by Adam Reger
I wanted to share a novel-writing resource I’ve found useful over the last few weeks, as I’ve changed course while working on my novel. As usual, I’ve gone on at length in the run-up to sharing this valuable resource, Randy Ingermanson’s “Snowflake Method” for outlining a novel, so I’ll link to it here in case you’d rather not wade through the waist-high verbiage below.
In a nutshell, I became frustrated with the increasing aimlessness of my novel. I had what I thought was a good idea of where it was going, what the various threads were, and so forth. But each scene seemed inessential, even dull. I felt like I was writing only for the purpose of getting that day’s word count in. I could all too easily see to the end of this process, when I’d have a first draft I didn’t care to revise, and would be faced with re-writing the entire thing.
I thought, “What will I do before the second draft to make this less of a mess?” The best answer was that I’d look through, see what I had, and rigorously plot out the second draft based on the storylines and characters I’d worked out. This satisfied me for about thirty seconds before the obvious occurred to me: why not plot it out beforehand?
I’ve never worked that way before. I’m not ideological about it, though; I just think it’s fun to free write, catch a hint of where this thing is going, and then follow it there. I think Stephen King, in his surprisingly great On Writing, describes this method as something like finding dinosaur bones in the ground and then just following the process of excavating them. I’ve found that solid . . . but it’s never worked for me for the novel. Part of what gave me pause as my novel went along in its bumbling fashion was that I’ve been here before. I’ve written two novels, and each one I wrote more than once. That thing I said about getting to the end of a first draft and not caring to revise it? Yeah, I was very much speaking from experience on that one. (I would argue that my first novel is more like three novels, since each one shifted focus quite a bit.)
So I was left with the alternative: to plot. (I should stop and confess this is hardly a new dilemma for a writer to face; so much so, the website for National Novel Writing Month has at least one forum thread dedicated to the “Plotters versus Panters” (i.e., by the seat of your pants) schools of thought, and there are over 70,000 Google results for that search phrase. (Interestingly, “Plotters versus Panthers” turns up about eight times more results. Go figure.))
I looked around the internet for resources or advice on outlining a novel. First I found this page, from the writer Holly Lisle. It looks pretty cool, with a lot of emphasis on splitting scenes up by the point-of-view character, and there’s a semi-mathematical break-down to dividing up the book’s total scenes among those characters. I have not actually used this method, but I suspect I might: I very much like the idea of determining that Character X is to have 15 scenes, and then going about coming up with what those scenes will be, before proceeding with anything else.
The outlining method that I’ve really been leaning on has been Randy Ingermanson’s “Snowflake Method.” It’s worth clicking through, plus it looks like he gets Grand Central Station-level traffic to that page, so I won’t go into too much detail introducing it. But basically it’s a methodical, quite thorough breakdown that begins with the story at its simplest—literally one sentence describing what happens—and goes through ever-more complex descriptions of it. There’s also a heavy emphasis on fleshing out the characters. And, like Holly Lisle’s method, there’s eventually a breakdown of the book into scenes.
It’s been going well so far. I miss letting ‘er rip and actually writing, versus plotting, but I feel the effort I put in now will pay off in time saved during the actual writing process, and in my having a clearer sense of where I’m going within each scene. An appealing promise Ingermanson makes is that this method doesn’t suck the fun out of writing. I’ll have to report on that when I get there. I’ll confess to some ambivalence, as someone with an MFA in fiction, over following the writing advice of some guy on the internet—one, moreover, who’s published mainly Christian thrillers—but I’ve felt that most of his advice passed my own sniff test: his sense of story structure gibes with everything I’ve heard, and what I’ve seen to be effective in other works.
To wrap up, I’ll add that a side benefit of taking the time to outline my novel has been a slowing-down of my writing process that I’ve found surprisingly pleasant. Insofar as I’m not going to publish a novel within the next few weeks, it makes little sense to get worked up about finishing a book on some perceived schedule. I’ve always felt I wrote every day for practice, to improve my craft, as much as anything. But it’s been good to recognize that learning to outline may be crucial for my writing, and thus that writing 1,000 words a day at the expense of such a “macro”-level lesson would be short-sighted.
Anyway, wish me luck.