A redditor asked me about my writing process, and wanted to know if I had any tips for outlining or otherwise managing the complexity of epic stories. Unfortunately, I don’t. But I described my writing process, and then thought it would be a nice blog post. So here’s my answer:
I’m sorry to say that I don’t any tips for managing that complexity. I’m totally a panster. I usually do an outline as I’m nearing the end of my first draft, to see what I’ve written and to help me understand the themes.
As a book gets bigger, it’s more and more difficult to fly by the seat of your pants, because of the growing complexity, but I haven’t found a method of outlining that works for me. I tried outlining a book once, and then as soon as I knew the basic outline of the plot, I had no interest in writing any more. The motivation for me to keep writing is to discover how things will end up.
My partner, Anastasia Poirier, is also a writer, and she uses the process described in Take off your pants!, which supposedly focuses on a style of outlining that doesn’t outline plot, but instead outlines character arcs, which supposedly avoids the problem I described, but I haven’t tried it myself yet.
In general, my method could be roughly described as:
- Think about who I want the main character to be. Daydream about them, and some specific scenes. Who are they? What do they talk about? What do they care about?
- Think about core dramatic scenes. For example, in The Last Firewall, I knew starting out that there would be this big showdown attack on the main antagonist AI. (Aka, the lobby scene…inspired by The Matrix.) I always had that in the back of my mind, and was working toward it the whole time I was writing.
- Also think about moments in which the hero triumphs or falters. Imagine those and how they respond, and keep those moments as something to be worked towards.
- Once those things are in my head, then I start writing.
- Focus on keep moving the plot forward.
- As I write, I’m developing the characters further.
- Eventually I finish the first draft.
- Then I reread and think about the core themes of what I wrote. I go back through the novel, strengthening those core themes. Make the characters consistent (i.e. if I discovered something key about them later in writing, make sure their earlier selves are consistent with it.)
- Send manuscript off to my development editor. Get their feedback on the biggest issues to address. Fix those.
- Send revised manuscript off to half my beta readers, get their feedback. Address the biggest issues and the easiest issues.
- Send polished manuscript off to remaining half of my beta readers. Simultaneously, send manuscript off for line editing.
- Incorporate any critical issues identified by beta readers in at the same time I address line editing feedback.
- Send off for proofreading, then formatting for print and ebook.
That process usually takes 15-18 months, although this time around it’s taking 24 months. In general, as the books get longer, they are taking longer to write. Complexity and effort seems to increase exponentially after 80,000 words. In general, about two-thirds of the time is spent generating that first draft, and one third in revising and production.