The stages of forming a story

1. An initial premise

I get an idea from somewhere. Maybe I’d like to explore a plot, or I have an interesting idea for a character, or I saw a movie and was really displeased with how the writing/characterization/plot ended up. I spend some time, from a couple of weeks at the minimum to a couple of months at most, thinking things over in my head before I bother to start writing things down. By the time those months are over, things have typically changed quite a bit from my initial ideas.

2. Actually writing down the ideas kept from stage 1

Now I start writing things down. This either happens in on paper or in Google Docs (for some reason, I can’t do this in any other word processor). A lot of this is done in a stream-of-consciousness format. Readability or organization isn’t the point in this stage. I just want to get stuff down on paper and out of my head.

3. Proper worldbuilding, outlining, & characterization

At this point, I make some templates. These are based on the templates included in Scrivener, but formatted in a way I like. I have templates for characters and settings, as well as a general “notes” template I can use for things like magic, mythology, etc. I also make a timeline to keep track of events that happen in the story (as well as before the story, if they’re relevant).

For things like conlangs, I write up a grammar in Microsoft Word and keep track of the lexicon in Excel.

My outlines are fairly detailed; they’re essentially a description of everything that happens – scene by scene, chapter by chapter. As a result, the outline for each chapter is its own file in Scrivener.

This stage can take quite a while while I flesh things out. It also depends if it’s the main story I’m working on. If it is, then it might only take a few months. If it’s not, it could take years before I have the time to properly focus on it.

4. Actual writing

Now begins the actual writing phase! Most of the time I start off writing in prose, but something I’ve done in the past few years is start off with a relatively bare-bones script and transfer it to prose later. That way I don’t have to worry about finding the right word or describing things properly.

There is a problem with the script-to-prose approach: it takes me quite a while to add in the descriptions that should have been there from the beginning. This is something that happened with both The Book of Immortality and The Land of Two Moons.

From no plan and no outline to lots of plans and lots of outlining

As a kid, I never outlined anything. Maybe I’d write chapter summaries (that I never stuck to) and did character profiles (fun, and a good way to procrastinate) and some encyclopedia-like articles for planets & such (these are still fun), but I did not do what I would now consider “outlining”.

I never had to “outline” back then. When I was a preteen and teenager, I was full of ideas and writing was super easy. It wasn’t very good writing, and I often never got very far in any of my novels (especially before I started doing NaNoWriMo in 2008), but for the most part, I could sit down and write with no problem at all. I could easily work on three different novels a day and keep them all separate in my head with minimal notes written down.

For multiple reasons, this is next to impossible now that I am an adult. Not only do I have more responsibilities and a full-time job, but I also developed an autoimmune disorder halfway through university (which frequently gives me fatigue & brain fog). It’s difficult for me to keep track of things just in my head. Once I’m in the final plotting stages, I need to start writing things down or I will not remember them. An outline was optional in the past. It is now a necessity.

Since I’m frequently tired, emotionally and physically, it helps me a lot to have an outline to follow so I don’t have to do too much thinking on the fly. I have definitely seen advice saying to take days off and write when your health is better, but since my baseline is “mildly fatigued”, that advice doesn’t work. If I took off every day until I felt better, I’d never get anything done at all.

Also, the stories I write now are much more complex than the ones I wrote when I was a kid. If I don’t write down details, I won’t remember them. I need to make timelines to keep track of events, character profiles so I can keep track of characterization & backstory, location notes so I know where things are…

You get the point, I think. Things change.