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A few weeks ago, I started work on the first draft of Barnum’s Revenge (the sequel to Fur-Face). My approach to writing the two novels couldn’t be more different.

Back in 2003, when I began work on Fur-Face, I had no idea what I was doing. Aside from tax returns*, I hadn’t written any fiction since leaving school (with a less than impressive academic record) at age 16. I knew it was going to be about a boy who meets a talking cat that only he can hear, but otherwise I had no ideas for the characters, storyline, locations or overall plot. I just sat down at the computer and started to type.

Since then, I’ve finished enough first drafts to know that I can write novel-length fiction, but if I want to make a career as a writer, I also know I need to figure out an approach which allows me to finish a good quality first draft in a short(ish) period of time.

Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate the time-saving value of a detailed outline, and I’ve learned to set aside (or even give up on) projects when necessary. Personally, I’d rather find out something’s not going to work in the plotting stage than after spending months working on a first draft.

Of course, it’s an outline not a contract, so I’m always open to changes during the actual writing stage, but I won’t start typing the first draft unless and until I have a definite plotline and a full understanding of what I want to happen to the various characters and how the events of the story will change them.

For Barnum’s Revenge I’m trying two approaches I’ve never used before.

LET YOUR SUB-CONSCIENCE BE YOUR GUIDE
I call the first one ‘Let your sub-conscience be your guide.’ When I find myself struggling to come up with a great description, clever simile or piece of dialogue, instead of staring at the screen for ages, trying to think of something there and then, I just type in ‘[INSERT GREAT LINE HERE]’ and move right along. More often than not, the line I’m looking for comes to me later, when I’m not even aware I’m thinking about it. Putting in [CHECK THIS LATER] also helps.

IT’S OKAY TO BE OUT OF ORDER
The other new thing I’m trying is to work on a scene out of its linear order if I find myself getting bogged down (I measure progress by scenes completed, rather than word count). So far, it’s proving quite helpful. Just this morning I worked on a scene which takes place near the end of the book (in which I managed to use the line: “I wouldn’t be getting away with it, if it hadn’t been for you meddling kids”).

How about you?

In what ways has your writing method changed since you first started?




*Just kidding about the tax return thing, honest!



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Comments

( 49 comments — Leave a comment )
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seekerval
Jul. 20th, 2011 03:07 pm (UTC)
First: I LOVE that you're using that paraphrased line. Well done, Jon!

Next: When I first started Writing-With-Intent, I used my enthusiasm and passion to drive my production with absolutely No Clue as to where the journey was going. Most of the novel was written linearly with only a couple scenes demanding to be written RIGHT NOW, AND I MEAN NOW! I managed to complete a full manuscript which wasn't bad, but is back in its NeverEndingEdit.

Nowadays, I write a bit of the initial idea, then plot &/or outline a general arc with however many sub-arcs that readily present themselves, and go back to writing. I rather dislike the exercise of doing outlines, so they tend to be on the sparse side, allowing my Seat-of-Pants style a loose rein on the pathway.

Of course, I'm one of the as-yet-unpublished-but-still-hopeful many. I'll be interested to see other comments. And thanks, Jon, for the [INSERT SOMETHING HERE] idea. I know I'll be using that trick.
jongibbs
Jul. 20th, 2011 04:41 pm (UTC)
If I've been of any help at all, you must have been in worse trouble than you thought ;)
(no subject) - seekerval - Jul. 20th, 2011 08:52 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jongibbs - Jul. 20th, 2011 09:28 pm (UTC) - Expand
nathreee
Jul. 20th, 2011 03:12 pm (UTC)
Outlining and plotting was the only thing I ever wrote when I started out. And it's still one of the most important parts of my writing process. But over the years I have leanred to set the stage and create the right atmosphere. Plot may be intricate, but atmosphere is the thing that will make the readers feel like they're there.

I learned to write snappy dialogue at a young age, and it's still something I'm very proud of. But it wasn't until recently that I have finally begun to understand PoV and internal dialogue. And the many ways to do it wrong.

I learned the best new things from writing a lot and critiqueing the writing of others. Not by just telling which parts I liked or disliked, but over the years I learned to say: When I read this part, I thought... Was that what you inteneded to do?
jongibbs
Jul. 20th, 2011 04:41 pm (UTC)
'I learned the best new things from writing a lot and critiqueing the writing of others.

I know what you mean :)
garyfrank
Jul. 20th, 2011 05:10 pm (UTC)
My writing method's changed inthat I used to write and now I don't. Just kidding. Sort of.

I've always set out and started writing. The difference now is that I keep track of the details and try to plot a bit ahead, like driving at night; you can only see what's in the light of the headlights. Beyond that, it's all dark.

My question to you (and anyone else who does this) is how do you write scenes out of order without worrying things in earlier scenes will change everything? If you write scene 36 and then go back and write scene 27 and discover something major happens that affects the rest of the story, you then have to rewrite any scene you've written after scene 27. I would think that could get a bit confusing. But I'm naturally confused anyway!

Thanks for another great blogpost!

Cheers, mate!
msstacy13
Jul. 20th, 2011 08:37 pm (UTC)
Asimov did it by using three typewriters.

With my WWII bomber novel,
I usually knew what part of the day each scene had to take place,
but I also kept notes on each character;
If he died, when?
Which guys were Jewish? Catholic? Protestant?
All that sort of thing;
I used a spiral notebook and loose-leaf binder with pockets.

I think that if you have a pretty good idea
of where it's going and how it's getting there,
then filling it in out-of-sequence won't change it;
but keep notes and use search phrases to verify that,
and be prepared to make changes if you must.
(no subject) - jongibbs - Jul. 20th, 2011 08:44 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - garyfrank - Jul. 20th, 2011 09:05 pm (UTC) - Expand
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bogwitch64
Jul. 20th, 2011 05:47 pm (UTC)
I used to write by the seat of my pants, and while that got 20-something novels completed and taught me a huge amount about writing, none of them ended up as publishable work. Once I started outlining--really outlining and not a smack and a promise, I wrote Finder. :)

Well, there was one before that, but that's another story.
msstacy13
Jul. 20th, 2011 08:25 pm (UTC)
I used to write by the seat of my pants,
but I got tired of having a pencil stuck in my butt.
:)
(no subject) - bogwitch64 - Jul. 20th, 2011 08:40 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jongibbs - Jul. 20th, 2011 08:45 pm (UTC) - Expand
black_faery
Jul. 20th, 2011 05:55 pm (UTC)
Heh, I do both of those things these days as well. The [Insert exciting escape scene here], and [will this really work? Check this!] appeared in my last chapter, to avoid breaking the flow of what was working. I try to write in order, but only by character - for example, chapter 8 starts off a whole new character's plot line, and I can work on that at work when I don't have the rest of the novel to hand for easy back-referencing.

I also plot these days. Not plotting has given me too many Terminal Editing Cases, and I am sick of doing that!

Writing has also taught me not to worry about word count. By which I mean that if I only get 50 words, or 100 words down in a day, and I can't find any more in my head, that is better than nothing. So I don't stress if I'm not getting 500 words done every day. I just try to get something down. At least it keeps the story fresh in my head!
jongibbs
Jul. 20th, 2011 08:48 pm (UTC)
I soon learned to worship at the altar of outlines, though it's taken me a long time to get good at producing them :)
(no subject) - black_faery - Jul. 21st, 2011 08:25 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jongibbs - Jul. 21st, 2011 09:26 am (UTC) - Expand
(Deleted comment)
jongibbs
Jul. 20th, 2011 08:49 pm (UTC)
'I'm going straight to English teacher hell'

Never! They'd assume you took a wrong turn and send you back upstairs, post haste :)
(Deleted comment)
msstacy13
Jul. 20th, 2011 08:20 pm (UTC)
For me, personally and individually,
technology has been the biggest change.
My first three attempts at a novel
were written in spiral notebooks with a pencil.

I only wrote one story on an actual typewriter.

Other changes in more recent years have been an increased reliance on notes
and an increasing willingness to use some rudiments of outlining;
also, finding competent associates has been a great help.
jongibbs
Jul. 20th, 2011 09:18 pm (UTC)
I'm not sure I could write a novel using a typewriter.
(no subject) - msstacy13 - Jul. 20th, 2011 09:35 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jongibbs - Jul. 21st, 2011 09:22 am (UTC) - Expand
phoenixfirewolf
Jul. 20th, 2011 09:10 pm (UTC)
I've developed a great relationship with my subconscious over the years. I do similar things when I get stuck in my MS too.

I've tried outlining. I hate it. But pantzing is not for everyone and I like a middle ground approach. I usually develop a summary of where I think I'm going, then use it as a guide. I make a chapter reference (outline of sorts) as I write so I can go back and look at what happened when in a condensed version.

I've tried lots of things. I have a process that works right now, but I'm gearing up to tackle a true epic fantasy concept and I think that's going to take a little more preplanning than I'm used to doing.

We'll see how it works out :)
jongibbs
Jul. 20th, 2011 09:19 pm (UTC)
Figure out what works best for you, then do that, a lot :)
(no subject) - phoenixfirewolf - Jul. 20th, 2011 09:20 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jongibbs - Jul. 20th, 2011 09:26 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - phoenixfirewolf - Jul. 20th, 2011 09:28 pm (UTC) - Expand
temporus
Jul. 21st, 2011 12:47 am (UTC)
First, let me get this out of the way: Woohoo! Jon's writing Barnum's Revenge.

Ok. Now, I'm not sure how my methods have changed. I feel like they have, but it seems a slow process of changing that it's hard to tell how. I've used both techniques you've talked about here over the past few years, and usually it works out well. I get stuck on a minor point a lot less frequently now than I would have in the past. But sometimes it delays the madness for the revision process. Like my current chapter which was just derailed because I have had a challenging time determining just which street in Harlem my character grew up on. Shouldn't be a problem, I know, but figuring out exactly when some avenues in Harlem were re-named and how that affects things is a pain. (Which come to think of it, is probably why I skipped that detail in the first draft.)

I also like to highlight those notes in yellow or orange or pink, so they stand out even more obvious on the screen as I'm scrolling through the text. One technique I've picked up is that whenever I'm stuck in the writing, I jump back to earlier chapters, scan the text for the note sections, and then see if I can't cleanup or write the missing bits. It's amazing how often those parts become much easier when you've written later chapters, as if you've let the bits percolate enough and now you can see how the parts all fit.
jongibbs
Jul. 21st, 2011 09:08 am (UTC)
'Woohoo! Jon's writing Barnum's Revenge.

Oh, yeah, that's how it always starts. Then later there's running and screaming. ;)

There's usually plenty of information about the bigger stuff online, but I imagine researching minor historical facts, like when a street name got changed, must be among the most time-consuming aspects of revision.

mikandra
Jul. 21st, 2011 01:01 am (UTC)
The only thing I do with outlines is throw them in the bin. In fact, it's become so bad that if I outline a story, it's a sure-fire guarantee the book will stall irrepairably.
I tend to write cool scenes, and then move them into an order in which they make sense (eventually)
jongibbs
Jul. 21st, 2011 09:09 am (UTC)
Has that always been your process or has it changed over the years?
(no subject) - mikandra - Jul. 21st, 2011 09:26 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jongibbs - Jul. 21st, 2011 09:54 am (UTC) - Expand
dendrophilous
Jul. 21st, 2011 03:03 am (UTC)
Like you, I’ve come to appreciate the time-saving value of a detailed outline.

I also no longer do my first drafts by hand. I needed to do that when I started, because messy handwriting meant the actual words could be bad as well, but now I have no problem typing bad writing and revising it later.
jongibbs
Jul. 21st, 2011 09:16 am (UTC)
I don't know if it's one of those left-brain/right-brain thingies, but I like to start my initial outline with handwritten notes (and lots of crossings out), but once I have the bare bones of a story or character, I use the keyboard to expand those notes further.
cedunkley
Jul. 21st, 2011 03:05 am (UTC)
I'm hoping the biggest change is my writing has improved! :-) Seriously, I pay a lot more attention to the choices being made by my characters and what the repercussions would be.
jongibbs
Jul. 21st, 2011 09:12 am (UTC)
'I'm hoping the biggest change is my writing has improved!'

Lol, I know what you mean :)
mary_j_59
Jul. 21st, 2011 03:51 am (UTC)
I always used to write everything in a straight line. For WIP number one (which I'm calling "The Novel", or "the young adult novel" or "Honor"), I started using a writing program called Scrivener - and found it enormously freeing because I could write scenes out of order and them move them around. If something that came up later caused me to have to rewrite a scene or chapter (and that happened!), I just went back and brought that particular scene or chapter into line. MUCH more efficient - and a different way to "write what you know", when you know it.

For the middle grade novel I'm working on now, I'm back to writing in a straight line. In both cases, I did a lot of planning in my head before starting to write. I'm not much of an outliner, but, for the YA novel particularly, I did some outlining at various points when I got stuck - mostly to clarify characters and their motivations.

Great question, Jon! I also like your "put something here" trick. :)
jongibbs
Jul. 21st, 2011 09:18 am (UTC)
Thanks, Mary :)

I hear good things about Scrivener, though Ive not yet tried it.
jennygordon
Jul. 21st, 2011 07:49 am (UTC)
Wow! That's actually quite hard to remember. I guess I'm far less inclined to plunge straight in. These days, I sit at the edge of the pool and dabble my toes and think about it a lot before I face the water.*

*apologies for the metaphor - it's still early ;O)
jongibbs
Jul. 21st, 2011 09:18 am (UTC)
Lol :)
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