Official Website for Fantasy Author E.L. Lyons
Everyone’s writing process is different, and I don’t think any two writers go about it the same way. What works for one is never suitable for all—but still, when I see a writer struggling as I once struggled to finish the books they start, I wonder if my methods will at least spark some ideas for them on how to solve their own troubles.
Many writers love to pants (writing without plotting), and that works for some, but it doesn’t really work for me. I need to have an idea about where I’m going—and another idea for when where I’m going doesn’t work out.
An outline doesn’t need to be a direct straight line. It can be a tree that branches out to several alternative arcs and alternative endings. Sometimes when you’re writing, you just can’t make the first idea, or what you think is the best idea, work. Other times, if you try to write an idea that seems bland, it actually reads better.
In addition to having alternative plot points, I map out where my characters are at mentally and emotionally in each chapter. I call it the “undercurrents,” and this helps me to keep in mind as I’m writing who wants what, who is feeling what, and where their heads are at. This is especially helpful if you are trying to show a character growing and evolving throughout a book. It can help you weave those elements in even when current events are unrelated.
Example: I have a character in Starlight Jewel who keeps a secret until the first few chapters of book two—from the reader and the other characters. But I didn’t want that character’s secret to feel like a spur of the moment decision. I want readers to be surprised, then wonder how they missed all the signs that are now so obvious. Reminding myself in the outline that this character is worried about being found out helped me to keep it in mind in every scene that he was in, reminding me to drop in little hints here and there to set the foundations.
I also now keep track of how long it’s been since a character was mentioned in the book, especially with important side characters. Readers’ memories are imperfect, and not every character can be in every scene. When you go ten chapters without a character present, it’s a good idea to have other characters think about them or mention them in between. One of the most helpful things my beta readers did for me was say, “I have no idea who ___ is.” I may not have been able to fix that with every side character, but hopefully I did it well enough with the important ones, and it made me add this element to my outlining.
This is not to say that I never pants. Bad Knack, an episodic, humor, low fantasy series I’m woking on is mostly pantsing. Any outlining occurs only in my mind. And Starlight Jewel started out as an idea, then it evolved into a daydream of a scene, the ballroom scene. I wrote that out, experimented with my characters, changed things up, outlined the scene a little better, wrote it again. Then I started writing out character backstories based on what I’d come up with. Why is Grim so grim? Why is Axly so mischievous? What does she want from him? What does he want from her?
And from there the idea of Hyde sprouted. I scrapped what I’d written and outlined the first section of the book, then the first chapter. I started writing again, from the new beginning, and went from there. A little while in, I got to a slow point and didn’t know where to go from there, so I thought about how I wanted the book to end. I came up with a few possible endings, then thought through how I could get to them, and I finished the larger outline. I wrote out what I thought was the best ending and worked backwards toward the middle. Then I decided I didn’t like that ending and wrote a different one that worked better.
When the book met itself in the middle, the middle felt empty, so I tried to think of how I could bring a little life to it. And thus, King Henry was born. Technically, there was already a King Henry, but he was just a run-of-the-mill king, not the Henry you’ll meet if you read the book now.
So there is some pantsing in my plotting, and I imagine that some pantsers also have some plotting in their pantsing—if only in their minds. It just depends on where you get held up, where you struggle, and how you can go about overcoming those struggles. My best advice to anyone who is stuck—write it different. Switch characters, move the scene to a different location, write a different scene altogether. Don’t let your outline trap you, it’s meant to push you forward.
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