For any aspiring novelists out there, how many books do you have on how to write a novel? At least a dozen are sitting on my shelf, with a handful more taking up space on my Kindle – all mocking me. I probably subscribe to the same magazines that you do, and I’ve read many of the same articles that debate the merits of outlining versus “pantsing,” or discovery writing.
All these resources have led me to one conclusion: no one can tell you the best way to write your novel.
Not really surprising, is it? After all, creativity is such a personal endeavor.
Guess what? Even writing your novel won’t necessarily tell you the best way to write your novel. It may, however, offer some valuable tips to point you in the right direction.
Trial and error… and error
My current novel project is not my first. It’s not even my second or third. It’s number four—the first not born during National Novel Writing Month.
Because of Chris Baty’s brilliance, I’m the proud parent of two very rough, completed novel drafts and 37,000 words of another novel that was my favorite writing project ever—before this current novel.
Given the nature of the assignment (50K in 30 days), all were generated via the pantsing method, which made sense since this was how I had produced all other fiction work.
Thus, I always assumed that I write best using the discovery method.
However, I suspected that something was awry when reading Stephen King’s On Writing the second time around. He described his revision process, which appears to consist of maybe three passes through the complete draft. Sure, he’s Stephen King, and he’s literally been writing longer than I’ve been alive.
As I started tackling the task of revising my first novel draft, I realized that I was going to need way more than three or even six passes. After a couple of false starts, I found myself roughly 120,000 words into the second draft—with no end in sight.
Back to the outlining board
My freewheeling, unstructured process had taken me on so many twists and turns that I had lost my main plot thread. The only way I could figure out how to control this monster was to go back, outline what I had done, and plan my revisions.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Many writers, in fact, find this method works best for them. They like the unbridled creativity of discovery writing. Then, they go back and plot out what they’ve done, only then allowing that rational editor to assess the work and identify issues.
It’s a solid plan. Really. But life is short. It’s hard enough to make time to write, much less write an extra 200K or 300K words while I explore scenarios.
For this novel, I once more turned to such ambitious titles as Book in a Month and 90 Days to Your Novel. While I realized that the proposed time lines would never work with my schedule, the planning process from 90 Days really helped me to organize my thoughts and to keep my novel moving forward.
As a result, I now have an 18,000-word synopsis and an outline consisting of roughly 100 scenes and 50 plot points (so far) charting two parallel story lines and a half dozen subplots.
So, does this put me squarely in the outliner camp?
The X Factor
In addition to following prescribed brainstorming exercises, I spent hours contemplating my characters and the story line during morning pages. Plus, I jumped into writing the opening chapters because I had signed up for an online novel-writing workshop to keep me on track. Both have been very helpful to me in nailing down my story.
Also, the 90 Days approach includes lots of prewriting, so you can safely explore scenes throughout your novel—without the pressure of adding to your “official manuscript.” All of this seems to fall under the discovery writing process.
So, long story short, I seem to be a planner or outliner who works well with liberal doses of discovery writing to jumpstart the creative juices. And it’s only taken me four novels and 300K words or so to reach this conclusion.
What process works best for you? And how have you reached your conclusion? Do you constantly refine your process, or do you stick with a tried-and-true formula?