Each year around this time, I get together with the same group of writers for a weekend crash session. We hole up in a hotel and plot their next books, one at a time. It's a focused, concentrated experience. Each session is recorded and lasts around three hours, and in that three hours, the basic book will be mapped out. We use giant pads and thick markers to take notes on plot points and characterization, and we stick those notes to the walls like outsized reminder notes. Often, after the original three-hour sessions are done, we revisit a particular book to get more in-depth on a piece of the plot or to try to come up with a stronger twist.
It's an exceptionally good weekend process that has resulted in some exceptionally good books being written. We use the same basic procedure for each writer -- in terms of recording, note-taking, the basic process of Q&A-driven brainstorming -- and yet, each individual session is strongly different. These differences are based in the particular needs of each writer at the early stage of planning a book.
In some ways, Author One is the easiest to get started. She needs a strong structure and clear plot in place in order to begin writing. She writes romantic suspense, and her process begins with the external plot. The character motivation and emotional arcs come later for her -- and we know from experience that she is plenty capable of making those things work in the final draft. But she can't get to that final draft, and she has a hard time even wrangling that first draft, until she knows the basic structural pieces (initiating incident, midpoint lock, villain's m.o., final plot twist, black moment, and the like). She tends to arrive at these sessions armed with research about whatever crime her villain will commit, a setting, and some basic character backstory. So we brainstorm a clean, strong external plot and structure, and she runs with it from there. We do discuss her characters, but we don't flesh them out fully at this stage. We just get a working skeleton in place, and she gives them hearts and brains and fun bits later. She's the one who, if I ask her when they have their first kiss or first sex scene, is likely to shrug and say, "Somewhere around this scene." But I never have to worry that she'll overlook the romance in the final book -- it's just not something she needs to brainstorm in advance.
Author Two has a very different kind of process. She doesn't necessarily need the entire structure in place in order to begin drafting. What she needs is a solid understanding of the start of the book, and some firm pieces for the middle and end. She can always envision several different ways to write the first hundred pages, and she sometimes has to really think through the details on her first scene -- which should be the first scene, what must be established in that scene, and so on. She tends to come into our brainstorming sessions with a good story question in mind based on her pre-work with these early scenes, but much of the rest of the story will still feel wide open. Many of her questions to us start like this: "I know the character takes this particular action. But why would she do this?" Or, "I know this character has to eventually do this action. But how and why?" And then we figure it out, extrapolating forward into the plot based on what the author knows about the beginning or some shadowy end point. It's a fun process because it can feel so inventive, and much of what I try to do in these sessions is show her how her existing known pieces might relate to each other. Sometimes pointing out a simple pattern or repetition can open a whole new line of discussion that leads to another section of plot being discovered. Because this author is writing a series, her big concern in plotting new books is ensuring that they are consistent with past books. And what she needs to begin is not necessarily a fully plotted book, but a very firmly plotted opening with a strong sense of how that opening will spin across the pages.
Author Three has the loosest process of all three writers. She writes purely character-driven work -- I know it's popular and trendy to claim that you write character-driven stories, but trust me, this is far more rare than the chatter would indicate. She comes into these brainstorming sessions with something akin to snapshots. She can see a character holding something in her hands. She can see another character standing in a particular room. Sometimes these are motion snapshots -- she can see a character engaged in some kind of movement, like buttering toast, and this will lead her to conclude that the toast is significant even if she doesn't know why. Usually, the first hour or so of our brainstorming sessions amounts to us trying to interpret or extrapolate these snapshots -- maybe she's a chef, maybe she runs a B&B, etc. -- and the author rejecting these concepts until she hears one that sticks. Getting to these sticking points can be a challenge, but once we have a handful, the rest of the story begins to fall into place around them. She complains that plotting is difficult for her -- and god knows, this is the curse of the character-driven author -- but we somehow manage to come up with enough plot and structure that she can aim her characters toward certain plot points as she writes them. But for her to begin drafting, she doesn't necessarily need a powerful, rock-solid structure in place. What she needs is a strong understanding of her characters, themes, symbols, and settings, and then the plot springs up from these other aspects as she writes.
So what is it that you need in order to begin drafting? Not everyone needs the same thing, and I think some of us fall into this trap of thinking that there is one best way to write a book, and all other methods are somehow less legitimate or less fruitful. Not true. Here we have three authors with wildly different approaches, and yet all three are making it happen. They know what they need to begin, and they've learned to leave certain other aspects open for discovery during the writing process. So how is it for you? Do you need to know how the book ends before you can begin writing? Do you need to know your subplots? Do you focus more on the emotions or the events? Understand your process, and it might not get any easier, but your faith in its ability to generate results will certainly get deeper and stronger.