The Writing Process – Part 1 – Research & Plotting

I’m splitting this into six parts – one for each definite stage of writing and editing.

The Parts

* I will be revisiting this list as I complete a post so that each post is linked together.

  1. Research & Preliminary Plotting
  2. Outlining
  3. First Draft
  4. Second Draft
  5. Third Draft
  6. Final Draft

The Idea

I’m not a constant font of ideas or books. You can probably tell that by how sporadic my blog can be. I try not to be stymied by writer’s block but sometimes – whether through work or illness – it does take me down as well.

The best way to get around this is through mind-mapping or brainstorming and then taking notes on those brainstorming sessions. For each idea, I will repeat this one stage I’m about to get into. That way I can test how viable the idea is to develop into a short story or novel before I launch into writing it. It not only saves time later but when I need a new idea to work on all I have to do is come back to my big book of ideas and build out from the basic synopsis I have already created.

The best tools for this are, first, a free piece of software called Miro Mind Mapping, and, second, Scrivener.

Miro is like working on a whiteboard, but virtual. If you collaborate with others, it’s also shareable. I like it because I have the same convenience as a whiteboard without having to pack up a physical whiteboard and carry it with me. If I have a random idea, I can put it down here, and then, like branches of a tree, work out from there.

From there, I move into Scrivener. Scrivener allows a writer to organize their work into a “binder” of folders and scenes. Each “scene” is both a text file that is as flexible as Microsoft Word for formatting, however, unlike MS Word, you can limit each of these files to short scenes instead of entire chapters or even an entire book. Scrivener will later compile the entire manuscript from these chapter folders and scenes within each folder into a complete manuscript on-demand later.

It’s neat – but that’s scratching the surface. Before I turn this post into an ad for Scrivener, I will state that these scenes (and the chapters) also have a corkboard view where you can make notes on these text files which allows for planning and research to be done beside drafting.

I don’t start writing unless something comes to mind. If I can’t use it, I can keep that scene for something else. A little bit of revision/editing magic and I have a scene that works elsewhere.

Generally, though, if I create a scene for the book I’m writing it stays with that book but that’s a whole other stage of writing and editing to take about so I won’t get into it here.

Preliminary Plotting…

Ever since finding the Snowflake Method by Randy Ingermanson, I have been using a slightly modified version of it. Ingermanson suggests a three disaster plus an ending set-up. I tend to think of my books as a four-act play. That’s how I studied English in high school (surprise! I’m not an English Lit major – I went into Business & Finance with a license to sell Life & Health Insurance, like another one of my inspirations, Tom Clancy) when I sat through studies of Shakespeare and others. I say “sat through” but I enjoyed it.

I tried taking Ingermanson’s advice but I found my books were ending too soon and felt unfinished. Organizing into Four Acts made them develop and end cleaner.

However, from there, the method as laid out by Ingermanson and the Snowflake is identical.

When I use Miro, I am actually creating a lot of one-sentence summaries. Occasionally, I even start with a visual of what I want to do. I paint, both digitally and traditionally, so sometimes my visual arts and my writing do overlap.

Eventually, one of those summaries in Miro sticks, and I take that one sentence and move it to Scrivener, creating an index card at the top-level folder Scrivener calls “Manuscript”.

When you create a new project in Scrivener, it gives you the choice of templates. I don’t really need to over complicate it so I usually pick just the basic “Novel with Chapters” template. This gives me a single chapter with a single scene in it, and the other basic file templates (setting template, character template, etc).

The next steps made are:

  1. Creating the primary protagonist (usually the “hero”)
  2. Creating the primary antagonist (usually the “villain”, or person/party in some sort of opposition to the hero.), if applicable.
  3. Answering the giant question of why are these two in opposition in the first place.

This creates, like in the Snowflake Method, a paragraph.

From there, I start with research.

First, I have probably created a character or two of whom I know nothing about outside of basics, but I couldn’t tell you how they go about their day with any accuracy. I have just pulled two people of the street and asked their names and what they do for a living, as well as some basic information such as their age and maybe even where they live.

That’s it.

It’s not exactly enough to write a book about them.

… To Research

Character Creation

So, now my next step is to pick one of those characters and learn everything about them. I will start with more of the basics, and from there move to their inner motivations, a few generations forward and back to understand their history. I will research their vocation in a bit more depth, including what education (if any) was needed for them to do their job and what their normal day to day would likely be.

This one thing can take weeks and I’ll have an entire folder, not just a file, within that Scrivener project just on this one character. The top-level file will be a summary to tie all of this folder together.

Included in this summary is a step I started doing. Some writers do this, but not all of them. It’s not 100% necessary but I find it easier to quantify what a character can and cannot do and track progress through the arc when I do this.

What is that?

I roll the statistics using a pen & paper role-playing game (whatever game fits best, whether Palladium Rifts or Beyond the Supernatural to Dungeons & Dragons).

Ingermansion tends to flesh out his characters as he goes. I don’t. I start with my characters first because the situation itself isn’t the plot… it’s how the characters respond to the situation that forms the plot.

Inconsistent or incomplete characters will make for inconsistent storytelling.

Is it over researching? No, I don’t think so. It’s easier to reference the motivation and limitations of a character when throwing them into a situation than it is to have to guess at it later… and having to guess at it later will do one of two things.

One, you will make a decision that will break the story because it wasn’t in character…

…Or two, Writer’s Block will rear its ugly head.

And then I do it for each and every main character in the book, including antagonists.

For secondary characters, I won’t go deep into desires and backstory, but I will make sure they are at least unique and researched enough to make them memorable and consistent.

Summarizing the Plot

The next step is to take the one sentence nebulous idea, and the now clear as day characters, and I expand that into the Four Act structure by writing a single sentence for each act.

And then I do a bit of research into whether the ideas I have are even possible or feasible. If they are, I expand on it a bit more. If not, I research what could be possible that will come to the same outcome and I expand on that.

From there it’s a series of coming up with an idea to build on that idea and researching for feasibility, and further tweaking the plot and timeline – how the characters respond to them – and I keep doing that until each chapter and scene is laid out in a short paragraph for each scene.

What do I do then?

I compile that outline and all of the character notes into a Book Proposal and back that up into a few cloud providers, plus a printed proposal with references so I know where to find my research later.

And then I let it rest – and I literally mean that. I set it aside and work on something else. I read, paint, or go play a video game in my free time instead of working on a novel to refresh myself.

After a month or so, I will come back to it.

But that’s the next stage of writing and for another blog post.

5 responses to “The Writing Process – Part 1 – Research & Plotting”

  1. This looks like an interesting series indeed, and will definitely come in handy for aspiring writers. I like where you’re going with this, and am looking forward to your future posts!

    Liked by 1 person

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