Calling All Writers & Aspiring Writers...

What are the first steps you, the author, typically take when setting out to write a novel? I have a general plot, but I cannot possibly outline the entire storyline. (I always hated outlines in English class) Yet, the mountain seems too massive to climb in order to get my plot to flow. You can call it writer’s block, I guess. I’m really struggling here, but there’s a story inside me dying to be told!

So, how do writers manage what I’d call the “1000 jigsaw puzzle pieces of plot” in their minds? I tried file cards, but I struggle to limit how much to put on a card and/or I find myself inserting too many additional cards between two cards I thought were undeniably sequential. I tried a spiral notebook, but soon I have pages and pages of plot snippets buried somewhere in that notebook. Nothing is working for me.

I mean, take Clancey or Mishner, or heck even Arthur Miller. How did they get ot all together without going insane? Where does one even start? I keep spinning my wheels as I struggle with this. So many false starts, so little time! Last, have you found any good reference books that tackle this issue? Any recommendations?

Some writers say they go where their characters lead them. But, at least for me, I have a vision of the story - start to finish. However, I am going insane with managing this and sculpting it into a story. I will be buried in a mountain of file cards! Help!

All suggestions and tips welcomed…before the nice men come in their clean, white suits, to the funny farm where life is beautiful all the time… oh, sorry! :wink:

  • Jinx

hmm, i have your problem too Jinx. i’m in the middle of writing AND illustrating a graphic novel.
I have plot points/rants/character speeches and drawings/ photos/ photoshop + illustrator files running over 3 books and 2 computers!
what i’m trying to do is put them all into one simpletext file, print it all out and then physically cut and paste the storyline and notes into a writing pad, + photocopies and prints of the various drawings and sketches for it alongside, with room for notes and amendments.
the tales all there in my head, its just collating it all. and then doing the final illustrations. i’m plotting for finishing it in 6 months, but thats a random guess, seeing as i’ve been working on it for 2 years.
hope this helps.

Well, I’m not a professional by any means, but I’ve written a handful of novel-length stories. I don’t like outlines either, but I do use them, sort of. Not ones like this:

I. Prologue
A. blah, blah, blah
B. blah, blah, bah

II. Part one
A. ~~~~~~~~
III. Part two

Because that bores me silly, and I feel that any creativity I have is squashed by a rigid list like that. So mine are more like this[sub](no actual plots were hurt in the making of the following outline)[/sub]:

  • I want him to be at home sleeping when the action starts
  • A bar scene
  • Something about a duck
  • He thinks it’s Jesus crossing the Delaware, but it’s really a homeless person, so he becomes embarrassed.
  • When he gets home his girlfriend has taken everything but the piece of notebook paper she left her good-bye on and his gun…with a single bullet in it. (very suggestive)

Now an “outline” like the above is in no particular order, but it does help me remember what sort of things I want to include in a story. Which is helpful when I get stuck and inevitable succumb to the urge to write out of order.

I like your jigsaw puzzle concept, because that’s how I approach most writing projects - if I don’t have in mind what comes now, I write what comes later, then I go back and work on what connects A to E. The thing is, though you must commit yourself to filling in those blanks as soon as you can, or as you said, you end up with a notebook full of plot bits. Write what comes to you to please your muse, then set it aside and think of how to connect them. If you can’t make that commitment and stick to it, you have to write in order.

I try to write a timeline of what is going to happen when and when the various characters will get introduced.
I also write a little character synopsis for all of the major players, with their personalities, likes and dislikes, politics, allies, etc.
Whenever I write about any of these characters I hold their little character sheets and pretend they’re little Barbie and Ken type dolls performing the scene… sounds really stupid but it works really well for me. It makes you give them an accent in your head and really picture them as a character.

I would be interested to know if the final product resembles the typical (starting) plot outline.

That is, when you feel you’ve outlined enough and start composing in earnest, do you wind up at publication with a finished novel (or whatever) that represents the plot outline filled in to the tune of three hundred pages or so?

Or does the work just take off while you’re writing it, with little resemblance to the plot outline?

On another site, I recently saw a recommendation of a program called Storylines. I haven’t tried it myself, but seems like it’d help with the file card problem.

I’ve had a couple of novels published (see my sig) and the first rule about this is: do whatever works for you.

Usually, I put a lot of effort into the first chapter (thought not always). I set up what I call the “engine” – the part of the story that drives the plot. Then I just hop and and enjoy the ride.

For instance, in my Staroamer’s Fate, I took two characters from two unpublished stories of mine and asked the question, “What would happe if they met?” The first third of the book was getting the two together. The next third was the characters discovering the true situation. The final third was having them deal with it.

In Syron’s Fate, I took my main character and had someone try to kill her. That drove the plot as she tried to figure out why. I threw some other mysteries at her and ended up with a novel.

Another novel I wrote starting with the concept of a woman divorcing her alien husband. The end result had nothing to do with that; I free associated a novel I call The Messiah Biz.

Finally, another unpublished novel started with a book I read about the history of the Empire State Building. I set a time, and research into the era gave me all the plot I needed.

However, I am a seat-of-my-pants writer. I don’t like outlines – they seem restrictive, but rather plot by seeing what the characters are saying and doing and working with it. Others do write an outline, but I can’t work that way.

What doesn’t work for me are your links… :wink:

I’ve known some authors, ( although I’m an aspiring author I havn’t started writing yet) who use note cards. They write out the plot point on note cards and then pin them to a wall (you may want to get a cork board) in order. Then, they can ‘read’ the story from start to finish. They can also re-arrange plot points, take out redundent bits and add in any necessary set-up that may have been overlooked.

I have two novel length stories and another on the way for nanowrimo. I start by writing down an outline similar to elfkin’s second outline. However, this can be on one sheet or notecards. I use that for all the little things I want to happen. Then I write down how I want the novel to begin and end. From there I do the first type of outline that elfkin suggests with the first and last chapter of the outline as the first and last plot points. Then I fill in the center with some of the little details and other details that make the plot go from point A to point B logically.

I never use the outline as a strict interpretation. I just use it as a guide for the action if I get stuck. Most of the center plot points can be rearranged and of course if the characters start to take a new direction I just rework what I need to do in order for the story to still make sense.

When I start writing prose in the outline rather than outline fragments I realize it is time to write a scene or something else instead that can be used later in the story. I try not to use the outline as a rigid format. I feel that it starts to read rigidly that wya. For example, if I have 19 outline chapter points it will probably really end up being around 30 when it is done in order to take in other character considerations with maybe 50-10 of the original points having been changed. I could probably do almost an entire book with just a first and last point made but I don’t want to forget things while I am writing.

I’ve got one novel-length I’m slowly editing, one screenplay on its first round of revisions, and one that COULD go novel length if I ever sat down and did something with it.

The way I tend to do it is I get ideas for cool stuff that should happen, major plot points and such. And once I get enough of those, I throw together a basic outline. Then all I have to do is connect the dots.

For last years NaNoWriMo, I started with an idea of how I wanted the story to go, and I did sit down and write a sketchy sort of synopsis–about 700 words, just the basics of the plot. Then I just sat down and wrote. How good the results are remains to be seen, but in the end you’re just going to have to put your fingers on the keyboard and start typing, so if you’re feeling allergic to outlining, why not try just using the concept you’ve got in your mind as a sort of unwritten outline, and see where that leads you?

And do try NaNo, if you haven’t already.

I’m in the “never outline” camp. But to me, yours sounds like a good problem to have. Frequently, I am so caught up in characters and relationships that I have trouble coming up with any kind of plot.

But, to answer your question, the first step is to start writing (it’s also the last step). And start with the particular element that’s easiest for you - character, setting, action, what have you. Really get into it; ignore what you perceive as plot inconsistencies.

As you write, these issues will naturally work themselves out. Honestly. The trick is not to stop writing. If you end up leaving out certain sequences or end up taking a totally new direction, it’s ok. The important thing is that you’re writing. There will be lots of time for editing later.

You say you have a general plot. Do you have characters? If so, that’s enough. Close your eyes, become your characters, let them respond to the milieu. Can you type with your eyes closed? If so, do it. Let the muse lead you. Good luck.

I had the outline in my head. (I’d been thinking about it for quite some time.) Then I actually wrote out of order. I did the first chapter first, and then the last chapter next. Then I wrote the sections I was most interested in next. I have 10 very long chapters.

This is intended to be a three novel series, and I have already written much of the last scene from the last novel, since it forced me to write the solution to some of the mysteries I’ve set up, and helped me plant clues in the first book.

I’m not sure that I’d recommend writing the whole thing out of order, but writing the last chapter early should help you avoid getting lost, and should make the ending better.

I’ve read that agents and editors read the beginning and the ending first to make sure there is one. Makes sense to me.

Just to elaborate, I was running out the door when I posted first.

For my first novel, I had to write a short story as the final for my Creative Writing class. I, as I always do, waited until the last minute. The night before. It was like 1am. And I got this spark that turned into 10 pages. So I turned it in and reread it the next day and said, “Huh, this is pretty good. Wonder what happens to 'im” (my main character). And then I KNEW. And I was off. I wound up making a rough outline of what would happen in each chapter. And I mean, like, one sentence. And I wrote some more chunks of what happened. When I finally decided it was novel-length, I sat down and arranged my chunks into what wound up being Chapters 1, 2, 4, 6, and 13. This presented a problem, since in Chapter 4 Main Character was on one side of the world and in Chapter 6 he was on the other. So I had to figure out how that happened, which was some of the most fun I’ve had as a writer.

For the screenplay, I generally knew the direction I needed to go and just bulled ahead, adding interesting events here and there. I knew how it began and ended and it’s just filling in.

For the novel-to-be, I got a cool idea for a short scene, wrote it out, got some more cool ideas for scenes, wrote them out, then came out with a bunch of characters that my Main Character just HAS to meet, so it’s been a process of running that together, and then my brain tosses in little plot details. I’ll probably sit down and do some outlining this weekend.

So that’s how I do it. Then I write the things and, in the case of my first novel, leave it sit for three years until I completely forgot what happened, so I can actually edit and revise it.

And I really, really wanted to do the write-a-novel-in-a-month thing this year, but I’ve got so much school crap coming up that I just can’t.

I never, ever outline. I grab a theme I want to work with and run with it, occasionally witha vague idea of certain scenes I want to see.
For example, in the novel I just finished I had the following thoughts:
I want him to try to carve his initials into her thigh
He reacts violently when he finds out he loves her (later became “he ties her up and beats her and has an emotional breakdown that completely changes the entire power structure of the relationship” That is as detailed as I will ever get in the “planning stage”)
He tries to prove he doesn’t need her by forcing another girl to give him a blow job
She shoots him and walks away
They end up fleeing to Mexico.

My novel ended up being like, 80,000 words and I’m going to start revision soon. But those small ideas were all I had. Since I knew I wanted those things to happen,I wrote so that they would happen…Probably not helpful was it…

Actually, I’d really like to see what that story would come out like.

For the record, though I am totally unpublished and probably not the role model you seek, I really don’t outline anything. The basic plot synopsis and a few key scenes simply hang out in my head until I’ve gotten them typed out. They tend to crowd out all the room I need for useful information (bills that I have to pay and so on), but I can’t think of a key plot point or juicy bit of dialogue that has gotten lost in my gray matter.

The key is finding what works for you. My friend Stephen uses a wall in his apartment with tiny notes all over it with lines connecting the thought notes. Some of the notes are in Japanese, some are in French and some are in English. Some of the notes have even smaller notes attached to the notes. They are also color coded.

And there’s my friend Ericka, she uses only long hand, Never A Computer, always in spiral bound notebooks and just writes till she needs to stop. She will go weeks before looking back to edit.

And I just think I will never get laid again if I don’t finish.

Thanks, a lot everyone! The Elfkin744 technique sounds familiar. I have tried this, but my list of events becomes too long to manage. So, I went to notecards in order to move things around. Regardless, I get to feeling overwhelmed. I mean, how many notecards will make a 350 page novel, give 'r take 100pgs. It must be as bad as counting licks to the center of a TootsiePop!

Someone mentioned pinning file cards to a corkboard…this technique is known as creating a storyboard. Being a big Disney fan, I have read this is how they start laying out the story, but with sketches. I think the best advice is to start typing and go with the flow. You gotta get your feet wet, and just do it!

As a tip to other writers who may get stuck on occasion: I have found my mind is most creative when relaxed. While occupied with some menial task, my mind can wander allowing the creativity to flow. Then, I rush to jot down some notes ASAP.

Well, I’ll let ya know how it goes as soon as I can start. In the meantime, additional ideas are always welcomed! - Jinx

I tend to ‘outline’ in quotes.

Much like Elfkin, it’s

(this is also not a real plot)

-He wakes up in a dark room, naked, freezing and with a nasty headache.
-“there are no elves here”
-“Smack him, Charlie… SMACK HIM”
-plunge into a cold river without a lifejacket
-“insomnia? I don’t believe in it”.

et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

I did this with papers in school as well, but being a film major helps, since I mostly studied plots.