Ask Stella – Caroline Penland

How long does it take you to write a novel and how detailed is your outline? -Caroline Penland

Dear Caroline,

The time varies by novel, but once I actually start writing, I aim for a complete draft in seven to nine months. After that, an editing and rewriting phase takes a few more months.  While I’m editing one book, I’m starting the next. As I write this, Concierge (available Summer 2017) is in the editing and rewriting phase, and I’m conceptualizing Insertion (available 2018).

Details, Details, Details – But Not a Neat Outline

Although I spend significant pre-writing time conceptualizing the story, I don’t organize my pre-writing thoughts into an “outline” format. Here’s a rough idea of the pre-writing details I formulate: I develop the parameters of the Black Raven job that will drive the story and research thematic elements. Backstory for the hero, heroine, villain, and other important characters is developed, as I formulate goals, motivation, and conflict for key characters. Research regarding story setting is added to the mix. After playing endless rounds of a “what-if” game, sometimes with others and often by myself, I develop points for scenes and turning points for the story. In the Cherry Adair-style of plotting by color (see below), I assign colors for the threads of the story. Using about a million post-it notes, I lay out the scenes and points on a poster board. I then stare at the board, analyze the threads of character development, romantic tension, action, and suspense, etc., and endlessly rearrange the post-its.

At first, conceptualizing is fun. Then, when my head is bursting with ideas, I begin writing with the goal of writing new content every day until the story is complete. As I write, I deviate from my pre-writing ideas, and my “outline” becomes pieces of paper that are taped, clipped, and pinned all over my office. Upon completing Concierge, one of the bulletin boards in my office looked like this:

Spoiler Alert – there could be spoilers buried in the mess of notes on that board, but I doubt it. My stories change as I write; the notes that I scribble and post everywhere tend to simply be a way to capture subconscious, shorthand thoughts that bubble to the surface of my mind when I have a work in progress. Once my entire office looks like that bulletin board, and especially when I’m editing, scribbled progress notes in an old-fashioned composition book become an integral part of my writing process. The mess pictured on that bulletin board, along with other notes that were strewn everywhere around my office, inspired an office reorganization and decluttering that took days!

Tools That Help Me Conceptualize

To aid with conceptualizing the details that make up a story, a helpful tool I’ve discovered is from Cherry Adair, a NYT Bestselling Author, who loves to teach and encourage new writers. She teaches classes on plotting, and I was fortunate to attend a conference where she taught. Although my pre-writing notes aren’t nearly as organized as what the Cherry Adair method  of  Plotting by Color suggests, by practicing her method I’ve learned to develop the threads of a story so that (hopefully!) my scenes are multi-dimensional. I also like the Writers’ Bible by Cherry Adair for a handy, concise, memory jogger as I conceptualize my novels. Another resource I routinely use is Goal, Motivation & Conflict by Debra Dixon. I also re-read On Writing by Stephen King.

There are other resources I turn to as I plot and write. Some are technical, others provide inspiration. Frankly, I could read endlessly about how to become a better writer, because the process fascinates me. But I’ve learned that there is only one way to write a book. For me, it’s all about spending time in the writing chair and actually trying, over and over again.

Thank you for the question!

Take care,