How do you write?

Every author has their own way of writing. Jennifer Crusie creates dioramas. Anyone who has visited her web page/blog has seen examples of what she creates in order to understand her characters and her storyline. Iris Johansen has been said to just "sit down and write". Lee Child is quoted as saying "I never outline. I try to feel the same excitement that I hope the reader will: never knowing what comes on the next page"; while Val McDermid says "I'm a ferocious outliner. I can't begin a book unless I know where it's going and how it gets there." Janet Evanovich says she creates a timeline and then keeps her story straight by storyboarding.

Almost every single "How To Write" book says you should have an outline. How To Write Romance for Dummies defines an outline as "...the road map you use as you write. It's a document-in-progress...” where as in Writing Romance by Vanessa Grant says "Some published authors begin writing without much idea of where the story is going, what will happen, or even who the characters are...Other writers know every detail before Chapter 1 begins. Most of us fall somewhere in between these two extremes..."

So how do you know which style is right for you? I have no idea, but what I'm learning about me is this; I can start a story off strong without an outline but once the build up is over and I have to come up with the middle of the story, I'm lost. I’ve read on other blogs that the middle is the hardest part to write and I couldn’t agree more. I can see the movie montage in my head, music and all, but it’s not helping me get it down on paper. So I’ve gone back to the drawing board. I’ve pulled out my entire ‘how to’ collection. How to: Craft Scenes, Create Plot, Write and Sell Your Mystery Novel. I’ve got them all sitting here just starring at me. Daring me to come up with something brilliant. Is it wrong that I feel pressure from the ‘how to’ books? So I’m coming to all of you, my brilliant published and unpublished friends. How do you write? How do you get past the sticky middle part? Any and all advice is accepted here.

Few things are harder to put up with than the annoyance of a good example ~ Mark Twain

UPDATE: Check out Murder She Writes, Toni Causey is talking about how she starts a new book. Coincidence? Maybe.


  1. Idea morphs into four or five points along the path. Then I start typing. I learn about my characters as I write. Yes, this means the first part of the story gets rewritten A LOT!
    I'm almost finished with a MG novel and I will have a lot of rewriting to do, considering I wrote in the mom's POV, third person POV, and first person POV. I had to figure out which one worked best for the story.

    I never seem to have problems with the middle part of the story, it's the beginnings that kill me! I'm a very linear thinker/writer, so I keep to the points I know I need to make. The road might be curvy, but I eventually get there.

    Erika, you have to try different things to see what works for you. This MG novel is my fifth manuscript, but I also have at least ten partials that I haven't finished, but it's the first time I didn't edit as I wrote, or have anyone crit it, as I went along. It's flowing quicker and has my style stamped all over it. The only way to know is to try different things. Eventually, you'll hit on one that works for you.

  2. Great post, Erika. And Magolla's point is excellent. I have no words of wisdom to offer other than when I get stuck in the middle (because, like you, I fly through the beginning and then come to a screeching halt as everything seems wrong) I write the end. I know what the black moment is, so I write it. Then I write the last chapter (or what I think will be the last chapter - always changes). I seems to ground me - gives me something to then write toward.

    As I said, I really don't know - my first MS just churned itself out. The subsequent stuff is harder (perhaps too many craft books). I remember reading one author's blog (can't remember who) saying she uses a different method for every MS. I guess it's what works at the time.

    Good luck with the middle - keep going, you'll find your way out to the other side :)

  3. Magolla, I think another problem I have is that I have a problem "vomiting" up a first draft. I'll write something, scribble it out and write it again. I have a problem moving forward if I think what I've already put down isn't worth the ink it was written with. I'm definitely going to be sitting down to try to outline the middle of the story, maybe even a couple of different ways.

  4. Janet, that's a good idea. I've heard that several authors don't write their story in the order it will be read. They write the individual scenes as they come together in their head and then string it all together to create the final product.

  5. I differ from you guys.

    For me, I never finish a manuscript without an outline. And even then, I have so much trouble with the ending.

    It's not that I don't know what should happen. I do, I just can never figure out how to write it so it doesn't seem anticlimactic.

  6. Captain, it's good to hear everyone's process. I've never tried an outline, but I'm going to give it a shot to get me through the middle section of my story. How do you set up your outline? Do you use typical format, i.e., I. II. III. i. ii. or do you use more of a synpopsis type outline?

  7. I start with how long I believe the book will be. Take NaNo for instance - 50,000 words. I know that when my chapters are averaged out, they are around 2,000 words each.

    So I know that I will have 25 chapters. For each chapter, there should be at least 1 main plot point and 2 subplot points.

    With those points written down (just bullet point style), I make a brief outline of my MC(s). I usually use the snowflake method for that (http://critiquecircle.com/tools.asp?page=workshop&action=viewtemplate&id=183). Not sure if you can all see that, but I hope so.

    And that's enough to get me through the book. If and when I get stuck, I imagine the absolute worst thing that can happen to my character (Romance - the heroine receives word that her hero is dead; YA romance - the hero purposely humiliates the heroine in front of the entire school; etc.), and that's where the book goes.

    Do I ever go off track of my outline. Always! It's not a set in stone thing. As Elizabeth says in Pirates, "They're more like guidelines anyway."

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  9. Great post, Erika.

    I learned through my first MS that I need an outline. That story is still a mess, but I love the characters. :) But not in great detail. I do a bullet point outline, with one or two lines describing what is going to happen.

    Sometimes a scene will pop into my head when I do the bullet point and I might just jot down what happens. With my current work, I wrote how H/H felt about what happened. Again, not detailed-just a basic idea.

    And I always do character sheets. Not from any book-just something I made up. I did it before I knew there was a name for it. lol I'm a visual person, so I always find a pic of the characters, then I do a run down of hair color, eye color, height, job,fave color-music-food etc. (I have to write it down or I forget. I don't want the hero to have black hair, then suddenly it be brown. LOL) Then I'll jot down their history. Family, experiences - and sometimes I have to interview them to get that info.

    Do I stick to it exactly, no. But I learned that I needed an idea of where I am going. Most would call me a plotter, but I think I'm a little of both. Because sometimes things happen or a character pops in that will play an important role-- and it wasn't in my bullet points.

    I go with it.

    Because my characters are the ones driving the story. :)

    Hope this helps, girlie! I have probs with middle sometimes too.

  10. A character usually comes and taps me on the shoulder, introduces her/himself and over time, as I get to know them, their story emerges. Sometimes, I'll have a flash of insight that is so clear, I have to write it down. (I have the first page of a book hanging in my notes - I barely know the heroine. I only know that she's stuck in O'Hare airport, her flight cancelled, her father dying, and she's on the phone with his oldest friend. She's got to get home to save the ranch. Literally. That's all I know. But I have that first page written and it brings tears to my eyes. Someday, I hope to write the rest of the story.

    Sade, the MC in the current WIP, came to me and hung out for a long time before I finally figured out which of her stories I needed to tell. SEASON OF THE WITCH was my first NaNoWriMo attempt. I finished with 60K words and a driving need to finish the book. I did, some six months later, after polishing and figuring out the end. I don't always know how a book is going to end.

    The romantic suspenses are different. With them, I'm dealing with a crime. I have to plot that out from initial event through the clues and red herrings until I reach the solution.

    I'm a pantser once I get started but I do a lot of plotting (usually) before I ever sit down and struggle with that opening paragraph. Once I'm passed it, it's usually only semi-choppy sailing. I get the first draft down and then I go back to clean up POV shifts and layer in "senses".

    You'll find your way, Erika. You have talent and it's just a matter of harnessing it and learning what works best for you.

  11. Captain, thanks for laying it out for me. It gives me a better idea of how you work your outline. Everyone does it differently.

  12. Kira, I do have character sheets for my MCs. They were very helpful is filling out my characters. Bullets points are a good idea too. The block I seem to be running up against is what to put in the bullet points. ARGH! I'm sure it will come to me some time before I DIE!

  13. Silver, that's how this whole writing a book thing started for me. Carly came up to me (in the shower no less) and said "excuse me, but I have a story to tell you and I want you to get it all down on paper. Right now." and I said, "Kinda busy washing my hair." and she said "Don't care." and began rambling. Of course, now the rambling has stopped. *sigh* Figures.

  14. I have only the one wip and I didn't plot it out but pantsed my way through it. I think I'd do things differently next around. First off I'm going to try doing some background character development and a very brief outline, maybe even one sentence scenes or chapters kind of thing, or I might try a storyboard. Then I'd go through and write the first draft without editing anything and see where I end up.

    I'm in the middle of my first revision and ended up with sagging middle syndrome, too. The first ending was very weak and ended to be rewritten. A brainstorming session with Janet helped because I was really getting boggged down. I ended up using index cards to do some brief one sentence plotting of scenes and chapters all the way to the end so I knew I could get there. Sometimes I used the MRU idea for scenes or sequels. One sentence answers to Goal, Conflict, Disaster for scenes or for a sequel - Reaction, Dilemna, Decision. Of course I went off track immediately but only slightly and nothing I couldn't work with. I still knew what I wanted to happen in the future and could work my way there from a different angle if need be.

    I still feel like I'm going to be writing this wip forever but it's coming, slowly. I'm learning a lot as a I go.

    But I think Captain Hook has given very sound advice. Ask yourself what's the worst thing that can happen to your character at this point and make it happen. I'm going to write that question done and stick it on my wall.

  15. Karen, I'm with you. I think I will permanently post-it that question to my computer screen. I'm in the middle of an interview with Jack. Trying to see if talking to him won't help bring me back to where I need to be. Figuring out the middle of my story. Thanks for the insight into what you would do differently and what you did to fix it the first time. It's all greatly appreciated.

  16. I can't wait to read Lover Avenged but I'm keeping it for summer holidays. sigh. hope its good.

  17. Erika, sorry I'm late today - things to do, houses to clean ... anyway, I'll put in my two coppers for ya !
    My stories usually start with a character or two and a scene - if they stick with me long enough I find myself trying to figure out a plot for them. If that makes any impact I then start to write the idea down - sort of a synopsis.
    If the story still sticks with me I begin to elaborate the synopsis by outlining the story. I try to break the story down into four parts, decide what happens in each and from there I break it down further, adding particular scenes etc.
    I keep my outlines really rough - each scene etc. is written on a page and the pages are arranged (timeline-wise) in a binder. This way, if I have to re-arrange them I can just put them where they need to go.
    I also keep character sheets (my own as well) and was gonna post on this today but got distracted ... anyone ever wonder about the ESP found among fellow bloggers ? Ever go to post on something only to sign on and see two the three other posts put up before yours that are frighteningly similar ?!?
    Anyway, I'm sure I didn't add much to the conversation but I wanted to at least offer my encouragement. YOU CAN DO IT !!! ;)
    ps: I didn't proofread this so if you find a few errors ... :P

  18. Erika, character interviews are great for getting into your characters's heads, aren't they? Over on CC we have an entire thread dedicated to character interviews.

    Karen, I'll be reviewing Lover Avenged on June 15th on the Book Faire blog (http://book-faires.blogspot.com/).

  19. i'm sorry erika ... i lied. i've only done the binder thing with my main WiP - don't know where my head is. (and i'm sure i only did it that way because i didn't have a computor at the time i started the darn thing :)
    for the others i simply add onto my synopsis, making indents and such to show what points i want to make in each section and adding scenes in where they should go. this works well for me because i can cut and paste things and i can also add to it with little hassle.
    i'd be more than willing to show you a few pages of one of my outlines if you think it might help you. just email me :)