Writing Methods: Have it Your Way

Rachelle Gardner

Blogger: Rachelle Gardner

Hold the pickles, hold the lettuce, special orders don’t upset us, all we ask is that you let us… serve it your way.

If you were born much later than, say, 1970, then you may have missed that tasty morsel of a Burger King commercial. But for the rest of us, it lives on in our memories, no matter how desperately we try to excise it. Oh well, today it serves as a delicious metaphor for writers.

I’m sure you’ve read countless books and blog posts on methods of writing your book. Perhaps you’ve been advised to write a sh***y first draft, a la the incomparable Anne Lamott. Alternatively, you may have heard the advice, edit as you go, so that your revisions are not so overwhelming.

Hmm. Which method to choose?

And what about the “plotters vs. pantsers” debate? Some writers prefer to plot out their whole novel and work from an outline. Others call themselves “seat of the pants” writers — they have a rough idea of where the story is going but they don’t really know until it unfolds itself as they write it. (Sounds scary to me, but whatever.)

Is one way better than another?

And if you happen to be a plotter… well, do you use the sticky note method, or the outlining method, or the chapter summary method, or… well, what’s it gonna be?

Perhaps you like to use specific techniques. My friend Randy Ingermanson has developed the Snowflake Method for writing a novel, and even has software available to help. But others have their own methods… there’s the Kiser Method, the Baby Steps Method, the NaNoWriMo method, the 90-Day Novel method, and more.

Which to choose?

And novel writing software! Well, of course there’s the above-mentioned Snowflake software. There’s also Scrivener, the popular software package that many authors absolutely love. There are others (just Google “novel writing software.”) Which is best?

Then there’s the whole “time of day” issue. Some folks maintain you’re at your most creative in the early hours, and insist that you should get up before dawn and hit the computer. But others are aware that they’re most creative late at night.

Critique groups, anyone? Many people swear by them. I recommend them all the time. But… critique groups don’t work for everyone.

So many choices! Here’s my point:

Don’t let anyone talk you into “one right way” of writing your books.

Ask people for their input and recommendations, try different things, and make up your own mind. Don’t be afraid to experiment. If something’s not working, try something else.

Do what works for you! Don’t apologize for it, don’t feel the need to justify yourself, and don’t feel like you have to try and fit in.

Just like at Burger King… have it your way.

For those of you who never saw the commercial, or if you just want to take a trip down memory lane… here’s a link to the 1974 commercials.

So tell us… what’s your way? 



36 Responses

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  1. Rachelle, there IS a write way to right.
    1 – Duct-tape Muse to hard straight-backed chair under bare light bulb.
    2- Park own bum in chair at computer
    3 – Interrogate Muse; use enhanced methods if needed.
    4- Write down what Muse says. (You DID remember not to duct-tape Muse’s mouth shut, yes?)
    5 – Repeat daily. You’ll either wind up with a book or a good resume to drop ’round at some secret police HQ’s in the developing world.

  2. I’m picturing Captain Barbosa from the first Pirates of the Caribbean film: “They’re more like guidelines than rules.”

    I totally pantsed my most recent manuscript. (Side note: does the term “pantsed” bring back horrid middle school memories for anyone else??). But I’m considering a bit more structured planning for my next one.

    • Jennifer, when I reached middle school, ‘pantsed’ met jiu-jitsu. The memories for me were thereby pleasant; not sure about the blokes who tried it on me, though.

      • I was homeschooled for those years so I didn’t run into that kind of pantsing until my college years. (Thankfully our dormitory was all girls). I was never targeted, but that may have been a result of my suble threat to return a black eye for that kind of prank…No wonder they tell me I scared the freshman girls (yeah, guys too). 🙂

    • Okay … that one got an audible laugh out of me. Fortunately, it is early enough that no one else is in the office.

  3. Not so much MY way, Rachelle, as GOD’s way. My Creator knows me better than I know myself (“Before a word is on my tongue–or flows from my fingers–you, LORD, know it completely” Psalm 139:4).
    *It’s hard to explain, but I’m sure other writers here know what I mean: sometimes I fight God and struggle to put out the words in my own power; other times, I settle in to use my talents as God directs and the words come as a flowing stream.

  4. I sort of know in my head where the story is going, and what each character is doing. I’ve learned to write stuff down when I think of it because no, not everything gets perfectly preserved by my brain.
    Even now, with the little challenges at hand, I am puttering with another plotline. It’s worth noting that sometimes my characters do stuff that I hadn’t planned, something that I’ve heard from all kinds of writers.
    I do have to do a heap of research, because I write historicals set in another culture. I wrote out the first book, but then had to go back ad edit a tonne for accuracy.

  5. I hadn’t thought of it as a “method,” but I suppose I fall into the “pants” category. I have a concept rattling around in my brain, and likely some idea of where I want it to go – eventually, so I just start typing. As I do so, new ideas will pop into my mind and I’ll make a note of it at the bottom of the manuscript. It is something to come back to later. Also, the occasional thought will creep in, “Isn’t there a passage in Isaiah that talks about this?” Copy. Paste. Continue on.
    Eventually, I begin to see a logic to the flow, sections fall into place, and a structure sort of reveals itself. One of the very last things I do is to create a table of contents, because at the outset, I haven’t much of an idea what it will look like.

  6. Carol Ashby says:

    I’m writing a series set in the Roman Empire at its zenith. Although each can stand completely alone, there are some shared characters who know each other, and historical facts guarantee some continuity in the background against which events must occur. Sometimes the facts are inconvenient, but they also help frame what can occur. (Want to know the details of Roman law on selling or freeing slaves and who is allowed to marry whom?)
    *The next plot is spawned while I’m writing on the current one. When the new plot idea comes, I create a new file with the tentative title and write the general plot outline (nothing formal, just the flow of major events and emotional crises) and a first version of the critical scenes that popped into my mind to start the whole process. Since the novels share some characters, a minor character in one might spontaneously become the lead in another. Sometimes a major character plays a logical role as a minor character in the later novel.
    *This seems to work fairly efficiently, since I have two published, two with complete first drafts that I’m now polishing, and two that have a reasonably complete plot and many major scenes written. I don’t feel constrained to work on only one at a time. I work mostly on the next one I’ll release, but if something good for another strikes me, I switch and work on that one while the thought is hot.
    *I’m an analytic, not a global, so that probably makes it most natural for me to conceive the overarching plot from the first day, sometimes the first hour. I can’t even imagine myself writing as a total pantser because I thrive on logical flow, but small sections and scenes do spontaneously pop into my head as I’m writing. On two occasions, the entire story arc popped in. If I say it’s divine inspiration, many here will know exactly what I mean, even though agents don’t want us to speak those words.
    *Once the story arc has formed in my mind, I write the beginning scene, the final scene, and the crisis scenes. Then I go back and fill in the rest, editing and re-editing and re-editing and…(you get it…oodles of edits of each section). Those edits are crucial to get it finely polished, and they also improve consistency within the novel and between novels as much as possible since there are shared characters.

  7. I don’t think I could ever be a plotter; my characters are like a herd of goats, and they’re either coming from trouble, or on the way to it. Following them and simply documenting their journey is just too much fun.
    * And I wonder what they think of ME?

  8. Lynn Horton says:

    I started as a pantster, then became a plotter who allows herself freedom for the story to evolve. I’ve found that I do much less editing and create a much more polished draft when I do a detailed synopsis. It’s as if I’ve thought through all the foibles before I touch the keyboard. When I’m actively producing or editing, I treat the process as a job. I work from roughly 8:00 a.m. until roughly 4:00 p.m., breaking every hour to do ten of fifteen minutes of cardio, planks or free weights. Then I do another hour or writing/editing/muddling. Exercise keeps my mind sharp, and my body healthier. I can’t work at night because it upsets Ranchman, the Superhero, and his happiness is important to me. Writing is a business, and I try to treat it like one.

    • Lynn Horton says:

      I guess that makes me a reformed panster? : )

      • Lynn, I’d be really interested in learning how that reformation took place.

      • Lynn Horton says:

        Andrew, I can’t figure out how to respond below your post (Luddite that I am), so I’ll answer here and hope that you find this! (Sorry.) The transformation was unintentional. I was noodling on a concept before leaving for a six-week trip, and didn’t have time to do any concrete work. I travel with only an iPad Air, and the concept wouldn’t leave me alone—the bum! So I took notes on the trip, instead of throwing myself at the keyboard as I had done on previous books as I let the story barrel and dribble in turns. When I got home, I organized those notes and began to work from them. I was ASTONISHED at how much more easily and smoothly the story flowed, and I was very aware that I was avoiding some of the storyline mistakes I would have made if I had “panstered it.” So I deliberately worked from a detailed synopsis on the next book, with similar results. Now I’m a committed planner. Although it takes self discipline not to blither at the screen as the concept flows, for me, the end result is a much better one. And much more time-efficient.

      • Lynn, thank you so much for the narrative of how the change came to be…makes perfect sense, and if conditions permit, I’m going to try it.
        * I enjoy writing spontaneously, but have found myself against dead ends that I never resolved quite to my satisfaction.

      • Lynn Horton says:

        I understand that, Andrew. To each his or her own. This method reduces my editing by about 30 percent, and rewrites by about as much. Those rewrites tend to create disconnects between passages, which weakens the entire manuscript. So anything that keeps the work cohesive and flowing is a good thing for me.

      • Lynn, anything that reduces the effort by that much is a tool the use of which is worth developing!
        * So here I go…the next work (if I get to it) will be planned.
        * Although…I hear the old saying in the back of my mind…if you want to hear God laugh, tell Him of your plans…

  9. Sarah Sundin says:

    YESSS! I’m always saying this. The first time I heard, “You have to write first thing in the morning,” I almost cried. I can’t form coherent sentences before 10 am – the last thing I should be doing is writing!

    We each have to work with the unique way God made us. I’m a night person – I do my best writing in the afternoon, so I use the morning for other stuff. Like the internet. If you’re a morning person, get off Facebook and write! I absolutely need a detailed road map to my story before I write the rough draft. I fill out character charts and plot charts and chapter summaries. I do my hard work in the pre-writing phase, then the rough draft and editing are a breeze. But if outlines give you hives and stifle your creativity, do NOT use them.

    God made us all different for a reason. Learn from other people’s techniques. Adopt what works for you and discard the rest. And marvel at the differences!

  10. Yep, I started out “seat of pantsing” my first novel and then realized that the chapters I wrote that way (1-3) were the most terrible of the entire book and I had to completely rewrite them so many times … ugh! For the rest of the book I just wrote down 3 things that I wanted to happen in each chapter. Then I tried snowflaking, which I loved. And then I used Blake Snyders 15 beat method, which I love. And the 6 things method from story engineering, which I love. So, I just combined the methods that I liked down into a handy blank outline that I use myself. It is a mix breed pup, but works for me!

  11. I prefer writing the synopsis first, thanks to so many who recommended that method from this blog. It’s just a short version, helping me to see the beginning, the middle, and the end … plotting the major points. I still get to write by the seat of my pants, but I know where I’m going. I like to see the bottom of the swimming pool … I don’t like murky waters … I just have to see. Anything else is too scary for me. And I fill in the synopsis as I go, so that by the end, all I have to do is edit it. But I do love the thrill of the surprises that get thrown in along the way. To me, it’s the best of both worlds.

    • Sarah Thomas says:

      Synopsis FIRST?!? Horrors.

      I’ve developed something along those lines that I call Compass Point Plotting (I’ve even taught it at a writing conference). You set your major compass points and then just free wheel your way from one to the next. All the fun without getting lost in some literary no-man’s land!

      • Amy Grochowski says:

        Sarah, that sounds very similar to how I get through the first draft. I’d never thought of it as a compass. I really like that analogy. I like a map to guide me, as far as basic plot line, beats, character arc, gmc, setting, and theme, but also the freedom to let the first draft take me on a journey with some twists and turns of its own making.

  12. I confess I err more on the pantser side. After my initial character sketches and general plotline, I jump right into the actual writing.
    On the note of rough vs. polished first drafts, I have to edit as I go. I’ve always been that way and with my self-diagnosed “OCDness” I don’t see that changing anytime soon. Now, I have no trouble rewriting (except for the pain of a diminshed word count. Ugh!), but I prefer my grammar and spelling not to be the cause for it.

  13. CJ Myerly says:

    I love this post. I am a plotter. I use a modified version of Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method. I write best at 1 in the morning. I just discovered Scrivener and I’m loving it.

    As much as I’m a plotter, once I start writing the story, I let it take it’s own life. The plans are merely a guide.

  14. I call myself a framer. That’s half way between being a plotter and a pantser. I have a pretty good idea of where the plot will go, but fix in the details as I write, and make any changes that seem to work better than the original plan as I go along.

  15. Mary Kay Moody says:

    I started as a pantser ~ even surprising myself when I suddenly realized I’d reached THE END. But when I wrote the next novel with more suspense elements, I realized I needed a plan to make it cohesive and layered. Now I make an outline, examining plot turns & character growth to see if I can choose even more exciting or unusual ways to play them out. This process reduces my rewrite time substantially (as Lynn mentions below). It also highlights areas that require research, allowing the story to unfold more smoothly with deeper detail even in the first draft.

  16. Beth Vogt says:

    My way? I develop my story and my characters using Susie May Warren’s Story Equation. I write a l-o-n-g synopsis — and I enjoy writing a synopsis. (Crazy, I know.) And even though I plot, I know my story will change. There’s freedom in my plotter’s life to let my characters run off with the story. I fast draft, which is an act of discovering more about my story, more about my characters. And I write in between the interruptions. Oh, sure, I block out time to write each day. But “real life” happens and I have to adjust.

  17. Tisha Martin says:

    Thank you for this encouraging post.
    Although as an editor helping authors enhance their creative story mapping process, I’m still discovering mine. 🙂 Tried a few different ways–so far, pre-planning seems to work for me.