Story ideas drift into my mind at odd moments—while I’m driving, in conversation, in nature, doing dishes, gardening, even while I should be paying attention in church. They are incorrigible and more prolific than I’ll ever be.
With no shortage of stories to write, I can afford to be choosy. A title that glimmers on the edge of thought, a captivating historical fact, or a character who stops by unexpectedly to introduce herself engages me only briefly. My philosophy is that if I can forget a story idea, I should. If I need to write it down for fear of losing it, how will it be memorable to anyone else?
My Writing Process, Janalyn Voigt Edition
Developing a Story Idea
Ideas that force their way to the front of my mind, refusing to be ignored, are the ones I pursue—eventually. I often wait years to write a manuscript. Leaving the story in the fluid stage allows it to develop unencumbered by the words I will later assign it. Characters take on the familiarity of family members. The storyworld shifts into focus. Questions evolve pertaining to the plot or historical milieu, demanding research.
Finding the Theme
I pick up a pen and organize the things I need to find out into research domains. I spend time on initial novel research while doing my best to avoid being drawn sideways into unrelated topics. I ask myself why this story will matter to readers. I interview the characters, asking what they want and what keeps them awake at night. I ponder the story tone I want to set to create a certain mood for the reader. Does the location and historical setting suggest a treatment? From these initial considerations, a theme and story problem usually present themselves.
I brainstorm the plot, asking myself at every turn what else can happen to enrich the story and support the main theme. I don’t let my characters or myself off easy. If the story leads me into an epic battle I feel inadequate to describe, for example, I follow anyway. Trusting my storytelling instincts is the key to finding my way.
Sketching out a rough plot in Scrivener follows a three-act plot structure. I wait a day or two and look at it again. I break my final plot into scenes described in a sentence or two. This takes little time and most often prevents me from becoming stuck. With this minimal of an outline, I sometimes have to adjust the plot as I write, but that’s easy when I only have a couple of scene outline sentences to change. My hybrid plotting-pantsing method lets me feel my way through the story while saving me time needed for backtracking and editing.
Researching the Novel
I conduct any further research turned up by my plot, knowing I will find more to look up as I write. My rule of thumb for researching while writing is this: if a fact could change the plot, I stop and look it up. If it won’t change anything, I bold the section pertaining to the question and jot it in a separate document. After I finish the first draft, I work in the answers to the research questions I accumulated before revising the manuscript.
Setting Goals and Writing
The word count goals I now set take into account the time until my deadline and other projects vying for my attention. Once I know how much I need to accomplish per day, I begin writing. This involves timed writing stretches interspersed by physical activity. I fold laundry, do dishes, weed the garden, etc. If I’m using dictation to write my first draft, I might continue writing while I perform mundane tasks. Otherwise, I listen to podcasts or news. I time these breaks from writing also, using BeFocused, an iphone app.
Final Thoughts from Janalyn
I describe my editing process in How to Research: Checklists and Guidance for Fiction Writers. Subscribers download this guide for free.