Since I have no assignment from my publisher yet, I thought I’d share my process. I’m currently planning the sequel to my novel that will be published next year, neck-deep in details and ideas and beats. I know everyone’s process is different, but perhaps learning mine will help someone else.
My Step 1 : Decide what the story is.
This sounds deceptively simple, but it really is straightforward. I’ve talked to writers who launch into a ten-minute dialogue about their book, and at the end, as they catch their breath, I know a lot of detail around the story, but I don’t really know what the story is. For my money, these people have wasted a lot of their time on window dressing without making sure the foundation of their house is solid.
You may see other advice about building the story out of elements that come up as you’re writing, but I think that approach is bankrupt. If you don’t know the story you want to tell, starting to write is just an exercise in futility and frustration as eventually, when you discover what your story actually is, you’ll have to discard much of the work you’ve already put in. Work smarter, not harder, as my grandfather often said.
Here are some examples of stories. Each of these examples presents a simple enough story, but the outcomes of those simple stories make masterpieces of literature.
- The Iliad – this is the story of a few weeks during the Trojan war when the commander Agamemnon and his best soldier Achilles have a falling out over a girl taken as a war prize.
- Hamlet – this is the story of how a Danish prince exposes his father’s murderer but also brings ruin onto his entire family as a result.
- The Great Gatsby – this is the story of how a self-made millionaire uses his fortune to win back his old lover who has married into old money and respectability.
My novel is the story of two brothers, attorneys, estranged for 10 years over a death penalty case, who try to settle the score over a different death penalty case.
My Step 2 : Start taking notes.
This part of my process is essentially brainstorming. Kind of. Maybe brainstorming with a little critical thinking thrown in.
During real brainstorming you just throw out idea after idea after idea, with no censorship or editing. There are no bad ideas. It’s only after brainstorming is over that you can go back and critically evaluate what you’ve come up with.
When I take notes, it’s not really brainstorming, because I already know what my story’s about. I’m past the ‘no bad ideas’ phase. I do censor myself, and I can have stupid ideas (often), but I try to keep the ideas flowing. What I’m trying to do with my notes is discover the individual stories inside the larger stories. In writer jargon, I’m trying to find the themes (overall subjects or motifs) and the beats (plot points).
These notes take several forms, I usually start with a notepad where I write down what I’m thinking about the story. I keep this pad with me most of the time, but in a pinch I’ll use the notepad on my phone and then transfer to paper. I prefer to keep these notes handwritten, because writing forces me to slow down, which lets my idea settle into my brain. I find when I type things out they stay in my brain as long as it took me to type them, only a few seconds.
After a while – half a notepad or so – I’ll have enough to start making note cards. These are regular 3 x 5 cards, and, yes, I do use the analog ones, the kind you hold in your hand. Again, typing is not my friend here. I need my own handwriting. I need the cards, so I can arrange them and rearrange them, and discard them, and recover them. I’ll tack them to my cork board, I’ll spread them on the table or on the floor. The cards are as much a tool to me as a chisel is to a carpenter.
Step 3 : Turn the notes into an outline.
When I have what I think is a decent story – or a decent start, anyway – I’ll create an outline. This outline is not your standard I.A.1.a sort of outline. I’m not making assembly instructions. Rather, this outline is more of a mind map, Plot point is connected to character is connected to theme is connected to story arc, and so on.
Before I start an outline I always know where the story starts and where it ends. I usually know major parts of the middle. Most of the rest of the story – the meat and potatoes – comes up when I create the outline. With an outline I can see where the story is thin, or where I’m jammed up with too much junk, or where there’s a gaping hole when I thought I’d built a wall.
The most important concept here is that my outline is a living document. It’s not a rigid blueprint, it’s a web of relationships that the story emerges from. My outline changes over time.
I’ll leave off here, I’ll revisit this topic the next time I don’t have anything to do for my publisher.