The Basic Process: Fiction
The views expressed are of C. S. Wyatt.
Maybe it is my computer programming and management background, but I approach writing as I do a development project. I spent far too many years treating writing as a hobby. This attitude led to my acceptance of the myth “creativity cannot be turned on like a tap.” Yes, it can be — especially if you are creative every day. The value of discipline cannot be overestimated.
The process I am using currently involves keeping detailed logs of pages, chapters completed, and any other information I can track. Consider it from the standpoint of an assembly line, from design to completion. While not the romantic vision most entertain of writers and other artists, it makes the process flow much better for me.
Understand that everything I am going to suggest can be done with old-fashioned tools, like notecards and scratch paper. Nothing is revolutionary, even when it is automated. The automation simply makes tasks easier and more efficient.
For years I was conceited enough to ignore planning. That’s a common problem among younger writers, but overconfidence knows no bounds. I managed to produce nearly three dozen complete scripts without outlines, so why change? There are two obvious answers: 1) complete doesn't mean compelling; and 2) longer works aren't the same as short scripts. Now, I realize that organization helps not just my students but almost every writer.
Long Creative Works
I admit that I do not and probably never will outline short works. It is the longer works that allow my mind to wander, letting my worst habits win. Longer works require a plan and a schedule or I manage to complete about half the work before I either get distracted or frustrated. I plan to salvage some older works now that I have some semblance or organization — maybe a bit of maturity as a writer, too.
Draft a one-page outline of the story. If the draft is interesting, continue writing, otherwise, place it in File 13. If it’s too complex for a one-page summary, it is more than one story. Some writers struggle to create a summary or outline, but you need to remember that when you try to sell a story the query letter will have to summarize the story in single paragraph. I can spend an entire day trying to condense a story to a page.
If it survives the concept stage, begin a file for the project. Actually, I create several files: a real manila folder in my filing cabinet, a computer directory (folder), and a binder for the current draft of the work. My physical file is extremely important, I have learned. I place any handwritten pages, audio tapes, and my research for the story into this file. Only when I am finished with a story do I move the file from one drawer to another.
Once there is a working concept, I brainstorm the basics. In the past, I used blank, unruled paper. I still like paper for the early brainstorming. There is something about the physical process of writing words and phrases that appeals to me. I draw shapes, write words, and generally doodle away until I have some sense of the major elements in a story.
It is difficult to explain brainstorming, since everyone seems to develop a personal style. Brainstorming is meant to be quick, done without over-analyzing the various elements of the story. There are some items that should appear in the brainstorm:
- Major conflict
- Minor conflicts, challenges, and obstacles
- Major characters
- Primary settings
Once a quick, somewhat sloppy, brainstorming session ends, I switch to software. One benefit of softare is that inserting and deleting items becomes more important. I add the basic details, including why characters, scenes, or settings are essential. I stick to the essentials during brainstorming.
During the brainstorming, I make sure the roles of the major characters are in place. This is not the same as developing character sketches. This early step is to define which characters will or will not be in the story.
I use OmniGraffle and Inspiration for brainstorming. Both allow you to create an outline from a mindmap, or you can start with an outline and have the software create graphical diagrams. Visuals help me see new connections. I have experimented with other diagramming and mapping applications, including several free ones, but OmniGraffle remains my favorite.
Outline the Story
There are various ways to outline, again depending on personal preference. I use a basic outline based on a fixed structure — even though I might change the structure while outlining. Starting with a basic structure forces me to place the elements from the brainstorming into a structure. This might not work for everyone, especially those writing literary fiction, but most genres have a familiar skeleton on which to place the story.
The guide to plot and story offers a detailed explanation of traditional story structures. Understand that structures are starting points, not definitive rules carved in stone.
- False Dawn
- Proof of Change
- Tease of Future
Consider the format you plan to write: novel, short, play, et cetera. The choice is not final, but it gives some idea of structure and length. Novel structures are possibly the most flexible, while Hollywood prefers rigid structures with page counts for each “movement” within a story.
If writing a play or novel, I used to detail every chapter or scene on a half-page or index card. Indicate the setting, characters, lead-in, conflict, resolution, and hook. There are some great software applications for taking notes and even some dedicated word processors that include a “notecard” view.
I use OmniOutliner, Dramatica, and Scrivener. If I had to limit myself to one program, and only one, for all my writing tasks, it would be Scrivener. It is a specialized word processor, without the feature bloat.
Character and Setting Sketches
Construct character and setting sketches, figuratively and literally. Know your characters and their motivations. Realistic characters seldom change abruptly or without a catalyst. I have told students that if you know a character as well as you know your best friend, that might not even be good enough. You need to know the thoughts and dreams of a character.
I tend to spend more time developing the “bad” characters; they are more interesting and complex. What makes a character commit questionable acts? What makes the character think the choice is not only justifiable, but even morally “right” when the rest of the characters (and the reader) likely see things differently? Those are interesting questions and make for depth.
For settings, I draw maps, chart timelines, and plan anything else I might need to insure continuity. A sloppy work in which settings seem to drift will be rejected by readers.
Research the Details
Details make a story believable. Once I know the basic structure, characters, and setting, it is time to conduct research. Again, you can never know too much. Writers of historical fiction have an audience that demands factual precision. Science fiction readers expect the science to be based, at least in part, on genuine science.
The Web has replaced libraries, but you should only rely on trustworthy sources. Wikipedia and most vanity sites are not the best sources for research. The old rule to distrust “dot-com” sites, but many business do publish reliable, carefully cited material. I rate a Web source based on its use of additional sources, just as reporters like to have more than one source for a story.
I use Bookends to store my sources, especially any documents in Adobe Acrobat format (PDF). Another good tool is EndNote, which most libraries support.
Draft the Story
Establish a schedule for drafts, by chapter or scene. Follow the schedule, placing completed chapters into the draft binder. People ask if it is necessary to constantly print and file a work. Trust me, once you lose a hard drive with a year’s work the backup process becomes routine — and things still go wrong. I have recovered several documents by resorting to the last printed version.
You can use a chart of average work lengths to help guide your writing. I try to remind myself that these lengths are averages, of course, but it is always better to write too much than too little in a first draft. All works get the knife, once written.
Edit and Polish
Despite a love for etymology (logophilia), I scramble letters when I write. And though I study grammar, I know there are some questions on which even the famous grammarians cannot agree. It is ironic that I can edit for others, but like most writers I need an editor to catch my own mistakes.
Transitions and minor corrections are part of the polishing, but I do not move and revise major portions of the work. The goal is to get the draft as smooth as possible so any structural issues are revealed.
Revising is not editing, nor is it the same as the first polishing. Revising takes a time and energy.
Formatting can be a painful process, depending on where the manuscript is headed.
I use Screenwriter and Word to format manuscripts. I also suggest you purchase Final Draft if you are writing a screenplay or any other type of script. You shouldn’t have to spend hours formatting a manuscript.
Celebrate when the first draft is completed, and then it is time to revise the work, again. Once formatted, you should revise the manuscript at least one more time. Formatting reveals issues with length and pacing.
Send off the manuscript and hope for the best.