I suck at writing novels. I’m not being down on myself, it’s just a simple truth. Unfortunately, I would like to write novels for a living one day. So yeah, those two things kind of collide in the worst way possible.

In many ways, being a writer is like being one of those dudes that spins plates. I’m not really sure if there’s a technical name for that, and I really don’t feel like Googling “that dude who spins plates”, but I’m sure you get the gist of it. Basically, with first drafts, there’s always something else to fix. Whether it’s general copy, something thematic, a dumb character, a bad piece of dialogue or just terrible story crafting, some plate is always going to be wobbling. You might drive yourself mad trying to keep up with it all.

I learned this hard lesson firsthand last year, when I spent most of my creative juices fumbling through the wreckage of the first draft of In the Blood, the silly young adult monster hunter book I’ve been working on. Having never attempted a second draft before, my approach was ridiculous. For a while, I spun my wheels copy editing. This was satisfying at first. Hooray, I could say. My words are changing from crap to less crap! Look at all the progress I’m making! But that feeling soon fades once you understand just how broken your 100,000 word mess actually is. Looking back on it, it’s painfully obvious how stupid it was — why go through the trouble of making something sound pretty when the content isn’t even locked?

After a couple of months of copy-editing, I realized that I was, in fact, going to have to scrap a good third of the story altogether. That blow took a bit of time to fade, but when it did, I hit the story hard and focused all my energy on fixing it. But then I ran into the problem I mentioned earlier: too many spinning plates. The father/son themes were wildly inconsistent. The story itself didn’t make a lot of sense. I was forcing my main character into situations he didn’t belong. The climax needed to move back to his home town. The home town needed to be just as much of a character as Gabe. How could I fix all of it at the same time?

So I decided to stick to one plate for the second draft. It was the only thing that made sense to me. I would make each draft about a new plate that I needed to fix within the story itself. I’m not sure if it was the best way, but it was how I finally powered through and got the thing done. I had to ignore all the other plates that were screaming for my attention.

Now, with the monumental task of yet another draft of the story ahead of me, I’m wondering if there’s a better way to write a book. Fortunately, my good buddy Jeff James linked me to an interesting thing called the Snowflake Method, wherein writer Randy Ingermanson poses a more formulaic approach to writing.

The basic idea coincides with making a paper snowflake. You make a shape with a piece of paper, then you make the shape again, and you keep repeating the shape until you unfold the creation and an intricate snowflake is born. He proposes that writing a novel works the same way. Step 1: write a sentence about what your novel is about. Step 2: turn that sentence into a paragraph, with each sentence representing an act or turn in the story. After that, you turn each sentence into its own paragraph, building out the story piece by piece. Eventually, you’re writing a page long description of each character, along with page long descriptions of each individual act.

The whole thing sounds a bit daunting, but it forces you to work out the kinks in your story before you end up in my situation — staring at a third draft and wondering how the heck to fix it without ripping the whole thing to shreds in frustration. So far, I’m using the Snowflake Method for my new project, and I have to say the results are more than satisfactory. I’ll admit that it removes some of the spontaneity of discovery writing, but it’s also forcing me to confront problems at a much simpler level than holding several chapters in my hand and curling into a brown ball on the floor.

I’m definitely curious to see if it makes tackling the first draft any easier once I’m finished, but for now I’m taking my time and seeing how much I can figure out before I jump into something new.

So how do you guys approach writing or working on new projects? Have you ever tried something like the Snowflake Method, or do you tend to wing things more?

The Snowflake Method

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