Ask a hundred authors how they formulate a story idea and you are going to get a hundred different answers. That’s because an author’s process is unique to them. What works for one author won’t work for another. And that’s how it should be.
I’m a firm believer that finding your own author voice is an individual journey and not something that can be found in a single How-To book. That’s not to say I don’t own several of those said books because I do. On Writing, by Stephen King, Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott, Making a Literary Life, by Carolyn See, and The Pocket Muse, by Monica Wood, are some of my favorites. They each have very different ideas about how writing should germinate.
Do I do everything they suggest? Of course not. Have I absorbed their thought process and figured out ways their techniques might work for me? Absolutely. From Stephen King, I have learned to be more aware of pesky adverbs and have realized that I need to read a lot more than I do. From Carolyn See, I learned about the grace of gratitude, from Anne Lamott, I learned to take it word by word, and from Monica Wood, I learned the stages of my writing process and to create a sacred (if only to me) writing space.
Some authors have a daily word count they have to meet. Some write when they have the motivation/time/energy. Some pull all-nighters, some have set writing hours. Some listen to music, some need the sound of silence. There are authors who outline every detail of a story before they even turn on their computers. Others, like me, sit down at a black document and hope for the best.
That’s not to say I don’t use an outline. Because I do…sort of. When I first started writing, I didn’t outline at all. Honestly, I didn’t really understand the purpose of an outline. How could you write a story when you already know how it would end? Where was the fun in that? Then I began working on a co-written novel (Netherworld) with my friend, Amy Miles, and we realized, we HAD to have an outline in order to make sure neither one of us went off on a tangent. We were sharing a story. We had to make sure the characters were taking the same journey. We needed a map…and full sunlight to see the way.
During that writing process, I read a few books on outlining and discovered one that worked within my needs. You see, I am a pantster normally. That is, I write my books by the seat of my pants with no endgame in mind. No clue where it’s going or how the characters will play out. As you can imagine, that makes subsequent drafts tricky. You spend a lot of time plugging plot holes or trying to weave storyline all the way through. People who outline, don’t have that problem. They’ve solved the plot issues before they even write. Their characters are fleshed out and not just vague ideas when they start.
Heavy outlining like that, while seemingly wonderful for someone who likes organization, just doesn’t seem to work for me. I like to have the freedom to let my mind wander when I write. That said, I can spend a LOT of time meandering and getting off track that way, which makes the editing process longer than it needs to be.
I’ve since learned to compromise. I make a simple outline. I figure out who my major players will be and a rough idea of what will happen. Like, Chapter 1, I write a chapter about what the normalness of that particular character’s day. Chapter 2, I introduce the inciting incident (the thing that changes the norm and starts us on our journey) and so on and so forth. This helps me figure out the ‘what’ my chapter needs to be about but allows me the freedom to fill in the details however I want. It’s an outline I do in pencil so if my inciting incident ends up taking three chapters, then so be it. If my character needs to change jobs/age/eye color, so be it. Erase the journal entry and move on.
In this way, the writing remains fluid but contained to the road, hopefully. It allows me the freedom to wander while at the same time gets me to my finish line without so many wrong turns. That said, this is what works for me now. I reserve the right to change my process. Afterall, the Muse is a fickle creature.