The Author Blog Challenge prompt asked how I stay organized as I write. My methods have changed over time. I used to come up with plots on the fly early on. Then I got scared off from that strategy when I got deep into a dreadfully long novel and found I had to backtrack fifty pages. Hitting a dead end is, well, death. It’s a waste of time and energy and I hate it.
I started outlining because I was writing big books and I didn’t want to lose whole sections of my book in which I was already invested. When you write 80 – 100,000 words or (ye gods!) more, an outline helps. I didn’t write an outline with Roman numerals and all that formal, high school nonsense. Instead, I planned the book one cogent sentence at a time. I described the actions in each chapter to plot the arcs of A and B stories. I looked for where those paths would logically cross, discover the beats and suss out the high and low points. Index cards got to be too much to keep track of, so in the end my outline was just three pages with a numbered list. I read and reread the outline and then I didn’t look at it again. That got me through the big books pretty well.
“I just had another one of my brilliant ideas!”
It’s about speed. I resolved to write a crime novel with the same furious pace as Run — a book I couldn’t put down. Yeah. I know it’s a cliché, but this cliché is both apt and true in the case of Run. (Great book. Buy it.)
I resolved to do the thing I love with stories. The chapters would be relatively short. They would skip along. There would be lots of twists and turns to my racetrack. I wrote Bigger Than Jesus in about a month, one chapter a day, roughly 2,000 words each. There was no outline. Instead, I wrote with the expectation that I’d get my hero into a troubling cliffhanger at the end of each chapter. If I wrote myself into a corner in the process, too bad. I’d be clever and write my way out of it and keep moving forward. Writing like this is as fresh and as exciting as walking a tightrope naked in a high wind over a crowd of angry TSA agents with a new shipment of polar mint rubber gloves.
Many nights I went to bed thinking that I had no idea what I would write in the morning, but I trusted that I could figure it out. I believed in lightning strikes. The juice kept flowing and with it came a high level of complexity. It’s a crime novel so people lie a lot. If I’d taken longer to write it, it would have necessarily been less complex because I’d be afraid of losing track of the threads. There’s shocking emotional depth, too. Nobody, including me, foresaw the strange and sad angle on my main character’s childhood. It sneaks up.
Why did this work?
1. I knew the opening chapter and the last line so I had a target at which to aim. I’m also a more confident writer than I was with those early attempts, I suppose.
2. If I didn’t know what was going to happen next, the reader wouldn’t be able to guess, either.
3. Speed. The book is not especially long and I wrote it all in a short space of time so I could keep it all in my head at once without getting lost.
How else do I keep organized?
In the Point File, I note things like street names I’ll use twice and aspects like eye colour so they don’t change from the beginning of the book to the end. I did mess up in having twin brothers as bad guys with names that were awfully similar. I had to go back to make sure I was talking about the right brother at the correct stage of the book.
I always have a Spill File handy so if I do write something that I end up dumping, I save it for later. I might change my mind about how useless it is or I might use it another time in another story. In Bigger Than Jesus, the writing went so quickly and breezily that I never had anything to pour much into the Spill File. I wrote fast and then went back to the stage of writing where I’m always sure I’m a deluded idiot: revisions. I cut, prune and delve. More of the jokes come clear on the second pass, too. Typically, by the third pass, I begin to feel good about the book again. Bigger Than Jesus was just about as easy as writing a blog post a day, actually. Maybe easier sometimes because what dictated the action was logic and surprise. When in doubt, surprise!
Some writers labor under a notion that I once shared: To be good, you must write slowly, perhaps even at a glacial pace, and the serifs are where your heart and soul get squeezed in and choked for blood. There are books I have tinkered with for years. One short story went through many incarnations over a year before I felt I nailed the landing and deserved 10s from all the judges. However, Self-help for Stoners came together quickly and everything worked out well with that.
Bigger Than Jesus will be released in the next week or so and all the feedback I’m getting from the editorial team tells me I’m glad I didn’t buy into the idea that it had to come slowly to be worthy. I think that’s true sometimes, but not always — not for every book and not for every writer. That’s good news because I’m using the same strategy with the next book in the series. It’s coming fast and well and I do enjoy the danger of not knowing what happens in the next chapter. Those angry TSA agents are actually spurring me to succeed.
Please take a few minutes to enjoy my latest podcast on the author site. It’s The First Fiction Friday Edition!
It’s a sneak peek at Chapter 8 from my first novel in the Poeticule Bay Series:
An old woman is lost with her tiny dog in the Maine woods and snow is on the way.
- Author Blog Challenge: The Writing Mistake You Might be Making (chazzwrites.com)
- Author Blog Challenge: Writers to adore (chazzwrites.com)
- Author Blog Challenge: I love the voices in my head (chazzwrites.com)
- Spooky weirdness and the books on my desk (chazzwrites.com)