According to the powers that be in the writing world, there are two types of authors – plotters and pantsers.
Plotters – writers that need to lay out every plot point, turn and twist, ending and foil, then get all the chapters and scenes summarized before any of the writing even begins…
Pantsers – the ‘make it up as you go along’ types, where your fingers start typing and the writer is just as surprised as everybody else to find where the characters take them and ‘who dunnit’ at the end of the story…
Personally, I think all writers are somewhere in the grey area between the two extremes, for example, a bit of plotting, then a lot of pantsing and see where the story goes, or, perhaps, the author writes a broad outline with major character personalities and plot points, that gets refined as the story begins to come alive.
There’s no right or wrong way to write a novel, of course, it comes down to personal preference. But I’ve had a few questions about how I go about the process of writing a novel (Avon Calling in particular), so I thought it would be fun to answer that question here, for you, my inner circle of readers.
I think the photo above, shows you pretty clearly that I’m a plotter. I DO know the ending of all of my books before I start writing them. Let’s look at Avon Calling as an example (though all of my books follow the same process, even short stories).
The first thing I think of is the BIG character arc for the main character. What journey is my main character going to go through and how are they going to be different at the end of the book? Without a well-thought-out character arc, your main character just isn’t a believable, real person. We change during our lives, and the sorts of life-threatening challenges I put my poor characters through are bound to make an impact on them in some ways. (eg. What is Betty going to learn by going through Season One with its emotional and physical challenges?) So that’s my number one decision.
I usually percolate on this over a few weeks, thinking about possible character arcs for the sub-characters as well. Each important character (ie Betty, George, Jacob, Donny, Adina and Nancy) all have their own arc. Some of these are seen through the eyes of Betty, and others have their own point of view scenes. But the characters have to change and grow in some way by the end of each season or book.
The way people (and therefore, characters) change is by throwing challenges in their way. It could be a physical challenge, like a fight or new enemy to overcome, or an emotional one, like romantic entanglements, betrayal, loss, fear, etc. Usually, for my characters, it’s both. So my next point of focus becomes plot – what events or challenges can I put in my characters’ ways, to push them through their journey? I’ll outline each character’s sub-plot in a bullet list of events that need to occur throughout the entire book (eg. Adina’s ongoing court case/ Nancy rebelling/ George’s enlistment).
So at this point, I’ve got character arcs, the main plot and multiple sub-plots set up. Next, I need to make a timeline to fit all of these events. I do this by breaking the story into chapters (or episodes, in the case of Avon Calling), and then bullet-list the events that need to happen in each chapter. This will usually include at least one scene with each character to move their sub-plot and story arc along per episode.
I need to keep my timeline and series of events clear in my head as I write through the full season, which can take months. So once I’ve got the main plotting all worked out, I write each individual scene on a card and stick it on my office wall. In the photo above, you can see each episode running vertically with a scene-by-scene list of cards that need to fit into it. The main character for each scene is written at the top of each card with a short summary of what needs to happen in the scene. (The photo looks blurry – on purpose – haha, can’t give away the ending of Season 2!)
Write, write, write!
Ready, set, go! Things change as I write, which is awesome. After all that plotting, things get to expand. What began as a single sentence on the card becomes a full scene with dialogue, new minor characters, descriptions of settings, fashions, music or background events that are taking place during the scene. This is the time-consuming part because I do a *huge* amount of research as I write. I usually have about 20-30 internet tabs open on one screen, my work-in-progress on another screen, and I’m just flicking back and forth for hours at a time to fact-check as I write.
Even the tiniest things, like what flowers are in season, which fabric is appropriate for a particular style of outfit, or how many blocks a person has to walk to get from A to B gets google-mapped and researched to get right. Don’t even get me started on how many tab are open just for 1940s slang words and phrases. WAY too many!
I probably go further than I need to with this kind of in-depth research, but I feel like it adds a lot of authenticity to the books I write, to get these little things right. So, guys, this is why it takes me so long to write – I’m spending a huge amount of time researching! (Also my other work and my three kids make a big impact on my time to write!)
As I finish each scene, I cross it off the timeline card, so I can see at a glance how much I’ve written in the epsiode, and how much I have left to finish. It’s both exciting and intimidating to look at a wall of to-do’s and know you aren’t going to be finished until all those cards are crossed off. A full Season of AC is at least a year or two’s work for me at the moment (which is why I release in episodes – you get it faster!). The full season ends up about 2-3 times the length of a standard novel – about 200,000 words.
I edit as I write, scene by scene, and always begin a new writing session by reading through the previous scene to get my head back in the story where I left off. The plot is always evolving, right up until I type the last word. A character might begin a dialogue that takes me away from my plot and I’ll need to add a new scene or character to keep things on track. I adjust the scenes as I go, add new characters, add new cards or new research topics that I discover and just have to include. The story usually ends up about ten times longer than I first set out to write. But that’s all part of the fun. Once you begin writing a book, it seems to take on a life of its own, and your mind is rarely free of thinking about it during day or night. I wouldn’t have it any other way.