I tried writing my first book when I was in high school (like, 1997). It was an idea my dad gave me about a dude called “Bob the Beer Guy.” A beer salesman who was everything to everyone. When the presidential election rolls around, everyone in Bob’s area/state is dissatisfied with their candidate options, but everyone loves Bob, so they write him in and he wins. He receives national attention, backers realize his salesman attitude makes him the perfect candidate so they help him, and he ends up getting enough write-in votes to win and becomes the POTUS. Daddy gave me the idea and I ran with it. I don’t remember how far I actually got, a few chapters maybe, before I quit. I had the idea, knew the direction and how things would play out, but it just petered out before I got far enough.
I tried writing other stories, much the same way. An idea would spark. Then a story would form. Most of them ended up like “Bob the Beer Guy.” One finally took off though. I just sat down at the computer and started typing and next thing I knew, I had a full manuscript. Of course it was extremely rough and I ended up writing my ideas down into a basic synopsis and working from that (and of course, like most first manuscripts, it now sits in a trunk and I’m completely embarrassed I ever let anyone read it). The next manuscript I completed worked the same way (with much better results, I think). Idea, then a basic synopsis, then a first chapter that took off.
When I started writing, I had no idea there were so many different ways to write a book. I thought you just sat down and typed out a story. But people use note cards of plot points, multi-colored for different characters. They use computer software and post-it notes. Cork boards and string. Basic outlines and detailed outlines. Character lists and maps. They use different colored type for different plot threads and so many more things I can’t keep track of it all.
It had me wondering: am I doing it wrong? So I tried outlining. I tried plotting. I tried a spreadsheet of plot points that a beta reader gave me, but none of that works for me. The only plotting aid that ever works is a list of characters and traits, and then only sometimes, because that involves sitting down and thinking about the characters and who they are. Which means, more often that not, I give the characters attributes. This one is snobby and that one is friendly and this one is a prick and that one is the nice guy. It never works, because I don’t create the characters. The characters reveal themselves to me, and they only do so as I write. The more of their story I tell, the more I learn about them and how they would react in different situations. A lot of times I have to go back to the beginning and rework it because I didn’t really know the character when I started, but by the end we’re pretty intimate.
So, I’m sticking to my tried and true. I get an idea, usually when I’m trying to sleep, or in my dreams. I write the idea down and write a synopsis. Then I start writing the story. By the time I finish, the story rarely matches the original synopsis. It twists and turns and moves in ways I couldn’t have predicted. For me, if I plan too much, I constrict the natural movement of the story, like damming a river. It’s my job to find the river and follow it. To do that, I have to give the water room to flow, not dictate the direction it travels or how fast it goes, or what it might pick up along the way. But that’s just how I work.
How do you write? Do you plot, or are you what they call a pantser (fly by the seat of your pants) like me? What works for you?