There’s always been a rhythm to my writing. And it doesn’t always make sense.
First I hit upon an idea, something worth writing about. Maybe a character, a theme, a question to answer, a situation to examine, even a combination worth seeing in action. This idea comes with a warm feeling in my heart of potential, a sense of “ah, this is where I’d like to live and rest for a bit.”
(“Rest” in the sense of this is where I’d like to make my home, stretch out, and see what I find. It’s a working rest, emphasis on the work.)
Then comes the development phase. Depending on the project, this might come to me all at once, a full-blown novel put together inside me with very little input from me. Those stories seem like they were always there waiting to be written and I’m just the first to hear them calling. But those are rare. More often, it’s me versus the outline. I tend to outline loosely for everything and tightly for complex projects. For a short fanfic in a universe I know really well, I might just list out the big emotional beats and get started. For anything novel-length, I tend to list out my chapters as an outline themselves. Chapter 1 is the intro and setting up the problem, chapter 2 complicates the problem, etc etc etc. Only after I get those down do I contemplate actually writing the thing down.
For really long projects or anything truly intricate, then I get into multiple pages that form one cohesive design document for the story. For the MCU fic, first I have a timeline starting in Dec 2012 and going through as far as I intended to write. It notes every movie in the MCU’s placement (including where movies happened over a period of time and various events need to be tracked), every event of my stories, even points where characters became aware of a thing or failed to become aware of a thing. It’s thin on the content but high on the order of events. Then I have a tab that started as a proper outline and became my chapter list. Every chapter appears with its title (and soundtrack song) and there are notes for every scene that happens in the chapter. The notes tend to be brief “Tony and Peter hang out” or “BIG FIGHT” but they tell me exactly where I am emotionally in the story and what needs to be moving. Then there is a notes tab I kept all along with all my loose threads, from the Winter Soldier and Steve to various hints for my nefarious plans. These I deleted as I went so that I knew for sure I’d covered them.
(Sometimes I had places in that tab or in the chapter tab where I would just write “Pleh.” Pleh means that either my beta spurred an idea that deviated from what I had already planned, or I had a later realization that I might need to adjust. Correcting for pleh is one of my least favorite things to do because it usually means I have to track every possible implication and ripple from the change and catch them all.)
Then there are lists and lists of other things. Names, relationshp trees, quotes, songs. Also wordcounts with daily tracking to see how I’m doing against the goals I set myself.
Spoiler alert: I have not tried to hold myself to any goals but one since Covid. I did make that one, though!
The upside of my process is that I am able to brain-dump everything from my character arcs and my worldbuilding to some specific gems of lines into one place in the beginning. Often my stories will surprise me, but rarely do they go wildly off the rails from my initial planning phase. (Except for particularly big plehs.)
The downside is that somewhere in doing all that mental preparation, I often lose steam on the enthusiasm part of the project. By the time I’ve documented all the twists and turns, figured out the exact right notes to play in the emotional scenes, adjusted my tempo and timing of chapters — that starburst of excitement has faded. The original idea is still there, carefully written out, but no longer feels so warm and all-encompassing. It feels more like a duty now, a homework assignment.
And that is why I often get stuck at the beginning of projects. Or at the end — when there are no more surprises for me and it’s just typing out the inevitable conclusion of all that’s come before.
There’s no real correlation I can find between the amount of pre-work I do and the chances of running out of steam. The MCU I did probably as much outlining and prep as I’ve done for any 3 projects and I still finished the first novel of it in something like 7 weeks. Other times my whole outline will be 8 lines of “this, then that, then the other thing, then splat, the end” and I can’t get past chapter 4. Sometimes the story comes out and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes the outlines and planning are vast and sometimes they’re not.
But one thing they do have in common is a moment of doubt.
Between the original idea and the first attempt at a draft, there’s always a question. “Is this really worth doing? Is it any good?”
I’m learning not to let that question stop me, but it does sometimes. Especially if what I’m having trouble with is the beginning. Often I know more clearly where I’m going than where to begin, and so there are fits and starts before I find the right scene, the right line, the right moment to start the tale. And if I stumble, if I false start that moment…sometimes the doubt gets louder.
“Isn’t this boring? Isn’t this just a flash of an idea but no substance worth the time? Isn’t this something someone else could do better? Shouldn’t I just stop?”
You can see from my writing totals over the years how often I’ve put those questions aside, but you can’t see how often I haven’t been able to. I don’t count works unless they’re finished. My file of begun-but-left-idle stories is BIG.
And yet and yet and yet…
Here we are again. Even as my beta group finishes reading the UF draft (and they like it!!!) and I prepare to make the final major edits before the query process (ugh save me I hate it sooooo), another idea came to me. The idea started with a villain’s motivation. And grew like a star forming from dust, drawing in disparate pieces until I had a fantasy world with thousands of years of history and culture slowly evolving to the detante in which my story is set. I have characters, a naming convention (I’m really pleased by this; I hate coming up with fantasy names), a central conflict which is only a single melody in the wider world’s ongoing symphony…
And I stopped.
Well, no. I wrote half of a chapter, but I hate all of it and need to start over. It doesn’t begin where it should and the beginning doesn’t move what needs to move.
But here I am again. Picking up the prism and turning it sideways. When I get it right, the light will strike and I’ll see a rainbow.
Every act of writing is an act of courage against doubt, of determination against doubt, of discipline against frustration. And of feeling. Of loving characters, of searching for the way to be heard, of hoping to reach someone else through the pages and screens.
This is my act of creation. And it scares me every time, even after a score of novels and a literal hundred shorter works. The risk is always the same. The doubt is always present.
But stories need to be told and people need to be able to find them. And I need to tell this one even without fully knowing why yet. My outline doesn’t tell me what I’ll get from the experience, after all.
Guess I better get back to it and find out.