I’m sure you’ve heard the proverb “there are many ways to skin a cat.” I myself find this phrase distasteful, if not downright alarming. However, the general idea is still relevant, especially to writing.
Let’s rephrase it. There are many ways to write a book. (Be nice to cats.)
Part of writing long-form narratives is discovering what works best for us. Learn how others write, but don’t feel the need to copy them.
I’ve found a process that works for me. I didn’t invent it, but so far as I know, I did invent the name for it. I call it chunk writing (patent pending).
No, chunk writing is not treating yourself to chunks of food while writing (though it could be, if that works for you). Chunk writing—or at least the version of it I’d like to describe today—is exactly what it sounds like: writing a story in chunks. They need not be, and often aren’t, in chronological order. Rather, you come up with individual scenes you’re excited about, write them, then string them together.
I begin chunk writing with a character. Imagine, for example, a story about a cat named Mittens who’s searching for his favorite litter box. (The main character is a cat because I like cats. Also, we’re still making amends to the cat community for that comment at the beginning.)
It’s often best to start with a character you love. Character should almost always drive plot, so be sure you’re invested in this person (or feline). You could also start with a setting, or a scene, or a line of dialogue. Again, writing is all about what works best for you.
Once you’ve found your starting point, write it down on an index card. Or a word document, a piece of paper, a stone tablet—whatever you dig most. Ask yourself some questions: Who is this character? What is this character searching for? Familiarize yourself with your character.
Most stories are about a journey; characters start somewhere, then end up somewhere else. With that thought in mind, write an index card for the beginning of your story and another for the end. The challenge is getting from one point to the other.
For this part, I tend to focus on the scenes I’m most excited to write. This keeps me invested in the story I’m telling.
Let’s jump back to the story of Mittens the crusading cat. One scene I’m hyped to write is the one where Mittens confronts his nemesis, the vacuum cleaner. Therefore, this should be one of the first notecards I create. You can fill in the less important (and sometimes less interesting) transitional chapters later.
Elmore Leonard said that you shouldn’t bother writing the parts your readers will skip. While you might want to write them anyway and cut them from the final product, the index card method gives you a preliminary feel for your chapters. If the index card itself feels boring or unimportant, you might not commit time to fleshing it out.
Pulling It All Together
Once I’ve got some index cards I’m excited about, I start writing! At this stage, I don’t worry about revisions. I might go back and switch out an index card or make some mental notes for later. The most important thing is just to get the words down.
While chunk writing might sound like a lot of work upfront, I’ve found that it creates a better final product. For me, it gives direction without the rigidity of an outline.
Everyone’s writing process is different. I hope these tips prove useful, but I doubt the exact same methods will work for you. Just keep writing, and keep discovering. And be nice to cats.