With two novels coming out early next year (one in January, one in March), friends and acquaintances have been asking me, “Wow, how do you write so fast?”
The truth is I started those novels (along with several others) many more years ago than I like to admit, some stemming clear back to college days. Recently I learned how to finish those partially written stories, which is why they now seem to be coming out one after another.
Although there are many methods that work for different authors, this system works for me. (By the way, I can’t take credit for any of these ideas, since they all came from workshops, books, and classes. If you’re a writer, you’ve surely run across some or all of them.)
First: The Idea
This is the easy part! The spark for an story can come from a news event, a friend’s experience, a dream, or just imagination. Far from a developed plot, it’s merely an image, a character, a conversation, a setting, or a fragment of a scene that pops into my head.
However I used to think that, armed with only this tiny idea, I could sit down at the keyboard and create a beautifully composed masterpiece with intricate layers and fascinating characters. Disappointingly what actually happened was, after about three chapters of pointless twaddle, I’d realize the story was going nowhere and give up.
That was because I had not yet learned “Plot Structure,” which I’ll return to in a minute. However, every one of my stories did start with that spark of an idea.
Second: The Story Goal
In retrospect, I’m embarrassed how long it took to realize that a story must have a plot. In a screen-writing class I took at UCLA, the instructor taught us that a hero must have a worthy goal that means everything to him, and during the story he must overcome powerful obstacles that try to prevent him from obtaining that goal. (This is not necessarily true for depressing literary fiction, of course, but then I don’t write depressing literary fiction).
The next step in my writing process is to fill in the blanks of the following sentence: (Name of character) wants (story goal), but (antagonist / conflict), so (what he/she does to overcome the antagonist). This simple rubric has provided an effective basic road map to the stories I want to tell.
Much has been written on plot structure, beginning with Aristotle’s observation that everything should be a beginning, a middle, and an end. I never had trouble coming up with beginnings and endings, but what to do in the middle? That’s the source of the famous Hollywood executive’s complaint: “This has no second act!”
I don’t have time to write in detail about plot structure, and others have done it far better than I could anyway. However, without an outline I would bog down hopelessly, with no idea how to find my way to the end. On the other hand, too detailed an outline can take the fun out of actually sitting down and writing a story, which entails imagination, discovery, and freedom.
To solve this problem, I usually start with a very simple structure (“the skeleton” of my story) to help me know where I’m heading. No more tearing up pages and pages of writing that doesn’t work. Who has time for that? Certainly not me!
As more ideas come to me, I write them down as scenes and plug them into my rough draft, which I’ve usually already started, because I just couldn’t wait. (Yes, I’m an impatient sort.) The outline helps me know where these new scenes should go.
Act 1 – The Beginning
I introduce the main character and her world, which is about to change drastically. Then something happens that forces the main character out of her old life. She must make a difficult decision that propels her into a new world (often leaving home). I jot down what that that decision is, and what forces her to make it.
Act 2 (First Half)
She encounters more obstacles to her goal, and tries to overcome them. She meets allies and the antagonist.
Mid-point: A twist happens, or the heroine reaches a turning point where she is tempted to quit. Instead, she recommits and throws herself whole-heartedly into overcoming the antagonist (or whatever is preventing her from achieving her goal.)
Act 2 (Second Half)
Difficulties worsen. (Sometimes I’ll take time to make a list of all the worst things that could happen to the heroine, so I won’t run out of ideas. I hate doing that to the poor girl, but without problems there’s no story!)
Black Moment: Some terrible crisis happens, making it appear that the heroine cannot possibly succeed. She experiences grief and despair, and nearly gives up before rallying.
Climax: With the aid of her allies and/or something the heroine has learned during the course of the story, she confronts the antagonist directly and wins. (In my stories, the heroine always wins. For me, reading is an escape from reality. If you want the bad guys to win, go read a newspaper instead.)
Resolution: Now the heroine experiences the new, better world that she has helped to bring about, with a warm embrace from the love interest and the promise of a bright future. Ahhh! How satisfying a happy ending is.
Fourth: Rough Draft
Now I take the bare-bones ideas in the outline and cobble them into something resembling a real story, dressing them up with dialogue and scene descriptions.
My most important trick is to forge ahead rather than going back to endlessly polish and re-write. I used to spend far too long on paragraphs, trying to get them “just right” before moving on, which kept me from ever finishing the darn book! It is hard to let go of imperfect prose and keep writing, but I’ve learned the hard way that if I don’t, a book that should only take a few months to write can take years.
Being the kind of person who occasionally likes to eat dessert first, I often write the “fun” scenes first, and then go back and link them together in order. That is just one reason why the outline is so important: it helps me make sure each scene is actually needed and works for the story as a whole, instead of wasting time on extraneous stuff.
Fifth: Critique Group
Now I’ll go back and fix my rough draft of the most obvious errors, then submit it to my critique partners. This is a humbling and painful process. No matter how wonderful I think my writing is, critiquers ALWAYS find something wrong with it. A lot of things, in fact. Sigh.
The good news is, feedback from a skilled critique group (and thank goodness, I have one), always makes the story better. As a matter of fact, many famous authors of the past submitted their mansucripts to peers for feedback, including Ernest Hemmingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. I was interested to learn that To Kill a Mockingbird, one of the great American novels, was vastly improved by the feedback of an editor before it was published. That kind of company makes me feel a little better!
Sixth: Beta Readers
After making changes and edits based on my critiquers’ feedback, I set the book aside for a couple of weeks and re-read it with fresh eyes. Next, I make final changes and give it to a few non-writer friends called “Beta Readers,” who generously provide unvarnished feedback. If the novel passes muster, I make any further small corrections and consider the book finished. It never will be “perfect,” because I always find things that could be phrased better or typos that somehow made it through the process, but at least…it’s done!
Well, that’s it. That’s my process. I’ve left out some other steps, such as research and picking characters’ names and book titles, which is harder than it sounds. I’ll write about those another time, but hopefully this gives you an idea of how my novels grow from a wisp of an idea to approximately 300 pages of (hopefully) thrilling and entertaining story. At least, that’s MY goal!