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!