I spent the last two days doing a final-final edit of The Path of the Dragonfly (a fantasy under my other name), including breaking it into chapters. It’s ready to go to the publisher, and I plan to send it tonight.

I learned some important lessons while writing this story. For one, I got a better grasp on when to break chapters. I blush to admit it, but previously I’ve broken chapters by page count, not story beats. This time I went a little crazy and even did a chapter break in the middle of a scene. It was a good lesson.

Another thing I learned was a much better grasp on structure and on the outlining process that works for me. This wasn’t an instant epiphany, but a result of years of doing the glue-to-your-chair writing combined with insights into structure combined with retro analysis (“Why did that work so well??”). The process was slower than pure pantsing, but produced a much better story that felt as if it was organic even when it wasn’t. It wasn’t much faster than actual scene-by-scene outlining, but the result was a huge improvement over the one story that I wrote using that kind of outline.

So, here’s my way, as it’s been hammered into me by countless mistakes and wasted hours (not that any hour spent writing is ever wasted) ~

  1. Spend time daydreaming about the story. Spend time seeing scenes or having conversations from within the heads of the major characters. Imagine scenes as if watching a movie. This is brainstorming, so don’t try to create any order out of this. Just enjoy. If you feel a scene so keenly that you have to write it, go ahead, then file it away and keep daydreaming.
  2. C.S. Lakin describes four basic pillars of good novel structure in her book The 12 Key Pillars of Novel Construction – Concept with a Kicker, Conflict with High Stakes, Protagonist with a Goal, and Theme with a Heart. Other writers, especially K.M. Weiland, James Scott Bell, and Larry Brooks, have said the same thing in different words. I try to nail down at least a rough idea of those four things. One hint – all is heavily dependent on your protagonist and her goal, so I start with that. K.M. Weiland talks about the Lie the character believes (and the Truth she does or doesn’t learn). I try to find the Lie/Truth for all my major characters. Once I have that down, the other three things are easier.
  3. Brainstorm. I write down everything, every little thing, that I know about the story, including character sketches. I use a bulleted list. From tiny details (“How big is a dragon?”) to huge scenes, I write it all down in as much detail as necessary. Even if it seems stupid or silly or trivial, I write it down. Once that’s all done, I break it into four lists, depending on where in the story it should happen – Act 1 (the intro), Act 2a (reactions leading to the midpoint), Act 2b (actions leading to the climax), or Act 3 (climax and resolution). Within each of those four sections, I put the bullets into rough chronological order.
  4. Now comes the hard part, structure. Again I turn to K.M. Weiland for a succinct summary of the basic structure of a novel – for a more detailed description, I recommend Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering . These are what I return to when the story is in progress. At this stage, I focus on the hook and/or inciting incident (what sends my character off on this adventure?), the First Plot Point (the “point of no return”), the Midpoint (the breaking point, where the character has enough information to change and to begin taking action rather than just wandering about in the semi-dark), and the climax. I set up the climax to be fluid – I need to know what elements must be there, but as I write, I come up with cool elements that have to be included or wasted, so I adjust the climax accordingly. (For example, in Dragonfly, the dragon River was added for just for fun, but when he was added to the climax, he ended up changing the scene in several good ways.)
  5. Write! I begin by setting aside all the above stuff, jumping into the story, introducing my hero or heroine as fast as possible, and then writing freely, getting to know her as well as possible. In my experience, no matter how much you think about a character, when you start writing about them, you learn more about them. This early writing sometimes gets changed in the edits, but hey, it’s not set in stone until it’s published.
  6. Once I have a good start, I rough-in the entire structure. This can be very rough and brief, but I refine it constantly as I write.
  7. I write as long as I can see a scene in front of me. Whenever I get “stuck”, I go back to my notes on the structure, and that usually gets me going again. If things change as I write, I adjust the structure almost every time, not the writing. I learned from NaNoWriMo to not waste a moment of the precious times of inspiration. If I need to look something up or check on something, I highlight that part, then keep going. I fix those things later when I’m too tired to be creative.

This process could be called that atrocious mix of “planning” and “pantsying” called “plantsing.” All I know is that it’s working for me. But I never stop learning, so I may come back here in a year or so with a whole new discipline!