And behind door number three

… is the way you should write your novel.

Just kidding.

There are many ways to write a novel. In her book Bird by Bird Anne Lamott advocates writing Shitty First Drafts – getting that first draft down on paper without worrying, no matter how bad it seems. She also suggests that you write a novel scene by scene without thinking too far ahead, quoting EL Doctorow as saying “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip this way”. This ‘by the seat of your pants’ method is also referred to as pantsing, and writers who work this way as pantsers.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Victoria Lynn Schmidt’s method detailed in her book Book in a Month: The Fool-Proof System for Writing a Novel in 30 days. The book provides detailed checklists and worksheets and to use a driving analogy it would be akin to “programming your GPS to the quickest route and following it without deviation”. This is the plotting method.

With the pantsing method there is the possibility that you’ll finish the draft and find it is drivel…unfathomable, what the dreck is this about, drivel. In other words, you’ll get to the end of the road, or the end of the night and wonder why you ended up in the Bog of Eternal Stench – because nothing you can do seems to remove the shit from the Shitty First Draft. Or you could end up with a workable story that just needs some editing.

With the plotting method there is the possibility that you’ll so much about the story, setting, and characters that the thought of sitting down and actually polishing it bores you to tears. You’ve listened to your GPS so intently that you’re at the destination but you haven’t even noticed the journey. Or, you could end up with a workable story that just needs editing.

These are the extremes and I’ve tried them both.

I’ve pantsed my way through 100,000 words of a science fiction story to realize that I’m no closer to the kernel of the story than I was when I started. Sure, I had fun writing those 100,000 words but the thought of trying to figure out what the actual story is and finishing it scares the heck out of me.

I’ve plotted a mystery and know exactly who did what to whom when and why and how it ends and since I know every single detail, I don’t feel the driving need to actually write it. The surprise, was ruined.

There are many other ways to write a novel:

• Write a chapter (or two or three) using the ‘just get the words on paper method’. Then read the chapter and think about what’s next. Make notes on the first chapter (directly in the document is better) but don’t edit it (editing a first draft can be a dangerous downward spiral) and then write the next chapter. The advantage here is that you build the story step by step while still keeping the flexibility of being able to change its direction at will. The disadvantage here is that it is very tempting to keep tweaking the proceeding chapters because you keep rereading them.

• Write a summary of the complete story including the major and minor scenes, plot points, turning points, climax, resolution, etc, in either bulleted format or as a list. You can add notes on which characters or settings are key to each scene or plot point. You can reorder the list until you are happy with the sequence and then start writing directly from the list, expanding the summary and adding details. Or you can put each item of the unordered list onto postcards and sort them until you are happy with the sequence, adding notes to the note cards as you go along. Then you can start writing directly from the note cards. The advantage of this method is that you at least know where you’re headed and the signposts to aim for along the way. The disadvantage with this method is that after all that work figuring out the sequence of the story it is sometimes hard to follow a new direction in the story because you feel like you’ve wasted a lot of time planning.

• Another method is to use the list method and then just keep expanding and expanding it until each scene is fully fleshed out. This can be done either in sequential scene order or just picking a random scene and working with it. The advantages here are that you are continually building on a foundation and can feel a real sense of accomplishment when each scene is completed. The disadvantage here is that the document can get very messy and if you don’t write in sequential order you may have to go back and modify an earlier scene if you’ve added something that needs something else to build on.

• Another method is to make detailed lists – a list of scenes, a list of characters, a list of plot points, a timetable of events, a list of settings – and then to weave them all together. The advantage here is that you get to know all elements of your story. The disadvantage here is that each element is disjointed and could be conflict with another if you don’t keep reviewing them while you work. Another disadvantage here is that this detailed ‘drill-down’ method takes time and I think it removes the element of surprise from the story because if the writer knows exactly where they are going, sometimes it bleeds through into the story and makes it predictable.

I’ve tried all of the above methodes. Some worked well and some worked for a while and then stopped working and some I just couldn’t get into.

I like the freedom and the excitement of writing a first draft where you’re not sure what the story is, but I hate writing for months and months and thinking – is this really a story? Should I keep writing it? I don’t like plotting and planning the story into a state I call ‘absolute boredom’ because if I know exactly how the story plays out, why bother writing it, I’ve ‘lived’ it (albeit in my head). I used the list-to-note-card method on a story with three characters and three separate but converging story arcs. It was very helpful with keeping the character arcs consistent and the story interesting by shuffling and alternating scenes. I’m not sure I would use this method for a less convoluted story because it’s a lot of paper work (I must remember next time to use bigger note cards) but it worked well for this particular story (which unfortunately is stuck in the editing phase).

I used the just get-it-down method during a couple of NaNoWriMos ( and managed to meet the word count two out of three times. The first story was meandered a great deal and needs revision. The second story was a solid first draft and is on my list to edit. Same method; different results.

With all this experimenting, what have I figured out? Some methods work some of the time, and no method works all of the time. It’s a matter of finding the right method for the story you’re working on. If you work on more than one at a time, you might be using two different methods.

What method have you found works best for writing your novel?
Do you always use the same method?
What other methods have you used?

Let me know, I’m really interested to hear from you.

2 thoughts on “And behind door number three

  1. I have to know where I’m going before I start. Who did what to who and why. But how I get from beginning to end varies quite a bit. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t.

  2. Excellent article and very helpful. I just did an ad hoc NaNo and met the 50,000 word goal. I used a very light plot to get started and then pantsered the rest of it. It was fun because it was a different sub-genre of mystery (cozy) than my two other books (thrillers). I put the manuscript up on my critique group and received lots of suggestions. Since my other goal is to finish my 2nd thriller, I decided not to rework the cozy. I probably will some day and it will be interesting to see how the pantser part holds up.

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