Over the years I’ve tried a number of different methods for planning and writing my books, but I always had trouble carrying through on my plans and actually finishing drafts. Finally, within the last couple years, I’ve managed to nail down the method that works best for me, which is a specific combination of discovery writing and outlining.
Usually, ideas come to me in the form of character moments or scenes with only a vague idea of a larger plot attached. For many years, I used to write the initial scene (rarely more than a page or two), then stop and spend a lot of time trying to nail down the plot and create an outline; I assumed this was the only correct way to approach a writing project thanks to years of listening to teachers tell me the importance — nay, absolute necessity! — of clear outlines. But by the time I finished high school, I’d come to the realization that I wrote far better essays and research papers if I didn’t outline first, and by extension I figured I should stop trying to outline stories as well.
For a while, I thought I’d figured it out: I was a discovery writer! No outlines for me! As soon as I started writing free-form, scenes flowed easily onto the page, thousands of words gushed forth — and then stopped. Story after story faltered and ground to a halt partway through. I figured I just needed a break; I set aside the incomplete drafts and started other projects — which also stopped flowing partway through. I tried going back to the incomplete stories, but I could never seem to regain momentum.
At last I recognized the pattern: every single one of these stories was between 20 and 25 thousand words long when the ideas stopped flowing. So I spent some time asking myself: why that length? What’s so important about the 20-thousand word mark?
The answer turned out to be fairly straightforward. The average novel is about 80 to 100 thousand words, which meant I was writing a quarter of each book before getting stumped. And what do you know, the first quarter of a book is usually setup, the section of the story that puts all the plot pieces into motion. That part of a story lends itself perfectly to discovery writing, because it’s all about throwing things at the characters, establishing questions that need to be answered or plot threads that need to be woven together.
But once I have a full novel’s worth of ideas, themes, and plot points established, I need to answer all the questions I’ve raised and solve all the problems I’ve created. And that’s where outlining comes into play. Once all the pieces of the story feel right, it’s time to take a more methodical approach to fit all those pieces together.
So at long last, I have my ideal writing process figured out! I get an idea and run with it, developing the characters as I go and introducing whatever themes or plot points feel right in the moment. Then, when I have enough pieces in play that I can’t keep track of them all by instinct, I take a step back, work out what I want to do with all the ideas I’ve introduced, and construct a satisfying ending from all the pieces. But my outlines are always plot-oriented, and I still discovery-write the character arcs as I go along, letting the characters do and say whatever feels right for them within the context of the plot I’m building.
So…that’s my current process. It’s clearly working, since I’ve completed and published two novels and two short stories in the past couple years! To any other writers who read this: if you haven’t nailed down the right process yet, don’t give up. It took me fifteen years to figure out how to finish a book, but I got there in the end, and sooner or later, you’ll find the perfect process for your stories, too.