Have you ever wanted to look under the hood of another writer’s process? Although we all have to create the unique processes that work for us as individuals, it’s always valuable to see what works for other authors—and specifically how those authors evolve each scene in their stories from idea to finished product.
Today, I’m going to give you a sneak peek into my personal process, by showing you the step-by-step evolution of the first scene in my recently completed historical steampunk work-in-progress Storming (click for the story summary). I chose to use this manuscript for the examples, both since it’s freshest in my mind and since its prep work is by far the least convoluted of all my books, and therefore much more likely to be decipherable to others.
Scene #1 in the General Sketches
I begin my outline by writing down what I already know about any given scene. For Storming’s opening scene, all I wrote was:
Jael is from Storming. Someone’s after her. She jumps and lands on Hitch’s plane.
Scene #1 in the Extended Outline
After I’ve finished my general sketches, in which I list all the known plot points, fill in the blanks, and try to solve all obvious plot holes, I progress to the extended outline. This is where I delve deeper into each scene and start figuring out the nuts and bolts of the story.
The story opens with Jael’s fall from the sky. Hitch is flying along when—whammo!—his plane gets smacked by a woman. He and his troupe have already arrived in Scottsbluff. It’s night time. Hitch is off for a solo flight (with his dog). And he’s doing it partially for enjoyment, partially to reacquaint himself with his home area, and partially to test something on the plane. He flies over the Hitchcock farm, etc. But all that can be told briefly, just enough to present his mindset and offer a little hook regarding his rocky return.
There’s a respected barnstormer—a Buffalo Bill type—whom Hitch knows is going to be at Scottsbluff right at that time. Colonel Livingstone is rumored to be retiring, and Hitch is hoping to impress him into giving Hitch management of the circus.
I think we’ll start the very first sentence with Jael’s dropping in.
Zlo also falls from the sky, straight to the lake.
Hitch is shocked, of course, but also reactive. When Jael smacks into the plane, she damages it in some significant but not mortal way.
She needs to catch fire somehow—without the engine being endangered . . . Maybe he lights a match or something, trying to see (and she could be covered in grease from one of Storming’s engines). She catches dramatically on fire, loses her grip on the plane and topples off, landing rather conveniently in Lake Minatare (or possibly some smaller pond, as the geographic needs dictate).
So Hitch takes a few minutes to get a grip on himself. Then, of course, because he fears for the life of this strange woman, he buzzes low over the lake, trying to find her. When he sees her swimming for shore, he follows her for a bit, before she ducks into the trees. Then he has to move on and find some place to land.
By the time he and the dog get back to shore and find her and Zlo’s footprints, they are long gone. He follows the tracks until he loses them in the brush, but he’s convinced from the sight of them that she’s okay. So he heads back to camp.
Goal: Test the new engine
Conflict: Jael smashing into the plane
Disaster: Generally, Jael’s disappearance, and, specifically, the broken plane.
Scene #1 in the Abbreviated Outline
Once I’ve finished the extended outline for the entire book, I summarize it in a point-by-point “abbreviated” outline. In this instance, the above scene became merely:
Jael falls onto Hitch’s plane.
Scene #1 in the First Draft
And now we’re ready to start writing! Our little seed of an idea is about to stick its first green bud above ground. I won’t include the entire first scene here, but following is enough to give you an idea how the outline ended up getting fleshed out:
Flying a biplane, especially one as rickety as a war surplus JN-4D, meant being ready for anything. But in Hitch’s thirteen years of experience, this was the first time “anything” had meant a body falling out of the night sky smack onto his fuselage.
True enough that flying and falling just kind of went together. Not in a good sort of way, but in a way you couldn’t escape. Airplanes fell out of the clouds, and pilots fell out of their airplanes. Not on purpose, of course, but it did happen sometimes, like when some dumb palooka forgot to buckle his safety belt, then decided to try flying upside down. Whoops. Splat.
Flying and falling, freedom and dependence, air and earth. Just the way it was. But whatever it was that was doing the falling always had to be falling from some place. There was no such thing as just falling out of the sky, ’cause nothing was up there to fall out of.
Which didn’t at all explain the thud that smashed into the fuselage right behind his rear cockpit. The Jenny’s tail ducked hard, and the new Hisso engine Earl had just installed whined and whirred. The tail slewed to the right, and the whole thing started to sideslip. In the front cockpit, Taos turned around, forepaws on the back of the seat, brown ears blowing in the wind, yapping his head off.
The wind blasted past Hitch’s leather helmet and tore away all chance at hearing what was going on behind him. Judging from the sludgy feel of the stick, whatever had hit him was still back there.
He anchored the stick with both hands and twisted a look over first his right shoulder, then his left. A dark mass, shiny and rippling, like fabric blowing in the wind, clung to the fuselage. He turned farther. The mass moved. A hand emerged from the fabric and glowed white in the streaks of moonlight. The hand reached farther, scrabbling for a handhold against the red-painted balsa wood. And then a grease-streaked face emerged, hair blowing, eyes wide, mouth open.
On the back of his Jenny, a woman he’d never seen before—a woman in a gigantic ball gown—hung on for dear life.
Scene #1 in the Final Draft
Even I don’t know how the final product is going to end up looking (you’ll just have to remember to read the book when it comes out in a few years!). But, based on all my previous books, the final draft is sure to look quite a bit different from how it does now. It’ll be edited, fact-checked, and re-written within an inch of its life probably.So what’s the takeaway here? Well, aside from just being a demonstration of my personal writing process, from outline to first draft, it should be a reminder that every scene in every story is an evolution. If your latest draft isn’t looking quite to up to snuff in comparison to that bestseller you just finished reading, don’t worry about it. Even bestsellers have to start out as seeds.
Tell me your opinion: How has your story changed from your original conception of it?
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