Monday, October 18, 2010


 I don't mean special little snowflakes.

For years, I've read about people participating in National Novel Writing Month, but it seemed so different from the way that I write that I didn't get involved. This year, I decided to take on the challenge. Normally, on the strength of a good opening and a vague idea of the end of the story, I dive in head first and figure out the middle stuff as I write it. This is known as being a panster - as in "By the seat of your pants."  Normally, I'm not too keen on the idea of an outline. It seems too rigid. But this is my chance to try new things, and veterans of former years advised prep work, so I've spent a lot of time this month getting my act together.

I'm using Randy Ingermanson's snowflake method of writing. Instead of sweating out the dreaded synopsis after writing the novel, in the snowflake method, you write the synopsis first. Actually, the first thing you write is a single sentence that summarizes your story. His advice was to look at the New York Times bestseller's list for examples, so I did. Talk about being forced to truly focus on what your story is about! In a way, that wasn't such a foreign idea for me, since I had a note on my computer that said, "What is the story about?" to remind myself to stay on theme as I wrote. I found out that there's a huge difference between nebulously knowing what the story is about and writing it down. He says take an hour to write it. I wrote mine in ten minutes, came back to it days later, worked on it some more, and finally had a version I liked a week later. I had moved on to the other steps, something he says is fine to do, but kept going back to the beginning. As that one sentence took shape, the later steps were easier.

The second step was to write a five-sentence paragraph that tells the beginning, middle, and end of the story. (That's not exactly the way he puts it. I advise searching the internet for his steps as he has other helpful advice.) I struggled over this part since, as I said, I usually waffle the middle part until I write it. 

This is my approach to mentally outlining a novel in a nutshell:

However, "and then some stuff happens" isn't an option in writing the five-sentence paragraph, so I had to focus on an actual chain of events. Whoa! The nebulous suddenly had shape! It wasn't "sort of an idea" anymore. It was beginning to look like a real plot.
As I worked on step 3, the character sketches, I went back to tweak the paragraph in step 2 because with every word I put down about my characters not only did they come more into focus, so did the story.

In step 4, I took my paragraph from Step 2 and expanded on each sentence. I realized that I almost had in mind too much story (a frequent problem of mine), so I cut back to the most exciting, tightly focused part of the story. Having too many characters is also a problem, so I kept the action between the two main characters and an important secondary, but it also gave me an idea of the supporting cast I would need.

 Step 5 is telling the story from each main character's POV. He calls this a character synopsis. By now, the word synopsis has been used so much in this process that I no longer flinch when I see it. I think that's a good thing.

That's all I've done thus far with the ten steps, but I work at it every day. While I thought this approach would kill my creativity, all it does is change the order in which I create. Instead of wondering twenty thousand words into the novel what happens next, I'm figuring that out now.  It seems much more efficient.


  1. Hi, Kathleen,

    When I read the link about the snowflake process, my reaction was, "No way!" You make it sound almost plausible.

    Would you be willing to share the results of the first couple of steps?


  2. Lisabet - I think writers intuitively do many of these steps but store them in their brains instead of typing them into a document. Since you've written book proposals, you've probably already worked from about step 5 back toward step 1.

  3. Kathleen,

    I'm going to have to share this link with my learners. There is too much good stuff here.


  4. Ash - I'm flattered. And I can't wait to read what you have to say.

  5. Actually this is very useful information.

    I'm going to cut and paste this into my writer's notebook and keep it handy in the future.



  6. Garce - I suggest doing a search for his article, because he has much more information on the process than I gave, and some good advice. I'd also advise searching for the New York Times Bestseller List to see great examples of the one sentence summery. Talk about tight writing!


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