As I work on my sixth book, Ghost Walk, which is a wholly different type of project than anything I’ve ever worked on before, I’m reflecting on the kind of writer I used to be vs the type of writer I am now. Somewhere along the way, things changed significantly. I didn’t really have a process for my first few books; I was a pantser at heart and in practice, and it worked. There was little to no outlining; I just took anything I had that remotely resembled an idea and ran with it. Now, while I still give myself plenty of freedom, I actually have a process from beginning to end, and I’m starting to think I like it.
These days, here’s how it works.
1. I wait for an idea to come along that really stands out, and I keep it. This could be something big, from a really neat idea that works for the whole plot or a major event, or something as minor as a character idea I think is pretty cool. From here, I take any even remotely related idea I get and see how I can combine it with what I’ve already got. This is the stage where I see just how many cool things I can combine and still have it make sense, keeping in mind that I have zero idea what the plot is yet.
2. I organize my ideas into something a little more tangible; character profiles, settings, names of locations, major events I think need to happen, things like that. I don’t know how they’ll all fit together yet, but once I’ve got the pieces, I can start putting together the puzzle.
3. Next is plotting time. Usually I’ll have some major event in mind, so I try to extrapolate from there. All I really need to get started is something around the major turning point, or the resolution of the conflict. I don’t need the beginning, middle, or very end just yet. I make sure I have a very general destination in mind, and that’s about all the planning I’ll do just yet.
4. Finally, I start writing. This, I’ve found, is the best way to go for me. I’ve planned enough to know sort of where I’m going, but not so much that I’m trying to force myself to a rigid schedule before I’ve gotten everything figured out. Actually writing is how I get to know my characters, the world they inhabit, and to see how the conflict I have in mind plays out. I could spend months making a detailed outline and writing would still be more beneficial to me. What I write could change, but it gives me knowledge of my world like nothing else can.
5. Once I’m a few chapters in and have a pretty comfortable grip on what’s going on, then I start planning again. Sort of. I’ll try to solidify my direction, and then in a simple Notepad document I’ll list the major events that I want to happen in every chapter. This is usually 6-10 items long, and I do everything else on the fly. This gives me enough room for things to happen naturally while keeping things structured enough that my chapters stay consistent in length and every chapter has interesting stuff going on. I tend to plan about three to four chapters in advance as well, so I know what I’m working toward in both the short and long term. This document also contains random notes for things I need to go back and fix (because if I do that before the book is done… well, it’ll never get done).
6. Once the book is finished, the editing begins, and this has become a much longer process since I started planning things out at all, but I also feel like it makes the end result that much greater in quality. Once I’m generally satisfied, off to the editor it goes.
Meanwhile, my process for writing in the past was to take a cool idea, start writing, and cross my fingers that it would eventually find itself. Most of the time it did.
I think I’m still somewhat of a pantser in that I only really need a vague path to follow before I jump into the project, but that’s because I genuinely believe that’s how I figure things out best. But I’m also much more organized, and that has definitely helped with my productivity. I’ve noticed that I’m writing faster and more confidently than I did in the past, which I hope is a trend that continues, because this book alone is set to be somewhere around 300,000 words. Beyond that I have at least two more books to write, and those are just the ones I’ve really figured out enough to start.
Have you noticed your methods change over the years? What has ended up working best for you?