I facilitated a workshop for a few years with the same group of women. They were all motivated, caring, and talented writers working on long-term projects. One of the women had lived this crazy-unique life and she was attempting to tell her story as autobiographical fiction.
She often said the entirety of her story felt too overwhelming. While her writing shined with detailed sentences and breathless plot twists, she found it hard to maintain focus and thus momentum.
Her crux as a writer wasn’t crafting scenes; it was crafting a vision.
I’m no stranger to overwhelm. The novel I’ve been working on spans across millennia and an entire world. If I spend too much time thinking about the big picture, I’ll easily slip into the overwhelm state.
I’ve had to learn how to stay focused on tasks. This month’s Salt & Ink details the process of how I create To-Do lists for my work throughout its diverse stages in order to maintain focus and momentum.
Stage I: Story about the Story
After you choose what story you want to write, (or it chooses you), I recommend sitting down and writing a story about the story. Don’t worry about the quality of the writing. Don’t worry about showing or telling or character development or even dialogue. Just write the story’s story. This will be a working skeleton of what you are actually trying to write.
Another term for this initial project endeavor might be called an elaborate synopsis. This isn’t an elevator pitch, and it’s not a book. It’s a story about your story.
What’s funny about this stage is that I didn’t realize I was in it until long after it was over. I spent two years writing a book and it was, in retrospect, a story about my story. I now recognize how important this initial endeavor into the storytelling would be for the book.
Especially in fiction, we don’t always know what story we’re actually telling until many, many pages into the work. As Neil Gaiman said, “Write down everything that happens in your story, and then in your second draft, make it look like you knew what you were doing all along.”
Stage II: Spend Time with the Big Vision
Now you have a bird’s eye view of the story. It may not be everything you want or need from the story, and the view may shift as you continue the work, but the landscape is there. You can see the forest as well as the rivers and valleys. You have a general idea of the plot and its key points.
At this point I got out a deck of index cards and a cork-board. I identified potential chapters in the story of the story and created an index card for each chapter. Either the character featured or a pivotal event in the chapter titled the index cards. I then listed the key plot points within the chapter on the card.
During this phase I also created preliminary character sketches. The process of identifying key plot points, profiling characters, and designing a vision board can take months but will save innumerable time moving forward.
Stage III: Create Preliminary Drafts of the Chapters
The cork-board served as a To-Do of sorts. I unpinned an index card and wrote the chapter, always starting in scene. I knew I would be adding sensory details, character development, and more nuanced place descriptions later, but I still tried to write each scene as if it were happening in “real time.”
These chapter drafts weren’t synopses, but they weren’t polished material either. They were forays into the living plot, the characters’ minds and bodies, as well as the places they experienced. I sought to write as well as I could while keeping in mind I would be revising in big ways.
Stage IV: Identify Chapter Expansions
At this point I had a preliminary draft of the manuscript as a whole. I read the chapters, one by one, and created a page of needs for each chapter.
These needs included small things like adding in more character quirks and elaborating on sensory textures. They also included big things like creating plot twists and defining key story concepts for reader clarification.
Once I had a page of To-Dos for all twenty-four chapters, I started with the toughest, most time-consuming list rather than moving through the chapters in order. This helped me maintain momentum. Every list completed felt like a victory.
Stage V: Rewrite Story Synopsis and Elaborate on Character Sketches
Once all the chapters had been expanded upon, I had a working draft of the manuscript. I enlisted eight trusted readers—two professional writers, two specialists of a particular theme in the book, (like social justice), and four avid readers of the genre, (two men, two women).
After a month break, I read it as well and edited for both minor mistakes and plot holes. When I met with my readers, I observed where their feedback overlapped. I kept the recommendations that resonated or were consistent and left the rest.
I didn’t do any revisions, though, until after I spent a few months writing a synopsis of each chapter. This document ended up being around 40 pages. I included in the chapter synopses remedies to the plot holes observed by the readers and I.
I also took a few weeks to expand upon the character sketches I had created early on in the project. As we write a book we come to know our characters in ways we can’t in the beginning. I made sure to include important plot points in each character’s profile relevant to him or her. This helped me further grasp the plot at large and the changes I intended to make.
Stage VI: Create Specific Targets for Revisions
After fixing the minor edits in each chapter, I repeated the same method I employed in stage four with a page detailing the specific revisions required for the chapter. (Though now I could use a regular 8X11 sheet, rather than a 13X18.) I then wrote these things down on sticky notes and aimed to accomplish one-three sticky notes a day, depending on the demands required.
Again, I started with the more laborious revisions and worked my way to the tiniest of tweaks. I’m a firm believer now in this funnel-method. The first few tasks always feel daunting, but once the bigger changes are complete, the smaller ones are quick and easy and tend to fly by.
I imagine I’ll repeat this final stage (read and tweak) once or twice more.
In all, I used synopses, index cards, character profiles, sheets of construction paper, sticky notes, Google Calendar, and a task-organizer called Kanban Flow to create task-oriented writing. The process has taken over five years and is ever-evolving.
I’d love to hear other people’s approaches and techniques for organizing their big projects in the comments below.
Thanks for being here! Happy writing.