My writing method

Wednesday 18 December, 2019

My writing method

How do you approach your writing? Are you a plotter of a pantser?

I plot, plot, plot. For me, structure isn’t something that comes naturally. On the contrary, it’s a lot of hard work, trying out ideas and rejecting them, moving elements around until they feel like they fit. I’d rather do that with notes and an outline than write a complete draft before I know what the shape of it is going to be, then have to untangle a mass of word spaghetti as I inevitably rework the structure wholesale. I’ve tried pantsing it a couple of times, and I always end up getting to about the 25% mark and hitting a brick wall.

Once I’ve had the initial idea for a story, I like to live with it for at least a couple of weeks, not really actively sitting in front of the computer and working on it but mulling it over and scribbling ideas down as they come to me, then typing them up later into a document. Eventually, there comes a point where my ideas doc becomes too unwieldy for me to be able read it from beginning to end and keep the whole thing in my head. At this point, I start to reorder my notes into what feels roughly like chronological order. I also do a character doc for my protagonist(s), charting their personal journey through the course of the novel. At around the same time I break the story into five broad acts (using the John Yorke structure — see his excellent book Into the Woods).

The final stage is the detailed chapter-by-chapter outline… and I mean DETAILED. I essentially write everything that happens — every scene, every plot twist, the gist of every conversation — in outline form, grinding it out as quickly as possible to keep the momentum going. It’s not unusual for me to end up with an outline of upwards of 30,000 words, but that’s great, as I can write it relatively quickly without having to worry about generating finished prose. It gives me a solid foundation from which to construct the first draft — in fact, I’d go as far as to say that the outline itself is, in effect, the true first draft for me.

And then, convinced that I’ve written a masterpiece, I put it away for at least the next four weeks, then get it out again, re-read it and realise I have to scrap half of what I’ve written and undertake the radical re-imagining I hoped I’d avoid by outlining so diligently. C’est la vie!