Monday, October 16, 2017

Mistakes I've Made So You Don't Have To: Believing I Would Find The Perfect Novel Writing System

Stephanie Morrill is the creator of and the author of several young adult novels, including the historical mystery, The Lost Girl of Astor Street (Blink/HarperCollins). Despite loving cloche hats and drop-waist dresses, Stephanie would have been a terrible flapper because she can’t do the Charleston and looks awful with bobbed hair. She and her near-constant ponytail live in Kansas City with her husband and three kids. You can connect with her on FacebookTwitterPinterest, Instagram, and sign up for free books on her author website.

I love organization, tidiness, systems, and color-coding.

For a very long time I looked for the "right way" to write a novel. The perfect way, where I always felt like I had control of the story, and the creative process never felt messy or misguided.

Even recently, I've had times where I've thought, "Ooh, maybe this is it. Maybe I've just found The Technique that will make writing stories easy and efficient!" Only to find that yes, this new fill-in-the-blank technique helps, but it's not a magic bean from which the story sprouts perfectly formed. (Spoiler: There isn't one.)

Many of the questions I receive via email ask a surface question about crafting a story—how do I create a good plot twist? what's the best way to start a book?—but often hint a deeper question: How do I know I'm doing this right?

I used to think that one of these days I would "arrive" as a writer and have my perfect, trusty novel writing system. I have finally (mostly) accepted that writing a book is a messy, doubt-filled process no matter how many times you've done it.

Yes, over the years my system has evolved and improved, but you can't perfect your system the way you can an assembly line. It's important to do what I know works for me, but also to try something new with each book. That's how my system has become more efficient over the years, and it's what's keeps writing fun and adventurous for me.

So here is a list of what works for me, the stuff I do with every book. I've talked about all of these in detail in previous posts, so rather than do that here, I'll include links for each one:

Brainstorming early with a friend. 

This is something I did not do for a very long time due to some pride issues. You really have to have the right person in your life for this. They don't need to be a writer, I don't think, but they also can't be the type of person who wants to turn your horror novel into a sweet romance. They need to "get" you and your writing.

Links: How To Have an Effective Brainstorming Session

Writing a blurb that’s a paragraph or two long and the hook sentence.

This is something I used to put off until I absolutely had to write them for a requested proposal. Now I like to write them early on. Why? Writing a few paragraphs in the style of backcover copy helps me to identify the main focus of the story, something I'm prone to lose sight of as I write the thing.

And my agent used to have to pry hook sentences out of me, but now I really like having them written before I dig into the novel. This is a mental thing for me. If people in my life ask me what I'm writing, and I can't tell them in a very interesting way, I start to lose confidence in my book.

Links: Writing Killer Backcover Copy, What Is a Logline And How Do You Write One?

Identifying key scenes.

I used to be a total pantser with writing (and a pretty snobby pantser who distrusted plotting) but now I identify key scenes before I write the book. This gives me enough structure that I can usually keep my story on track (though not always...) but also gives me creative freedom.

Links: How to Develop Your Story Idea Into A List Of Key Scenes Part One and Part Two

Writing my 2-3 page synopsis before my draft.

You think you hate writing synopses, but you're wrong.

Okay, maybe that's not completely fair, but I do think that synopses are waaaaay more fun to write before you've written your book. Then it just feels like fun brainstorming! If you go off on a crazy tangent and decide it doesn't work, you're just erasing a couple of sentences rather than a couple chapters.

Links: How to Write a Synopsis for your Novel, How to Edit a Synopsis for Your Novel, and Using Your Synopsis as an Outline

Logging my work time/Using the story workbook

In a spreadsheet, I keep track of lots of different details about my story, including all my characters and key info about them, the timeline of the story, and other useful things. The link for getting a tutorial on how to make your own is below.

My favorite page within the spreadsheet is actually my work log. I input what time I start and where my word count is, and then when I'm done, I record my ending time and finished word count. Doing this has helped me stay focused during writing time, and it also gives me the same happy feeling of crossing something off my to-do list.

Links: A Snazzy Timeline Tool and Free Story Workbook Tutorial

Writing a first draft without stopping to edit.

Though sometimes the messiness makes me a bit crazy, I really do believe this is the best way for me. This was also one of the hardest techniques for me to learn how to embrace.

Links: Useful Bad First Drafts and for the counter point of view, How to Edit As You Write Your First Draft

Taking 6 weeks off from my first draft.

Ditto to what I said above.

Links: Six Reasons to Take Six Weeks Off From Your First Draft

Reading my finished manuscript in as few sittings as possible and making notes.

I think this is critical to the editing process.

Links: How to Edit Your Book in Layers

Character journals for troublesome non-POV characters.

I usually have a good handle on my POV characters, but there are always a few major non-POV characters who read completely flat. Character journals, where you free-write from their POV, is the fastest thing to help me clarify motivation, backstory, and personality. And it's way more fun then filling out all those character info sheets.

Links: Character Journals

Editing big changes first regardless of chronological order, and then editing scene by scene.

Jill and I wrote an entire book about this, and it continues to be the way I edit.

Links: Go Teen Writers: How to Turn Your First Draft Into a Published Book

I've tried lots and lots of other techniques. Some helped me to think about story in a different way, even if I didn't totally adopt the methods in the book. (Story Genius by Lisa Cron and 2k to 10k by Rachel Aaron) Some, like pantsing my novels, worked for certain seasons but don't work for me now. Others were just NOT my thing. Like the Snowflake method. Or scene cards. Or Scrivener.

Some tools are already on my radar for the next novel I write, like K.M. Weiland's Structuring Your Novel and Creating Character Arcs workbooks for brainstorming more fully before I dive into my first draft.

Is there something you've found that works well for you that you plan to do with each book you write? And/or is there something new you want to try with your next book?


  1. I'm always game to try new strategies when it comes to the writing and editing process. Something I've attempted for the first time in one of my current WIPs (an epic fantasy) is to write scenes according to my inspiration at the time rather than in rigidly sequential order. My OCD tendencies aren't a fan of the idea, but I thought it might help with those occasions when you simply can't get past that one annoying scene and just want to skip over it.

    It's worked--kind of. The main problem I've found is that it's difficult to understand a character's frame of mind if you've yet to write the events that led them up to a particular moment. I suppose that's something you can refine in subsequent drafts, but I find it simpler to skip to another character POV (I said epic fantasy, right?) set around the same time instead. This is super easy to do now that I've discovered Scrivener!

    1. Yes, I agree. I've also tried writing out of sequence and I had the same problem. I know it works great for some people, but for me it was tough to build the character arc when writing like that.

  2. This is great! Some of your methods are similar to mine (such as not editing as I go), but I find for editing what works for me is going in chronological order. Usually by the end of my first draft I know exactly which scenes need to go, be added, changed, stay the same, etc. so I like starting at the beginning. I find it helps me sink deeper into the mood and part of the book than if I was to jump all over the place. :)

    I love how each writer has a different process! Best of luck with your writing/editing!

    1. I'm the same if I'm doing character work, Melissa. I can go out of order with edits if I'm adding a few scenes, but I definitely need the chronological edit too. Several of them :)

  3. I love the character journal, having done something similar for my antagonist. Worked out great and was fun.

    To have a complete scene by scene outline before starting a first draft is something I've always wanted, but it ain't happened yet. Maybe I'll surprise myself someday.


    1. Same here, Ann. The few times I've tried, it just hasn't worked.

      Aren't character journals excellent? I'm always surprised by what I discover about a character when I do them.

  4. THANK YOU FOR THIS. I always thought one day I would perfect my writing process, but then I get frustrated every time I'm inefficient. I think (and hope!) I'll keep improving my process, but yes--it's so important that we try new things and make it an adventure! (Also it's very comforting to know that professional authors still struggle with this.)

    1. Aww, Tracey. I'm so glad. I know for me that I've believed the lie, "When I'm a REAL writer, I'll have a perfect system," and it's just not true.

  5. I've felt a lot better about synopsises when I followed your advice. It's a lot easier to be concise when you don't even know all the messy, non-consequential details.

    I think it's fun trying something a little different with each novel.

    1. YES! I think that's exactly what makes it easier.