Monday, August 31, 2009

There's Only One Right Way to Write a Novel!

Unfortunately, no one knows what it is.

I have friends who plot extenstively, even down to the POV of each carefully laid out scene. They 'interview' their characters and know exactly what's going to happen from beginning to end before they ever put a word to paper.

Oh, to be so well organized.

There are some in my RWA chapter who 'layer' their work. They start with a powder-keg of a sentence, reducing their premise to its most elemental state. Then they write a 2 parargraph blurb. Then a one page synopsis. Then a 10 page synopsis. Then 50--with each pass they add layers of dialogue and action until after many, many times through the story, they arrive at the desired page count.

Some writers are "puzzlers." Their stories come to them in chunks, out of order and disembodied, like magma rising from the deepest place in their psyches. Once they have all the pieces, they patch them together with connecting material and voila! A manuscript is born. This method is more like magic than any other I've ever heard of, but it has some well-known practitioners, like Diana Gabaldon and my friend Rowena Cherry. I'd try it, but I think it may involve chanting at midnight and killing a chicken.

Then there are the 'pantsers,' as in "writing by the seat of their pants." They get up in the morning and wonder what's going to happen in their story today. I count myself in their number now . . . again.

When I first started writing, I followed my characters around because I didn't know what else to do. That's how I wrote MAIDENSONG, my debut Diana Groe title. Then when circumstances forced me into a 9-5 job, and my writing time was severely cut back, I decided I needed to learn to plot in order to get anything accomplished. As a plotter, I wrote ERINSONG and SILK DREAMS (2 more Diana Groe books) and I first dabbled with my light-hearted Emily Bryan style as a plotter. That's how I wrote DISTRACTING THE DUCHESS, PLEASURING THE PIRATE and VEXING THE VISCOUNT.

Then my editor asked me to contribute to a holiday anthology, A CHRISTMAS BALL. And I decided it might be the perfect time to experiment a bit. I didn't have to submit three chapters and a synopsis. I had a totally blank slate with this contract. So I assembled my cast of characters--Jane Tate, hard-working, deserving scullery maid. Ian Michael MacGregor, hard-muscled, drool-worthy head groom. Spoiled Lady Sybil Sommerville, Jane's well-born half-sister. Her Italian portrait painter lover. Viscount Eddleton, the gentleman to whom Sybil is supposed to become affianced at the Christmas Ball, and grasping Lady Letitia Darvish, a black widow in the hunt for her 5th husband.

I stirred them in my head a bit and brought them all together at the appointed place (the previously described ball at Hartwell House) and the result was MY LADY BELOW STAIRS, my novella in A CHRISTMAS BALL.

'Pantsing' that novella was such a success (as judged by the love my editor professes for the story!), I decided to pants my current WIP, STROKE OF GENIUS, too.

But my 'pantsing' now is much different than it was when I was working on MAIDENSONG. I've been a student of the craft for more years. I understand novel structure and have a basic outline of major plot points in my head. The road map is there. It's just not on paper. So you might call me a closet plotter. And occasionally, I go back in the story, tucking things in that hadn't occured to me on the first pass. You might say I 'layer' a bit.

I still haven't 'puzzled' (can't seem to find the right incantation or a chicken!) but I won't say never. Keeping the process fresh keeps the writing fresh. And I'm game for just about anything to accomplish that.

So how about you? If you're a writer, what's your process? If you're a reader, do you think you can tell how a story was put together by the way it reads?

PS. Today is the last day to enter my CHRISTMAS IN AUGUST contest! Don't miss out on a chance for your choice of my backlist! And if you've already entered, please tell your friends about it. Thanks so much!


Stacey Joy Netzel said...

I went an read the excerpt in A Christmas Ball for your "My Lady Below Stairs"--it sounds really good!

I usually have a rough idea of the scenes that I want to have happen in a book, and then every couple weeks I make adjustments as needed depending on what's cropped up as I write. I also go back and layer in quite a bit. The current book I'm writing, though, I've tried to keep going on the first draft and if I need to layer or adjust something from earlier, I add a quick note in ()'s and keep writing so I can layer when I edit later. It's gotten me through 163 pages in the last 60 days, so I'm happy with that current process.

Penny Watson said...

Hi Emily! I LOVE pantsing!!!!! It's why I love makes it fun, unexpected, surprising, sometimes frustrating, always an adventure. I'm not sure what I would do if I had to figure everything out ahead of time. I have great respect for plotters, but I think that would take the joy out of the process for me. Can't wait for A Christmas Ball!- Penny

EmilyBryan said...

Thanks, Stacey! Glad you enjoyed the excerpt from MY LADY BELOW STAIRS!

Sounds like you have a process that's working for you.

My greatest temptation is to go back and rewrite when I should be advancing the story. I can always think of a better way to say something. I can't always think of something to say.

EmilyBryan said...

Penny, I'm glad you're such a happy pantser. I am, too . . . sort of. I miss the security blanket of having a synopsis to check with if I get stymied. I feel like I'm flying without a net.

But so far, STROKE OF GENIUS is pouring out at a 10 page a day clip, so if it ain't broke . . .

Glad you're looking forward to A CHRISTMAS BALL. Thanks for your support!

Glynis Peters said...

I am a seat of the pants writer, with 101 notepads.
Enjoyed the excerpt My Lady Below Stairs! Thanks.

EmilyBryan said...

There are lots of us pantsers out there, Glynis.

The notepads reminds me of my plotting days though. I would write all the major plotpoints on sticky notes and rearrange them on a full length mirror until they made sense to my mind. Then I'd take them down as I reached the plotpoint in my manuscript--sort of a visual confirmation that I was making progress.

Jane L said...

Hello Emily!

I am a puzzler! Yes I write all kinds of scenes and then somehow manage to tie them together! It is so funny I use to think I was just crazy until another writer explained to me that a puzzler was my writing style! Thank goodness, now I only think I am half crazy LOL!
By the way Emily I received my box of goodies today! THANK YOU!!! You are the best!

Rowena Cherry said...

Thank you for the shout-out, Emily. I enjoyed your post and kind words about the magic of puzzling!

You ought to have Add This or Share This functionality on your blog.

However, I have the functionality on my toolbar thanks to AddThis-for-Firefox, so look for an url to this, your blog on Twitter, courtesy of Space Snark.

Love the anthology cover, btw!

EmilyBryan said...

Jane--Ok, now that I know you're a puzzler, no more chickens for you! LOL!

Honestly, I'm mystified by the way puzzlers work. It has to be the most organic, most intuitive method. How in the world do you manage a character arc when things are tumbling around out of order?

EmilyBryan said...

Ah, Rowena, you speak as though I had any technological aptitude at all, which I assure you I do not! If you have time to send me an email explaining what you just told me I need (in very short words, please) I would be happy to try to learn. Thanks!

Amanda McIntyre said...

Hi Emily! this is a great topic and one of those mysteries I think that remains forever...well, a mystery LOL If somebody had the formula to this, they'd be a wealthy person and well liked to be sure!;)

I do find however that its much easire to "pantser" a short story or novella, than it is to do so with a full length.As to why, your guess is as good as mine.;)

I'm a betweenster, I guess. as I do write scenes out and then arrange them as you do-then go back and layer in around them.

I also do extensive profiles on my characters which helps me define their actions and reactions.

Great topic , wonderful excerpt!
Continued success, my frined!
Amanda M

Jane L said...

Emily, You bring up some very good questions. I do use a character profile sheet for my hero, heroine. Other wise, I just wing it, I know it is a weird crazy way to write but I do end up linking the story somehow, I do find often I need to recreate a scene because it just does not fit. Its like my mind plays the story out in fast forward, so I write what I have in my head at the time, sometimes its the middle, or a chapter later in the story or even the end! Usually I am not working more than two chapters ahead of myself! LOL! It is wonderful to be a writer!!

EmilyBryan said...

Amanda--I seem to be doing ok pansting a longer story with STROKE OF GENIUS. So far so good anyway. And I don't do detailed character sketches. Probably should.

I hear their voices. (Ok, no need to call for the guys in the white coats! Writing is the only profession where it's good to hear voices!) My characters play out the dialog in my head.

EmilyBryan said...

Jane, so what you're saying is you're usually ahead of yourself? Time has no meaning for puzzlers, does it? It expands and contracts around you like a bubble.

Again, I say it's magic.

bks2plz said...

If you want a great fantasy novel, "Gateway to DreamWorld," is a must. Here is a short synopsis of the story:

On their way home from baseball tryouts, Brad Colby and his two sons are involved in a terrible car accident that leaves six-year-old Pete in a coma. When Pete awakens, the family is crushed to learn that he is paralyzed.

Meanwhile, Pete’s eight-year-old brother, Jason, has been having powerful dreams that lead him to a mysterious realm known as DreamWorld. Jason discovers that all of his desires can come true in DreamWorld, but the time is fast approaching when he will have to choose between his two worlds.

And when more devastating news strikes at the heart of the Colby family, Jason and Pete set out on a desperate attempt to find the Gateway to DreamWorld and save their family. With time running out on their dangerous path, will Jason and Pete’s fear of the Unknown keep them from reaching the paradise of their dreams?

EmilyBryan said...

bks2plz--While your story sounds intriguing, we're interested the writing process. What is your writing style? Do you consider yourself a plotter, pantser, puzzler or layerer?

librarypat said...

I think if you read a lot of books by one author in a short period of time, you could compare their format and tell how they wrote/plotted/winged it. Unless you read a book specifically looking for a style, I don't think it would be too noticeable. On a quick read, I think an obvious method of writing would be noticeable only if it were done poorly.

Sandy said...


I also do a combination of things when I write. Sometimes, it depends on how long the story is and how convoluted it is whether I start doing an outline. Mostly, I'm a pantser.