Finally, after months of research, brainstorming, outlining, and drafting, followed by multiple rounds of revision, getting feedback from my beta readers and editor, followed by yet more revision…
The Book. Is. Done.
Well, sort of.
The major elements of the book are done. The plot is stable, I’m happy with my characters and their arcs, I feel like there’s good pacing and suspense and I’m happy with the climax and resolution, etc.
But the last steps before I can consider a manuscript “finished” and ready to send off to my publisher are my tweaking and polishing rounds.
Usually I’ll do three rounds of tweaking and polishing, but I’m looking for different things in each round, and they tend to go pretty fast. Depending on the length of the novel, a polishing round will take me anywhere from a couple days to a week.
Round One: Crutch Phrases
The first thing I do to polish the manuscript is hunt down as many crutch phrases as I can. “Crutch phrases” are the default words and descriptions that we writers fall back on when we’re not sure what else to say.
The annoying thing about crutch phrases is that they change. You figure out what your default phrases are, and then for the next book you’re aware of them so you don’t use those phrases as much. Unfortunately, your writer brain will just replace them with something else. So it goes.
When I wrote Cinder, my biggest offenders were “smiled” and “nodded.” My character were very cheerful bobble heads in those first drafts!
The crutch phrase I discovered recently in Fairest was “gaze.” My characters wouldn’t stop gazing at each other! Argh!
Crutch phrases can also be the way you describe a particular action. Do your protagonist’s eyes “fill up with tears” every time she starts to cry? Is heat forever “rushing into her cheeks”?
With Scarlet I developed a weird obsession with “lungs.” “She filled up her lungs.” “Her lungs contracted.” Thanks to my Dad for pointing that one out before it was too late!
You don’t have to delete every single instance, but if you notice yourself using the same description over and over, try to vary it. How else can you describe a blush? Or, better yet, how else can you show the reader that she’s embarrassed without mentioning her blush at all?
My method for hunting down crutch phrases.
First, I make a list of my worst offenders. Usually I’ll have started looking out for these in my final revision rounds and sometimes my betas point them out, so I’ll already have a list started. I add those “smiles” and “nods” and “gazes” too—words that I know have plagued me in the past.
I group like words together. Smile, grin, smirk. Gaze, stare, look, glare, glower, eyes (because eyes are constantly darting, slipping, squinting, etc.). Inhale, exhale, breathe, breath, lungs. Grimace, flinch, recoil.
Then, working through one group at a time, I’ll do a search in the manuscript and highlight each offending word in a different color. You can do this in Scrivener, but I usually compile the book back into a Word doc at this stage, so I’m going to break down the steps in that program.
A Quick Tutorial on How to Search & Highlight Crutch Phrases in Microsoft Word
In the Home tab, check that your highlight button is set to a color. (Any color you like!) The highlight button is found next to the Bold, Italic, and Underline buttons.
Hit Ctrl+F. This will bring up the Find and Replace box.
Click the Replace tab at the top.
Type the crutch word into the “Find what” box. (Note—if I’m looking for “glare,” I will actually type “_glar” ßwith a space in place of the underscore. This will pull up all instances of glare, glared, and glaring. Otherwise, you’ll have to do each related verb separately and it can be easy to miss some.)
Click the “More >>” button. This will give you more search options.
Put the mouse cursor into the “Replace with” box.
Click the Format button at the bottom. Click “Highlight.”
Hit “Replace All.”
(When you’re done reviewing and replacing that crutch word, you can hit Ctrl+A to highlight all of the text in the manuscript. Then, on the toolbar in the Home tab, click the little arrow next to the highlight button and select “no color.” It will remove all of the highlights in the document and give you a new blank canvas to hunt down your next crutch word!)
Now I have a handy visual of how often each word is used, and I start scrolling through the manuscript hunting down those highlighted words. Depending on what the word is, I might want, say, no more than one occurrence every two pages, or every fifty pages. If I see that Cinder glared three times on this page, I might delete one instance and change the other instance to a glower—and as I also highlighted each use of “glower,” I can be sure that I’m not repeating THAT word too many times, either.
My default when I’m doing this is delete, delete, delete. You would be surprised what readers can pick up from context. If Cinder is angry, then yeah, she’s probably glaring—you don’t need to spell out every instance. Ask yourself if this phrase really adds to the reader’s understanding of this scene. If not, get rid it.
When I really do want to keep this action, my second consideration is whether I can think of an interesting way to convey it that takes out the crutch word and enhances the prose.
Rather than “he glared,” maybe “fury sparked in his eyes.” Or whatever. Be creative. Really consider what it feels like and looks like when you’re angry.
On the other hand, be careful that you don’t overdo this. Sparking fury is going to be more noteworthy than a glare, and this technique will start to feel overdone and melodramatic if used constantly. Often times, simple is better.
A quick plug: A friend of mine gave me a copy of The Emotion Thesaurus a while back and it’s a great resource for this!
Round Two: Tightening the Language
I’ve already started to tighten the language by deleting as many crutch phrases as I could, but I also like to do one read-through of the story where I’m focused on deleting as many extraneous words as possible.
Yes, there might be a whole sentence or paragraphs I can get rid of here or there—when I realize that I’m going overboard on description or I’m beating the reader over the head with a particular explanation, but for the most part this round is all about getting rid of the little words and phrases that are unnecessary.
Or even better: this round is all about cutting out unnecessary words and phrases.
A few small tweaks saved me five words there. See?
Things to look out for:
He gripped the steering wheel in his hands. (What else is he going to grip with?)
She thought he looked angry. (She’s our POV character, of course this is her thinking.)
She ran swiftly. (Well, you don’t say?)
Adverbs, like swiftly, tend to be the worst offenders, although I’ve gotten better at not including them in the fist place. Nevertheless, they still creep up. Unlike some writers, I don’t think all adverbs are bad, I just think they’re guilty until proven innocent. Every one of them comes under the magnifying glass. If the sentence works just as well without the adverb (i.e., she screamed loudly), delete it.
And if you can think of one verb to replace the phrase—even better. Why have your characters walk sleepily when they can trudge or stumble?
Or to go back to my previous example, why have her run swiftly when you can have her sprint?
Another common offender: “that.”
I delete a lot of thats in this round. For example, the sentence in the paragraph above originally read “…I don’t think that all adverbs are bad, I just think that they’re guilty until proven innocent.” It still works, but those thats aren’t necessary. Leave that alone if it offers a melodic cadence to the sentence. Otherwise, delete!
You might be surprised how much a word here and there will add up. I routinely cut between 5,000 – 10,000 words from my drafts at this stage, without altering the story at all, and it will make for a cleaner, faster reading experience.
Round Three: The Final Read-Through
Chill the champagne! We’re almost done!
I always make time for one last read-through of the book, to make sure nothing weird slipped through the cracks. I’m checking for consistency, so any last-minute changes don’t conflict with each other, and looking for places where I may have introduced awkward phrasing in my attempts to get rid of my crutch phrases or tighten the language.
I aim to do two things with this read-through:
1. I try to read it as fast as possible, so I can get a “big picture” look at the story as a whole and, in the case of a series, how it works in the overall scheme of things. Unfortunately, I’m not a fast reader, so even a “short” book will usually take me a couple days.
2. I try to enjoy it. I don’t do this read-through at my desk. Instead, I make myself a cup of coffee, grab a blanket, and snuggle up in my comfiest reading chair.
While I’ll still be tweaking the text, I’m really trying to see the book as a reader might see it. Is it fun? Is it suspenseful? Is it romantic? This is often the first time where I think—you know what? This book isn’t half bad. Go me!
It’s a good feeling… and a huge relief!!
Then (FINALLY YAY OMG) I send it off to my editor, usually with a hysterical email because I’m always feeling a little loopy by this point in the process.
Then I pop the champagne.
I also clean my house because it’s inevitably a mess.
Later this week we’ll talk all about what happens to the book once it’s in the publisher’s hands!
Beta readers (also called critique partners) are, for most writers, an absolutely critical part of the writing process. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve told my beta readers that I don’t know what I would do without them, and I’m sure I’ll say it another gajillion times during my career. They are integral to me both on a craft level (they point out plot holes, false characterization, boring scenes, shoddy world-building, and all sorts of things that I never would have noticed myself) and also on a confidence level. Once my betas have looked at a book and pointed out its strengths and weaknesses, I am 1000 times more confident that I can send the book into the world and know that it’s not a complete and utter embarrassment.
What does a beta reader do?
Beta means second, so technically these are your second readers (the author being the first reader). Betas read through the manuscript with an unbiased eye—something that we, as the author, are incapable of. They point out places where the suspense fell flat, they tell you when your protagonist is being annoying, they pinpoint spots where it was difficult for them to suspend their disbelief, they ask for clarification on different plot twists or information reveals, etc. Some betas might focus on elements of craft (such as plot and character), some might focus on grammar and punctuation and really help you tighten up your language, and others only care about whether or not they’re entertained while reading your story. These can all be incredibly valuable elements for the author to get feedback on.
How many betas should you use?
I know authors who only use their agent or editor as their beta reader. Alternatively, I know authors who meet with a regular critique group of six or eight people. Like every stage of the writing process, it’s important to find what works best for you.
When I was revising Cinder, I had seven or eight beta readers, and while they all offered great feedback, it became obvious pretty quickly that this made for too many voices in my head. Plus, some of the feedback I was getting was contradictory, which made things confusing.
Now I work with three beta readers plus my editor, and they all tend to focus on different elements of the book, so I feel like I get a really well-rounded look at the story from them.
When is the book ready to be beta’d?
This also varies by author—some authors like to start receiving feedback during the first draft, whereas I fall on the opposite end of the spectrum. I like to get the book as “finished” as I can before I send it to anyone else, so that I know they won’t be pointing out flaws that I would have picked up on myself.
I find that with every book, I eventually reach a point where I’m just tweaking sentence structure and revising descriptions. This is when I know it’s ready to go to my betas. I don’t want to bother editing the book too much yet, because I’ll still be making big(ish) revisions once I hear my betas’ feedback.
Which means it’s time to let the book go for a while, and let someone else take a crack at it.
When you send your manuscript to your beta readers, it’s okay to ask about specific elements that you’re concerned about. I don’t do this for every book, but sometimes I might be concerned about, say, whether or not the protagonist is likeable. Feel free to let them know your major concerns upfront so they can tailor their response to your specific needs. That said, don’t overdo it! I try not to bog my betas down with tons of questions, as I don’t want to influence their reading. Step back and let them form their own opinions.
Taking Criticism with Grace
This is going to surprise approximately no one:
Taking criticism is hard.
It’s never going to be fun. You’re never going to like hearing that this manuscript you’ve been working on for months or years still isn’t there. You’re going to hope, every single time, that your betas (or agent or editor) will come back and say, This is perfect! Change nothing! And you’re going to be disappointed every time when that doesn’t happen.
It’s part of the process.
However, the great thing about beta readers (and agents and editors) is that you can get their feedback before it’s too late. There is still time to fix those flaws and make the book stronger, and wouldn’t you rather have this information now than see a comment on a GoodReads review and think, “GAH, why didn’t anyone tell me about this gaping plot hole before it was published?!”
Yes. Yes, you would.
So be gracious when you receive feedback. It takes practice, learning how to digest criticism without taking it personally and without feeling like a total failure, but this is a skill that can be learned over time. Be grateful that your beta reader put the time and effort into helping you and be mindful that everyone has the same end goal: to make this the best book possible.
When I receive my beta’s comments, I usually read through them, and then set them aside and let them mull around in my head for a while. I contemplate why something wasn’t working for my betas and start figuring out what will need to change to make it better.
A lot of my favorite scenes or elements of my books are things that I came up with to fix a problem that was first pointed out by my editor or beta readers. Hearing fresh opinions can open up your imagination to new ideas you never would have considered before. This can be a very magical part of the process.
To Change or Not to Change
I’d say that 95% of the time, I read my betas’ comments and think, instantly, YES—you are absolutely correct. I will fix this.
4% of the time I have an initial gut reaction—NO, you are wrong and you don’t get it and this is why! But then, after mulling it over, I’ll realize that they actually make an excellent point, and while I may decide not to take their specific suggestion, I can still adjust the story in a way that addresses their concerns.
Then there’s that 1% of the time when I disagree with my betas (and even my editor), and after careful consideration… I still disagree with them.
And that’s okay. In the end, it’s your book, and it’s important to stay true to ourselves as writers. Listen to your instincts and do what you feel is best for the story as a whole.
Just make sure you’re making decisions based on what you honestly believe is best for the book, not because you’re sick and tired of revising this blasted manuscript. If you know, in your gut, that the book will be improved by making a change—make the change. No matter how much extra time and work it costs you, make the change.
Trust me. You’ll be glad you did.
So… where do you find a beta reader?
I found all three of my betas through the fabulous world of Sailor Moon fanfiction. They’ve been with me for a long, long time.
But if you don’t have a writing-based community to share your work with, try joining a society of authors that write in your genre (such as the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators, the Romance Writers of America, or the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America). Join your local chapter, attend the conferences… network! Find like-minded writers and ask if they would be willing to swap critiques with you.
(An important word there: swap. If you’re asking someone to take time to critique your work, be willing to give their work the same amount of devotion.)
You can also try the forums on different writing web sites, such as fictionpress.com or figment.com (which is specifically geared toward young writers).
If you have other suggestions—please list them in the comments!
You might find that you have to work with a handful of different betas before finding one that you really click with. Some betas may not be familiar with your genre, or won’t give feedback that you find helpful, or will have a way of delivering their criticism that puts you on the defensive rather than opening up your mind to the possibilities. If a beta relationship isn’t working for you, keep looking. Your perfect beta reader is out there, and when you find them, you will cherish them like the crown jewels.
Once I have notes back from all three of my betas (and my editor, if I sent it to her at the same time), I roll up my sleeves for what will probably be my last round of major revisions.
I generally start by going through the manuscript and making any small, easy changes first, just to clear them out of the way—things like spelling errors and easy clarifications.
Then, just like with my earlier drafts, I make a list of more major issues that need to be fixed or adjusted. I brainstorm ways to fix them. At this point, I might run some ideas past my betas (i.e., “You said you were confused about the big reveal in chapter 28… what if I did this instead? Would that fix it for you?”) and listen to what they have to say. Sometimes it can be really helpful to bounce ideas off of them.
Then, just like with previous drafts, I dive back into the manuscript and get to work.
If you would like to tell my beta readers that they are awesome (because they are), or just follow them because sometimes they post non-spoilery reactions when they’re reading my manuscripts, they can be found on Twitter: @jojodacrow, @MegTao, @TamaraFelsinger.
Last week I talked about my incredibly involved, complicated method for writing the second draft of a book.
My method for revisions for each additional draft looks similar to that first revision round, but on a smaller scale. For me, the second draft tends to be the most headache-inducing, and from this point on it seems to get progressively easier. Each draft goes a little bit faster than the last one. Each draft sucks a little bit less than the last one. Each draft gets a little bit closer to feeling like A Book.
Read, Brainstorm, Revise, Repeat
Depending on how much time I take off in between drafts, I may or may not re-read the most recent draft before jumping into revisions. Whether or not I’m doing a complete read-through, though, I’m always looking at the book with a critical eye. I’m constantly asking myself: What don’t I like? What isn’t working? What can I do better?
I make a list of things I’m still not happy with (if I don’t already have one started), and start problem solving. Just like with the Second Draft, chapters move around, characters become more interesting, and world-building is expanded as I uncover more information about the story I’m trying to tell.
Maybe I’m still not happy with the romantic tension between the hero and heroine. So for this draft, I’m really going to focus on their relationship and ask myself how I can inject more sparks. Does their first meeting sizzle? Is there enough internal and external conflict keeping them apart? Are there enough reasons for them to be attracted to each other to keep them both from just walking away? Am I crushing on the hero, and if not, how can I make him more swoon-worthy?
I brainstorm. I take notes. I figure out what needs to change and start making a plan for how to change it.
Then, when I feel like I might have a solution that works, I start making those changes. Depending on the level of revisions still required, I might start at the beginning and work through the whole manuscript again, or I might determine which scenes really need my attention and just focus on those.
After the completion of each round, I save that draft in a special “drafts” folder on my computer, so that I can always go back and revert to a scene in an old draft if I decide that I liked it better than the newer one. (Note: I have never actually done this, I just like knowing that I could.) These old drafts also become a gold mine for things like “deleted scenes” that you can use for bonus content later.
You Don’t Have to Do Everything All at Once
There are a lot of things to keep track of when you’re writing a novel. Things like:
– Do all of your characters have logical and interesting character arcs?
– Is the villain a good foil for the protagonist?
– Do the subplots play a big enough role in the major plot?
– Is the world-building authentic?
– Are you bringing the setting to life through sensory detail?
– Does each character speak with their own unique voice?
– Does the romance include enough tension?
– Does the suspense build throughout the plot?
– Is the climax satisfactory?
– Does the resolution tie up all of the loose ends?
And on and on and on and on . . .
My point of listing all this is not to frighten or intimidate, but to show that it is a lot to take in, and impossible for most of us to keep in mind all at once. Because of this, I find myself focusing on different aspects with each revision round.
The first and second drafts are all about getting to know my characters and figuring out a plot that works.
Alternatively, the third draft might be focusing on the protagonist’s strengths and weaknesses and their overall character arc. Maybe this will also include working on the romance or the relationship between the protagonist and the villain.
The fourth draft, then, might be more focused on world-building and setting details.
It isn’t that I’m completely ignoring other aspects of storytelling during each draft, but it’s easier for me to concentrate on one thing at a time, rather than trying to do it all at once.
On Themes and Symbolism
Waaaaay back when I was talking about brainstorming a new writing project, I mentioned themes. Often, my first hint of a theme comes from my initial ideas for the protagonist. When I’m asking myself what my protagonist needs (acceptance, self-confidence, freedom) or what they’re afraid of (loneliness, death, abandonment), I’m tapping into some of the deeper messages that this story is going to convey.
At the time, though, that’s merely a passing thought. My goal is to tell an exciting story with interesting characters, not point out the social injustices of the modern world. However, at some point (usually around the fourth or fifth draft), some of these deeper themes have become inherent to the story.
Although I’m not the type of writer to intentionally plant a whole lot of symbolism in my work, I think it’s worthwhile to take some time and look at the larger themes in your story and see if you can intensify them. Themes can be anything from love, friendship, self-independence, or freedom, to war, envy, vanity, or prejudice.
While you’re considering what themes have cropped up in your work, also keep an eye out for images that keep reappearing. Half the time I don’t realize I’ve tied a specific image or prop in the story to a deeper theme until I start looking for it.
For example, in one of the later drafts of Cinder, it occurred to me that Cinder’s cyborg foot played a role in almost all of the Big Scenes throughout the story. Originally I’d focused so much on the foot because I’d been trying to foreshadow some of the story’s later events, but it occurred to me that her foot was no longer just a plot device. Rather it had, in many ways, become the symbol of everything Cinder hates about her cyborg identity. Her foot, which is two sizes too small, beat up, and sometimes missing entirely, was directly tied into her self-worth and her yearning for freedom—freedom from her stepmother and freedom from society’s anti-cyborg prejudices.
Once I realized how these two things had connected themselves, I went back and added in some descriptions to try to really bring this symbolism to the surface.
How many readers will notice? Very few, maybe none. And that’s okay. That’s good, actually, because the last thing I want is for a reader to stop mid-story and think “Oh, hey, check out that symbolism!” But my hope is that giving themes extra consideration will give more emotional depth and meaning to the story as a whole.
How Many Drafts / Revision Rounds?
I often get asked how many drafts I complete for my books, and the easy answer is: As many as it takes. There’s no rule here. Some books are more complicated and require more work. Some books come together really fast and require relatively few revisions. Most books fall somewhere in between.
Generally, I would say it takes me about four to five drafts to feel confident enough about a book to send it to my beta readers and editor. That’s the first time anyone gets to see it, and I want to get to a point where I feel like I’ve pushed the book as far as I can before letting someone else take a look. (Other writers choose to work with their betas or editor much earlier in the process.
Do whatever you’re comfortable with.)
Once I’ve sent it off to my betas and editor, I’ll get another simmering period, and then it’s time for my final round of revisions. I’ll be talking more about all that later this week!
Once I’ve had some time away from my first draft, it’s time to start in on revisions. Naturally, the first stage in revisions is . . . the second draft!
The second draft is the most complicated stage of my writing process, and half the time I feel like I have to re-learn this part with each new book, but I’ll do my best to break it down into something that seems halfway logical…
Note: This is the stage where I start using Scrivener, an organizational software program for writers. I’m a big fan of Scrivener, but it’s certainly not necessary. I’ll include notes following each step for how I used to do this before I had Scrivener.
1. Transfer the manuscript into Scrivener.
I started using Scrivener with Cress, and I love it. It really plays to my neurotic sense of organization (more on that later). But I still prefer to write my first drafts in Word, because it’s easier for me to keep track of word counts and my daily word goals.
So for me, the first step of writing the second draft of a book is to transfer the text of the first draft into Scrivener. I separate each scene into a different Scrivener chapter file.
Not using Scrivener? No problem. Skip this step.
2. Read through the first draft.
Reading through the first draft is often a humbling experience. No matter how inspired I was, no matter how thorough my outline, no matter how excited for the story—the first draft is inevitably a disaster. So it goes.
But before we can make anything better, we have to figure out what’s wrong with it, which is why this initial read-through is very important.
I am not making changes when I read this draft. I might fix a typo here or there, but anything more complicated than that gets marked as something to fix later. I try to read the first draft as quickly as possible (within a day or two), so I can get a feel for the big picture.
While I’m reading, I’m simultaneously doing three things:
1. I’m updating the synopses (aka notecards summaries) for each chapter in the Scrivener file. This way, when I’m done, I’ll be able to look at the 2-3 sentence summary for each chapter and know what happens in it.
Not using Scrivener? You can do the same thing by making a list in a separate Word file, i.e.:
Chapter 1: Scarlet is delivering food to the tavern. We learn that her grandmother is missing.
Chapter 2: Scarlet meets Wolf in the tavern. She sees Cinder on the netscreens and stands up for her. Brawl breaks out.
Chapter 3: Blah blah blah…
I also call this making my “scene list.”
2. I’m updating my list of BIG changes I want to make (I almost always have a list started from back when I was writing the first draft and already thinking up things that needed fixing). I’m looking for things like plot holes, flimsy characterization, twists that seem contrived, villains that are too boring or too easily defeated, romances that don’t sizzle, and the like.
3. I’m noting smaller changes on a chapter-by-chapter basis. I note these changes in the “Document Notes” portion of Scrivener, so that they’re kept separate for each chapter. These will be things like: Insert Iko into this chapter. Or, Give Cinder something to do during this conversation—maybe have her fixing something? Or, Give Thorne a knife here (he needs it later).
3. Plan the Revisions, Starting with the Big Stuff
Once I’ve finished my read-through, I’m starting to have a sense of what’s working in the book and what’s really, really not working. I review those BIG issues I want to fix and start brainstorming solutions.
For example, in the first draft of Scarlet, Wolf had amnesia—he couldn’t remember anything of his life prior to arriving in this small town in France. But in reading that draft, I was unhappy with how passive of a character this made him. I wanted him to be filled with internal conflict that stemmed from conflicting loyalties to Scarlet and to his Pack (which wasn’t possible when he had no idea who or what a Pack was).
So I decided to do away with the amnesia entirely, which changed the basis of a lot of scenes throughout the book. Chapters and chapters had been dedicated to Scarlet and Wolf trying to find out more about his past—hunting down police records and the like—and those chapters now either had to be deleted or altered to fit with Wolf’s new reality. To change something that had been so integral to the plot before is never an easy task, but I knew as soon as I made the decision that the story would be stronger for it.
I go through my entire list of BIG changes this way—figuring out why something isn’t working and trying to come up with something I can do to make it better or stronger. Some solutions come easily, some will plague me for weeks or months. Many things that are bothering me at this stage won’t have feel completely fixed until the third or fourth drafts of the book, but I do my best to start working toward solutions now.
Once I’ve landed on a solution that I think is going to work, I start moving chapter-by-chapter through the book and notating what would need to change in each chapter to exact that change.
In the case of Wolf no longer having amnesia, I went through each chapter and, if it was a chapter in which Wolf’s amnesia was mentioned or impacted the plot, I made a note like: Remove discussion of his amnesia. Or, This chapter no longer relevant—delete. Or, Change conversation and dynamic—Wolf comes to the farm because he has info on Scarlet’s grandmother, not because she was nice to him and he has nowhere else to go. Or whatever.
I do this for each “issue” that the first draft had, for every scene. Sometimes a chapter might require only one or two changes, sometimes it will be more than a dozen (and may need to be entirely rewritten).
4. Reviewing Plot Structure and Rearranging Scenes
Often, the massive changes required of a second draft mean that scenes will be deleted or added or moved around. This is the number one reason I like Scrivener—it makes it really easy to re-order chapters, no cutting & pasting required.
As I rework different elements of the plot, I’ll often use the “corkboard” function in Scrivener to see if the order of chapters are still making sense and rearrange as necessary. I’ll update the synopses of chapters as they evolve so I can always see, at a glance, how the story is progressing from scene to scene to scene.
I’ll once again think about plot structure. Is my “inciting incident” accounted for, and can it be more intense? Is the suspense building consistently and leading to a satisfactory climax, or do I need to up the stakes somewhere?
Not using Scrivener? A technique I used before (and still sometimes use when a plot is extra complicated and I need more flexibility than Scrivener gives me), is that I print out my scene list (see #2, above), cut each chapter into its own strip of paper, and spread those out on a large table. Then I can rearrange them in the same fashion, once again able to see the “big picture” all at once. Be sure to leave space in each scene to add notes as you brainstorm.
(Re-arranging the plot without Scrivener.)
5. Developing Subplots
During the outlining and first draft stages, I’ll no doubt uncover some subplots and they’ll no doubt factor into the major arcs of the story, but they don’t usually get fleshed out until the second draft because I was focused on the major plot before.
Now it’s time to start exploring those subplots in more depth, expanding them, and connecting them to the main plot in a way that feels natural.
In the first drafts of both Scarlet and Cress I was almost entirely focused on the major plots of the title characters—Scarlet and Wolf seeking out Scarlet’s grandmother; Cress and Thorne trying to survive the desert and get back to the ship. Meanwhile, I had a chapter here and there of the secondary plot (Cinder trying to learn more about her past; Cinder trying to stop Levana), but it was relatively sparse until the point where the subplots merged.
It wasn’t until the second draft of each book that I really focused on these and other subplots, i.e., pretty much any Kai or Levana scene!
When I’m planning out my second draft, I take stock of the subplots—what’s going on with the minor characters? Does the villain have their own arc? Are there things happening in the story world that need more development (such as a war or the ongoing spread of a plague)?
Once I pinpoint a subplot, I ask myself if it has a beginning, middle, and end, just like with a major plot, and if those points flow together in a natural way.
NOTE: SCARLET SPOILERS AHEAD.
In the first draft of Scarlet, I’d written the chapters in which Cinder and Thorne escape from prison and make it to the Rampion, and I’d written the end where they find Scarlet and Wolf and drag them out up into space. I maybe had a scene or two in between, but otherwise, there wasn’t much happening with those two characters.
So in planning out Draft Two, I had to figure out what they were doing in between these two major points of the story. How and why do they go find Scarlet? How are they spending their time aboard the ship? What is Cinder’s goal in this book and how does she pursue that goal? How can I maintain some romantic tension between Cinder and Kai when they never see each other? And also… Iko!
All these questions lead to ideas for new scenes. After that, it’s a matter of fitting them into the major plot (Scarlet and Wolf) in a way that felt balanced and natural. Easier said than done, ha!
END SCARLET SPOILERS
For more complicated books, like Cress and Winter, I used Scrivener to add keywords denoting subplots in each chapter, so that when I was looking at my corkboard I could see how often and at what intervals each subplot was mentioned. That way, I can see at a glance that, for example, Kai hasn’t been mentioned in the last twenty chapters (nooooo!!), which tells me that I should insert a Kai-centric chapter, or at least remind the reader about him somewhere in those twenty chapters.
Not using Scrivener? I’ve done a similar trick using colored sticky notes or colored game pieces from board games and placing them on my scenes (as described above).
(Denoting subplots using game pieces… just in case you weren’t yet convinced of how neurotic I am about this sort of thing…)
6. Always Make it Worse
And by “worse,” I obviously mean “better.”
I often find that I go way too easy on my characters in the first draft. Characters fall in love and get that first kiss way too early. The villain is too easily vanquished. The protagonist too quickly finds a solution to their problems.
The second draft is where I start making it worse for the characters. How can I challenge them? How can I test them? How can I push them beyond their limits? What cruel, awful things can I do to them now?
Sounds sadistic, I know, but this is where conflict and suspense come from. If you’re going too easy on your character, the reader will get bored.
Always be asking yourself, during every draft: How can I make this worse?
7. Write (Rewrite / Revise) until you have your Second Draft
By the end of all this prep work, I should have a manuscript that’s been rearranged and restructured in a way that will (hopefully) tell the story in the most optimal, suspenseful way possible. In each chapter I’ve listed a series of notes for the things that need to change in that specific chapter. I’ve added placeholders for brand new chapters and summarized what they’re going to be about. I’ve moved any chapters that are no longer applicable into a “deleted scenes” folder (because I’m paranoid about actually deleting anything).
Then… I start rewriting!
Like with the first draft, I give myself goals, such as “revise 2 chapters per day.” I also aim to write lineally, but like with the first draft, if I get stuck or am inspired to work on a chapter later in the book, I’ll do that if that’s what I need to keep up my momentum.
Compared to my fast first drafts, the second draft is sloooooooow. Anywhere from three to nine months slow. (At least, that feels really, really slow to me.) In this draft, I’m not so much trying to get through the story fast, rather I’m trying to savor the story and let my imagination explore the world and the characters and the plot while I’m rewriting it, so that I’m open to fun, new, magical ideas if they come to me. I’m much more focused on making the story click together as a whole and make sense and start to be somewhat readable.
My second drafts change a lot. With Cinder, I’d estimate I only salvaged about 10% of the first draft. Alternatively, with Heartless, I’d say about 50% of the second draft was new material. So the percentage has gotten better with each book, but . . . I’m still rewriting a lot, a lot.
It still won’t be perfect—far from it!—but this is the draft where it starts to feel like a real book.
After I’ve finished, I give it another simmering period before moving on to additional revision drafts, which I’ll get into next week.
In between each draft of a writing project, I make a point of taking some time away from it. I call it a simmering period. (Like making a soup or spaghetti sauce… you need to give it time to simmer so all the flavors can meld together and become delicious… just like merging all the complexities of your story together in your brain. Get it?? … I can never tell if this is a good analogy or not.)
Why Let It Simmer?
Simmering periods are important for many reasons:
1. They give you space from your book so that when you come back to it, you can see it with fresh eyes. When you’ve just finished a book, you’re too close to it—your head is full of it—and it’s difficult to pinpoint its strengths and weaknesses.
2. Your brain will keep working even when you’re not. It’s usually during these down times that my brain starts filling up with new ideas for the story. I come up with a better plot twist to happen during the climax, or a more romantic first encounter for the hero and heroine, or I realize why the villain was giving me so much trouble before and how I can make it better.
For another popular writing analogy: It’s like a well. When you’re writing or revising your book, you’re draining that well, so you need time in between drafts to let the well fill back up again.
3. It prevents total burnout. Writer burnout is a scary thing. It’s like, horror novel scary. Worst nightmare scary. So I try to be conscientious about my limitations and recognize when I’m exhausting my brain beyond what’s healthy. Sometimes you need a break so that when you come back to your book you can be productive and efficient again.
4. It will help you fall back in love with the story. I reach a point in every book where I start to hate it a little bit. (I’ve come to find that all writers feel this way from time to time, so I’ve stopped feeling guilty about it.) Writing is hard. Books are difficult. You’re not always going to be in that happy honeymoon period. But if I can set a book aside for a while and forget whatever was driving me crazy about it, when I return it’s like rediscovering a past love.
How Long is a Simmering Period?
How much time I take off from a project depends on many factors: 1. How far ahead (or behind) I am on that book’s deadline; 2. How far ahead (or behind) I am on other books’ deadlines; 3. How excited or impatient I am to get back to it; and 4. How long it takes for me to feel like the story is fresh in my mind again.
I try to give it at least a week. Ideally, I’ll have something set aside for a month or two, but it can be even longer than that if I’m working on other things and just can’t get back to it for a while.
This year, I’ve had Winter on the back burner for about six months. Why so long? Because the release date was pushed back, which meant my delivery date was pushed back; because I’ve been focused on Fairest and Heartless; and because the fourth draft nearly killed me and I really, really needed some time away from it.
On the other hand, I finished Draft #3 of Heartless on Friday, and I plan on jumping back into it later this week. Why the short simmering period this time? Because I got some new ideas over the weekend that I’m really excited to apply, and also because I’m eager to send this book off to my beta-readers and have it off my plate for a while—so I can get back to Winter!
What to Do During a Simmering Period
Work on Something New. Just because you have one book on the back burner doesn’t mean you can’t be writing at all. I love having multiple projects going on so that I might be outlining one book while waiting to hear back from my editor on another; or revising a second draft of one project while researching something else.
It can be incredibly refreshing to work on something new, get into the heads of new characters, and start exploring a new story world. It also keeps your writing muscles sharp and prevents you from falling into the “endless simmering period”—where weeks turn into months with no forward progress.
Read! We all have a neverending to-be-read list. Simmering periods are a great time to tackle some of those books you’ve been longing to get to! I generally like to dive into a genre that’s entirely different from what I’ve been living in the past few months, and I love light-hearted, fun reads during my simmering periods. But maybe this is your chance to tackle War and Peace? Reading is also great because it can inspire new ideas for your own project and motivate you to get back to it (when the time is right).
Watch TV and Movies. I’m not really a TV person, but I become one when I’m in-between projects. I’ll marathon all those shows that my friends love and I’ve never seen. TV and movies are also great for learning about plot structure and characterization. After all, they’re just another form of storytelling.
Also… sometimes our brains just need a rest.
Try New Things. I become very adventurous during my Simmering Periods. I take classes. I travel. I go do all those things that I’ve been saying for years I want to do someday. I get out in the community. I spend time with friends. I see shows. You never know where an idea will come from, and every new experience has the potential to work its way into a someday-story.
Tackle the Non-Writing To-Do List. I also become super productive during my Simmering Periods. Walls get painted. Artwork gets framed. Cabinets get organized. Gardens get planted. All those things that are forgotten or ignored when I’m neck-deep in a story suddenly become a priority. Use this time to catch up on the rest of your life before retreating back into your writing cave.
When to Stop Simmering and Start Cooking Writing
Okay, I’m officially tired of this analogy. Whatever.
Be careful that you don’t set a project aside for so long that you become an eternal procrastinator. Eventually, you’ll want to dive back in and get back to work! For me, I usually reach a point when I start to get those butterflies in my stomach when I think about a book. It starts to crop up in my daydreams. I start to get excited again.
Then I know it’s time.
Stay tuned later this week when we move on to what is (for me) the most difficult part of the writing process: The Second Draft!
At the end of the outlining process, which I discussed in my last blog post, I have in hand an outline that gives me a basic summary of what’s going to happen in the story from scene to scene to scene, and how this story will progress from beginning, through the middle, and all the way to a hopefully satisfactory conclusion.
Which brings us to… the first draft!
The first draft is definitely one of my favorite parts of the writing process. There’s so much that could happen. So many surprises await you! So many twists and mysteries to be uncovered! So many characters to fall in love with!
It can also be a very intimidating part of the process, because you have a grand idea in your head of what this story is going to be and if you start writing it and realize that it’s not coming together how you wanted or it isn’t as epic/brilliant/genius as you’d thought, well… that can be really frustrating. (Unfortunately, this happens every single time. Sigh.)
For me, I try to fend off the first-draft doubts by writing really fast first drafts.
Not every writer works this way, but I like to get all the words out as quickly as possible so that I can make ALL the mistakes that are going to be made in this first icky, messy attempt at the story, and then move on to the good stuff. (The good stuff being all the epic/brilliant/genius things I’m no doubt going to come up with during revisions.)
How fast is ‘fast’?
During the first draft, I generally write anywhere from 3,000-6,000 words per day, which means I can get through it in a month or less. (Fairest, my shortest novel, I wrote in about a week, Cinder took me about two weeks. My longest novel so far, Winter, took almost three months by comparison, and boy did I feel like a slacker.)
Of course, “fast” is going to mean different things for different writers. For some writers, 1,000 words in a day is a huge accomplishment, especially when you’re balancing day jobs and families and school and Adult Responsibilities. Not to mention that—writing is mentally draining! So don’t be discouraged if 3,000 words seems like an impossible goal for you. Be nice to yourself and embrace the pace that feels right for you. Progress is progress, after all.
One reason I’m able to write a fast first draft is because of that outline. It’s not that I never get stuck during this part of the process, but if something isn’t working out, I can at least look at my outline and see where I’m supposed to be heading.
In other words, I don’t follow my outline to the letter. The story inevitably takes on a life of its own, and I just try to keep up. But when I feel like the story is losing its way, I have that original roadmap to fall back on. I might take an occasional detour, but I can always look back and see where I was heading in the first place.
That said, there have also been times when I realized halfway through writing the first draft that my final destination was somewhere completely different than I’d originally thought. No problem! It’s easier to scrap two pages of an outline and rework them than to scrap 100 pages of a manuscript. I’m constantly fussing with and altering my outline as I discover new things about the story and characters.
Other than starting off with a decent outline, here are some strategies I use in writing my first drafts.
Strategy #1: Set a Daily Word Goal.
I’m big on self-imposed goals. I’d never get anything done without them!
I recommend choosing a daily goal that feels challenging so that you don’t squander an hour staring at the wall, knowing that you still have plenty of time to hit your word quota, but don’t choose a goal that seems so impossible you’ll get overwhelmed before you even start. Play around, find what feels right for you.
Part of the reason that the fast first draft works for me is because when I’m trying to crank out 3,000+ words a day, I really don’t have the time to stop and listen to that annoying inner editor. Did that last chapter suck? Too bad, at least I hit my word quota! It keeps me moving forward, no matter how the neurotic perfectionist in me is cringing at all the horrible choices I’m making.
Strategy #2: Humor the Internal Editor—but just barely.
Often it seems that just when things are starting to get rolling, that little voice in your head says, “That last chapter really sucked.” Or “This entire plot is a mess.” Or “Did you just write the cheesiest dialogue in the history of fiction? Yes, you did!”
The inner editor is a jerk, in case you didn’t know.
So that was the cheesiest dialogue in the history of fiction? Fine. Write that down!
My first drafts are filled with random notes like:
– “Come up with something less cliché here.”
– “Make this less melodramatic.”
– “Need this to be funnier” / “more intense” / “creepier” / whatever.
– “Need to research this!”
– “Make this scene less terrible.”
That way the Inner Editor knows that I’m listening—I hear you!—and that I will come back and fix this. Later. Like, during revisions, when it’s time to start fixing stuff.
Strategy #3: Always keep moving forward.
Sometimes I might go back and read the last chapter I wrote so I can refresh my memory of what happened and where the characters were when I left off, but that’s it. I don’t go back and read anything else when I’m working on the first draft. I just keep pushing through until I hit the end.
That said, oftentimes I’ll realize that something needs to change in an earlier scene. Just like with leaving myself ‘internal editor’ notes, I’ll leave myself a note for these changes too. I might go write it down in the chapter that needs to change, or I’ll keep a separate file with a running list of things that need to change in revisions. Things like: “Insert the villain into chapter 3 so they can overhear the conversation between hero and heroine” or “Show early on that the protagonist has a black belt in karate so the final fight scene isn’t so random” or “you know what, let’s make this character an only child—delete all mentions of their older brother!”
Once I’ve noted something to change in revisions, I continue right where I left off, but I write it as if I’d already made the change.
Strategy #4: Skip Stuff
I used to be a very lineal writer. I started on page one and wrote straight on through to the end. No more! While I still try to write as lineally as possible, if I find myself getting stuck, I’m totally okay with skipping the scene that’s giving me a hard time and move on to something I’m really excited about. Oftentimes having some space from that tricky scene will help me figure out what wasn’t working with it.
And besides, progress is progress is progress. If you need to jump to the romantic kissing scene or the epic conclusion scene so you can hit your word quota for the day, power to you. Just keep writing!
The Most Important Thing About the First Draft
Finish it, finish it, finish it.
So that you know you can.
Finishing stuff is hard, and there’s always a shiny new idea ready to coax you away. But finishing that first draft is an accomplishment that can never be taken away from you.
Also, it will give you something to work with in revisions… which I’ll talk about next week!
I love-love-love NaNoWriMo. Cinder, Scarlet, Cress, Fairest, and Heartless all started life as NaNo novels, and if I can swing it, I’ll be drafting the first book of my superhero series this November, too. *fingers crossed*
The goal of NaNoWriMo (or National Novel Writing Month) is to challenge yourself to write a 50,000 word novel during the 30 days of November. They also do Camp NaNo during the summer for people who struggle to join in during November. Hundreds of thousands of people participate each year, and it makes for a really fun, supportive community. It’s nice to know that you’re not all alone in this crazy world of noveling. Plus they have neat things like graphs that let you chart your progress and pep talks from really awesome authors. (Such as this one. *cough*)
The great thing about NaNo: It gives you the goal. It gives you the deadline. All you have to do is hunker down and write.
If you’re the type that thrives on friendly competition, I highly recommend giving it a shot. You have about six weeks to plan. 😉
Writing this blog post is coming at an optimal time, as I’m about to start outlining my superhero story within the next couple of weeks.
I’ll be honest. No matter how many books I outline, I always find this part of the process intimidating. Part of me always wants to wait. Research more! Brainstorm more! You’re not ready yet! You still barely know your characters! You still hardly know what’s going to happen in the plot! How do you possibly think you can turn this random jumble of scene ideas and research notes into a complete story?
It’s a frightful thing, the Writer’s Brain.
So I suppose the first step of outlining is to quiet those voices and jump in. You have to start somewhere, after all.
Reviewing My Notes
In my last entry I talked about gathering all of my ideas and notes into one file and dividing it into sections: Character Ideas, Potential Scenes, World-Building, etc.
As I begin the outlining process, I review these notes, especially the scene ideas, and start re-ordering them.
– What obviously comes at the beginning?
– What is obviously related to the climax or resolution and therefore comes toward the end?
– What scenes do I have absolutely no idea where they belong, and therefore we’re going to stick them somewhere in the middle for now?
This will be sparse and messy. That’s okay. We’re just getting started.
Thinking About Characters
You sometimes hear about how there are “plot-focused writers” and “character-focused writers,” and while I suppose it’s true that most of lean one way or the other (I would be plot-focused), most writers will tell you that the two are inseparable. What is plot? It’s characters . . . doing stuff.
So my characters come into my outlining process really early on.
First up: The protagonist.
Usually by this point, I have a generic idea of who they are. Boy or girl? How old? What are their vague life circumstances? (Rich vs. poor, big family vs. orphan, going to school vs. working, etc.)
Now I start asking myself focused questions, with two goals in mind:
A: I want to start turning this shadowy figure into a real person. (When I’m lucky, this is easy. Some characters just know who they are and can’t wait to tell you. Others might require multiple drafts of a book before I feel that I really have them figured out.)
B: I want to start connecting them to a plot.
To do this, I ask myself things like:
– What does this character want?
Knowing your character’s immediate goal will give them something to do in those first few chapters. Giving them larger goals to uncover throughout the story will keep them chugging forward.
– What does this character need?
Not always the same thing as wanting! For me, the characters’ needs are usually emotional. They need: personal acceptance, or to find a group that they belong in, or to become an independent person. (If this sounds like the start of a theme to you, that’s because it is. I don’t seriously start to think about themes until probably the final revision rounds of my books, but they do start churning around in my head way back here at the beginning.)
– What is opposing them?
Your character wants something right away, but if they get it right away—story over! So what is keeping them from achieving their goals? This will probably change over the course of the story, so if you can think of a few conflicts now, all the better!
(Also keep in mind that conflicts can be internal and external. Your protagonist might have an archenemy standing in their way… but they also might have self-doubts that are causing them to sabotage their own efforts. Or they might have dueling wants/needs. For example: Cinder wants to escape the poisonous household of her cruel stepmother, but she also wants to stay and take care of her little sister. These goals are at odds with each other. Ha—conflict!)
– What is this person afraid of?
Whatever your character is afraid of, they should have to face it at some point in the story. Perhaps even multiple times before they defeat that fear. Look—plot!
– What does this character’s day-to-day life look like? Where do they go? What do they do?
For example, if your character is in school, probably some important parts of the plot will revolve around school. Likewise if they have a job. Start thinking about possible conflicts they might encounter in these settings.
So there’s the protagonist. I’ll do the same sort of Q&A with the love interest and villain (if there is one), and any other major characters.
Building The Plot Off the Character
As I dig deeper, more ideas unravel. New scenes start to pop into my head. My thought process starts to look something like this . . .
[WARNING: CINDER SPOILERS AHEAD]
Cinder is afraid of the cyborg draft and letumosis, so I know at some point she’ll come face to face with that fear.
Maybe cyborgs are being used as experiments for the plague. Maybe Cinder becomes a guinea pig herself. Maybe she runs into the prince at the labs and has to once again hide the fact that she’s cyborg from him!
But wait. How would she become a guinea pig in the first place? Does she volunteer? If so—why?
No—her stepmother volunteers her!
But if her stepmother volunteers her now . . . why didn’t she do it before? She has to have a personal investment. A reason to make this decision now.
Maybe someone she knows catches the plague and she’s suddenly desperate for there to be a cure. Maybe it’s Peony!
So okay, Peony catches the plague, and Cinder’s stepmother volunteers her for plague research, and she goes to the labs and the prince sees her and . . . then what happens?
I’ll try to let the story play itself out as far as I can take it. Sometimes this might just be for a scene or two, sometimes it will seem like half the plot works itself out in one plotting session. (Gosh those are good days!)
As I’m coming up with new scene ideas and new twists, I’m constantly trying to plug them into that original framework I started with and connect the dots.
Piecing It Together
As the story expands, I’ll get to a point where I’m asking one question over and over again:
And then what happens?
And then what happens?
And then what happens?
I try to make each scene naturally progress into the next scene as much as possible. This will get more complicated as I add in subplots, as not every subplot is going to be represented in every scene, but for the most part every action should result in a reaction which will result in the next action.
In other words:
You character makes a decision > they act on that decision > things go bad (or good?) leading them to make another decision > they act on that decision > and on and on.
When you get stuck: Ask yourself, what’s the worst thing that could happen to my characters right now? Do that. It’s a pretty handy trick. I use it a lot.
By this point—hopefully—something like a story is starting to emerge. You have your beginning. You have an ending. You have things happening in the middle that are spurred on by your character’s wants and goals, you have opposition and conflict meeting them at every turn, you have a natural progression of events. At least . . . a sort-of natural progression of events.
You know, in theory.
(If it seems as though my outline process might be a little on the sketchy side, that’s because it totally is. But hey, whatever works.)
Hitting the Plot Points
Eventually I start running into brick walls with all my planning and plotting. I have the bare bones of a plot, but things maybe aren’t fitting together quite as well as I’d like. There are probably a lot of lingering plot holes. There are a few subplots in need of attention.
When I get to that point, I start getting serious about capital-P Plotting.
There are lots of resources that break down basic plot structure but my personal favorite is the one that Dan Wells explains in this brilliant video series. It’s about 50 minutes in total and worth every second. I’ve watched the whole series multiple times. It’s really, really helpful.
I’m also fond of the structure discussed in the screenwriting guide Save the Cat by Blake Snyder.
With words like “inciting incident” and “plot reversal” rolling around in my head, I start looking at my outline with new eyes, trying to determine if the major plot points are all accounted for and if they happen at the most opportune times at the story. Does my inciting incident come too late? Does my climax come too early? Am I missing a plot point entirely?
I move things around.
I add new scenes and remove others.
I try to keep the plot moving forward.
I ask myself, over and over, what happens next?
A Word on “Figuring It All Out”
I don’t. Figure it all out, that is. I know of writers who do write super intense, long, detailed outlines in which every question is answered, every plot hole filled. My outlines are a lot more sparse than that.
My goal with an outline is to make sure I have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and that they all connect to each other in a somewhat logical way. I want to make sure that my stakes are increasing and that the story builds up to a satisfactory climax and resolution.
My outline for Heartless was only 3,000 words long, but it covered the major plot points and gave me an idea of how the story would connect from beginning to middle to end. That’s all I’m going for!
I will still have questions when I’m done outlining, and I’ve taken to underlining those so that I know at a glance what “problems” I still have to work through.
Things like: Cinder runs into Kai (where/how?) and finds out about the antidote. Or, Scarlet and Wolf decide they have to take the train to Paris (but why can’t they just take her podship?). Or, Add something about Levana in this scene—a press conference?
Even through I won’t have all the questions answered, I trust that they will reveal themselves as I start to write. I also know that things always, always, always change when I launch into my first draft, and it doesn’t seem that any amount of plotting and outlining can keep that from happening. Characters will surprise you. Plot twists will catch you off-guard. That’s part of what makes it fun! So I’m happy to leave some space for the story to grow and change—it will regardless, so I might as well expect it from the beginning.
Once I feel as though I have a pretty basic roadmap to go by, I consider my outline done. It’s time to move on to the first draft! Stay tuned.
Note: I’m gathering questions and will do a special Q&A post at the end of this series, so keep them coming!
BAM—You Have an Idea!
It’s usually something small. A character starts speaking to you in the back of your head, wanting to tell their story. Or you’re sitting on the bus one day, daydreaming, and a movie starts to play out in your head. Just a single scene first, but you want to know more. Or maybe it’s a concept. A What If. What if a comet hit the Earth right now? What if dinosaurs hadn’t gone extinct at all and still roamed around in our modern world? What if, what if, what if…?
I’ve heard of writers who sit down one day with the intention of coming up with a new story idea. There are plenty of brainstorming techniques for this. (James Scott Bell lists some great ones in his craft guide Plot & Structure.) But I, personally, have never done this. Every story idea I’ve ever had popped into my head when I wasn’t expecting it.
With Cinder, the idea of Cinderella turned into a cyborg came into my head as I was falling asleep one night and bam—head instantly full of possibilities.
With Heartless, it came in the middle of a conversation with my agent. We were talking about villains and fairy tale retellings and I off-handedly mentioned that I wanted to read a book that told the back story of the Queen of Hearts and—bam. Idea.
With the superhero series that I hope to start drafting this winter, I was on my way to a book signing and caught a construction sign out of the corner of my eye—one of those “Coming Soon to this Site: Another Strip Mall!” signs. But with my quick, disinterested glance, I thought the sign said something about superheroes. It didn’t, upon closer inspection, but . . . no matter. Bam—a light bulb went off.
So that’s where ideas come from. Anywhere, anytime, anyhow. I never know when they’ll hit, but I’m always ready to jot them down and explore them when they do.
Probably 80% of my ideas are written off as dumb, cliché, or overdone within the first day or two of having it. Those ideas get relegated to the back pages of my idea folder. Another 10% or 15% might hang on for months, even years, always one of those “I would like to write this someday” ideas that somehow always gets surpassed by something brighter and shinier and more of-the-moment. Maybe I’ll write them someday, maybe I won’t. I think of them as my back-up ideas—the ones I’ll write if the idea file otherwise runs dry.
And then there are the diamonds. The ideas that take hold and hang on. They keep coming back up in my imagination, again and again. Somewhere in the back of my thoughts, they start to percolate.
Eventually I know that this idea is going to be my next project. Then the fun begins.
Once I have my heart set on turning an idea into a story, I start to dig a little deeper.
I ask a lot of questions: Who is the protagonist and what do they want? What other characters are needed for the story? Who is the love interest and how do they factor into the plot? What is the main conflict? What is the world like that the story takes place in?
There are no right or wrong answers. I write everything down, knowing that 75% of what I come up with at this point will probably be scrapped later when I come up with something better. I’m just exploring, poking at the idea to see what it does.
Those what if questions start to creep up, too. (The What If questions factor significantly into my whole process, so be prepared for a lot of them!)
– What if this cyborg Cinderella wasn’t a house servant, but a talented mechanic forced to earn money for her stepmother?
– What if her best friend wasn’t a mouse (Disney) or a bird (Grimm), but a robot?
– What if being cyborg was considered a bad thing, and the prince didn’t know what she was?
– What if there was an evil queen who wanted the prince for herself?
– What if, what if, what if . . .
Brainstorming notes for Cinder.
Research Part I: Inspirational / Market Research
I’ll have to keep looking things up until the day I turn a book over to my editor, but the bulk of my research happens right up front, in these first planning stages. While I’m asking all those What If questions in my head, I’m also actively gathering ideas from elsewhere in the world.
If the story is inspired by an existing story, I’ll go back to the source material. I’m reading it with a different eye than a reader wanting to be entertained. Now I’m on the hunt for inspiration.
With The Lunar Chronicles, I not only went back and read the Grimm versions of the stories, but I also read a few versions of the tales across times and cultures, along with modern adaptations. A lot of writers refuse to read anything similar to their WIP because they don’t want to be influenced by it. I get that, but I tend to take the opposite approach. I like to see what’s out there. What’s already been done, what might be veering toward the cliché, so I can see start thinking about what I want to do differently.
For example, as I was planning out Cinder, I went back and re-read (or re-watched? I can’t remember now) Ella Enchanted, one of my all-time favorite Cinderella retellings, and I discovered that some of the plot twists I had in mind were veering dangerously close to those in Ella Enchanted—and not just in a “they’re both Cinderella retellings” sort of way. So those plot twists got scrapped and I started looking for different directions I could go with it.
With Heartless, one of my first steps was to re-read Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, looking for every tiny little detail about the “before” so that I could apply it to my Queen of Hearts-based prequel.
With my Superhero story, I’ve been watching all manner of superhero movies and marathoning the TV show Heroes. Always asking: What do I like about this? What don’t I like? What is it about superheroes that grabs me? What can I do differently? What would I have done if this was my story? What’s been done to death?
I take notes. Lots and lots and lots of notes. I make lists, too. Right now I have a list in my journal of “Superhero tropes I love” and “Superhero tropes I hate.” I’ll reference this list often as I start outlining to make sure I’m writing a story that I would also want to read.
Research Part II: Factual Research
And then there’s the type of research where I’m not looking so much for ideas, but authenticity. I start reading non-fiction books and articles and watching documentaries in an effort to populate my story with as many real-world details as possible.
For The Lunar Chronicles, I read many issues of Scientific American magazine to start building a foundation for the technological advancement in my futuristic world (which led to a lot of ideas about Cinder’s cybernetic parts!). I also read a book on the bubonic plague to inspire letumosis, and pored over China tourism guides, and walked the streets of Paris via Google Maps Streetview, and on and on.
For Heartless, I began with researching the Victorian era—from fashions to social etiquette to common foods—along with some of the historical people and events that supposedly inspired Lewis Carroll’s story.
My goal during this phase is to gather ideas (see a theme? More ideas and more ideas and more ideas . . .) until they start coming together to form a story. Often, this early research will lead to fascinating discoveries that will influence the entire plot.
For example, many of the hardships that Cress faces were directly inspired by the initial research I did on the Sahara Desert and survival tactics. Before that, all I’d known was that part of the book would take place in the desert, but it wasn’t until I started researching that part of the world that I could begin to fill in this gaping hole in the plot.
Some early research notes for Scarlet.
The Idea File
Though I do my most of my brainstorming on paper, during this stage I’m frequently updating my idea file. (For me, this is a basic word document.) I start to organize my ideas into things like “Character Concepts” and “Worldbuilding Details” and “Potential Scenes?”
The file starts to grow, and the pieces slowly start to come together and overlap, and then—hooray! I can see a vague story emerging from this overload of ideas.
Then it’s time to start outlining.
Stay tuned to learn more about my outlining techniques next week!