Building Stories & Birthing Books

Recently our SF Novelist group has been discussing how they plot or don’t plot their novels and stories.  They used lingo like outlines, themes, character arcs, synopsis, and whether they listened to music or not.  I was surprised many of us had very similar approaches.  I’m often asked about my writing “ritual,” and I look at writing as being very similar to building a house.

Before building, I need a general basic blue print to use as a guideline (like knowing the house is going to be a two story Colonial), and a synopsis for my editor (I still hate writing those things). During this planning stage, I figure out who will live in this house and what equipment and tools I’ll need.  For example in Storm Glass (Study series book #4), my main character (main occupant of the house) is a glass artist.  I needed to learn how to work with glass so I had the needed tools to construct a scene where she’s crafting her glass animals. So I signed up for a glass blowing class (so fun and tax deductible!).

But I don’t dwell on planning stage too long, I’m still a “pantser”  (i.e. seat of the pants writer).  I like to have a few surprises and if I find I need more supplies, I’ll “buy” them on the fly.  I’ll start my story from the ground up.  No short cuts for me – just because I’m looking forward to a scene on the second floor, I’ll wait and write “up” to that point.  While writing Magic Study, I had a scene with Yelena and Valek in mind, but it wasn’t until the half way point of the novel.  I used that scene as an incentive while I wrote the first half of the book (and it’s one of my favorites scenes in the book. ;>)

For me all the hard work and effort goes in to building the structure, connecting rooms, and making sure no flaws in logic will make the whole thing collapse.  It takes me a good seven months to build the first draft of my novel.  Once done though, the fun part begins.  I let the building settled for a few days and return to it with my “decorator’s hat” on.  Then I tour the empty rooms and see how I can improve them.  Painting walls, putting up curtains, moving in furniture is how I view revisions.  I layer in more rugs…I mean details, expand on the plot, and fix all the clunky phrases and dialogue.  I enjoy this process the most, and it’s where story themes and characters arcs show themselves to me and I can expound on them.

Once the house is ready to sell, I use a whole different thought process for submissions.  Back when I finished Poison Study (my first novel) I viewed submitting my manuscript as trying to get pregnant.  (Don’t worry guys this isn’t going to be an icky detailed re-telling of the birth of my children.  Although…..no…no…I…must…resist)  Sending out a manuscript and waiting for a response is very similar to doing one of those pregnancy test kits – however response times from publishers are much much much longer (but wouldn’t it be great to get feedback in a minute?!). The disappointment when you see the negative (or get the reject letter) is similar.

When you finally get the call, it’s exciting (a positive result), but yet there are many worries abound.  The possibility of miscarriage is higher in the first three months – the editor who loves your story may change jobs or the marketing department might say they can’t sell the book.  Signing the book contract is like being safely passed the first trimester.  Then the waiting and planning stages begin.  Telling your family and friends = getting publicity materials ready.  Cover art = decorating the nursery.  All those doctor visits = all those edits and revisions. And during that time, there is still a worry that something might happen. 

It’s not until the baby is in your arms or the book in your hand that you can truly celebrate.  All the time and effort spent preparing has culminated in this moment.  Enjoy it – because a whole new set of worries pop up once you changed the first diaper.  Birth announcements = press releases.  Colic = bad reviews.  No sleep = no sleep. Will my child thrive? = will the book sell?  Will he/she have friends? = will readers enjoy the book?  And so on.

Of course I realize there is a big emotional difference – it’s just a book after all!  Well…..

Anyone else care to share their methods?

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  1. 1. Simon Haynes

    My editor likes to see a short outline before I embark on my latest, so I can’t just hit the WP and start writing.

    I find the following works for me:

    1. Use Freemind (freeware mind mapping type prog) to grow the plot & characters. The great thing about this program is the way you can add nodes & hang others off them. Back in June I posted a composite image which shows the entire outline in something like 1pt font. Looking at that, you can see how I start with a few nodes and get more and more detail in there. Freemind allows you to drag and drop whole branches, which makes it easy to try different arrangements.

    2. Next I export the tree to a file and distill it down to the essentials. This is what I send my editor, along with character sketches. She’ll read it and comment, I’ll fiddle with it and eventually we’ll both agree the plot is workable.

    3. Now I split the outline into chapters and scenes, using yWriter. I avoid making changes if possible, at least until I’ve done.

    4. From here it’s just a case of picking an interesting-sounding scene and writing it, two or three a day. I work in order, beginning to end, but I’ll skip scenes I don’t feel like writing.

    5. During the writing I’ll hit dead-ends, characters will refuse to cooperate and certain plot choices will prove to be unworkable. I stay flexible, and allow myself to alter the plot as I go. If there’s anything major I’ll ring my editor (perhaps twice per book) to explain why things are Going to be Different.

    6. When I finish the last chapter it’s time to start at the beginning again, writing (or cutting) the scenes I didn’t want to do in the first place. I also have a better idea of the ending, which means I can insert a bit of foreshadowing.

    7. At this stage I still haven’t printed anything, and my goal is just to get a draft where I can read from beginning to end with no little comments and to-dos in the text.

    8. When that’s done I print the draft and hide away somewhere quiet with a red pen. I go crazy at this stage, with arrows, instructions to ‘move this chunk to A’, ‘insert tab B in chapter C’ and so on. Sometimes I get 2/3 the way through and realise I’ve made so many changes there’s no point reading the rest – that can wait for the next draft.

    9. I sit down and apply all the changes to the yWriter project, page by page.

    10. I repeat 8 and 9 two more times. During the final draft I’m still making changes to this degree.

    11. I send the manuscript to my editor as a doc file. Two weeks later she sends it back heavily marked up AND with a separate doc full of comments, and I’m back to stage 8 for two or three more loops.

    12. I submit the final and she’ll read it again, quicker. This time I get it back as a doc file with comments attached. Back and forth we go for the next couple of weeks, until we’re both happy, and then it’s submitted for proofing.

    With my latest book (4th novel) steps 1-11 have lasted from April-September. The final draft needs to be handed in mid-late October, so we’re getting there. The last date for cover blurbs is 1st November though, so we really need to post out ARCs by the end of September. Hence the ‘uncorrected’ on the cover!

  2. 2. Jackie Kessler

    Like Simon, I have to hand in an outline before I hand in the manuscript. But when it comes to actual brainstorming the plot…I dunno. I visualize it, write it down, see if it’s crap, delete what doesn’t work, flesh out what does. Make sure to connect the dots. Then I give it to my crit partner to see if it holds water.

    (Man, that was helpful, wasn’t it?)

    “Hence the ‘uncorrected’ on the cover!”

    Oh YEAH. Totally!

Author Information

Maria V. Snyder

Maria V. Snyder has been writing fiction and nonfiction since 1995. She has published numerous freelance articles in magazines and newspapers. Her first published novel, Poison Study appeared on the shelves in 2005, and chronicles Yelena’s challenges in surviving her dangerous job as a food taster. Magic Study follows with Yelena’s efforts to learn about her magic while searching for a rogue magician turned serial killer. Fire Study chronicles Yelena's adventures with a Fire Warper and was released in March 2008. Born and raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Maria earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Meteorology at Penn State University. Much to Maria’s chagrin, forecasting the weather wasn’t one of her skills. Writing, however, proved to be more enjoyable and Maria earned a Master of Arts degree in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University. As part of her research for her Study novels, Maria signed up for a glass blowing class to learn how to shape molten glass. The first thing she learned is it is considerably harder to sculpt glass than it looks. Maria now has an extensive collection of misshapened paperweights, tumblers, and bowls. When she’s not traveling, Maria lives in Pennsylvania with her husband, son, daughter and yellow Lab. She is working on her next MIRA novel, Storm Glass, due out Spring 2009. Readers are welcome to contact Maria by e-mail at maria@mariavsnyder.com, or they can find more information on her Web site at www.mariavsnyder.com. Visit site.

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