Tips of the Trade for May: Writing Process

This month:

What does my writing process look like?

The short answer:

1. Have an idea.
2. Write the idea down.
3. Meditate on the idea.
4. Ask your leaky beagle about the idea. Or a trusted friend if you have one.
5. Write a summary, synopsis, or outline. Or do none of those things.
6. Go to Amazon to see if someone has already used your beloved title.
7. Do some research. Then maybe do more research.
8. Write until the story is done.
9. Drink whisky/whiskey (depending on where you are in the world) to celebrate the completion of your (likely) terrible first draft.
10. Rewrite whilst complaining loudly on social media about rewriting. #amediting

The longer answer:

Okay, seriously—my process: I have a busy household, as do many of us, and I’m constantly interrupted, most often by a senile, fifteen-year-old cat with an attitude problem and a beagle with a leaky bladder. Then when the family members return home from school and work, they expect to be fed, which is supremely annoying. So my process usually involves me feeling panicked to get busy the moment everyone is out of the house and the animals are asleep. (They’re never asleep for very long. I wish giving Dimetapp to senile cats and leaky beagles wasn’t illegal and/or immoral.)

My actual process of writing—that involves a side-trip. Indulge me, pretty please.

You might have heard your favorite writers mention the notion of “plotters vs. pantsers” (note: pantsers is not to be confused with Panzers, a German tank vehicle used in WWII). What does that even mean, a plotter versus a pantser?

A plotter is a writer who plots their story ahead of time. There are varying degrees of this: some writers go so far as to plot every single chapter, like a detailed road map, so they never have any guesswork about where their story is going; other plotters are a little looser and will maybe plot the overall arc of the story and main characters as well as main plot points and major climactic moments or turning points, thus allowing some wiggle room as the story takes on a life of its own. (Because the story always takes on a life of its own.)

A pantser is someone who writes by the seat of their pants, i.e., they let the story unfold as they’re writing. Some writers insist that they can only know where a story is going as the story “tells” them. On writing, legendary American novelist E. L. Doctorow famously said, “It’s like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” I know a lot of writers who either currently operate with just their headlights or have done so in the past.

I started as a pantser, until I worked with an editor who was a stickler for outlines. She insisted I write them so we could see where the project’s rewrite was going before I spent months writing it. (One outline was nearly forty pages long!) I used to HATE outlines—like, douse them in gas and set them on fire—but now I sort of can’t live without them. The anxiety becomes overwhelming when I don’t know where a story is going, and then it paralyzes me, which is not at all useful.

[Note: This is where new writers need to be open to the possibilities: you will, and should, evolve as you venture farther along this writing path. If you are not evolving, i.e., constantly reevaluating how you are approaching your writing, take a step back and identify why. Greatness comes from failure—failure leads to growth.]

With that said, my process now involves a little pantsing, a bit more plotting, and—plot twist!— the Dreaded Synopsis. Yes, I write a detailed synopsis—like a book report in reverse—for every single project I’m considering. (Remember: not every idea has the legs to become a book!) I include the hook, the major events that will propel the story forward, the subplots, important developments that move a character’s arc—anything that I think I might need to tell the story*. I call it a reverse book report because it really is like writing a book report, only before the book has been written.

I do this so I can identify holes in the structure and plot and characterization. A synopsis usually ends up around five or six pages and so far, I’ve found this method to be extremely effective. If I can’t get five or six (or more!) detailed pages on the story I want to tell, then maybe the story needs more time to ferment or maybe the idea isn’t as strong as I first thought.

The problem for me with writing a full-fledged outline? Often a story will take an unforeseen left turn out of nowhere, and then the 20+ pages of outline after that point become mostly useless, so then I spend time rewriting the outline, and an unforeseen turn happens again, and on and on until I’m spending all my time rewriting the bloody outline and no time writing the actual book. The synopsis/reverse book report is sort of a compromise between a ginormous road map of an outline and none at all.

Other than that? Process for me means having my ducks in a row: a (potentially) solid idea, synopsis/reverse book report, soundtrack music, a notebook for notes and research, my computer, full cup of coffee, and a babysitter for the senile cat and leaky beagle. (Speaking of, do you know anyone who babysits senile cats and leaky beagles? Have them email me post haste.)


*James Scott Bell is a great writing resource. He has a ton of books out on craft but one from 2004 called Plot and Structure has a nifty formula in it: L.O.C.K.

L = Lead character: Who is my lead or main character?
O = Objective: What is my lead character’s objective?
C = Confrontation: My lead character is confronted by ______________ who opposes her because _______________.
K: Knockout, as in the ending: The ending will be a knockout because _____________ .

So, for example, for MUST LOVE OTTERS, it might look something like this:

My lead character is Hollie Porter, a twenty-something 911 operator who is lost in her current life.

Her objective is to find where she fits in the world, not just professionally but by what she can do that’ll bring happiness and fulfillment in both her personal and professional lives. (The same stuff we’re all looking for: job satisfaction, love/companionship, healthy relationships with family and/or friends.)

Hollie Porter is confronted by her inner demons (her unfulfilling relationships, her dissatisfaction with her career, her lack of self-esteem, her tendency to attract trouble, her need to make her father happy, the abandonment issues around her mother); these demons oppose her in the sense that until she faces them head-on, she won’t be able to grow as a person. If she chooses to not confront them, she’ll remain stagnant forever and thus the story will have no arc.

The ending will be a knockout when Hollie meets someone who teaches her to not be so hard on herself and to be brave enough to follow the career path that makes her feel fulfilled; she also opens up enough to fall madly in love.

Try this in the early days of putting down ideas for your own project and check out Bell’s books on Amazon. Don’t worry if the LOCK steps change. This is TOTALLY OKAY.

Let me know how it goes!

Thank you, Karen Hussey, for your great ideas for this column!


Have ideas, questions, or suggestions for Tips of the Trade?

Anything you want to know about the writing or editing process?

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