Man. I grossed myself out with that headline!
PANTSING VS. PLOTTING
First, I’d like to say that I have an intense dislike of jargon. When people say things like “not in my wheelhouse” around me, I break out into hives and start dry-heaving. When it comes to writing, one of the first things another author will ask you is if you’re a pantser (you write by the seat of your pants without knowing where the story will lead) or a plotter (you systematically outline your story in detail before you start writing). I do both and neither. So there. Label THAT! 😂
An idea will come to me from any number of inspiration sources: my bored imagination, a heart-warming story on social media, a “what would that be like?” question that arises after being made aware of a weird situation. Back in the olden days (pre-2020) I’d eavesdrop on conversations in restaurants. Anyway, inspiration strikes and my brain immediately throws it in a pot and lets it simmer.
The longer an idea has to simmer, the better for my writing process.
BARELY LEGIBLE HANDWRITING & SPREADSHEETS
Once it’s time to actually start working on a book, I grab my handy dandy notebook and a pen or 7. I like to handwrite the early stuff because it seems like the physical writing out of the words embeds them into my brain differently than typing. Like there’s more of a physical connection to the ideas if I’m scrawling them in barely legible handwriting?
I like to start by writing out a quick overview of who the characters are, what their story is, and what the conflict is. Then I dig deeper into character sketches for the hero and heroine. I figure out things like what foods do they like, what their relationship with their family is, what do they think they want out of life, what do they look like, who are their friends, their pets, their co-workers, etc. At this point I create a spreadsheet which I call my Book Bible. That way all the essential information is stored in one place. This sounds incredibly organized and it would be if I were a normal person, but it’s really a hot flipping mess. I end up naming the same character two different things, or changing their eye color or their age, etc.
MAKING CASUAL BRAINSTORMING A THING
Next comes the brainstorming. I sit back and wonder how all this stuff works for and against the characters. How it keeps them apart and what needs to happen for them to overcome their obstacles. All of this goes in the notebook in a stream of consciousness. With grocery lists and to do items scrawled in the margins. Doodles in the middle of paragraphs. Notes to myself.
Keeping it casual is my way of tricking myself into thinking I’m not working. I’m just playing around, having fun, eating candy in a beanbag. No big deal. No pressure.
Which is why I never do this part of the work in my office. It’s on the couch, or in the giant beanbag (if Cleo the cat is willing to share), or outside on the deck. My office is for concentrated work or yelling at Cleo to get off my desk.
IT’S RAINING MEN… AND WOMEN… AND PLOT TWISTS
Once I feel like I’ve got a handle on the storyline and character basics, I pull up my copy of Romancing the Beat by Gwen Hayes. It’s a simple breakdown of the things that should happen in order for the plot of a romance novel to be satisfying to the reader.
Then I plop myself down at my desk, open my notebook, and start a new Scrivener project. I use Scrivener to write all my books now because it lets me organize by chapter and keep all my notes in the same project as my manuscript. To be fair, I only use something like 4% of the program’s capabilities. (I’m not a paid sponsor or an affiliate thingy person. Just a fan of the program.)
It’s at this point that I start to outline. I put my scene/chapter notes in and include any bits of dialogue that enter my head. Make notes of anything I need to describe or reinforce within the scene. Figure out whose point of view I’m writing in. I’ll go through all of the “beats” of my story and do this, plus whatever other scenes come to mind.
Other resources that I find helpful for planning my stories include:
• 2k to 10k by Rachel Aaron
• Lounging in Mr. Lucy’s office talking to myself while he tries to focus on work
• Drinking alcohol
Even after all of this work, I’d be willing to guess that the outlined scenes are only 50% of what actually ends up in the finished story. When I’m actually writing those plotted scenes, others pop into my head. Most of my books are a half and half of carefully planned storyline and spontaneous inspiration.
There you have it. My pre-writing process. It takes anywhere from three days (way too short) to two weeks. I usually get too excited about the story and start writing earlier than I should which messes everything up. Stay tuned for Part 2: How I Actually Write Stuff! Spoiler Alert: It involves a lot of staring off into space.