(Spoiler alert - the answer is not 'with a pen', even though that would be amazingly punny)
I’m a plotter. In fact, I’m so much of a plotter that plotting might just be my favourite part of the writing process. Everything is new and I’m discovering the story and all of its possibilities. There’s lots of notes to myself where this could happen, or maybe that, and the ideas are flowing thick and fast.
The ideas still come when I’m actually writing the story, but when I’m trying to create sentences that make sense, a lot of them flit back out of my head before I can get them down on the virtual paper.
When I’m plotting, it’s like being in a play pit. It’s ok if everything goes horribly wrong and my sandcastle collapses. I can just shove some more sand in a bucket and build another one. Writing is more like building a complicated model and if you get halfway through and realise you’re building a plane, but the picture on the box was a ship, it feels like a lot of work to fix.
That’s how I felt after I finished the first draft of Royal and realised the story was wrong. It’s also how I felt when I finished the next version and realised it too was not right.
Back then, I was also trying to jump straight from the outline to a product that was as close to the final draft as possible. I was focussing on getting to the end, not on the actual writing, which I actually enjoy when I’m not getting in my own way.
Having rewritten the same story a few times (not to mention about half of book two, and the first third of book three - that’s what I get for trying to get ahead!), I needed a break. And so I plotted and wrote an entire other book.
What I focussed on when I was writing that one, was basically just having fun. I used that time and space to shift my thinking and consolidate what I had learned about myself and writing while working on Royal. I realised that there are no wasted words here. All the words - whether they’re the ones that are published or not - are helping me grow and improve.
And I had to learn how I work. It would be great to be that writer who just sits down and writes and what comes out is essentially the finished version (and there are those people out there!), but that’s just not me.
How I do it now is to start with an overall plan, which winds up being about five to ten thousand words and covers the main points of the whole book. Then I do a mini plan of each chapter that tends to be a couple of hundred words, which I have open as I write the actual chapter.
Now that sounds like a lot of rewriting the same thing, but in practice it isn’t and most importantly, it works for me. Some of the words from my overall outline wind up verbatim in the chapter summaries, and similarly, a lot of the chapter summaries are cut and paste into the chapters as I write them.
It makes sense to me when I think about how I work as a person. I like efficiency. (Stick with me - I know my process might not sound efficient!). When I communicate, be it writing or talking, I like to make my point with as few words as possible. But sometimes you need the words to explain things properly or give context.
In my old job I used to have to give presentations from time to time. I hated giving presentations with a fiery passion. And I was as good at it as you would expect someone who hated it with a fiery passion to be. Everyone would tell me to practice the presentations, which is really good advice, but the problem for me was that in practicing I would summarise and condense the material. And then my thirty-minute presentation would somehow only take ten minutes. Which is great if you’re presenting just before lunch, but slightly awkward if you’re the first presentation of the day, and they need to call the next person in early.
When I write, I’m essentially doing the reverse of that process. My first overall plan is the story in a nutshell. The chapter plans are highlighting what information needs to be covered in detail. And then from there, I can build the actual story for people to read.
My process means that I’m less likely to find I’m building the wrong model, but if I do find myself in that situation, instead of thinking about it being a lot of work to undo and fix, I try to look at it as another chance to build a model. And in taking my characters down a wrong turn, I’ve gotten to know them that much better.
Sometimes it’s not that easy to shift perspective. But if I get in a funk about writing tens of thousands of words of the wrong story, I can always just put it down and go and plan a different one :)