How do you develop your stories?  Do you plot in advance, complete with outlines and maybe index cards, or do you drive the book by the seat of your pants, letting the characters sort of lead you around by the nose?

I'm in the latter category.  I have no idea in the world how a book will turn out, or where it will take me during the process.  I started my current one with nothing but an image: a six-foot, feather-winged angel walking down a crowded street in a Bangkok slum.  I'm now almost 90 pages in, and I still don't know exactly who he is, but I'm having a wonderful time.

I'd love to hear from you, and also to suggest (if the subject interests you) that you look at my blog at, where some really good writers are addressing the question.  So far we've had Stephen Jay Schwartz, Bill Crider, Rebecca Cantrell, and Gar Anthony Haywood.  Up right now is Helen Simonson, whose first novel, COLONEL PETTIGREW'S LAST STAND has had amazing reviews by everyone from Oprah to Publisher's Weekly and the NY Times, and which entered the Amazon rankings, two weeks before its pub date, at 126.

I'd love it if you dropped by and took a look at the way these folks do it, but I'd also love some replies here.  This is a topic I can read about and discuss pretty much any time.

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When you describe this, I think of so many great TV shows where you watch reruns of the first season and see that the characters were so very different than they ended up being. Those writers had an idea of these people, but the continued writing developed them into who they really were.
And sometimes, although not on the best shows, the characters were just changed for necessity's sake, or a new team of writers and a new show-runner came on with a different perspective. But you're right, in the best shows you have the feeling that those changes were organic, and that the writers' understanding of the characters grew.

Also, writing TV is a little like the way Dickens and the other Victorians wrote, serializing the book as they went, so they were stuck with whatever they'd written early on. Novelists have the luxury of making, discovering, and fixing our mistakes in secret.
Wow, Bill, are you putting that up as you write it (speaking of Dickens, as I just was above). You're brave, if so. I tried that once on my site -- I called it The Dickens Challenge, and about 12 writers took it along with me, putting up a chapter a week, as they were written, but I had to drop out of my own challenge because I got into trouble on a book I was under contract for, and I was going to be late.

The material on your site reads very well. Most novelists seem to work without a net. Go to my site at and look at the writers who are talking about their process. We're on the sixth now, and we've only had one real outliner. And these are good, published writers.
I've spent hours trying to decide, and I'm still not certain. Before I begin chapter one of the first draft, I try to understand my story. On paper I have a working title, a working theme, from four to eight plot points or big scenes that could be part of the story. More times than not, I also write the ending. Sounds like a plotter, right?

But then I start the first draft. I follow King's advice about the "boys in the basement" and just let whatever bubbles up bubble up. I know where I'm probably headed -- the next plot point -- but I often fly right past them and come up with new set pieces. The last two times, my pre-written ending got tossed.

There's something warm and safe about those plot points and pre-written ending. No matter where I wander, and whenever I get lost, I can pull out my map and find the way back. But I never write the book I intended to write. I always discover something even better from those basement boys.
I suppose the trick is to stay open to better material, whether you're a plotter or a pantser. Plotting sounds rigid to me until I hear someone like you say that you can remain flexible and open. (Although I think the main reason I don't outline is that I don't know how to do it. I've had to invent a new kind of book proposal to give the characters room to show me what the hell they want to do.)

Even pantsing, it's crucial to stay open to inspiration. I learned about five books ago that when I first see the ending of my book, all it really is, is something to do better than. As I work closer and closer to it, I'm continually evaluating different and, I hope, better endings.
The joy of writing is in the discovery of characters who come to life--or in a plot that twists and weaves itself down a path totally unexpected. I start a novel with a clear, distinct image for the first chapter. My goal is to capture the reader in the first three paragraphs. After that, we're on an journey of discovery.

Of course it may mean backing up and and re-writing. But what the hell, that's kinda fun too. And writing/reading should be fun, right?
BR, rewriting may be pretty much the whole thing. Certainly that's where we get to work our magic.
That's sort of it for me, too, B.R. A sentence, an interesting situation, an image, and I start following the line from there. I sometimes don't feel like I'm making it up precisely -- more like I'm trying to get it down without screwing it up. A friend of mine who won an Oscar says he feels more like an archaeologist than an architect, because the story already exists in his mind, and the trick is to uncover it, to bring it into the light without breaking it.
Jack--you bring up an interesting point; I wonder just how much rewriting authors do. Do they rewrite entire chapters? Entire sections of the book? Or do they just add/delete/polish a sentence here or there?
I do a considerable and repeated job of cutting, rephrasing, adding material for each chapter before I move on. Then I do a final revision of the whole book. And then (as just lately), an editor wants me to lose 20 - 30,000 words, and I revise again. They are never total rewrites (I don't think I could face that and would abandon the project), but certainly sentences and paragraphs get rewritten.
Like IJ, I begin each writing session with rewrite, usually going back three or four days' worth and tightening, improving, sharpening, sometimes rewriting entirely. This gets me ready to hit the empty space on the new page and also means that I've done a couple of drafts on most of the book by the time I'm finished.

Then I put it away for 2-3 weeks, long enough for the fat to rise to the top, read it to myself once, marking it up all over the place, and then read the whole thing out loud to my blessed wife, which reveals untold horrors. After that. it's rewrite for weeks or even months, if called for. This ranges from polishing to getting rid of plot threads that went nowhere or planting early bits of plot threads that emerged halfway through -- all the way up to rewriting entire sections.

I think most writers do a lot of rewrite, since almost all first draft more or less suck.
Before I weigh in, the recent posts on Tim's blog he refers to here are fascinating reading. Well worth the time to read.

I'm a plotter. I tried to be a pantser a couple of times, and would up with unholy messes. I have a list of what each scene must accomplish before i start, but how that gets accomplished is left to me when I'm writing it. That's how I try to keep a sense of spontaneity in the writing. And, like pretty much all plotters, I'm free to alter the outline as better ideas present themselves.

For short stories and flash, I'm with Dave Z. Those are generally fully formed in my head before I sit down to write them.


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