, and then later outlined each chapter as a self-contained character arc for the first half of the novella. Then I wrote the second half during NaNoWriMo, thinking it at first to be its own story. But in the end it just kind of came together as a novella. Then in that second half I included other side-stories to flesh out the world.

All this to say is novellas in my case are often accidental. But it was able to develop a theme on its own without me conceptualizing it.

Hope that helps.

Anna Gutmann's picture
Anna Gutmann from Ohio is reading American Gods October 6, 2015 - 7:01pm

When I wrote my first manuscript, I wrote completely out of order, and pretty much "pantsed" the whole thing. I did have an outline but it was more of just bullet points to help me remember scenes. At the end I stitched it all together and POOF! I was done.

My methods have changed drastically since then, I think mostly as a result of being in a job for awhile that involved a lot of logic and puzzle solving. Now I'm a fanatical outliner, and I write my stories completely in order with the rare exception of coming up with some dialogue or an idea for a scene that I jot down as notes on the way. I adhere very strictly to plot points and such in the first draft, ensuring that everything falls exactly where it should. If these happen to move around a little in the revisions, though, I'm okay with that.

The way I outline involves summarizing each chapter of the book, along with the estimated word count so I can stay on track. I also mark where the major plot points fall according to chapter. During the writing process I then break down these chapter summaries even further, outlining the different scenes that will comprise each chapter with guesswork as to how many pages they'll each take up. I usually do these super detailed breakdowns in batches by plot point. For instance, in my current WIP I started with detailed outlines of chapters 1-7 where chapter 7 was the first plot point. When I finished writing all 7 I then stopped and did a detailed outline of chapters 8-14, where 14 is the midpoint. This helps me catch plot holes and the like prior to me diving into the actual writing, and has been a life saver. I try sometimes to do the full detailed outline prior to beginning the manuscript at all but usually I get too anxious to write.

Having gone to both extremes at one point or another (pantser vs planner; writing out of order vs in order), I can tell you with certainty that neither way is wrong. Out of order allowed me to hit all the scenes I was most excited about first so I was overall more excited to sit down and write, while in order helps me stay on track and revise plot holes as soon as I find them. Really, there is no right or wrong way. I will say in terms of outlining, at least having some sort of straw man helps overall for any writer, I think! There are a thousand ways to write, and each way has its own pitfalls and advantages :-).

Hope this helps in some way ... I love hearing how other people's writing processes go.

L.W. Flouisa's picture
L.W. Flouisa from Tennessee is reading More Murakami October 6, 2015 - 4:51pm

Interesting thing to note above. I know with the one I mentioned I wrote a seven point structure per chapter. The reasoning at the time was to trick myself into thinking of writing my novella as several self-contained stories that build to a larger arc.

Mostly cause I've always been more a short story person, which I now currently discover. (And to be honest, when it's based on situations you're familiar with, even a little, you have to outline less.)

L. L. Lehmann's picture
L. L. Lehmann from São Paulo is reading The Quantity Theory of Insanity October 7, 2015 - 7:13am

Thank you all for such great advice. It's interesting to see how many strategies can be used, and as @Thuggish pointed out:

I don't think there's much of ANY orthodoxy in this craft

I'm looking forward to trying all the different techniques everybody mentioned here and I really enjoyed Chuck Wendig blog post (thank you, Gordon)

Cheers and thanks again :)


L.W. Flouisa's picture
L.W. Flouisa from Tennessee is reading More Murakami October 7, 2015 - 10:56am

If all else fails, try your own techniques too. I like to don my mad scientist cap with typing.

lizlazzara's picture
lizlazzara from Boston, MA is reading The Kills, To Show and To Tell, The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching, Understanding Schizophrenia. December 9, 2015 - 12:08pm

I try to plan as much in advance as I can as far as character development so that I can let them dictate where the story goes. I'll begin with a loose idea of what I want the plot to be and where I want to end up by the final page, but I ultimately let the characters and their actions surprise me when they can, and take those surprises to the page. 

So yes, I do write in order, but the reasons for it feel more organic and natural to me than heavily outlining ahead of time and then writing scenes as I feel inspired or willing to do so.