Thursday, June 29, 2017

To Plot or not to Plot by Allison Brennan

LUCY BURDETTE: I was skimming over the Sisters in Crime listserv a couple of weeks ago, and the discussion turned to plotting versus writing by the seat of your pants. I was absolutely blown away by Allison Brennan's response, and knew instantly that you would want to read about her writing process. Welcome Allison!



ALLISON BRENNAN: At my first ever writer’s conference in 2005--after I sold my first book but before it hit the shelves--my friend Patti Berg and I came up with a workshop called “No Plotters Allowed: Solutions to writer’s block for those who can’t, won’t, or don’t plot.” 

One of the reasons Patti and I came up with this idea was our mutual frustration at being told that we were “doing it wrong.” That there was an established way to write and those of us who didn’t plot were somehow inferior to those who did.

There is no one right way to write a book. Some people plot. Some people don’t. And there are many people who combine plotting and pantsing. (I prefer “organic writing” to “pantsing.”)

The most important thing is that the writer finish the book. How is almost irrelevant, as long as we reach THE END.

Books by authors who heavily outline (Andrew Gross, Suzanne Brockmann, James Patterson) are no better than books by authors who write organically (Stephen King, Nora Roberts, Lee Child.) And vice versa. 

I’ve had writer friends insist that I must plot because I write mystery/thrillers. I say I don’t. I often don’t even know who the killer is. I sometimes write a great scene and have no idea how my characters are going to get out alive. Sometimes they don’t all survive. My characters often surprise me, and that’s one of the most fun things about writing organically.

Usually I start with nothing but a premise. What if a killer used a crime fiction writer’s books as blueprints for murder? (That idea became my debut novel, THE PREY.) I started writing and my main character took shape as she woke up and I wrote what I saw – how she felt, what she did, what she learned in that all-important first chapter. It set the stage for the entire book.

Sometimes I start with a character. Obviously, if you write a series you already have a core character or two. But the plot itself? That comes as my character goes to work. I want to challenge them as well as provide an interesting and exciting story for my readers. What if Sean and Lucy are camping and come across a couple who are acting suspicious? What if Lucy’s mentor is killed at Quantico? What if a crime in Sean’s past is used against him? What if Sean learns he has a son – but his son’s step-father is a criminal?

Almost always I write one or two paragraphs that summarize the core story, so in a sense I know the basics. I know what kind of mystery I’m writing—a thriller, a whodunit, a psychological suspense. I know the main character and the launch point of the story (a murder, a kidnapping, a prison break, etc.) Beyond that? Nothing. I often don't know who the killer is until my hero figures it out. And sometimes, what I think is the main crime in the first chapter is minor compared to what happens later!

When you write organically you can't be afraid to edit. I cut and rewrite tens of thousands of words. My books usually exceed 100K words, but I often completely rewrite scenes, cut scenes—sometimes dozens of pages—and I’ve also been known to write completely new endings. The editor of my first 17 books at Ballantine told me she loved my revisions because it was like reading a completely new book and she never knew what was going to happen. 

Because writing is rewriting, I don't stress over word choice, scene blocking, or description in my first draft. I layer that in on the second draft. If I get stuck, I reread from the beginning or just skip to the next logical scene. I always ask, what would my character do in this situation? I try to avoid getting distracted by research unless it's plot critical. Meaning, if my character finds a dead body buried for 10 years I don't describe it in the first draft. When I'm done I'll figure out what they saw and set the scene. However if there is a critical clue where I need to know exactly how the body looks because that's important to the plot, then I'll pull out my forensic books, use Google, or call an expert. Since I edit as I go, my first drafts are fairly clean. Each morning, I re-read what I wrote the day before to make sure that it’s free of major mistakes and it makes sense. That process jumpstarts my creativity.

I've published more than 30 books and haven't plotted or outlined any of them. My way is not the best way. It’s the best way for me.

Writers write. It’s what we do. Find the best process for you, the way you can get from beginning through the middle and type THE END. Anyone who says you’re doing it wrong? Ignore them. I’m glad I did.

So I’m going to ask you what Patti and I asked our workshops: what do you do when you’re stuck? Or, do you need help getting unstuck? Let me know and I’ll see if I can help! 

For the readers out there, can you tell the difference between books from plotters and books from people who don't plot?

New York Times bestselling author Allison Brennan has two books out this summer, TWO TO DIE FOR and SHATTERED. You can read more and follow her here:


57 comments:

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  2. I’m looking forward to reading “Shattered,” Allison . . . Lucy and Maxine together promises to be quite a treat!

    Lucy, I have never been able to tell the difference between books written by authors who plot and books written by authors who don’t plot. And, truthfully, while it’s always interesting to hear everyone’s perspective on the subject, it doesn’t really matter to me which process the author uses as long as the result is another really good book to read . . . .

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    1. Thank you! They were so much fun to put together on the same page ... so different in many ways, but with some surprising similarities.

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  3. I've read some books where it was obvious the author pulled the killer out of the hat at the end. But if an author is good and willing to go back and rewrite well so all the clues are there, then I can't tell.

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    1. Usually, the killer is there on the page but I don't know ... When I was writing NOTORIOUS, the first Maxine Revere book, I thought I knew who the killer was from the beginning. Then, when Max tracked him down and confronted him, I realized he wasn't the killer. He did screw with the evidence, but he didn't do it. At that point I was 300 manuscript pages in ... so I had to go back and re-read everything I had to that point to see if there was anyone else who could have killed this person. There was one clue ... I realized that my sub-conscious is a lot smarter than my waking brain ;)

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    2. I had exactly this experience! When I realized who the killer really was, I had to go back to the manuscript to tweak of course… And I wound up changing about four words. Amazing.

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    3. This happened to me for the first time in my just completed ms. I normally know my killer. I was fooled for a while this last time and had to add a few scenes and change others. Worked out for the best.

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  4. I'm with you, Allison. If I outlined I'd have no freedom to let my characters do what they want. They would hate it and I'd be bored. I love being surprised by things my characters do and say. But I start out each book in pure panic mode, terrified the story won't happen. Do you feel the same way?

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    1. I rarely start a book in panic mode. Usually, I have a spark of an idea and am really excited to write. Then, somewhere between 50 and 100 pages, I begin to panic. I think the book is dreadful, I can't imagine how I'm going to continue. When I get over that hurdle, I'm excited until I think that nothing is working, it's not coming together, and I again panic. I usually have 3 panic attacks over the course of the book -- at the end of each act :) ... But it's never due to plotting. As Stephen King says in his fabulous book ON WRITING, "Plot Happens." My panic attacks are mostly about whether the story is interesting, whether my character are three-dimensional, and then the standard, "Oh, Sh*t! I don't know who the killer is!" ... My current book I just finished and am polishing now I panicked because while the story was compelling, the big climax scene had no emotional impact for my characters ... then I realized that someone from one of my protagonists past is one of the bad guys. Suddenly, everything clicked and I realized I'd set up this big reveal from the beginning ... only I didn't see it. Hence, a major rewrite of 50 pages. :)

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    2. Fascinating Allison. I think I'd have a fourth panic realizing I had to rewrite 50 pages at the very end. But you were so smart to recognize that the climax had no emotional impact--lots of writers would be tempted to hit send anyway...

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    3. Rhys, does outlining always mean you are hidebound to follow it? Can an outline be just a guiding tool and if you find something that does or doesn't work you can add it in?

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  5. Thanks gang for having me today! :) Later this morning I'm off to drive my college girl back to college in Ashland, Oregon and take my high school girl to a softball tournament ... but I'll be visiting the blog :)

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    1. We're delighted you're here! that's a busy busy day you have lined up!

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  6. Recently I started my writing projects in a new way. I look out of myself toward a place in my mind and see a scene. I always see something, and what I see is where my story lives. That's what I write about.

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    1. that's so interesting Reine. Can you give an example of one of those scenes?

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    2. Hi Lucy. Thank you. It wasn't until several moths ago that I realized that's what I'd been doing for a very long time. Now I can put it to better use by directing my attention to a scene in a certain place. As I write I see the action unfolding. In a way I enter the story as an observer recording the action and what the characters are saying. A specific example would be recalling a place, maybe a restaurant from my past. I would just look at it in my mind and see the different things there that catch my attention. People might be sitting in booths. Perhaps I would notice a person who is looking out the window. The story starts to unfold as I write. It's rather like having a dream and writing it down. Later I need to look objectively once in awhile at my scenes and wonder where they are going. One scene I have been developing for much too long is finally moving at a good pace as many different scenes are now fitting together like a giant puzzle. It takes trust.

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  7. I have seen several mystery author panels discussing this topic of "plotters vs pantsers", and the different responses is fun to listen to. Having said that, as long as it is a well written story, I don't really care or notice whether the book is written by a plotter or pantser. Writers have to do what works for them.

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    1. I had a very heated, semi-friendly conversation with a male thriller writer who shall remain nameless about the fact that I don't plot. He didn't believe me. He insisted that if I am REALLY a thriller writer, then I HAD to plot because plot was critical to thrillers and how would I know if the plot was working if I didn't plot the entire thing out first? We went back and forth until I finally said something like, "Well then I guess Lee Child isn't a "real" thriller writer, either."

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    2. Brilliant retort, Allison!

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  8. While I have no opinion either way regarding plotters vs. pantsers, the best argument I ever heard about pantsing was when the daughter of an author I'm a fan of was told by her high school teacher that they had to outline their stories (some class assignment). She didn't want to do it, so she asked her father if he outlined. He doesn't.

    So she went to her teacher and said that her father said he doesn't outline. The teacher responded with something like "and who's your father?" The daughter got to say, "Well, he's a best-selling author of 50 books."

    She didn't have to do the outline.

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    1. Yeah -- my daughter has tried to do the same thing. She hates pre-writing. I totally get it. But I pointed out that I CAN outline, and it's a useful skill to have even if you don't use it to write a book. Plus, she has to respect the teacher. So I told her if it's part of the grade, she has to do it ... if it's not, she doesn't. LOL ...

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    2. Allison, the daughter wasn't being disrespectful to the teacher, she approached her with a rational argument and all.

      I know that when I had to do a term paper in my junior year of high school, I had to present the topic to the teacher in such a way to convince her to let me write it.

      So I chose to look at the social significance of the band W.A.S.P.'s (a shock rock band from the 80's) lyrics. So I wrote up the proposal and it got accepted. To this day it amazes me that it got accepted as an outline for a term paper because I totally BS'd (or pantsed) my way through it. Even more amazing that it also resulted in an A minus grade.

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    3. You're right Jay -- maybe disrespectful isn't the right word. But there are things we don't like to do that we still need to do for college, our jobs, etc. So learning a different skill has benefits, even if we don't apply them all the time. ... Truth be told, I was always sort of a teacher's pet :)

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  9. Thank you SO much, Allison. I'm almost finished writing my sixteenth novel, and I don't plot, either. Recently some of my best author pals have been pushing plotting, and I needed this boost to stick by my guns and follow my own path. It's worked so far, so why abandon it?

    I also re-read and lightly edit what I wrote the day before as a way to get back into the story, and also find when I'm stuck mid-book that it helps to read everything up to that point. Or when I've had a forced leave from the book (to do edits on another book that need to be back in two weeks, for example, or a family crisis). Other ways I get unstuck is to sit back with pen in hand and brainstorm on paper, and my daily walk midday almost always lets ideas about what needs to happen next rise into my consciousness.

    Now I clearly need to read some of your books! Thanks again.

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    1. You said: It's worked so far, so why abandon it?

      EXACTLY!!! When I changed agents he really, really wanted me to outline. I used this argument. He still doesn't "completely" get how I write, but he's happy with the end product.

      I do exactly what you do. I had to put my current WIP aside to work on proofs of another book, and then when I came back I didn't quite know what was going on, LOL -- so I edited everything to that point (half the book) and cleaned things up and changed quite a bit because I knew where the story was going at this point ... as soon as I finish re-writing this climax scene (basically, everything leading up to the climax and the climax) the book will be completely done and I can hit send.

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  10. I've gotten less tied to an outline the more books I write. However, about 80 pages in, my panic comes as I realize I will have said everything I know to say by page 100. Or so. Do you ever have that experience Allison? I am figuring The answer has to be with subplots, and also pushing myself to really look at what my characters would do next and what the suspects and killer would be doing at this point. But any suggestions for that kind of panic are welcome!

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    1. Is that about the midpoint of the book? At my midpoint, which is about 200 manuscript pages, if I'm stuck it's usually 1) I've forced the characters to do something they wouldn't normally do or 2) I wrote an angle that my characters think is stupid and they won't budge. So I have to change it.

      Sometimes, if everything is good and I don't know what to do, I drop another body or kill/prove that my suspect is innocent. But that's all I've got ... wish I could help!

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    2. Lucy,
      I, too, find I'm less tied to an outline with every new book I write. I was afraid the book I'm finishing today would be short, but I've added subplots that grow out of my characters' personalities.

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  11. I have written six novels that nobody has yet decided to buy, so I have some experience here, although clearly not as much as the published authors amongst us. I usually start with a premise and have a general idea where I'm going, but from there I let the characters lead me. The only times I run into a block are when I am determined that some plot point or another is going to happen at a certain moment, and the characters don't want to do it. Then I sit back and sort through what I think should or shouldn't happen. When I find the one thing that everything in my heart and soul says the characters cannot, should not, would never do . . . Yeah. That's the thing they need to do, because it will make things much more complicated and interesting.

    I'm not familiar with your work, Allison, but clearly I need to be. Congratulations on your two upcoming books, and keep telling other writers what they need to know. It's their book. They need to stop worrying and just write it.

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    1. Challenging and pushing your characters out of their comfort zone is always a good thing! I remember a contest I judged once where the author refused to let their characters suffer. Every scene had a contrived conflict between the two main characters (a romantic suspense) and then the conflict was resolved, as if the author couldn't stand having the hero and heroine upset with each other. One of the best little tidbits I picked up from the book STORY by Robert McKee is in every scene, answer a question but leave the reader with two more. You have to give them something, but you can't give them every answer or they won't keep reading.

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  12. Lovely to see Allison here. I am such a huge fan of her Seven Deadly Sins books - I really need to get back to read the last two of those.

    Even when crafting reviews, I find that what I intended to say changes as I am writing it. Something that I thought would be just briefly mentioned can sometimes turn out to be the main reason I loved a book and drives the rest of the review. So, I can only image how writing without a plan can be exciting and lead to new discoveries.

    I would imagine one has to know at least the barest minimum about the book - at least the style as Allison says - otherwise, the end result of the first draft could be a mess. But then, I agree that writing is really re-writing, so perhaps a first draft such as that could be saved and become a wholly different thing.

    As with most things in life, there is no one path to success.

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    1. Thank you Kristopher! I loved writing that series and was so bummed when my publisher cancelled it ... I realized that my core readership really didn't like "woo woo" in their crime fiction. :/

      Because I know the TYPE of story I'm writing, the rest flows from that. I remember when I was writing NOTORIOUS I made the conscious decision to write it in deep third from solely Max's POV. That ended up being a difficult but fantastic exercise for me. Every time I got stuck, I wanted to go in the killer's POV or find out what the cop was up to. But if I went into killer's head, the identity would be obvious, and if I went into the cop's head, it would make it more of a romantic suspense. I realized that I used other characters as crutches sometimes, and I really wanted this to be MAX'S story. Even after so many books I learned something.

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  13. Allison, I think you're exactly right in calling the process 'organic' to each writer. And I think there are as many variations as there are writers. Plotter vs. pantser is too simplistic. I've known writers who start with a very simple outline--then make that outline come to life by filling in all the settings, the characters, the subplots, the emotional whammy. And writers who start with an idea, then later, as ideas spill from them, they jot down a partial outline. Can I tell the difference in the finished product? Like Mark noted above, only if it's a particularly lazy writer or a bad writer. Or perhaps a writer afraid to let go and see where the story might take them. I will definitely be looking out for your books--how have I missed them all?

    And I do have a question: what do you do when you know how the story ends? I've brought the horses to the gate, they've gone around the track now a time or two, but the only place to go is around and around that track until they reach the end. I think I've just answered my own question. Each 'lap' must be unique and tell its own story--each lap must build to the end.

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    1. Yes, you did answer your own question! I think of it this way -- like Christopher Vogler said in THE WRITER'S JOURNEY, each character is the hero of his own journey. The protagonist and the antagonist. I also recognize that secondary characters also have journeys, and where all these journey's intersect is the story. Sometimes as I'm writing, I want to flesh out one of the secondary characters, so I get inside their head and a strong subplot emerges. It happened with BREAKING POINT when I have a counselor who rescues underage sex workers. She was supposed to be a secondary character, and she is, but I found that she was also the best character to give the reader information that the reader needs to know, but which most characters would already know (if that makes sense.) So to make her fully developed, I gave her a strong backstory. I don't usually write religious characters, but she came to me fully formed and she considers her work a "calling." So she's devout, and making sure I can convey that without being "preachy" has been a great exercise for me. I have a friend who is a Christian missionary and he and his wife gave up everything they owned to travel to impoverished and sometimes countries and help them farm, build homes, teach children, give basic medical help, etc. So I used their "voices" for lack of a better word to help me form my character. But de facto, this adds meat to the story.

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  14. Thank you for writing about it so well, Allison! Of course it is different for each writer. Has to be. The only real rule, I think, is that you can't revise what you haven't written. (In other words, glue yourself to the desk and get something on the page). Personally, I keep vowing that the next book will be outlined. It's so inefficient, this organic process with lots of backtracking and rethinking. But when I try, either: 1. I get excited and want to go, you know, write! or 2. I lose interest and need a nap. When I get stuck - and I always do - I do a few things: free write, just whatever is on my mind, until the right questions start flowing OR I go for a walk OR start some mindless task and somehow,using my hands but not my mind primes the pump. Excellent advice from Reed Farrel Coleman, terrific mystery writer and experienced teacher: go back to last point the story was working, and do something different with it.

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    1. Exactly! Nora Roberts says, "I can't fix a blank page." I take that to heart.

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  15. Welcome to Jungle Reds and congratulations on your new book. Just added your book to my TBR list.

    I'm embarrassed to say that I have not read any of the authors you mentioned, Allison. I read books by all of the Jungle Reds.

    I have a few questions:

    1) Do you focus on character development? I find it interesting when you say that you do not plot. It looks like you develop plots through your characters.

    I am kind of confused because if there are no plots, then there are no stories?

    2) . You mention writing first draft. Can I ask how many pages you write in a first draft? About 200 pages?

    A story about my writing. I have a work in process. It is a big struggle because though I have great ideas for different characters and a few scenes, I cannot seem to develop a book. I also struggle with the dialogue. When I write the dialogue, I write "She said..." or "How are you? said him". When I read the stories I write, it looks like one of these dime novels that I call "light reading". I am reading a book about character development.

    Thank you.

    Diana

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    1. 1) Story comes from character. A friend of mine told me once "Character + Conflict = Story (or plot.)" I don't need to know the story to create a story. I just need to develop my characters and challenge them. When I say I don't "plot" it means that if I start with a murder, I don't have the details. I see what my characters see. They go into the room and start investigating (my Lucy series is crime fiction, ala police procedural. My Max series is cold case mysteries -- she's a reporter.) Sometimes I get deep into my killer's head (if they are particularly interesting.) But the plot develops as I write, as my characters act. As Stephen King says, "Plot happens."

      2) My books are over 100K words (most thrillers will fall in the 80-120K word range.) So they're a bit longer than, say, cozy mysteries. So my first draft is usually between 350-400 double-spaced pages (first drafts are shorter at about 90K words.) Then I go back and flesh out scenes, add description, trim repetitiveness, etc. In the end, my books are between 450-500 double spaced manuscript pages and almost always about 110K words.

      A book that might help you is SELF EDITING FOR FICTION WRITERS by Browne (I think!) ... it'll teach you SO much and is the only craft book I read before I was actually published. I now employ many of their suggestions when I do my first round of edits -- I've read that book multiple times.

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    2. Allison, thank you. I tried writing during the Novel Writing Month and I barely managed double spaced 5 pages! I like the idea of character development and I will try that again!

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  16. Allison, I write like you - start with a premise and a few characters and start writing and REVISING immediately. When I get stuck? Which is always. I try to write my way out of it. Or I do the laundry...

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    1. I never use cleaning or laundry as a procrastination device ... I'll usually play video games or watch television or play cards with the kids!

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  17. Well, in reading over the comments and your responses Alison, I think we are the same person! I power through the first hundred pages, happy at page 36 thinking oh I got this. Happy at page 100 thinking I made it! And then, pow.
    I Start thinking: who cares? Why does this matter? Whose idea was this?
    And I make myself continue by telling myself I just have to write right one more page. One more page. One more page. And at some point, then, something happens, and I understand it.
    I panic again about 3/4 of the way through, exactly, where there's always something that happens that I don't understand… And I have to figure out what the motivation is.
    There's this big story, and at some point it has to reverse itself, so there's a sense of turning the ocean liner around you know, and that is a process.
    And I know I'm not done if I don't have tears in my eyes at the end.
    Hurray! Cannot wait to read your new book…

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    1. I'm working on my first novel and my process is almost exactly like yours! I started writing writing writing, thinking I finally found the idea that was going to motivate me to finish my book and then BAM! hit a wall.

      So I did an extremely bare bones outline, which sort of helped as it gave me a general direction to work in, but I kept straying away from it.

      The one thing that really helps me is my morning scribbles/brainstorming/free-writing/whatever you want to call it. I usually know what has to happen in a scene, but not how it happens, so I'll open up a Word document and basically have a free-form conversation with myself. It's like thinking through my fingers, and has lead to some MAJOR breakthroughs.

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    2. Fan girl here ... love you Hank! :)

      I think the key that helps me is that I've written a book. I can write another. And another. I take them one book at a time. I used to think I would never have another idea after the first idea ... then one came. Then another. Now I fear I won't have enough time to write all the ideas I have!

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  18. So well put. I love it!
    Libby Dodd

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  19. Allison, your post is just what I needed to read today! I've always done some outlining for my Fina Ludlow series, but I'm writing a standalone at the moment and taking a very different approach. I tried outlining, but it wasn't working, and I was having so many false starts. I have a group of characters in mind, so I recently decided to just start writing. It's a completely new process for me, but I keep reminding myself that I'm writing a completely different kind of book than what I've written in the past. It's scary, though! It's also been interesting to get feedback from those around me who say, "but you always outline!" Unlike you, I can't say that it's worked before, but that's a little piece of me that feels like this is the way to go. Thanks for offering such great advice and encouragement!

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  20. Allison, what you say makes perfect sense to me! I have written a little but that was pretty much how I did it. Got an idea and went from there. As a reader I certainly cannot tell how the author did what she/he did to get the story on the page. I can only tell if it was my kind of story or not.

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  21. Great post! I've done both - written with a full plot and/or organically. I fall somewhere in the middle now as I usually work off a ten page synopsis (I think of it as a map so I don't get lost) so I know what happens when but not usually how or why as that comes as the story unfolds through the characters. Huh, now I'm not sure my process even makes sense. :)

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    1. I think it's important that everyone find their own process and recognize that even if it makes no sense to anyone else, it makes sense to them -- and it works for them. :)

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  22. As a reader I suspect the organic vs plotter based on the books structure. If the author introduces a bad guy in the first third of the novel that did actually do the deed, I suspect a plotter. Caveat: the author pulls the least likely suspect i.e. Christie;s style.

    I love hearing about bad guys telling the author "I didn't do it" Yes you did! No I didn't.. then who stole the cookies from the cookie jar?? and so on.. .

    Thank you Alison for sharing more about the nuts and bolts of mystery/thriller writing, and welcome to JRW.

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  23. sorry about the fragmented and word drops.. it is too hot to revise this morning.

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  24. I'd say if it works for you, then you're absolutely doing it right. I'm interested in how authors write because I've taught writing to elementary and high school students, but in the end, what is important is a good story told. I'm going to try to start using the phrase "writing organically" as opposed to "pantsing." And, I like that you brought up the word choice part of writing, Allison, as that can be a real stumbling block for me sometimes in writing reviews. I need to let that go more and come back to it in editing.

    Now, my embarrassing confession is that I need to start reading your books, Allison, and I do indeed plan to do that. Thanks for such a down-to-earth glimpse at your writing. You've hooked me!

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  25. Teaching writing to young people is hard because they really don't know much of anything -- I'm not saying that negatively! You need to teach all the possibles, because what works for one type of student doesn't work for another. They have to try different things because they really don't know what will work. It's why I would make a lousy teacher ...

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  26. I've never used the term organic writer but now I know what I am! Thanks, Allison. Getting stuck has never really been a problem for me. I have found myself frustrated by what's coming down on the page. Once in a while, I feel like I've written myself into a corner. I'll pace, groan, maybe have a cup of coffee, then tackle it again. Thanks for a great post!

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