But it usually surprises people that I'm also adamant about planning, outlining, outlining again, writing lists, and knowing exactly where I'm going with a story before I write my first word. It seems a bit of a contradiction, but to me it's not. To me it's essential. You can't start writing until you have a story concept, even if you don't end up sticking with it. If you don't know where your story is headed, you're going to wander and end up going nowhere for entire chapters at a time, then get stuck cutting half your novel away in rewrites or accidentally let that meandering make it into print (and then heaven help your poor readers). But in between those two things, after you plan carefully and before you go back and rework things: that is where the feeling happens. That is when, in imagery care of Hemingway, the writer bleeds on the typewriter.
So when I write a novel, I do it in four phases.
The first is planning. I write my novel concept like I'm writing a back-of-the-book-blurb to describe what I want the book to be, and what I think is going to draw the readers in. This helps me identify what the novel's big movers are, as far as plot, character, setting and theme are. Then I outline the chapters from beginning to end, not so much with synopsis as with mission statements for what each chapter needs to accomplish to get me where I think I'm probably going. Finally, I outline the first chapter scene for scene, movement for movement.
Then, in the second phase, I start to bleed, and usually do not follow my outline any further than the first chapter. This is the feeling and stream-of-consciousness moment. It's no time to write gently. It's no time to worry about what my professors would think of all my high drama. I've got all the thinking out of the way, so that I don't have to think now. I can feel and be moved, and follow the story wherever it wants. I have an idea of where it's going, so I don't meander. I chase it. I write myself straight to the next scene, and the scene after that, and if I find extra scenes in between I write those too. If I end up getting pulled away from my outline at least I'm still close enough that I can see the path I was on and stay close.
When I'm done with a chapter or I've wandered so far from my outline that I can't see my way back to it anymore, it's time to move on to the third phase. Here, I ponder, but it's less planning and more discernment. I look back at the words to find out what I was just writing about. Is it what I expected myself to write about? Usually it's not. Usually it's different. And it is always better than what I'd planned to write. I always say that we don't know what we're writing about until we've written it, but I like to be very aware of the evolution of this process. Usually I begin with high fantasy or hard sci-fi and land in wonderful literary themes. A novel about demon-hunting became a story about gender and damaged relationships. One time I thought I was going to write about evil space squids and instead wrote about a troubled woman's struggle with insanity.
Once I've decided what I actually seem to be writing about, I revisit my concept, maybe rewrite it, then outline the novel again. I usually get a whole new image for the novel once I'm a chapter or two in, and I have to re-outline it to keep myself from getting lost. Then I bleed for a couple more chapters and stop to discern again.
I don't rewrite any of my chapters until the entire manuscript is done, no matter what. I will delete whole characters, add whole plot-lines, and I won't make a single change to what I've already written. That's what the final phase of the process is for, in which I gather up all my notes and preconceptions, go through another round of discerning and outlining and testing the concept. And then I rewrite, not to make the novel match any of my outlines, but to make the novel perfect for what it actually wants to be about. I do my very best to make the novel work, applying everything I've learned in the writing to every paragraph and line. By the time I finish a novel I'm a better writer than when I started, anyway, even just as far as technical elements are concerned. So for the fourth phase, I interrogate every line and word ruthlessly.
And then I finally, at long last, have what I am proud to call the first draft of a complete novel manuscript.
There are actually quite a few phases afterward, which include finding prereaders, taking chapters to critique circle, having an editor look over it, and then realizing that I have to find a way to turn this manuscript into a published work. But all of that is done in a completely different mindset than conceptualizing, plotting, writing, discernment and initial rewrites.
If you're having trouble getting your novel started, going through some of this process with your own work might free your mind up to chase that prose. If you'd like for me to help you through this process personally, giving you guidance and feedback at every step, do you have Thursday evenings free? Starting on March 5th I'm teaching a six-week workshop at Writespace, all about taking your novel from concept to reality. Working together, we'll start strong and come up with a plan to write all the way to the end.
K.J. Russell is a speculative fiction author and anthologist from Colorado. To learn more about him and his work, please visit his Writespace faculty page.
To sign up for his upcoming workshop, "Writing Your Novel: from Concept to Reality", please click here.