A: Like a snowflake.
I’ve been asked quite a few times now how one goes about writing a novel. Obviously, the creative process is a very individual one and everyone has rhythms and practices that work best for them, and others that don’t work at all. Many people can only write in the wee hours, a half-hour each day before the kids awaken. Others have the luxury of time and instead discipline themselves by setting word quotas. Approaches to writing can also vary. Some wait for inspiration to strike and then open the floodgates, allowing words to pour from their scrambling hands, and keep doing so in fits and starts until a novel is born.
I don’t work that way. If I tried writing by the seat of my pants, I’d be lucky if I made it past page twenty. I’m skeptical that I would make it even that far. Seriously. I have ideas; I just can’t sustain them that long of my own volition. I would get stuck and have no idea where to go or how to get there — if I hadn’t planned it all out first.
Now, I fully recall in high school my dad sitting me down in front of the computer as I contemplated the “insurmountable” task of a 5-page essay and him telling me to write an outline first. Sheer torture. Whether it’s a function of subsequent years of academic training or I was able to grow into it, I don’t know, but now I wouldn’t dare face the barrel of penning a 300-some-odd page book without forging a path for it first.
So if you, too, like a little planning, or you find the winging-it approach isn’t quite working for you either, I’d like to share the basis of my planning & writing process. Created by Randy Ingermanson, it’s called the Snowflake Method because the idea is that you build a novel with a tiny piece that you then grow into larger and larger pieces, in a fractal pattern much like a natural snowflake. I’ll let Randy explain it – he does a better job of it:
Before I write, I go through each of the steps. In Step 1, I make sure my short sentence has two basic elements: 1) character (usually protagonist), and 2) conflict – because a story without a conflict is not an interesting story. After a little experience, in Step 3, I learned to make sure to pay at least as much attention to the villain as I do the protagonist. I don’t want a cardboard character, so it’s essential I understand the bad guy’s psychology and motivations at least as well as the good guy’s. Having said that, I realize now that characters often reveal more of themselves as the story develops (sometimes in astonishing ways) so each of these steps are considered a work-in-progress until the novel is complete.
I also draw heavily on resources on psychology and culture, interviews with relevant subjects, and anything else I need to create a home for the people in my stories, so having plenty of space in my early notes allows me to fill in research notes and observations, reminders to myself, and flash ideas of dialogue or lines I want to include, to fill out the characters and setting as much as possible and know it all as well as I can before I ever sit down to write the first page.
I do use an Excel spreadsheet to delineate the order of scenes and principally what happens in each one. With my current novel, the timeline is not linear, so I even wrote a line describing each scene on a 3×5 card and spread them all out on the dining room table and shuffled them around as I tried to determine what should be revealed when, keeping in mind the balance in tension and the different subplots that also needed to be developed.
Once I have that all sorted out and organized and I feel ready, then I start writing the novel. (I skip Step 9.) In the first novel I tried writing, this planning process took about a week. For my current novel, I spent nearly three months. In both cases, the actual writing of the novel took approximately six months. (Editing afterward is a whole other beast.)
Pros: The benefits of this approach, for me, are innumerable. Most importantly, it takes a lot of the pressure off the writing process for me. Thinking about writing a WHOLE BOOK is incredibly daunting. By plotting everything out ahead, though, I’m not
terrified worried about what’s going to happen, how I’m going to resolve issues, or what themes I’m going to try to work in. I’ve figured that all out already. By this point, I know what the central conflict is and how the story will end. Now all I have to do is just write it down. Not a totally jobless feat, but it’s made significantly less frightening when I know which way I want to go and have the heart of the book’s identity in my mind. I can see the big picture, and I can also dial down and see where I’m going to develop key characterizations or hit major plot points or other essential elements.
Furthermore, by taking the time to outline each scene individually, I have natural stepping stones through the entire process. Each day I sit down to write, I’m not looking at or thinking about writing a whole novel. I’m thinking about the scene in front of me and what my goal is for that scene. Books are scary. Scenes are doable.
Another benefit is that I now have extensive documentation of my ideas, brainstorming, and thought process from every point of the way. For me, there always comes a point in the novel where I have a minor identity crisis and have lost sight of where I’m going and how what I’m doing connects with the larger ideas I wanted to explore. Having all my notes (and perhaps a bucket of ice cream) in front of me allows me to take a step back and revisit the core of my novel. What was the entire story in 25 words or less? Oh yeah, that. Then I can ask questions like “How do I get back to the core idea?” or “How do I make that core idea better or stronger now, given what I’ve learned in the process of writing?”
Writing a book is not just about getting words down on a page. The characters and the book itself become living, breathing beings. Beings that can be bolstered and beings that can be broken. As a writer, you have to be flexible, and willing to grow and change with your work as it demands it. But if you’re not organized or conscientious enough about it, you can easily veer off on totally unhelpful tangents and/or lose important threads, and end up with a jungle of a book. I find this method helps me stay organized, while still allowing necessary space to move elements around and play with new ideas without breaking the larger, over-arching structure.
Cons: When I sat down to read, start-to-finish, my first draft of my first novel after having used the Snowflake Method, I discovered right away the drawback of this method. Because I had been writing scene by scene, I had felt a pressure to resolve everything in each scene so that each one became like a discrete element, ending with a resonant finish. A pretty little bit of writing….but horrific for a novel. It was disjointed, choppy, and any tension built within a scene dissipated by the next, making for very uninteresting reading. Ack! Knowing that now, I make extra efforts to not resolve things too soon, but to have threads extend past multiple scenes and to introduce new or recurring issues in a braid-like pattern so that even as one problem is resolved at least one or two other conflicts are unfolding.
Another drawback is, of course, the time involved in pre-planning. This is obviously not the route you want to take if you want to write flash fiction, or if you’re on Day 1 of NaNoWriMo. (It may be an idea, however, if you’re planning to participate in NaNoWriMo, with some modifications…).
I wondered if writing this way would kill the inspiration, but I haven’t found that to be the case at all. In fact, I think it helps weed out the viable ideas from the not-so-great ones. If I can make it through the pre-planning process and find myself still engaged in the story and feeling even more strongly charmed by my characters, then it’s a pretty good sign that the story is worth pursuing. (Not saying a publisher will agree with me – just for my own purposes as a writer.)
And that is how I write a novel. Next week, I’ll introduce our next read on Plot & Structure where we’ll begin to explore more elements, and examine more deeply some things we touched on here today. In the meantime, if you have any questions about my process or about the Snowflake Method, feel free to raise them here and I’ll do my best to respond.