Before Fingers Touch Keyboard: My 6 Pre-Writing Steps

Photo by -stamina- (click photo for link)Right now I'm writing a brand new novella, and as soon as I finish that, I'll be jumping right into book 4, CAUGHT UP IN YOU (which, for those of you reading the series, will be Kelsey's book.) This means I've been in the phase of story planning. 

Now I'm a pantser, so even that word "planning" kind of makes my writing muscles quiver. But I've learned over the course of writing...six books--whoa, when did that happen--that jumping in like a blindfolded monkey isn't the way to go. At least for me.

With each completed novel, I've learned a lot and am constantly honing and refining my process. It's not perfect. I still hit a big, fat wall of writer's block with my last book and ended up being over deadline. But that was less about my writing process and more about me going through  The 5 Emotional Stages of a Book Launch  for the first time and not knowing any better.

But I figured I'd share with y'all what I do as of right now when that seed of an idea blooms in my head and I decide if it's going to be a story.


My 6 Pre-Writing Steps

1. I spend days of "thinking" time. Running the story in my head, getting a feel for who the characters will be, how it will connect with my series, etc.

These usually feel like unproductive days because I'm just sitting and staring, discarding ideas left and right, shifting things around in my brain. But this step is, of course, crucial. It's story birth--messy and primal.


2. I find my hook.

What is going to be the hook of this story? What's that quick logline? If I can't find one, then maybe this isn't a story idea to pursue. There has to be something that makes someone go--oh, I want to read that. For instance, my novella coming out next month, STILL INTO YOU, my hook was "A husband who loves his wife but knows his marriage has lost its fire hears his wife call into a relationship radio show and admit she almost cheated on him. Knowing that they may be on the verge of divorce, he comes up with a dramatic plan and brings her to The Ranch where any fantasy can be had. Three days. No rings." See, it's a little long and clunky. If I had to pitch it to an agent, I'd have to refine it but the hook is there.


3. Fill out the Beat Sheet from Blake Snyder's Save the Cat.

As I've mentioned before , Save The Cat! totally converted me from my full pantsing ways. I don't think I'll ever be an outliner or someone who writes thirty pages of synopsis. But this simple one sheet way of plotting using screenwriting techniques speaks to me. I can roughly plan the story on one piece of paper and it doesn't take much time at all. You can see the Beat Sheet on Blake's site but you'll need to read the book to understand what those beats mean.


4. I flesh out my characters using a technique I learned in a Michael Hauge workshop (another screenwriter).

This is another one page deal. Each main character gets one sheet--so usually hero, heroine, and antagonist. And then I write out the following things--Need/Longing, Wound, Belief, Fear, Identity (their face to the world), Essence (who they really are). This gives me the main building blocks and makes me think more deeply about who this character is and what their arc will look like. What their hair color is or what kind of movies they like isn't all that important until you know these underlying things first. Everything will grow out of these roots.


5. I write out a brief one page synopsis for my editor.

I used to freak out at the thought of writing a synopsis after I finished a book. And I would've had a panic attack if you'd told me I'd have to write one BEFORE I wrote the book. But now it's part of the deal. Your editor wants to see your idea before they pay you to write it. And let me tell you, writing it beforehand is SO much easier, especially once you get the hang of the Beat Sheet or 3-act structure. I now can whip out a synopsis in an hour or two because the pre-work is there. (That's not to say things in the synopsis won't change once I'm writing the story, but if you keep the story strokes general enough, it usually still fits within the original idea.)


6. I come up with a hooky opening scene and spend some time visualizing it.

Usually the opening scene or ideas for it come to me early on in step one of this process. Often, my story ideas are born from first getting an idea for an opening. And almost always, that first chapter is one of the few that never change, even in revisions. There may be a tweaked sentence here or there, but I've never changed major content or cut my original first chapter in any book so far. That's my mental anchor for the whole story.

Then after all those things are done, I start writing. The stuff in between the story beats, I pants my way through and inevitably discover new directions. And things shift along the way--a change in character motivation means I rework the character worksheet, a change in plot means I tweak the beat sheet. It's all very organic.

So that's my whackadoodle process, what's yours like? Do we share any steps? Are there things I do that would totally freak your writer brain out?

The (Not So) Dreaded Synopsis

We've all heard the term the "dreaded synopsis", right? Yes, that horrible beast of thing you have to write summarizing a whole 100k book into just a few scant pages. It's like a dark cloud hanging over you. I know I'm not the only one who queried the agents who didn't require a synopsis first just so I could avoid writing  the damn thing. (Tell me I'm not the only one who did that.)

I mean, what's to like about the thing? You have to cut out parts you want to put in, your voice can get drained because you have so little room to work with, you don't have space to talk about that kickass secondary character you worked in. God, why do agents/editors put us through this form of torture? *insert melodramatic music here*

Okay, so I thought all those things. Every time I had to write a synopsis for a completed book I wanted to bang my head with a blunt object. It was painful. The writing, not the banging, I didn't actually do the blunt object thing. 

So when I got my *cue angels singing* book deal, I thought--yay, down with the queries and synopses for-evah!


Queries and synopses NEVER go away, dude. They just get called different things. The synopsis becomes a proposal and then the query becomes writing your back cover copy. (Yes, you will end up writing a lot of your back cover copy because the marketing department hasn't read your book so probably aren't going to get the blurb just right.)

And guess what, with proposals, now you have to write your synopsis BEFORE YOU WRITE THE BOOK. *plugs ears to block out the collective screams of pantsers everywhere* 

As a pantser, I can tell you I was absolutely terrified of doing this. I don't plot ahead. I don't know what the story is going to look like until I write it. I actually was trying to figure out how I could write the book really fast just so I didn't have to write up a proposal. But alas, I'm not that fast of a writer. And yes, it'd actually be kind of nice to get a book deal and confirmation that said book will be published one day before I write the actual book.

So after going to a few workshops on writing synopses, off I went to draft synopses for books 3 and 4 with deep fear in my heart.

And guess what I discovered?

Writing them before you've written the book is SO MUCH EASIER. Like wow. Like I finished one synopsis each day. For reals. And Sara, my lovely agent, liked them!

And I realized all this time why writing them after is so hard. After you've finished the book, you know every little detail and nuance of your story. You have a buttload of information you're trying cut down to the bones. But all that content can overwhelm you. You can lose perspective on what is most important to get across.

However, when you try to draft it before you've written the story, all you can do is write it in broad strokes. You don't know the details yet, so you only focus on the big turning points. And bam--there's your synopsis. 

I'd heard of people writing queries before writing their books and thought that was nuts, but now I get it. You're not locking yourself into some strict guideline like an outline would. You're just giving yourself a general map. You put yourself on the right highway even though you may take unexpected side streets along the way. It's really been a revelation to me.

So here are my...

Five Quick and Dirty Tips For Writing a Synopsis:


1. Try writing it before you write your story--even if you're a pantser. (Haven't you been listening to my testimonial? "This is life-changing, man"--she says in her Cheech & Chong voice)

2. Set aside a paragraph each for your two (or three) main characters at the beginning and fill in their backstory.

This was something I learned in the workshops I went to. We often get bogged down in the synopsis because we're in present tense and trying to work in the characters' backstories at the same time, which makes things feel disjointed. So just pull the backstory out as a separate thing. You can structure the synopsis with headings like this:

  • Hero--His backstory and the important little tidbits about him (one paragraph)
  • Heroine--Her backstory and a few things about her. (one paragraph)
  • Antagonist/Villain/Etc--one paragraph
  • Summary: "As the story opens..."<--This is where the summary starts. Your opening. You can focus on the action now that the backstory is already fleshed out.

3. Don't worry about subplots and all your secondary characters. 

Stay focused on the main plot thread, goal, motivation, conflict, and characters.

4. Don't lose your voice.

I went to one workshop where the presenter said you pretty much have to lose your voice in a synopsis. I totally disagree. I have read and written some very voice-heavy synopsis and think they're more compelling that way. (Note: This is not writing the summary in the voice of your character, but in your author voice and style. If your story is dark and  ominous, your synopsis should read that way as well.)

5. Get in and get out.

Yes, you'll read on some websites that a synopsis can be one page for every 20 pages of prose. Well, really, who wants to write and/or read that long a synopsis? If I wrote one that long, I'd no longer want to write the story because I would've already told it (the pantser brain.) You can summarize a full-length novel in 1-5 single-spaced pages in my opinion. My synopsis for book 3, including the character paragraphs, was 2.5 pages. The one for book four was 3.5. If you're venturing into 8-10 page land, you haven't cut it down to the most important parts yet.

So there, try those things and I bet you'll be able to scratch out that "dreaded" that always precedes the word "synopsis". You may even find it *gasp* fun like I did.

So how do you feel about the synopsis? Have you ever tried writing one before you write the story? If so, are you a plotter or pantser? What tips do you have that help you write a synopsis?

*This is a repost from Fiction Groupie last year. I'll be back from RT Con tomorrow and will return to my normal blog schedule. :)