Saturday, April 17, 2010


*Guys, sorry to be so late. Something was trying to land on me yesterday and by the time I went to bed I'd forgotten what time it was. By the time I woke up I was two and a half hours late. SORRY.*

Everyone has a different process, of course. I know saying that seems like a given, but strangely, it’s not. I spent at least the first ten years of my career trying to fit the process of whichever advice book I’d just read or whoever had just spoken to our writers’ group. Considering how many people who write these books or give lectures talk about “the one true way” the idea of “more than one process” is probably more arcane than I thought.

But it gets worse than that because at least for me – how it is for you guys out there? – each book has its own process. Yeah, it might be close to the last one. At least I usually try the same “point of attack” because it usually works for me. But there’s the occasional book that just won’t “talk to me” and will keep me trying new things till it unlocks.

My older son, who is quite smart – smarter than I at any rate – is now writing his second novel. It took him almost two years to actually get going on it. Why? Because he couldn’t figure out what was happening in it. And he couldn’t “just write” till he figured out what the plot was because if he did that “everything will be trash. I’m not a pantser, I’m a plotter.”

I kept telling him “Some novels don’t tell you till you’re halfway through” (meaning of course, your subconscious doesn’t allow you to unlock whatever it’s come up with till you’re halfway through. I’m not under the illusion novels TALK) and “Just start it and find out.”

Of course he refused to for two years, which is why he’s only now doing it and finally figuring out what the novel is all about, etc.

With short stories my “process” is more consistent. Originally – though I never fit the “know everything about it before you put a word on paper” – I started with a short story outline. It went something like this (if I find the original, I’ll post it.)

POV Character:



Reason POV Character can’t obtain goal easily:

First attempt:


Second attempt:


Internal realization/mirror moment/story goal flip:

Third attempt:



Having this skeletal sort of outline allowed me to write the short story very quickly. The first time I found out there was an issue with it was when I got halfway through a story (Traveling, Traveling, sold to Analog) and realized it was complete. At that moment, I started suspecting my process was out of kilter. I think I still outlined a couple more, but after that, I found I had the entire short story completely in my head. No need to outline.

Does this happen to novels? Sometimes. That’s more insane because then I need to write very fast, before I forget all the twists and heaven helps me if I have to take a break because of an emergency.

So, how do you do it? Do you try to fit someone else’s process? Do you have your own? Does it change? Have you created your own? Did you take it from someone? Do you experiment? Does it vary by book?


Anonymous said...

I tend to write until the inspiration is relieved. Then I go back and try to beat it into some semblance of a coherent story. As in, identify the main problem, and organize those characters into trying to solve it.

Brendan said...

With my short stories I need to know what the end will be before I can really start writing the story. For me the ending is the pay off and everything has to lead to that. Usually I write the beginning(it has to grab you, then the end(it has to wow you) and then get bogged down in the middle:(

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Sometimes it attacks that way and then I end up doing that... However, to finish things consistently, you someitmes need to write with no inspiration. Been there, done that. No t-shirt.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


This is why I started the little "outline thingy" -- to make sure the middle wasn't "something happened here." But I spent a year doing one short story a week and I think it has led to interiorizing the outline, so I no longer need it.

Anonymous said...

Yep. Some times you just have to sit down and writing. I'm, err, lucky, in having such a backlog of ideas that had to be written down right then, that I don't have to start from scratch.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

LOL, Matapam. Beating books?

Writing until the inspiration is relieved -- I can relate to that.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Brendan, if you know the end there's no adventure!

But seriously, I know what you mean. With some stories the end is the pay off, more than others. I love the work of SAKI, the English satirist (1910 approx). His stories are so biting. But then, when you are surrounded by hypocrisy and oppression it is easy to be biting.

Rita de Heer said...

I have a huge problem with endings and have numbers of things lying around, 95% finished with no resolution in sight. I've learned I have to write endings first, then work towards them in freefall ie without too much planning, to keep my interest in the journey going.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


If I live to be a hundred, I'll never run out of ideas. And thanks to the malevolence of the markets, I now have ideas for each of my pen names, public or not. But there's still only ONE brain and one set of typing fingers.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


In short stories, the ending and the beginning must be punch strong. This is also true in novels, but novels are a more forgiving medium. Kind of like miniatures are the hardest painting of all -- there's less room for the eye to wander and ignore a mistake or two.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Actually, I usually have an end in sight. Which doesn't mean it won't change. So I don't write it first.

Normally I write an outline that includes how it ends (in general terms) and then give myself permission to stray. Outlines range from 12 pages to 50 depending on the novel.

The problem I'm having with the current headache is that the ending is not "fitting" and I suspect it won't let me know exactly what it is until I'm THERE.

Anonymous said...

Sarah, he's a bastard double cousin of the man they think he is, and has been scamming them the whole time.

Sorry, silly season hit. Don't know why.

carlos de la parra said...

Go to bukisa/glorystory an read 3
major articles that will provide a large variety of nail it simply techniques for writing micro stories and short stories.

Dave Freer said...

I believe this is a highly individual thing, and I'm more of a plotter than pantser -in that it has to cook in my head before the paper phase.

Amanda Green said...

Sarah, great topic. I've tried using the plot "outlines" and "story bibles" put out there in so many how-to books and writer blogs. For me, they don't work. By the time I do that much work and have to think about it so hard, the story either no longer interests me or I feel like I've already written in even though it's still in outline form. For short stories, I have to let them stew in the back of my head for awhile. Then it is pen and paper time with the first draft written out long-hand. Yeah, I know, for the geek that is me that is almost sacrilege, but that is how it works best for me. For novels, a 10 page or so outline with more detailed notes as needed as I write.

Bill said...

The stories all start off with the end in sight: for at least one character, and the alternative world.

Then as I ponder it, the beginning point comes into view as the springboard, and another character journey.

But, as you said, it's when I'm writing it that the twists and turns come to me (unlock), and the secondary characters begin to develop their own goals and development.

I like the idea of writing it all down and outlining it, but doing that takes some of the punch out of the original idea, so I stick with little sketch notes with key phrases that help my imagination recall the intent.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


No, the BAD guys knwo who he is. The problem is that I think They're ALL bad guys.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


These days I don't outline them. They just pop up fully formed. I still outline novels, but I'm wondering if it's time to ditch that. Not that I'll go pantser, mind you. It's more of a "entire outline in my head." Unfortunately that would nix proposals. Then again, considering the sorry work I make of those...

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Those only work for me for proposals. And my novels have this habit of having very little resemblance to the outlines.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


I do a very general outline FIRST -- for novels -- usually ten to twelve pages. Then I do a... ten scene, usually outline just ahead. I find this gives the "fuller" plotting, because it feeds off what came before. And as always I give myself permission to deviate from plan.