Writing Tips

Why My Writing Method Has Changed Drastically

By February 24, 2015 24 Comments
Millie Ho Writing Method

Back when I thought this would actually work.

So here’s the post where I denounce nearly everything I ever concluded about what it means to write efficiently and effectively.

If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you’d know that I have been everything from a perfectionist writer to a multi-tasking writer, an escapist writer seeking to save seven drafts in a foreign country, and a militant writer embracing constraints and courting productivity more than I was enjoying writing. And the truth is that I’ve been doing it wrong. At least, wrong for me.

For the longest time, my approach to writing was like this

1. Get an idea.
2. Know the major turning points.
3. Get to work.

And of course, do everything in your power, from writing in a car to emulating authors that don’t like plotting (since I believed a plot destroyed the story), to make the book bigger and better.

Writing my book according to the above method allowed me to break out of writing perfectionism and brainstorm better, but that was about it.

I wrote quickly, had many drafts, but the lack of plotting didn’t allow my narrative to clink into place.

So my approach to writing was actually more like this

1. Get an idea.
2. Disregard the details because they will become clearer with each successive draft.
3. Edit furiously until you have something you are happy with. But again, don’t work out the details because plotting is bad and stifles creativity and the story will become clearer after you’ve done the writing.

Despite my fixation on productivity and planning, I neglected to plot the story.

Ironic, doesn’t it? But it makes total sense.

The creative blocks happened when I failed to plot. When I plotted, I plotted the wrong draft and grew frustrated when I couldn’t figure out why it wasn’t working. When I didn’t plot, my writing momentum suffered because I was editing previous drafts all the time. I convinced myself that I should focus on the process more than the structure because past experiences have taught me this was the way to go. And of course, I became bogged down with ways to make my story better because there were no absolute variables or conclusive resolutions.

Looking back, writing without a detailed plot is NOT smart when you’re telling a neo-noir story. Not plotting frees up possibilities, but creates a plethora of additional problems. Not plotting lets you feel out the story more and explore character dynamics and unorthodox scenarios, but it doesn’t help you tie up loose ends.

Here’s my revised writing method

1. Get an idea.
2. Write Draft One without a plot and explore all possible angles.
3. Plot, plot, plot for successive drafts.

I’m now plotting Nash Moor from the very beginning. I am fixing the blueprint before the leaks leak and the cracks crack. I don’t regret the time and effort I invested in this book and its 400,000 retired words, because it was a fun and challenging learning experience.

When you plot, you’re not constantly seeking improvements.

You simply write.


Millie’s Note: How has your writing method changed and why?

Join the discussion 24 Comments

  • Mary says:

    Great post Miss Millie and it seems as though your break from the internet and deep dive into your writing gave you a new and fresh rebirth to a process you’ve known and danced around. I like your solid thought process and out of it will come success in the “rebirth” of your novel. All the best as you work this out ~ love the tenacity.

  • kvennarad says:

    It all makes perfect sense to me. I think my main rule is “Whatever works”. I am greatly looking forward to Nash Moor.

  • jgiambrone says:

    I don’t plot on paper. I plot in my head, and I put the pieces together audibly with my recorder. My philosophy is that you have to have something before you can arrange it in the proper sequence. So it’s important to come up with the twists and innovative takes on the characters and conflicts before shoehorning them into a plot. At early stages it’s more important to come up with major points then more specific minor points, somewhat like sculpting from a big piece of granite. Plotting then comes in the middle of the process, after discovering enough meaty moments that the thing exists, but before getting locked into final, specific versions of the scenes.

    • Millie Ho says:

      This is exactly the conclusion I’ve arrived at. You can’t plot an abstract idea in the same way you can’t create a blueprint without a sketch of what the building looks like. Once there’s enough meat to sink your teeth into, the skeleton needed will make itself apparent. Using a recorder is an interesting and perhaps efficient option. Are you working on a book?

  • coffeennotes says:

    Great post. I am a plotter and an outliner 🙂

  • aetherhouse says:

    I don’t think I could write without plot in mind – I’m too Type A. But I guess it wasn’t always that way. It wasn’t until I read “Plot and Structure” that I had the tools I needed to outline, design, make arcs, and bring a plot together sensibly. Before then, the plot either unfolded naturally in my head or I was stuck asking “what am I going to have these characters DO?” In fantasy, which relies on slow world-building and foreshadowing, it was pretty much impossible to write off-the-cuff and not know the endgame for why my characters were doing what they were doing.

    I actually find plotting to be one of the most enjoyable parts of writing, but it can be tedious. I usually treat my outlines the way many writers treat their first drafts – they can be up to 1/5th the size of the actual novel! – and therefore have less investment when I decide to change stuff. It’s much harder to suck in a breath and rework half a novel when you’ve already written the bloody thing (and I ended up doing that anyway with Paradisa, despite all my outlining. But only once! Har har). I don’t actually start writing a book until I have an outline that I’m reasonably happy with. I think it saves a lot of time and effort in the long run.

    • Millie Ho says:

      Thanks for the nudge towards “Plot and Structure”. I read the book once, and will read it again. I agree with you in that certain genres dictate a higher degree of plotting, or even necessitates it. Fantasy, mystery, and science fiction command that level of intricacy. I think the plotting thing gets less tedious the more you do it and realize what needs to be cut before you’re committed. The main challenge is to stop visualizing possibilities, because the truth is, there are a thousand ways of writing the same story. Stopping is the hard part.

  • Karen Wan says:

    I too have discovered the same thing about my novel. I wrote many drafts without much of a plot and no real outline. Since deciding to focus on the plot, my writing has improved a lot, and I feel close to finishing my first book.

  • I understand. In the end, you’ve got to do what works for you, for as long as it works:)

  • I used to write without much plot in mind because I thought of plot as something irrelevant in a way. But it’s really not, is it? When I watch a TV show that meanders, I get pissed. These are usually shows that seem like they’re going to be deep and arty. Maybe they are, but first and foremost I need to know what’s going on. I want that plot, I need it. It’s like a clothesline.

    Maybe calling it a clothesline is a bit misleading. Plot and character and setting and all of it are quite interconnected. We talk about these things individually, but when it comes down to it, it’s an organic beast.

    That said, I do keep things loose on the first draft. The plot is always there, but it needs to be tightened later. It seems the driving question is: “What are they gonna do next?” I’ll have entire chapters that are irrelevant to the main plot, but I don’t know that until I’m done with the whole book. It’s such a messy process!

    • Millie Ho says:

      Then again, deep and arty shows are genres in themselves. And those genres probably require less plot and more aesthetics and/or eyebrow acting. The biggest wakeup call was not that my process—not plotting—was wrong, but that it was wrong for the genre I’m writing in. It is a messy process, and maybe that’s only because it’s so organic. Blood needs to splatter to show this is true.

      • Haha…I like the phrase “eyebrow acting”. It’s a good thing you found your groove then! Everyone seems to have a different process when it comes to this stuff, and the proof is in the pudding.

  • Welcome to the darkside of Plotters. We have cake. And spreadsheets.

    In all seriousness though, if you’re plotting, I firmly believe that doesn’t mean you have to stop the oddball creativity from flowing. The first draft is always a big hairy plot-octopus, and you’re right that your second draft is about adding structure: taking the octopus and chopping off some arms, tying others in knots, and putting a stormtrooper uniform on that sucker (pun intended).

    • Millie Ho says:

      I like your octopus analogy. I’m a sucker for puns.

      • elmediat says:

        I am no expert, but I agree. You have to find your creative balance. In someways what you are describing within yourself is a flipping between creative process and information processing. Your creative process is organic. You are growing an octopus tree as you compose. Then you look at what you have and you need to prune and shape/sculpt the tree. You identify themes and flow of events. Fill in the gaps and delineate character and sequence of events.

        I will throw out one curve. Are you telling the story you want to tell or that you need to tell ? The want may be interfering with the need. I want to tell a story in this genre for this target audience ( very practical astute business sense) but I need to tell this story that does not fit those criteria. Those characters are part of an inner need that rises from the depths of the unconsciousness. They have a life energy that does not care about genre, target audience, tropes or conformity to practical expectations. They belong to the wild wood of archetypes and emotions. 🙂

        I have been playing with chaotic form on the Implied Spaces blog. Trying to find my own creative balance. Sometimes I fall on duff. Make that a lot of times. 😀

        Best of luck.

        • Millie Ho says:

          The ‘need’ comes into play during the methodical process of plotting. Once you get down to writing, the ‘want’ shows up when your characters start transcending genre and tropes. In my experience, it’s better to downplay the ‘want’, because you’re always going to have a new idea, a new plot segue, a new narrative embellishment. I think the key is to know when to stop wanting more things and look at your manuscript and say, “This is good. I’ve done enough.”

          Good luck to you too!

  • millydrake says:

    Wow I love your blog, your posts are beautiful

  • Jen says:

    Wait? Isn’t what you’re doing now simply revision?

    • Millie Ho says:

      I’m plotting the whole thing down to a T and rewriting the entire manuscript. My assumption is that the writing will come quickly (1-2 months) once I have a framework in place. My mistake was trying to plot the first draft; I had less material to work with. It makes more sense to write freely and then plot later drafts.

  • Martin Daire says:

    That’s interesting :). For me ideas are like fruits (they can be good or rotten). We must choose the best ones and let them ripen before picking ;).

  • dekutree41 says:

    I completely agree with this. I find that plotting first creates – maybe this sounds obvious – overly plot-driven stories where the characters are tools or pawns or otherwise subject to the larger concerns of making this machine run the way you thought you wanted it to. It’s inorganic and I kind of think it’s a crutch, a way of procrastinating the actual work of just pouring out a lot of words (some of which MAY actually be good enough to make it to the final draft). I think, as others have pointed out, that everyone has to find their own creative balance, but if there’s one thing I’ve brought over to writing from my theater training, it’s this: intuition first, interrogation later. The worst thing you can do is get into your head about things.

    • Millie Ho says:

      It’s funny you mention plot-driven stories, because my next post concerns this very topic, or rather, the topic of why stories should be driven by characters instead of plot. The creative balance is difficult to find when you’re just starting out (it sure is for me), so drawing inspiration and tips from other media like theatre or film/TV can help. ‘Intuition first, interrogation’ later is a great line. Sounds like it’s straight from a police procedural. 🙂

  • […] to other skills such as character development, world building, or plotting, which I improved on a lot in 2015, it’s very rare for me to finish a final draft of a book. This means a solid Chapter One that […]

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