Books on writing craft aren’t for everyone, which is totally fine. I happen to get a lot out of them, but my approach is to take what works and scrap the rest. When I read craft books, it’s with an eye toward finding the gems that will supplement and strengthen my existing process, then I promptly forget the parts that don’t resonate with me.
While drafting Dance All Night: A Dance Off Holiday Novella, I noticed I was using elements from a number of different sources in my process, and I was able to pinpoint which craft books had given me each of these tools. The thing was, I hadn’t really thought about this as I was doing it. As I’d read each book, I had filed away the parts that appealed to me in my mental writer’s toolbox. During the process of planning, drafting, and revising the novella before sending it to my editor, I had used these tools without thinking, “I should use that step from that method.” The tools were just there, right when I needed them.
In this post, I’ll walk through each step and link the book that gave it to me. My thanks to all of these wonderful writers for sharing their tips and knowledge!
Step 1: GMC
After brainstorming the idea for the novella, I settled on the main characters, both of whom already existed in the world of this series. Neither of them had big roles in the previous books, so I started crafting their character bios by jotting down what I already knew about them—basic stuff like “Nik is Dimitri’s younger brother” and “Jess is a professional dancer on The Dance Off.”
Then I filled out their GMCs, which stands for Goal, Motivation, and Conflict. I first learned about this from Rock Your Plot by Cathy Yardley, which is a great resource if you’re a pantser wanting to dip your toe into story structure planning (as I was), although Deb Dixon is credited with literally writing the book on GMC.
I wrote out their internal and external GMCs like this:
Basically, GMC outlines what the characters want, why they want it, and what’s in the way of them getting it. External GMC has to do with the exterior plot and internal GMC deals with the character’s interior life. It’s the easiest way I know to make sure the characters have some depth before I begin.
Step 2: Story Beats
Once I had the characters and a general idea for the story, I wrote a blurb and sent it to my agent and editor to make sure they were on board. They liked it, but the blurb only covered Act 1, and I still needed a full romantic storyline. I turned to Romancing the Beat by Gwen Hayes.
Romancing the Beat breaks down the arc of a romance into sixteen story beats. If you’ve ever watched a rom com, these beats will feel familiar to you. Because Gwen is a kind soul, she also has a Scrivener template available for free on her website! I installed it in a new Scrivener project and got to work filling in the beats.
By the time I was done, I felt like I’d accomplished something big. Yeah, there were still a few holes and loose plot points, but I had a story!
Note to self: this step always takes longer than you think it will. Leave ample plotting time with the next WIP.
Step 3: Scene Cards
I was tempted to begin writing right then and there, but considering how vague some of my plot points were, I figured I’d better make a scene card for each beat.
Enter Story Genius by Lisa Cron.
I love this method. I talk about it a lot on social media because it works for me and has deepened the quality of my characters and stories. But I didn’t have time to give this novella the full Story Genius treatment. The manuscript was due to my editor in three weeks. Despite my initial anxiety about the scene cards, they’ve since become one of the most useful tools in my arsenal. If I wanted to make sure I really had a story, I needed to at least make scene cards.
Each scene card describes 1) what happens in the scene, 2) how the POV/main character feels about it, 3) what occurs as a consequence of what happened, 4) the realization they undergo as a result, and 5) what they logically go on to do next.
I went through each beat, transferring my notes to scene cards (and scene docs, if I’d written snippets of dialogue already) and filling in the missing pieces. By the end, I had 21 scene cards and an epilogue, which was my first inkling that this novella would not be as short as I’d originally planned.
Side Note: Step 2.5: Shared Backstory
I had decided the characters had a brief shared history, and while writing the beats, I quickly realized I couldn’t continue without knowing what had happened in that one pivotal scene. So I took a quick detour and wrote the scene, something I learned from Story Genius’ emphasis on writing key backstory scenes. It helped immensely and became the cornerstone for the whole story. (And the first chapter of the novella.)
Step 4: Sketching
Since I’d already started sketching out sections of the scenes in my beat notes (and I was pressed for time), I decided I’d write this more like a Draft Zero and loosely sketch out each scene from beginning to end, making sure I was hitting all the major points included in my scene cards. (This also took off a lot of the pressure to get the story right the first time, considering how fast I was writing it.)
My background is in art, so in my head this works the same way as blocking out the main shapes of a composition to get it all down on the paper, working with light, loose lines that can be erased or changed to add greater detail. In terms of writing, all I can say is I did this with more telling than showing, while also including notes like [show this] and [describe] in the text. This stage looked like a lot of dialogue and internal feelings.
This step allowed me to quickly sketch out a draft, and also pointed out a few changes I could make to the plot. I was halfway through and thinking about writing this blog post when I realized Monica Leonelle suggests this step in her book Write Better, Faster.
Step 5: Layers
Since I started doing NaNoWriMo a billion years ago (in 2004), my writing process developed through writing in layers. If I allowed myself to go back and edit extensively while writing, the story would never get completed. But I also had to note the areas where my writing was weak.
Instead of trying to be perfect in the first draft (something Past Alexis tried to do), I accepted that there were some story elements that wouldn’t be present in my first drafts—like setting and sensory details. These are the kinds of details I add in later passes.
And because I’d already sketched out the whole story, I could see how the characterization had deepened as it went on. So when I went back and filled in the scenes, I could also strengthen their arcs from the beginning with what I’d learned about the characters from reaching the end of the previous pass. Another trick I used was to change the font from one draft to the next, so it would feel fresh to my eyes, then printed the entire ms.
Leonelle and Cron both talk about this kind of layering in their books.
Step 6: Revising
Magic happens in revisions, and I will forever be grateful to Rachel Aaron for sharing her revision method in 2K to 10K. I wrote another blog post about it here, but the basic premise is to do a read-through of the whole draft and jot down notes for three resources: a timeline, a scene map, and a to-do list.
Once I have a complete first draft, I print out the ms. I bought a double-sided B&W laser printer a few years ago just for this purpose. I go through the printed copy with a pink pen (not red) and make my revision tools. It takes some time, but like the printer, it’s so worth it. Then I chunk the to-do list items by category and jump around the novel to fix them, using the scene map and starting with the biggest tasks first. After the to-do list is all checked off, I usually print the ms again to do line edits. (In this case, I printed it slightly before that step because I was stuck on how to add another layer of conflict, and seeing the whole thing on paper helped.)
Side Note: Step 0: Qualitative Data
I start a “Qualitative Data” doc in my Scrivener project at the very beginning. I got this idea from Monica Leonelle, and it actually helps me a lot.
“Qualitative Data” is basically a journal, where I can jot down an entry every day I work on the project. I note progress, mood, setbacks, frustrations, celebrations, word counts, whatever.
This works for me because it’s something no one else will ever see, so I can be totally honest about how the WIP is coming along without subjecting my critique partners to unfiltered whining or spewing it all over social media. It also allows me to go back and see when I completed certain steps and how they went, and is proof that I am making progress, even when my brain tries to convince me I’m not. That’s huge for me.
I hope this post was helpful! Here’s a list of the books I mentioned:
- Rock Your Plot by Cathy Yardley
- GMC by Deb Dixon
- Romancing the Beat by Gwen Hayes
- Story Genius by Lisa Cron
- Write Better, Faster by Monica Leonelle
- 2K to 10K by Rachel Aaron