So skaldic asked yesterday how do I (or we) plan out a novel, which is one of those great process questions that I can think about and talk about all day. Or, well, nearly.
My process has been shifting over time, and it’s different with collaborative projects and solo ones. When I wrote my first novel (that you will never read), I don’t think I had much of an outline at all, just a random aggregation of notes and character sketches, and some dates on post-its. A lot of that novel came straight from my imagination and memory, because it was the obligatory Far Too Autobiographical First Novel that we all have to get out of the way before we can do good work and develop our craft.
From there I moved into the Gigantic Outline method. The proto-book which eventually became NIGHTCRAFT SISTER (which itself eventually got cannibalized into NIGHTCRAFT MOTHER) was called 360, and it was going to be a highly mathematically structured thing of 360 short pieces, divided into 12 chapters of 30 scenes each. I actually handwrote out a 360-line outline, starting with the major element in each chapter, and then filling in the 30 scenes that would build to each element. Then I wrote about two and a half chapters (again by hand–this was back in the days when I thought I could not compose on computer–ha!) before I realized that the project was made of fail: the protagonist was completely helpless and everything happened to her, she didn’t do anything.
I pulled back from that and rethought the problem, ultimately realizing that if she were also magic, she could be much more active and the story would be much more interesting. Hence Callie came into being.
That, however, necessitated a reworking of the outline. I pulled back from the 360 structure and let the story dictate its own needs. I still ended up with a 250,000 word book, but hey, I didn’t know any better.
The next novel I started from scratch (as opposed to all the revising and reshaping and cutting and recombining and blah-de-blah that the Nightcraft series has been subjected to) was my first NaNoWriMo, in 2006, when I wrote EEL RIVER. NaNo is a highly social event, involving write-ins at cafes, retreats, write-a-thons, etc–in other words, being quite mobile with one’s writing. The Gigantic Outline method was cumbersome for that. Also, I hadn’t had much time to prepare; I started the month with a rough-sketched one-page outline that had the major plot points, and I wrote the novel off of that.
And I LOVED that. I loved being able to see the whole story at a glance. Sure, it was short on details, but those would come out in the writing.
However, in the spring after my EEL RIVER NaNo, I learned about the Snowflake Method. That sounded like a fantastic idea. I had a haunted house novel I wanted to write, so I followed the method and wrote that story in a month, just like NaNo. (My former crit group, the Critters, were all going to do a novel-in-a-month together; the others fell off, but I finished it anyway.)
Trouble was, by the time I was actually writing the story, I hated it. I was bored with it–all the problems had already been figured out. There was no discovery process left. It was just too overplanned. I mean, nothing against the method–I still think it’s a great idea, and it obviously works for a lot of people–but for me, the joy of creativity was lost.
So for NaNo ‘07, I went back to my beloved one-page-outline method. I wrote DEMONHEAD, and it was a royal disaster. (That was where I discovered the Dragon Problem that I still refer to today.) Not nearly enough was figured out; and with the required pace of NaNo, I was writing so fast, I got way ahead of my own brain.
In the spring of ‘08, I rewrote DEMONHEAD from scratch, with a one-page outline and a whole bunch of notes and feedback from crit partners and brainstorming verbiage spread around on the desk to refer to.
It was also a disaster, just a slightly smaller one.
Thing was, I knew there was a good story in there, waiting to get out. I shelved it for a while and fiddled in the Nightcraft universe some more, and then for NaNo ‘08, I rewrote DEMONHEAD from scratch a third time, changing it from first person to third person, and writing from–yes–a one-page outline. This time, I think it works. It still needs revision, but I think the plot now holds together reasonably well. I’ll see for sure when I get into it again, which is next up on my agenda after OUR LADY is done.
Speaking of OUR LADY… then there’s collaborative writing. My first collaborative novel, ENTANGLED, is back on doctodd’s desk now. Our process was to brainstorm the plot, then he wrote out the outline for me to draft from. I asked for a one-page outline; he gave me about a page and a half. That was fine. I wrote an 80,000 word draft in about two and a half months, then handed it off. doctodd now tells me that he’s thought of whole new plot twists and elements…and I am pleased to leave them to him.
And now to OUR LADY OF THE ISLANDS. I told jaylake that I work best from a one-page outline. We brainstormed the plot as I did with doctodd; then jaylake presented me with a 26-page document, including background and world details. This is actually a novel synopsis, though it was written before the novel itself.
Yet the Snowflake problem didn’t happen to me this time–I’m almost 98,000 words into this thing, and I’m totally still having the joy of discovery. I think the difference is that I didn’t come up with all these details myself–even though we passed the outline back and forth a few times before I started writing. And there’s the occasional plot holes and problem and un-figured-out things–we had a particularly complex and fun one this morning, where we talked out why the MC would do the exciting and dramatic but incredibly risky and foolish thing that we need her to do at this point in the story, to make it all work out the way it has to.
So…in short…that is my process: figure it out anew each time. For my next large new project (after DEMONHEAD revisions), I will need to do a good deal of research, so even if the one-page outline method works, I’ll still need to have piles of notes at hand as I write. I do really like to see the shape of the whole story at a glance. Even at risk of dragons.
Everybody: tell me your process!