Last week, I took a question from a writer named John, asking how I organize my writing. I decided it would be fun to hear more than just my approach, so I invited my two pals, Jay Lake and J.A. Pitts, to share their processes.
Last week, you saw their processes. Today, we’ll look at mine and then talk about how to figure out your own.
I don’t use anything other than Word when I’m writing. And maybe a piece of paper for some scribbling. I’m sure that will change once I add script-writing to my repertoire — I will probably use something like Final Draft for that.
I’m still learning my process and I’m certain it will flex as I stretch and grow into my writing muscles. Like Jay, I usually hold my short fiction entirely in my head. Sometimes I outline it with a few bullet points, but that’s pretty rare. And so far, it’s about 50/50 on those times I know the story exactly before I write it down and those times that I learn it by writing it. I can also hold the bones of my novels and series in my head without much in the way of notes or outlines.
When I’m writing, I tend to think of the size of container I’m filling up with story…something a little different than what my pals do. I start with “How long is this book going to be?” and I create the organization for its structure based on that end goal. I tend to be a putter-inner more than a taker-outer at the end of a draft and knowing how long the story is going to be helps me create the story.
If you look at the first three novels in the Psalms of Isaak, there’s a consistent structure. My chapters in the first book are approximately 4,000 words long and each have four POV characters. In the second and third volumes, I have 4,500 word chapters (again, roughly) with three POV characters in each. I’ve been told that this would make some writers a little crazy, but here’s how it translates for me:
I’m going to write a book of…say…140,000 words. This is about 475 pages in a paperback but most writers don’t measure by page. Now, the books in this particular series have an ensemble cast where all six characters are given nearly equal time on the stage for their part in the story. So when I think of each character’s arc, they have about 23k words per over a course of 15 scenes each.
I set these boundaries with myself and then I fill in the story.
Now, I like the traditional three act structure, but more importantly, story lovers and tellers have embraced it for thousands of years. Is it the only way? Surely not. But it is time-tested. So I use that to organize my story even further. For a 140k story, this means I have about 35k for that first act…basically the first eight chapters, or four scenes per character. At the conclusion of that first act, all the players have committed themselves to solving their various problems. Then, we complicate, complicate, complicate through the next sixteen chapters — with things appearing hopeless ideally at the midpoint — until we slide into the climax and the resolution in the third act…that last 35k in the book.
Now, can I color outside the lines? Absolutely. I’m the writer. I have complete freedom to follow the story whether it’s shorter or longer than I intended. But I find that this organizational structure serves me well. First, I’m starting with the end in mind and I create the story to fit the container rather than letting the story tell me how big it will be. Second, by knowing where I am in the three act structure, I have some idea as to what needs to happen next. It may be as non-specific as “Things need to get really bad for Rudolfo as he tries to solve his problem and fails” but that’s okay…the specifics are organic for me. I have the rough bones going in, but the meat and muscle happen as I write. And again, it’s just MY process. I don’t endorse it for anyone but me and I suspect even Jay and J.A. would shake their heads in befuddlement at my wacky approach.
It’s what I’m doing for now but I also suspect it will change as I write more.
Now what about you? How do you figure out the approach that works best for you?
Practice. Try something. But as you try it, keep this in mind: There are a kajillion excuses out there that keep writers planning to write, intending to write…but not actually writing. Do not let organizing your writing get in the way of actually writing. Trust me — we’re good at finding reasons to not practice and this is one of those excuses that we can easily tangle up weeks trying to answer.
So here are three approaches. You can find many, many more. But at some point, you just sit down, open a file and start. You will figure out the best way to organize it all as you do it. And you’ll figure out even better ways as you grow into your muscles.
I like the KISS approach: Keep it Simple, Storyteller!