Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Three Ways I Skin The Cat

When the idea for Breathing in Bombay first came to me a few years ago, I raced to put the words on the page while they were still fresh. Instead of using an outline, I had a collection of plot points, characters, and a setting. I wrote fast and furious for a couple of months until I completed that first draft.

Since then, I’ve written three, maybe four, novels. Not different ones, mind you. Just the same novel, over and over. I’d like to think I’ve learned a lot through all these rewrites and revisions, but the best I can say is I’ve honed a writing process that works for me.

Once I have a concept, I prepare to write it by first filling out a detailed stepsheet. I learned this device from James N. Frey’s How to Write a Damn Good Mystery. In it, he introduces the idea of filling in chapter-by-chapter information in a multicolumn spreadsheet-type format. The stepsheet allows me to more easily track plot points, subplot threads, clues, story questions to be answered, and any holes in the narrative. It’s easy to build on and adapt to my own crazy needs.

Secondly, after meeting a persistent new author, C.J. Ellisson, who convinced me to become her writing buddy (and later, fellow Wicked blogger), I discovered other excellent techniques. One is having a brainstorming session with a writing partner who gets my story vision. I run ideas, maybe even pieces of writing, past her, including how I plan to get from point A to point B (or C), goals I plan to achieve along the way, and what drives my characters’ actions. C.J.'s job is to find holes in these elements, and mine is to strengthen the core ideas and make them bulletproof. This interchange has transformed the way I write. My characters are flesh and blood individuals and the story is alive for me before I ever start writing.

C.J. also showed me a nifty little technique I’ve adopted for outlining. (Turns out Dickens outlined the same way. Always great to have an English teacher as a fellow blogger, no?) Here’s how it works. Once I have a basic story concept, I map out each chapter using three (at most, four) sentences: one sentence to cover the opening hook, one or two more to provide a high-level view of the overall chapter, and a last line for the ending hook.

I still start with a detailed stepsheet in which I flesh out the whole story and make sure everything links up, but while writing, I stack the shorter outline on top of the stepsheet and place both next to my computer. The outline in particular ensures my writing is both creative and spontaneous as well as tight and focused. In knowing the beginning and ending of each chapter and parts of the middle, the rest is just me trying to spin a good yarn. Sounds way too simple but I’m pleased with the results.

I added the third piece of my process back in November. I’d signed up for my first National Novel Writing Month, also known as NaNoWriMo, to write my sequel. Of course, I pulled together my detailed stepsheet, had a long planning session with C.J., and mapped out my outline. I also read NaNoWriMo founder Chris Baty’s companion book on succeeding in the month-long writing race. In it, he advises getting through the month by writing as much as possible with no self editing. Instead, as he suggested, I wrote notes to myself at whichever point I was at in my text with a plan to go back and make those changes during a later revision. If I wrote something that I knew had to go, I highlighted or italicized it instead of cutting it. That allowed me to keep my writing groove (and meet the contest’s final word count).

Many NaNo participants attest to eventually having to throw out much of what they write during NaNo but that the intense process of writing all month forces them to finetune their story ideas. By the end of the month, some say they have at least a few nuggets of gold they can hang on to during revision. For me, starting with the other pieces—the stepsheet, the outline, the brainstorming session with another writer—all made my first draft pretty strong (with little to no garbage).

So that’s how I write novels. There are a lot of ways to approach this process, and I know my approach may not work for others. But the combination of these techniques gets me from concept to a solid first draft more effectively than any other strategies I’ve tried.

How about you? Any tricks of the trade or secrets to writing success you can share?


  1. I really like the sound of the writer buddy process. I may have to adopt it with a writer buddy of my own.

  2. I think the key part about a writing buddy is to make sure your skills compliment each other. I'm a HUGE reader but knew almost nothing about writing when we started. Supriya knows all the technical stuff and whips out terms like participle, past perfect, future present and other gobbly-gook I don't understand (and I still can't grasp what a gerrund {sp?} is).

    But I can pick apart a movie, a plot line in a book, or a character's voice and tell you why it sounds wrong with surgical precision.

    Another key factor to incorporate Greg's believability = credibility is to get a partner outside of your genre. Less pre-conceived notions of how things "should be" and more focus on the characters and story itself.

  3. True, our skills do complement well. One additional benefit of working so closely with another writer is that we're more disciplined when we hold each other accountable for reaching our milestones. Writing is so solitary that previously I had this sort of "it'll get done when it gets done" attitude. Now, I know I'll get a phone call if I don't stay on top of things.

  4. [...] Supriya Savkoor, Three Ways I Skin a Cat [...]