Writers in the Storm

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January 2, 2015

Writing Process Throwdown: Orly’s Way

If you’ve been a reader of WITS for some time, you’ve seen us joke about process envy on a number of occasions. What is it about writers that makes us so convinced someone else has the secret ingredient to the guaranteed-best-seller process?

Laura and I were brainstorming a couple of weeks ago and I mentioned how excited I was to be in the revision stage of the manuscript. I believe she said something along the lines of—and I’m paraphrasing here to protect innocent ears—“you’re crazy.” Anywhoo, that discussion turned into a process comparison between the 4 WITS bloggers and, voila, the "Process Throwdown" was born.

I’ll start.  🙂

A Pantser with Suspenders
I start with an idea. It could be a title, a first line, an object—something, anything that starts the creative pin-balling of ideas. For a few weeks the idea will bounce around in my head, I’ll mull and noodle and mull some more.

Then I start jotting down notes. Each project has a notebook of its own. I’ll write down character names and flush out character sketches; location ideas from city or state to what a room may look like; research notes; prop ideas (a teal 1957 Chevy pick-up for the current WIP, for example); phrases that inspired me from whatever novel I’m reading at the time; and, of course, plot ideas.

Somewhere in here I create a new word document for the manuscript. A shiny, white document (well, shiny and white in theory—my laptop screen is pretty spotty and smudged) that will become the first draft.

And I write.

I’d love to say I don’t look back once I’ve started, but truthfully, I’ll redo my first chapter two or three (okay, okay, four) times. But past that, I plow through the first draft. Plotting goes only as far as the next two chapters and usually happens on the treadmill or stationary bike (I had to dictate a note to myself once after a particularly exciting a-ha moment and then could barely make out what I was talking about from all the huffing and puffing, but that’s a story for another time).

Critiques on that first draft are filed until I’m done writing. That doesn’t mean I don’t glance through them to see if there are any major red flags, but I don’t stop to incorporate the changes. If I come across a plot problem or character defect, I’ll adjust moving forward and jot a note to fix accordingly in the earlier portions. But no looking back.


Now that I’ve pantsed my way through a first draft, I snap on the suspenders and … are you ready? … plot. [Note: There’s another post on plotting for pantsers here.]

Once the first draft is done, I do a beta read and take notes—no editing, just notes. Then I read a second time and write out the main points of each scene on color-coded index cards. Why color-coded? Glad you asked. One color for each of the different plot points. Those cards then go up on my wall where I can see the flow of the book and what’s missing. This is when I review all the critiques and feedback I’ve received and make additional notes on what areas need strengthening.

This is actually my favorite part. It’s a puzzle and I love puzzles!

And yes, I know … if I love this part, why don’t I plot before I start and skip the whole messy, why-the-hell-did-I-ever-go-down-this-hole first draft? Because that first messy draft is like standing and staring into the fridge or pantry and pulling out odd bits with only a vague idea what you’ll make with them. Then comes the magic—putting the ingredients together (plot points), adding the seasoning (layering details), and stir (revise, revise, revise) until perfect.

I’ve come to enjoy my process. Sure, there are times I wish I had a GPS to navigate through that first dark draft. But I love the adventure of wandering off on different trails and seeing where they lead.

Are you happy with your process or do you suffer from process envy?

About Orly

OrlyAfter years of pushing the creativity boundary in corporate communications, Orly decided it was time for a new challenge. Three women’s fiction manuscripts later (plus a handful of picture books), it’s safe to say she’s found her creative outlet. When she’s not talking to her imaginary friends, she’s reading or at least trying to ignore everyone around her long enough to finish “just one more paragraph.” Orly is the founding president of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association.

You can find her on Twitter at @OrlyKonigLopez or on her website, www.orlykoniglopez.com.

59 comments on “Writing Process Throwdown: Orly’s Way”

  1. I'm with you, Orly. Right up to the - gulp - 2nd draft/plot thingy. I'm shuddering. I hate my process, but three passes on a book? NOOOoooooo....

    But I am delighted it works for YOU!

    1. I know that part gives you the willies, Laura. 🙂
      Embrace the process ... it works for you and that's what's important.

  2. I keep making New Year's resolutions to become a plotter, complete with white boards and color-coded index cards. "It's the plot, stupid!" But I just can't seem to stop myself from editing as I go (and editing, and editing and editing). It's true that by the time I'm done, it's in much better shape than if I had whipped through a first draft, but it always takes forever. So,Orly, maybe my writing resolution for 2015 is to be a "plotter with suspenders" and like Normadie, I would hope to get it done in a matter of months, rather than years!

    1. I'm impressed that you edit as you go, Densie. Your first draft is a heck of a lot easier on the eyes than mine. 🙂

      I can't do that. I get so bogged down that I never go anywhere. Same thing happens when I try to plot out the novel ahead of time.

  3. I am most definitely on the pantser side of things . . . but I really like your suspenders and plan to borrow them as I continue to plow through the revisions of my first draft.

    1. Thanks for the "borrow" warning, Kate - would hate to lose my pants in public. 😉

  4. I'm a panster who would love to learn to plot. The problem is my mind shuts off when I hear things like color coded cards. I've finally decided to celebrate the way I write and keep going.

    1. Good for you, Stephanie!
      My color coded cards stay in the drawer until after the first draft is done.

  5. I feel like a straddle the two - I have a rough idea of where I'm going, but I'm also making it up as I go along, and then afterwards I still need to pull it together like you do. Love the cooking analogy!

  6. Orly - I'm doing what you're doing.
    I pants out the first draft fast.
    Then, I use the plot points to get things in order. Once I'm in the editing stage, the dreaded outline doesn't bother me - it actually helps me get deep into POV, and setting, and character.
    Love your idea of a separate notebook for each story.
    Of late, I've been using Scrivener to help me pull together the second draft.

    1. I know so many people who use Scrivener. That's the "envy" part in my process envy. And yet, I can't do it. Total brain lock. For some reason, I just need the flow of Word and the visual of a big three-ring binder. Go figure.

    1. "Plantser" ... LOVE it!!!!!!
      I'd love to hear back from you about what worked. 🙂

  7. Ever since I learned about screenwriting and story boards, I've been using scientific boards for my Post-Its (can fold it up and put it away). I love the plotting phase! This technique lets me work on several projects at a time with my ideas. Essentially, I'm plotting before I start writing and then I continue adding Post-Its as I'm writing.

    1. Those boards are great - especially if you have several projects. I have a white board and then use the door to my office as the "sticky" board.

      I get that moony sigh when I think of plotting before writing. But it's like a celebrity crush ... I know it'll never happen. 🙂

  8. Orly, I've purchased Scrivener, and a book (Scrivener for Dummies, or something like that). and I STILL can't figure it out. So I'm with you. Sticking with Word and a gazillion note cards (also color coded). I thumbtack them up on a board. But I do more planning than it sounds like you do. My goal this year is to stop buying books about writing and to actually WRITE.

    1. Where would Staples be without people like us? I'm in there regularly for notebooks, purple editing pens, and colored index cards and stickies. 🙂

  9. The timing of this post is excellent. As part of NaNoWriMo I finished my first draft of my first ever novel. For the past two weeks I've been letting the manuscript sit. I did one read through to see if it made sense. It did in places; and of course, it didn't in others. But my major issue was plot. My antagonist didn't do what I expected, and a different, extremely minor character, kept raising his hand and saying, "I'm the bad guy. Take me, take me." I have come to the conclusion that reworking the suspenseful part of my romantic suspense is necessary. Your post gives me the encouragement I need to know that my 'process' is working. Thank you!

    1. Oh, Barbara, I'm so glad this post helped!!

      And it sounds like you're creating your own process that's working pretty darn well. 🙂

    1. Thanks for the share, Diana!! Love having company in the suspenders side of the pantsing cave.

  10. I have process envy. If only I could do a more detailed outline, then I could write faster. Book beginnings are so long and hard for me. It's not until the sixth or seventh chapter that I truly 'get' my characters. I try to do character sketches pre-novel but I just have to throw them in a plot and learn how they respond to external events before I understand their personality and motives.

    1. I do the exact same thing, Deb. Try the character sketches pre-writing but I'm still discovering things about my character into the second and third revision.

  11. I tried Ywriter and gave up. I did some well lots and I'm still researching as I go on the NaNo 2012 story. I was making great headway, I thought, until I discovered the villain was wrong and the idea wouldn't work the way I planned it. That happened in June. I tried "fixing" it. Finally I gave up and started over fresh. Since it's the same basic story, just a "few minor" changes, I'm sort of editing as I go. I want this story finished, I have the rough ending written, I just have to get there.

  12. Ahh, C.K., that old "I want this story finished"!! I was just whining about that to Laura. 🙂
    Sounds like you're making progress.
    And thank you for the shares on social media! 🙂

  13. I write quick and dirty. I've just begun the whole notebook for each project thing, which is mildly surprising, since I love notebooks.

      1. Me too. I got some as a gift from Target and I want to go buy more because they're lined and lay flat, which is a huge thing, because other than spiral bound notebooks, I find most don't lay completely flat.

  14. I’m a pantser who’s learning to plot. After spending weeks and weeks of rewriting because my editor found problems with my manuscript, I decided there had to be a better way, something that wouldn’t drive me crazy and wouldn’t have a steep learning curve. I’m giving the Snowflake Method a whirl. I bought the book. Loved it! I wanted more. I bought the user friendly software and started with Step One, the basic, one sentence plot. From there, with each step, the plot began to grow, as did my characters. I quickly discovered a plot hole I had originally created that I could now fix before I started writing. It even makes it possible to set up the chapters and whose POV will be dominant. It has examples to look at: Pride and Prejudice, Gone with the Wind, Harry Potter, etc., plus notes from the creator. I’m hooked. No more flying by the seat of my pants for this gal and perhaps I'll have a happier editor this go around. Wishing a Happy New Year to all!

      1. Sorry, I forgot the link. The Snowflake Method is wonderful. I didn't get sidetracked trying to look at the whole story. By taking incremental steps, I now have a complete story, ready to write. It's not carved in stone and I can change whatever needs changing as I go, but hopefully, I won't have to change much..

  15. Am I happy with my process? I'm still refining it.

    I am on the 5th revision of Standing Stone. One more and it goes to Evil Editor then back to me for the 7th pass. It would have been 5 or 6 but someone got the bright idea of reworking the plot after they wrote the first draft. It wasn't the plot. I just wanted it to be a genre it wasn't. When I gave up on the genre I thought it should be, the story worked just fine.

    I tried pantsing with Just One Look. Frankly the story is a royal mess and I'm sitting here looking at 3/4 of a rough draft with no idea how to get to the end. I'll never do that crap again.

    1. Even when we have a process we think works, the next story comes and suddenly the process doesn't work quite as well. 🙂
      Here's to an easier process in 2015!

  16. I am in the midst of writing my first book, so I don't know if I have a process yet. lol. But I think I'm part pantser and plotter. If that makes any sense. Although I do relate to your process Orly. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

    1. Karen, I think that's one of the hardest parts, when you start - not the writing, but finding your process for writing! Try everything - something will click and feel right. Bon Voyage!

    2. I agree with Laura, finding that process is so hard. There's no right or wrong way. Maybe by the end of the month (and into Feb since Laura's post was bumped to February), when you've seen a few other process posts, you'll find an idea here and there that will work for you. 🙂

  17. For your index cards, what do you mean by "one color for each of the different plot points?" What points, may I ask? Unique to the story or fitting a plot structure?

    1. My colored cards are unique for the story, Michael. For example, I use one color for the main character, another for the flashback scenes, yet another for a specific plotline. That way when I look at the layout on my wall, I can see that I need to add another flashback scene in one spot and that I'm short changing a key plotline.

  18. Well, for I've got no clue what sort of process I have going. I'm following Sarah Domet's
    " 90 Days to Your Novel". I began in late 2013, but because medical set-backs, I'm 'plogging' along!! Ever so slowly I am developing my story. (Emphasis on slowly!!)

    1. There's absolutely nothing wrong with slowly ... it works! One step at a time! Just keep going.

  19. Thanks for writing this. Reading the post and responses has been very helpful and reassuring. As a new writer working on a series of novels, I've had to find my own path through the maze. Turns out that I'm a compulsively organised, overly researching, paperless pantzer. Mainly, I'm relying on two word files for the research - one for characters and another for source materials plus plot outlines and one overall timeline - and I make a blank word file for each of the novels. I write, for three uninterrupted hours daily, whatever comes to mind on any of the books in the approximate order of the plot as I understand it at the time. I quickly re-write or make notes in my word files on any changes today's work makes for the character in the other novels where they appear. I hope to have five novels out to beta readers this year. The are all more than half done as first drafts but none have hit the finish line yet.

    1. Five novels this year ... WOW! I bow to you.
      I've found that my process has changed a bit with each book I've written. I think that, just like with parenting, you have to adjust based on personality. What works on one kid, won't necessarily be as effective on the other. Each book has its own personality and needs as well.

      Good luck to you. Sounds like you're moving in the right direction!

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