I’ve discovered that I don’t so much as write stories as I do build them, layer by layer.
I start out with a building plan, which is a premise. This is a a one-sentence tagline to keep me motivated. The original tagline from The Sevenfold Spell was something like this:
The story of a spinster whose spinning wheel was confiscated to mitigate the curse on Princess Aurora in the Sleeping Beauty story.
For Cinderella, I’ve been having a lot of trouble, but that tagline has been keeping me motivated because I really like my premise.
Next, I write what I call pilot scenes. These are scenes that may or may not make it into the final story. I call them pilot scenes because they act like pilot chutes–that tiny parachute that pulls out the main parachute. These pilot scenes help me draw out the rest of the story. The pilot scenes in The Sevenfold Spell were the (since revised) opening and a different version of where “sleeping beauty” pricks her finger (if you read it you know why I use scare quotes). I didn’t have any sevenfold spell at that point, and the name of the story was simply “Spin”.
I then slam out an initial draft. Initial drafts for me are difficult, and they read like they were difficult to write. This first draft is the foundation upon which I will build the rest of the story. It’s patchy, with almost no description, and no scene transitions. I’ll label each scene with a title, formatted in a special Microsoft Word style so they show up in that lefthand pane when you use the document map. (I use the heck out of the document map; see the “articles” section above.)
Sometime during this initial draft, while I’m transitioning from pilot scenes to the actual story, I’ll put together a six-sentence outline. I got this idea from Colleen Lindsay’s blog, where she once declared that every story could be summed up in six paragraphs. Since every paragraph starts with a sentence, I decided to use six sentences.
I then use these six sentences to write a query. Yes, as in an agent query letter. This is how I check my premise. If I can’t write a query that gets me excited, I either rethink the story, or set it aside to perculate for a while. I have set partially-written stories aside at this point. Many times.
When I can write a query that gets me excited, it keeps me motivated to write the rest of the story. This motivation is important, because when I have the motivation, it shows in my work.
After the first draft, I start to have a lot of fun. I go over the story again and again, cutting, revising, and writing new scenes, building up a discards file into which I paste (and often later retrieve) entire scenes. At present, my draft of my Cinderella story is 27,500 word, and the discard file is 6200 words. And it’s about to get a heck of a lot fatter, because I’m about to cut out a lengthy scene that I’ve replaced in my head but have not yet written. It is very typical of me to end up with a discards file that is about 1/4th the length of the story. This is misleading because often both files will end up with some of the same scenes, except they are substantially rewritten. I never use Word’s revisions feature at this point; there are too many changes in the story. I only use it when I bring in my beta readers.
By the way, you’d know the (working) title of my Cinderella story if you followed my Facebook Page, because I did some title brainstorming there a while back.
As I jump around in the story, I weave plot threads through it. Layer by layer I build it up, until finally I can write the beginning. I don’t spend a lot of time on the beginning until I know most of the story. For The Sevenfold Spell, I knew I wanted to start with the spinning wheel confiscation, but I didn’t come up with the idea of Talia and her mother huddling in the doorway until I was almost ready to submit it.
In my Cinderella story, I finally realized how I wanted to begin the story, and so I cut out huge chunk and started at a point of drama.
Another few layers, and I can write the ending.
When I’m done, I have to rewrite my tagline and six-sentence outline. Here’s the final version of my tagline for The Sevenfold Spell (which is on the front page of this blog):
The Sevenfold Spell is the story of the spinster who owned the outlawed spinning wheel upon which Sleeping Beauty is fated to prick her finger.
Finally, I tweak my six-sentence outline and use it to build my synopsis. And then I write a query. And then I bring in my beta readers. While they are reading, it provides me a needed break from the story so I can get in there fresh with any feedback they provide.
So I guess from all of the above, I can conclude that I am a panster, but I do have a tiny plotster streak in me.