I’m now 21,055 words into Just One More Minute. Every novel is different, but the first 20K is always a major hurdle for me. I feel like it’s the stretch where I’m really getting to know my characters, feeling out the story and figuring out its voice. Since I’m writing dual point of view for this one, it’s been twofold. I’ve had to get to know both Rowan and Matt.
One of the questions I get asked the most is about my writing process. It’s taken me a few years, but I basically have a system now that never fails me. It’s also kind of a weird system.
I plot and pants.
Most of the authors I know are either/or. But I found that if I just rush in without a plan, I ramble aimlessly and usually don’t finish. Same goes for endless plotting; if I spend too much time on the details, I don’t even get started. So I’ve found a middle way.
Once I’ve decided on my plot and named my characters, I create my outline. (There’s also some character development in between, but I don’t really have a system for that yet. Right now I’m using a combination of exercises from Writing New Adult and character profiling from my forum roleplaying days.) My process for outlining goes a little like this:
- sketch out plot using three-act structure
- write a synopsis
- set a word count budget for the project
- break down budget into chapters
- sketch out each chapter
Sometimes I’ll write the synopsis first. It depends on how clear the story is to me and how impatient I am to get started. Some plots need more development than others. The three-act structure helps me accomplish that.
Since reading Writing New Adult, I’ve been experimenting with my system a little by using Deborah Halverson’s development tips. While outlining Just One More Minute, I started with the hook (or tagline).
A waitress and the guy who stole her dream job and broke her heart years ago must work together when they inherit a bakery.
I write my hooks knowing that they’ll probably change later, but they give me something to start with. They also come in handy later, when I need to tweet about the book. Hooks are one-sentence summaries of a novel.
Taking that hook, I write the synopsis—a few paragraphs describing the basic plot points of the story, including the ending. It’s like the blurb on the back of the book but with spoilers. This is where the three-act structure really comes in handy.
Depending on how long my synopsis is, I’ll set a word count budget for the manuscript. Setting a limit keeps me from getting too attached to the novel. Sometimes I just don’t want it to end. It also helps me stick to a deadline. Since I write full-length novels, my budget is at least 50,000 words. Very rarely is it over 80K, though. I tend to be most comfortable with 60K manuscripts.
Once I have my budget, I break it into chapters. I like chapters weighing in at about 3,000 words. Of course, sometimes the chapter calls for more or less. When I’m outlining, though, I set a goal for each chapter. This keeps me on track and helps me break the whole project down into smaller, more manageable chunks.
For example, my word count goal for Chapter 1 might be 3,000. With Chapter 2, I aim to hit 6,000. And so on, until I can type “The End.”
Finally, I sketch out each chapter. This is where I pants.
My outlines are nothing like what what I was taught in high school. They’re more like crappy first drafts, where I just vomit the story onto the page. This is the stage where I just let it run. Each chapter is a page long, usually about three paragraphs.
Chapter 1 / Rowan / 3,000
Rowan recently graduated. She has no idea what she’s going to do; she’s been waitressing and blogging recipes for baked sweets. Realistically she could make a living off her blog, but she’s not sure if that’s what she wants.
She’s been pondering all of this when she finds out that her aunt passed away and she has to go home for the funeral—and has to deal with her family. She also finds out that she inherited her aunt’s house.
Sometimes, when I’m done with the entire outline, I’ll go back through and add more details. If I’m eager to get started, I might give some chapters only a sentence or two and just figure it out later when I’m writing the first draft. But I’ve found that when I’m more thorough with my outline, I’m less likely to get stuck when I’m writing. Having that chapter at my side, already laid out, keeps me on track.
While outlining Just One More Minute, I was so impatient to get started that I skipped the three-act plot structure and jotted down sparse sentences for whole chapters. I was super excited to start writing Rowan and Matt’s story, but I know myself. If I don’t go back and fill those gaps in, I’ll be stuck 30K or 40K in, beating my head against the wall.
I’ve found the right balance for my personality and the kind of stories I tell. I’ve been using this process for the last couple of years and it works every time. I’m always experimenting, though, and it may change in the future. But I think I’ve perfected my recipe.