How Do You Write?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how I write. I don’t mean my language or any of that. I guess to be more specific I need to say I’ve been giving a lot of thought to how I plan my writing.

There are lots of ways to write a novel. I just read an interview with David Morrell (author of First Blood) and Ken Follet (author of The Pillars of the Earth) in the most recent issue of Writer’s Digest and it was very interesting. I’ve read some of Mr. Morrell’s novels (I highly recommend Creepers. He barely gives you a chance to catch your breath), and I have The Pillars of the Earth in my to-be-read stack. Besides the fact that these are two very interesting writers, one of the neat things about the interview was that Mr. Morrell writes pretty much from the seat of his pants while Mr. Follet spends six months to a year outlining his works. He even outlines backwards to be sure everything connects like he wants it. He said his outlines are usually about 50 typed pages.

When Mr. Follet related this, Mr. Morrell said, “Wow.”

That’s kinda what I thought, too.

In the past, I’ve always been one who writes by the seat of my pants. I usually come up with a beginning, and the beginning almost always suggests an ending. And, sometimes, I’ll always have at least one or two pivotal scenes in mind. I let my subconscious stew and boil until I just can’t stand it anymore and then I start writing. The hard parts of this process are gauging when it’s time to actually start writing and how far you’ll get when you do. I have an old fantasy novel in which I stalled out on page 198. Not a happy circumstance.

Needless to say, this can be a little frustrating. So, at the suggestion of a friend, I tried outlining my sf novel utilizing a loose adaptation of The Marshall Plan. This plan was devised by agent and mystery novelist Evan Marshall. I’m not going into all its details (if you’re interested, get a copy of The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing from Writer’s Digest Books), but suffice it to say that the plan works all the detail in so that, by the time you finish, writing is the easy part because everything is already planned out. You just utilize your section sheets and your scene-by-scene outline and write the thing.

I can see some of the advantages of this. The biggest one, to me, is that it allows you to map out the idea and see if you can make it work instead of stalling out at page 198 like I did. You have everything laid out, and that gives you a road map that will take you all the way to the end of your novel.

My sf novel has six POV characters, so I decided to try The Marshall Plan and lay it out. The idea was that I could spend some time planning the thing out and not invest a lot of time to it and have it die in the middle. And, since this would be my first attempt at a story that was more epic in scope than normal, I thought it would be a good way to avoid stepping on my own toes.

Right now, I’m stalled out at page 189.

Things that make you go “Hmm.”

So what’s the problem? Well, I was talking about it with my daughter last night and I have a theory: I stuck too closely to the outline. I’m the kind of writer who writes from inspiration, and I suffocated that by sticking strictly to the outline. I like the idea of having the hard work (plotting the story) done before I start writing. I don’t like stifling my creativity by sticking to the outline to the letter.

I need to find a happy medium there. Because, like I told my daughter, it’s like using an atlas to drive somewhere you’ve never been. I can start from where I live and drive to, say, LA and just trust that I’ll get there and then maybe get lost somewhere in New Mexico or Arizona. Or, I can buy an atlas and plan a route that way. The good thing about having the map is, if I get to Arizona and see a sign beside the interstate that points to some kind of interesting attraction, I can revise my travel route around that. Take a side trip, go see the attraction, then resume the trip, still heading safely for LA.

To translate that to writing, I can still outline my novels scene-by-scene, but I will also allow myself to rework that outline if—no when inspiration strikes. Finish writing the piece of inspiration and then adapt the outline to fit the new development. Maybe not the easiest way to write, but I’m gonna try it to see if it’ll work.

I need to retain some freedom. My daughter said the way she likes to write is that she takes off on the trip, not even sure where’s she’s going. She just has some characters with her and some ideas of where she might stop along the way, but there are no guarantees (did I get that about right, Jesi? Hope so). I can understand the appeal there. I’ve read other authors who talk about writing this way and how it keeps the writing fresh because the author is discovering the surprises just as the reader is. I know that I had that experience with my urban fantasy, and it was so exciting that I wrote it in about three months. Not too bad considering it originally come out around 114,000 words.

One of the tricks I’ve discovered when writing this way is that you stop your daily writing before you write everything in your head. That way, the next day, you can start with an idea of where you’re going and, once the inspiration hits you can keep going. And I was gratified to read that other authors do that as well (it’s neat when you actually discover one of these techniques for yourself).

All of this has me curious: how do you do it? Since I’m trying to devise a new model for myself, any comments and suggestions would be appreciated. And let me know what you’ve experienced if you’ve experimented with different ways of doing it. Put in the pros and cons, too. This could start an interesting discussion (I hope).




3 thoughts on “How Do You Write?

  1. JesiMarie

    You got the way I write very well!

    The way Jules (used to, maybe still) plans hers out is she goes chapter by chapter and writes what’s supposed to happen in each. I tried doing that and got to like, chapter 7 and was like “screw this! I don’t know what’s going to happen!” She says now she makes a couple plot points that she knows is going to happen and then just goes.

    I like not knowing what’s going to happen. I’ll do like Jules and say “I want this to happen” but if I don’t get to it, then I don’t and I shrug it off. I just go with it.

  2. JesiMarie

    Oh, thought I’d throw this on here. I’m reading the really old posts on Becca Fitzpatrick’s (author of Hush, Hush) blog and she went to this thing called Left Coast Crime and this is one of the things she says she learned: “Every author under the sun plots differently. There is no secret method.” I thought it fit in with this post 😉

    1. gilmiller Post author

      I have to agree: there is no secret method. I just thought I’d throw this open to people and see what they say. I’m trying to find something that’s partway in between what you do and full plotting. Like I said, that way I have a general idea of where I’m going, but how I get there is up in the air.

      Thanks for the comments!


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