Monday, April 22, 2013


I've been thinking that my novel-writing process needs to include more planning time before I actually get to the point where I'm typing "Once upon a time." While writing Stone of Names, I hit several points where I realized that I hadn't really thought certain events through, and that I needed to go back and rewrite my earlier scenes so that my later scenes made sense.

I didn't have much in the way of an outline for this book. I started with three specific scenes in mind -- one at the start, one in the middle, and one at the end -- but with nothing specific planned out in between. It was fairly obvious to me what needed to happen between the first scene and the middle scene, but as I wrote, I realized that I wasn't sure what to put between the middle scene and the last scene. I wound up adding a couple of new characters, which made the last half of the book more interesting, but then I had to go back and introduce them briefly in the first half of the book to keep things tidy.

There were also plenty of little details that I needed to go back and add so that the main character was properly prepared to overcome a variety of obstacles. If I'd thought through those obstacles up front, I might have been able to plan for them ahead of time.

What I think I'd like to try for the next novel is something like this:

Step 1: General statements about the book's action. This could be as simple as two sentences: one describing the physical action (legendary warrior Aria Aviplix must find and destroy the Eye of Elfador) and one describing the emotional action (Aria is forced to confront her ex-lover, the Duke of Dredskul, and resolve her feelings for him). With these two statements made clear up front, I can design the rest of the novel to continually reinforce these themes.

Step 2: Chapter outline. This would be a brief outline, giving a few sentences to describe each chapter at a very high level. This lets me set the pace of the book and ensure that I've established a continuous line of action from the beginning to the end.

Step 3: Scene outline. I'd then break up each chapter into scenes, and for each scene, make a bullet-point list of what needs to happen, what information needs to be delivered, and what needs to happen in prior scenes to make the current scene work.

Doing this work up front would allow me to manipulate the action and the plot elements so that they're nicely distributed through the book, and so that there's no discontinuity or awkward shifts of direction.

The trick would be getting through this planning phase as expediently as possible. It won't be immediately obvious when I'm done with the planning phase, since I could easily wind up tinkering with the story outline for months. At some point I'll need to say "good enough" and start generating prose.

I have no doubts that I'll still wind up doing some level of revision and rewriting. As I'm writing the book and experiencing the characters and events, I may change my mind about a variety of things. But at least with a decent outline up front, I won't be in danger of hitting a dead end halfway through the book.

I'm quite sure that just this sort of planning is recommended by a variety of "how to write a novel" books, but I think that trying to follow someone else's recipe for art is a bad idea. You need to develop your own process that agrees with your own pace and your own goals. My process will probably continue to change with each book; hopefully this means that each book will be better than the last.