As much as I love technology and can’t imagine writing a full novel on anything but a computer, when it comes to working out story problems and doing advance story planning I need pen and paper. The cheaper the better. That photo up there is a piece of clearance typing paper and a Bic stick pen I used to sketch out the pieces of the synopsis I’m working on.
That’s right, I’m writing a synopsis. This is the most advance planning I’ve ever done on a book and so far I’ve been really happy with the results. All of my prior novel experiences went with some version of this process: Get an idea, noodle over the idea until I have an opening scene and a first plot point to work toward and then jump in and start writing. This led to much frustration, several abandoned efforts, and months and months and months of lost writing time due to working out story problems on the fly because it’s the only way I knew how to work.
I’ve tried outlining a few times in the past but never put much effort into it. All of this was mostly academic as I trunk novel after trunk novel. But once I had a book contract and a deadline that I blew past several times, I knew something needed to change if I was going to ever get anyone to pay me to write books on a regular basis. After a conversation with my publisher I wrote up a one page synopsis for a third Dominick book I had an idea for but there was another book I wanted to write as well that I knew had the potential to cause me massive amounts of trouble if I didn’t outline it ahead of time.
I’ve called this book Project Level Up because I want it to be bigger and deeper and more emotional and more commercial. I also wanted it to have more of a plot than a stupid guy doing stupid stuff and writing what kind of trouble he gets himself into. So I started with a one page synopsis of that idea that I liked, but it glossed over a lot of what I thought could be problem areas.
My publisher suggested I write a 4-5 synopsis instead to see how it held up. I thought that was a great idea and started noodling through ideas and taking notes and piece by piece the skeleton of a story began to form. I still didn’t have enough of the story though to start a synopsis so I started writing some of the book instead. That helped open the characters for me and after a few pages, off I went again to work through the back end of the synopsis.
A couple of days ago I finally had all of the elements of the story I thought I needed, a beginning, a middle, and an end scratched out on paper and started putting it on the page in narrative format. This is when I realized the true brilliance of a long synopsis. I was able to see the entire story all at once, good and bad. I could see I had an awesome opening and lots of great story for the first half of the book, but I could also see I was still skimping on the backend of the story, specifically the second half of the second act. So I shifted stuff around and now I’m left with a really strong first act, a really strong third act, and a gaping hole in the middle I need to think about quite a bit more.
Part of the problem was the middle of the book was turning into a type of book I didn’t want to write. This is supposed to be a family tragedy, smaller scale personal struggle kind of crime novel but I had scenes that were turning it into a drug dealer thriller. And let me tell you, finding those holes was frustrating, because I thought I was done with the synopsis, but I’m so much happier about finding those problems at this stage rather than being 200 pages into the book and a month away from my deadline.
I’m still kind of panicked that I won’t be able to fix this gaping hole in the middle of my story and this story is too big or to complicated for me and that I’ll fall back into my old habits and lazy storytelling, but at least I haven’t invested a ton of time in this monster yet and fingers crossed that with enough thinking and a few long drives in the car with the radio off that something will come to me.