Once upon a time, I used to sit down at a blank page and write whatever popped into my head. Other times, I toyed with an idea first, and once I had a loose premise, I started writing. I wrote about unexpected superheroes, teenage vampires, epic fantasy worlds, parallel dimensions, corrupt ghosts, possessed mermaids…and as fun as it was to play around with these stories, none of them went anywhere. Most of them were never even finished. And when I did get far enough to type “The End,” those manuscripts languished in Revision Purgatory, forever finessing, never finishing. Needless to say, this approach wasn’t going to get a manuscript polished, let alone published. I needed to change my pantser ways and embrace the art of planning.
I started reading craft books about story structure, outlining, and writing faster. One thing these books had in common was the assertion that knowing what you’re going to write before you sit down to write it makes the whole process easier. That seemed reasonable. If you put in extra work in pre-production, maybe post-production wouldn’t be such torture. I decided to give it a go.
Here’s a list of the craft books I read, in the order in which I read them.
- Rock Your Plot: A Simple System for Plotting Your Novel (Rock Your Writing Book 1) by Cathy Yardley (and Rock Your Revisions: A Simple System for Revising Your Novel (Rock Your Writing Book 2) by Cathy Yardley)
- Take Off Your Pants!: Outline Your Books for Faster, Better Writing: Revised Edition by Libbie Hawker
- Write Better, Faster: How To Triple Your Writing Speed and Write More Every Day (Growth Hacking For Storytellers 1) by Monica Leonelle
- 2k to 10k: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love by Rachel Aaron
- Romancing the Beat: Story Structure for Romance Novels (How to Write Kissing Books Book 1) by Gwen Hayes
- Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel (Before You Waste Three Years Writing 327 Pages That Go Nowhere) by Lisa Cron
Each of these gave me a different piece of the puzzle I was trying to solve. Rock Your Plot broke down story into simple pieces. Take Off Your Pants took it even further, showing how those parts connect. Write Better, Faster showed me how to utilize writing story beats before fleshing out the scenes. 2K to 10K taught me how to revise. Romancing the Beat helped me craft an outline specific to romance novel structure. And Story Genius elevated all of it, taking me through the process of crafting a story blueprint from the inside out, as opposed to outside in.
People tell me planning “takes the fun out of writing.” I thought that, too, once upon a time. But guess what? I wasn’t plotting correctly! I had boring scenes in my outline. When I got stuck, it wasn’t because I had an outline, but because I refused to change the outline. The book didn’t need those scenes, and I was too inexperienced to figure it out. I was also thinking of my outline as a rigid, inflexible thing, set in stone. But that’s not true, either. You created your outline. If you decide to go in a different direction, just change the outline! You’re the one who has control over it, not the other way around.
All my outlines/plans/beats/blueprints have been different from one another, and no matter how much I plan out, I always run into unexpected things as I write. Most of the time, I go with it, and there’s enough flexibility and space in the outline that it works without making major changes to the plan.
Since I started reforming my pantser ways, I’ve completed two full-length novels, a novella, and a short story. I’ve also outlined and started writing several other stories as sequels to some of those. As for those old projects? I tried revising the two I’d hit “the end” on, but I had to face the truth. One of them will need to be rewritten from scratch, the other I’m just not interested in right now. Sad, but it happens. They served their purpose at the time.
What method do you use, and how is it working out for you? Are there any areas of your writing process that could use some tweaks?