The Writing Workflow for Plotters, Pantsers, and Whomever Sits Between Them

Writing a novel is no straightforward process, in spite of what the “experts” may say.

Okay, the experts, whoever they are, make no actual claim that writing a novel is straightforward, though the pantsers (like me) will argue that it comes pretty close, given that we start at the beginning and drive toward the ending, discovering as much as we can along the way (hardly straightforward, even though the momentum is almost always forward). In reality, of course, writing a novel takes planning, dedication, and follow-through, with a heavy dose of insanity—I mean organization—and reaching its proper ending will require seeing it at both the big picture level and the micro-scenic level. In short, writing a novel means you gotta have some foresight. There’s no way around that.

But I didn’t always have a problem with that.

For years, I would just open a document in Microsoft Word, crank out a chapter in a day or two (or sometimes a week if I let it get too large), and move on to the next one, making sure to save it in a folder dedicated to the novel. Once I’d finish the last chapter (usually six weeks to a year later, depending on the novel), I’d read what I have, take notes on what I like and what I don’t, and then move on to the next revision. Then somewhere along the line I’d decide that something doesn’t work, at which point I’d start adding, moving, or removing scenes, relabeling my documents to something better reflective of its current state, and make such an atrocious mess of my work that nothing would make sense anymore, yet I’d somehow bring it back together, and then I’d shelve it for a few years until somebody would ask me if I’ve written anything lately, to which I’d say no, then go back and see if I actually like that old novel that I blew up in the rewrites now, because, hey, somebody reminded me that I should really finish what I started because, hey, I’m not exactly starting on anything new. At that point, I’d take note of the scenes I like, try to rethink the ones I don’t, and then shelve the thing yet again for another few years because now I have no idea where to begin fixing it.

(Okay, I’m referring specifically to my first thriller, Panhandler Underground, which I wrote in 2005 but put on the shelf until a time I could make sense of the main character’s profession. Fortunately, I’ve ordered my copy of the Occupation Thesaurus, out now, and should receive it in the mail soon, so maybe I can finally sort this dude out and get his story back on its proper track.)

Nowadays, I find that organizing a novel is as difficult as writing it, especially when I go back and try to repair the damage I’ve already done to an existing novel, so coming up with a plan to make sense of it all is necessary. But merely going back through all of my Microsoft Word documents and trying to remember where everything is supposed to go is madness when my memory is so bad that I often read a story I like, check the author to see if he’s got anything else I might enjoy, and discover my own name on the front cover. (Okay, this doesn’t happen with my published titles, but it definitely happens with old stories I find in my documents folder. The fact that my name is on it is the only proof I have that I wrote it because I don’t remember a thing about it.) Because this is no way to work, I’ve decided it’s time to implement a new system for organization.

This is where I’ve decided to integrate multiple resources into my writing workflow, each one dedicated to a particular function within the writing process, and each one designed to keep me on track.

For the record, I just put together a video about this, which you can watch for more information, but the short version is this:

  1. If I’m writing a novel from scratch or nuking a story that no longer works in favor of starting over, then I’ll want to begin conceptualizing with the Snowflake Method and using the software dedicated to the Snowflake Method, Snowflake Pro, to accomplish this goal. This will allow me to develop the idea and move it through all ten steps toward a fully-fledged outline.
Writing Workflow Slide 1
Snowflake Pro in Action
  1. Next, I’ll want to develop the flowchart and additional character and/or scene details (like setting or items) that Snowflake Pro doesn’t visualize for an alternative way to see the story from a bird’s eye view. I can use Plottr or Campfire Pro (or Plot Factory or some other story planning software) to create the visual map, as well as fill in the additional details that Snowflake Pro doesn’t cover. If I use actual maps (created with Campaign Cartographer 3+, for example), then I’ll want to use a program like Campfire Pro to tie my maps to their descriptions. Using these programs, I can create the world and backstory I need to understand my characters and their motivations better, as well as to keep track of the nitpicky items in their lives that I’ll want to remember and quickly access at some point.
Writing Workflow Slide 2
Outline Tool in Plottr
Writing Workflow Slide 2a
Character Builder in Plottr
  1. Once I have a clue what the story is about, then I can start writing my scenes in Microsoft Word. Or, if I’m revising an existing story, I can write whichever scenes are still missing.
Writing Workflow Slide 3
Writing the Scene in Microsoft Word

Note: If I’m revising a novel, which is my case for The Computer Nerd, I probably won’t use the first two development steps unless I need to go for a complete rewrite, which is currently my case for The Fallen Footwear. The exception would be if I wanted to create an outline or summary or synopsis of an existing novel for verification of its integrity or for various marketing purposes. I would also map an existing novel if I know I’m going to write a sequel, as having a snapshot of the previous story would be immensely helpful in developing a new chapter for its characters, because, you know, my memory sucks.

  1. Once I’ve written my scenes, I can move them into Scrivener, where I can then write notecard summaries and provide status labels to help me determine whether the scene is in its proper location and achieving its proper goal. From the notecard view, I can make a more informed judgment about whether the existing work is, in fact, working.
Writing Workflow Slide 4
Creating the Novel’s Assembly (or Repair) in Scrivener

So, that’s the current workflow I’m using to either write or revise my novels. Are you a writer? What’s your workflow? Let me know in the comments below.

The Real Advantage of Freewriting

Nearly any activity that contains the word “free” as a prefix will likely function in this same way. It’s a method that leads primarily to the clarity of ideas.

Quick question: When was the last time you got in your car and drove around town without a goal? How much gas did you spend on completing the circuit? What about time? Did you stop anywhere for a sandwich? Did you meet anyone interesting along the way? Would the drive have been any better or worse if you had a destination in mind?

If you’ve ever gotten in your car and drove without a destination, why?

Take a second to think about that.

Now, I know that driving without a destination has a similar emotional purpose as going for a walk or painting a picture or doing anything that allows you to clear your head. It’s therapeutic. But where did you go? Anywhere? What does your painting look like? Any progress to show for it?

Even though walking has its primary goal rooted in exercise and painting has the purpose of creating art, these activities also have the secondary purpose of offering you clarity of a situation, especially when freethinking during the core activity leads to new ideas, and there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, it’s a bonus side effect to the therapeutic goal you’re trying to achieve, which is to make yourself or your art look better. Now you can also think better.

If you’ve done any amount of relaxing activity, you know this is true.

So with that said, here’s a free idea to think about:

Nearly any activity that contains the word “free” as a prefix will likely function in this same way. It’s a method that leads primarily to the clarity of ideas.

Freewriting is one such activity that carries this exact purpose. Makes the practice attractive to most writers.

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Image of fountain pen on lined paper, taken from Pixabay.

The problem, however, is that most writing instructors teach freewriting as an exercise for oiling the writing engine, as a means to get into the mood before getting into the project or as a means for figuring out what you want to write about, and not so much about what makes freewriting useful. It sounds noble on the surface. But it can also sound like a waste of time if you misuse it.

Now for a confession. As a writer, I must say that I hate freewriting. I often find that there’s not much point to it. If I want to write, I go right for the story, just as I would go right for my destination when getting into the car and turning on the engine.

But as a writer, I also find that some efforts to write compelling prose goes wasted because I haven’t developed the proper skill that would allow me to keep the prose effective. This is where freewriting might serve a useful purpose.

Case in point: To this day, I still have trouble showing character emotions through any action not involving the eyes or the mouth. In the heat of developing a scene, I want to capture the thrill of the moment without obsessing over the character’s reactionary expressions, and the eyes and the mouth are the cheapest sources to exploit. Once the scene is finished and I have time to review each character’s actions and reactions, I realize that I have nothing new to add. It’s not because I don’t need to make changes—I always need to change something—but it’s because I haven’t developed the skill to make that specific improvement.

For example, according to The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi, a reaction to fright (under the definition for “fear”), which I might show through “widening eyes” or an “agape mouth,” can also be shown through clammy hands or a move toward escape (and whatever props are necessary to convey this), or any number of additional actions or reactions that are specific to that character.

 

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Cover image for The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi

Of course, in the heat of writing, I might not initially think of this, nor would I likely crack open The Emotion Thesaurus to find the proper expression to add authenticity to the first draft of the scene. But at some point I need to go back and add in the detail that best shows what the character is feeling rather than simply telling the reader what he or she is feeling.

While it’s certainly valid to practice this skill on my actual novel, just as it’s valid to practice my driving skills while trying to get to a particular destination, there’s something to be said about using freewriting as the canvas for developing this skill, since freewriting has no other purpose but to generate thoughts and ideas prior to committing to the project.

For example, if I want to get better at creating character expressions, I can start by writing a disembodied scene that features a character I know nothing about who emotes really, really well, and learn from the experience. I can even use The Emotion Thesaurus to help me craft the scene:

Bob drove his fingernail under the edge of the envelope and cracked it open. Ignoring his impulse to rip the whole thing apart, he merely peeked into the gap and caught a glimpse of something pink. He flipped the envelope over. It was his name on the front. But he didn’t recognize the return address.

The envelope leapt out of his hand and landed on the desk. Or maybe he tossed it. But whatever happened, Bob pushed himself away from the desk and considered leaving the room.

The problem was that today was his birthday, but he didn’t know the person who was sending him the birthday card, nor did he know why they were sending it to him. The fact that it was his birthday wasn’t good enough for him to trust the source. Was he being watched somehow?

Hopefully the emotion is clear: I’m indicating Bob’s suspicion of the sender (and the card).

My impulse is to give him “narrowing eyes” when he stares at the card. I’ve got plenty of examples where a character has this exact reaction to something equally suspicious. In fairness, The Emotion Thesaurus lists this “narrowing eyes” expression at the top of its action list for “suspicion,” maybe because it’s the most obvious character response. But it also lists “retreating or keeping at a safe distance” as a possible reaction. For some characters, this might be a ridiculous reaction. For Bob, it’s a perfectly suitable one. And that’s the point, and that’s why I use it instead of “Bob narrowed his eyes at the envelope.” This reaction is not only used less often than “narrowing eyes,” but it says something about Bob’s response to items he doesn’t understand. I could use this example as a baseline for additional reactions to other items or situations throughout the story that Bob may interact with. In short, Bob is jumpy, and now I know that. If I saved this scene for the heat of the moment, I might’ve missed that idea and found myself writing an inconsistent character when, in the next scene, he sees a suspicious object and runs toward it.

Freewriting a standalone scene that has no stake in my story won’t move my story forward, but it can at least help me understand my character better.

So, my message today is simply this: If you lack a particular writing skill, use freewriting to fine-tune it. It’ll make implementation into your important projects much easier and you less prone to stalled writing as you try to think of the perfect way to communicate an idea. Because, let’s face it, sometimes we can’t recapture the heat of the moment in the rewrite, no matter how good we are at faking it.

And for one more note of clarity: You don’t really need to use freewriting for any other purpose. If you can’t warm your engines on your actual novel, then maybe your novel isn’t ready to be written.

Thanks for reading. Be sure to check out Angela Ackerman and Bella Puglisi’s thesaurus series to improve your knowledge base. They’ve got a new one about occupations coming out in two weeks, and like their other thesauri, it looks promising. I highly recommend their books.

I also highly recommend that you subscribe to this blog because you learn things here. Usually. Sometimes.

Cover Image: Pixabay

New Book Cover Designs Coming Soon

Anyone who scrolls through the archives here will likely see a common theme: I like to update my preexisting books to the point of nausea, perhaps more than I like starting new ones. I’m sure this is frustrating for any reader who’s already read all of my books half a dozen times and just wants to see something fresh for a change (though my sales reports suggest those readers don’t yet exist), but one important element of becoming an author worth reading is to have a backlog of titles worth reading, and I want to make sure that my books are right for their target audiences, covering each detail from story, to content, to metadata, and so on.

This often means going back to the beginning and fixing each title’s cover design.

Now, I don’t have a lot of experience with cover design. Previewing the media galleries for each of my book pages (which you can check out via the side menu to your right) will show you that my early designs are actually pretty awful. But you’ll also see that I’ve done a lot of studying and a lot of practice, and the result has led me to creating some covers that I’m quite happy with. Most recently, you can see my coming of age stories, Gutter Child and When Cellphones Make Us Crazy, have evolved from this:

To this:

While it’s possible that I can still do better, I think these show that I’m finding my way to betterment pretty well.

Part of this gradual design evolution is thanks to me upgrading my graphics software. For years I was running off of PaintShop Pro only. While I think it’s sufficient for performing a simple graphics design task, I also think it’s limited. As I’ve gradually increased my graphics access to PaintShop Pro 2020, Painter 2019, Luminar 3, and GRFX Studio (included with my PaintShop Pro Deluxe purchase), however–all part of a photo design back I got at Humble Bundle last year–I’ve been able to accomplish more tricks and techniques to give my cover designs more pop, as you can see if you look at my gallery of covers for Lightstorm. But they still lacked some of the core elements I’ve most wanted to fix, including my title typography.

Enter Affinity Photo and Affinity Designer.

Thanks to Serif developing a suite of Adobe-wreckers that rival PhotoShop, Illustrator, and InDesign, called Photo, Designer, and Publisher respectively, all for a low one-time fee, I’ve been able to finally design book covers worthy of the stories they keep. I’ve already updated several of these covers to titles I no longer plan to update (again, check the side panel). But there are still a few more that I’m rewriting that will debut with new covers sometime this year or next.

In case you haven’t seen these updates on Facebook already, here are those updated covers (to the right of their older covers for comparison):

If you click on the images to the right corresponding to these titles, you can get more information. In most cases, these updated stories will drastically differ from their current versions.

What still remains? Basically The Fountain of Truth.

So, I hope you’ve enjoyed this preview, and that you’ll keep an eye on this blog for when these stories are finally updated.

Also, you should check out Serif’s Affinity products if you haven’t already. They’re the best software purchases I’ve made in the last year, and they’re gaining popularity–probably because they’re awesome products built by an awesome software company that appears to value its customers.

Cover Image: Pixabay