Stories are magic.
You’ve probably seen the joke that reading is nothing more than staring at the tattooed remains of trees and hallucinating vividly. But like, yeah. It is. A collective hallucination guided by the hand of the author.
That hallucination—that conjured kaleidoscope of sensations and emotions—takes us to places we never would have expected and makes us feel things for people who never even existed. It takes a strong witch to craft something out of nothing, let alone something that glows from within like that. It takes a lot of spell work.
When readers pick up that tattooed tree husk, a lot of them don’t know how many spells we’ve cast between the pages. A lot of them don’t understand how many times we’ve shaped and reshaped the cantrip, how many times we’ve offered four shots of espresso at the altar of the writing gods, and just how many times we thought we were playing with forces far outside of our control.
Most readers don’t understand how long of a journey it is from start to finish. But we do.
We know how hard it is to make someone hallucinate the same damn thing as you. Which means that once we realize we’ve got a taste for magic, we wander off in search of masters to teach us the spell work. Ways to make it easer. Ways to make it better.
That little bit of fairy dust that lets us fly.
When I started this blog, I made sure to start off with two very basic claims:
there’s no one way to write a novel
no one knows what they’re doing.
That’s worth repeating because I’m about to spit off a multi-part series on how to take a book idea from start to finish… and y’all, I’m serious when I say you can trash every fucking second of it if you want. I have thoughts—things that have worked for me—but I haven’t yet taken a book from start to finish, technically. I haven’t gotten one over the finish line in the traditional sense. My first bout with the query trenches left me buried.
But I’ve certainly cast my fair share of spells, even if most were half-formed and mumbled and burning at the edges. If that experience can help someone, then cool. If not, trash it. Seriously. Don’t let anyone convince you they have the keys to the kingdom. If you have to blast a hole in the wall and walk your own damn self through in order to write a book you’re happy with, then so be it. Experts be damned.
Why start to finish?
This series is actually a request. If you’re following me on Instagram, you’ve seen my super Type A way of organizing beta feedback and turning that into a revision plan for Draft 3. A few people popped into my DMs to ask if I’d written blog posts about that phase of my process, so I thought I’d see if more people were interested. Turns out yes, they were, and they were also interested to see the other phases that came before and will come after. Which, to be honest, is flattering as hell for an unpublished writer!!
Plus that sounds a little easier to manage at the moment than, say, you know, lit theory.
So here we are!
As of right now, I have roughly eight posts planned: the spark of an idea, early plotting, drafting, self-edits, running the beta phase, collecting and sorting beta feedback into a revision plan, revisions, and maybe querying. Though I’m a hella plantser, so we’ll see (this post originally was meant to be included as a small intro in the spark post, so…)
The posts will function on two major levels: simple how-tos and philosophizing about the logic that gets me from point A to point B. The latter will feel very familiar to you if you’ve been along for the blog ride so far.
Write Like You Did It On Purpose is about taking the tools I’ve learned as a critical reader (i.e. an almost English prof) to help me leverage the patterns I see on the drafted page. The process by which I do that is lovingly called Observation, Analysis, and Synthesis or Obs / An / Synth for short.
notice striking words, images, motifs, patterns
discuss what effect these patterns produce
so what? Explain why this effect matters
We’ve explored this process in its original context—close reading—but what I love about Obs / An / Synth is that it doesn’t have to be limited to just that context. You can use it to disassemble a completed work, sure, but you can also use it to assemble a book idea into something more complete. Reverse engineering, if you will.
Obs / An / Synth is a literary method
Just like the scientific method is a way of approaching scientific inquiry, Obs / An / Synth is a mode of thinking, a series of questions or stages of mental work that help you engage critically with stories—no matter what form they’re in.
Let’s take a quick second to remind ourselves of this literary method in its original context so you can see what I mean.
When literature students are confronted with a big term paper, a lot of times they jump to the end before they’ve started at the beginning. I have to write 10 pages. I have to say something brilliant. I have to analyze Antigone to get an A. Students take those end goals and try to jump into the deep end with them. They’ll craft a thesis out of thin air and start trying to say something brilliant about the whole of the book by grabbing quotes from the internet and slamming them into their carefully crafted paper structure.
And to be honest, a lot of the pre-writing exercises taught in K-12 facilitate this kind of jumping.
Do you remember those five paragraph block outline doo-dads?
What those block outlines do is teach paper structure. Start with your thesis, then find your topic sentences of your body paragraphs, explore some evidence, and then restate your thesis and topic sentences in the conclusion.
But here’s the thing. Papers are the finished product.
Like I said before, we writers know there’s a lot of work that goes into a book before it gets published by Simon & Shuster. That same work needs to happen before students turn in a paper. Yet we set students up to think the finished product is the process:
Thesis first, body next, evidence last.
That kind of work is all well and good when you’re teaching middle schoolers how to write five paragraph essays with no primary or secondary sources, but the problem is there’s not always an intervention when those middle schoolers become high school seniors in AP Lit classes. Those seniors then take that top-down, finished-product-first way of thinking and then start with the brilliant thesis without first observing what the text is actually doing.
They don’t let the text speak for itself. Literary mansplaining, if you will.
In grad school and academia at large, there’s a bit of a return to top-down reasoning—the point there is to be brilliant. But in high school and college, when students aren’t totally comfortable with literary scholarship yet, it often results in forcing square pegs into round holes. Putting words in the text’s mouth that don’t belong there. Or, to use our little joke, having a different hallucination than the rest of us.
This is where you get the stereotype that English class is all about bullshitting your way to an A. If you’re good at it, then the worst it does is invalidate the whole field for you as totally subjective / anything-goes. If you’re not so good at it, it can be scary and uncomfortable. A bad trip, if you will. And a bad grade.
When I teach high school or college level paper writing, I ask my students to use the inverse of the block outline doo-dad. I ask them to approach literary scholarship from the bottom-up. Don’t start with a thesis—start with an observation.
Do the work first. Then turn it into a finished product.
Observation in critical work is noticing something striking and digging for more evidence of that pattern—finding more instances that go with the thing you first saw. Then you can organize those patterns into blocks, which will then become the body paragraphs where you analyze what effect those patterns have and where you synthesize why those effects are important.
Evidence first, body next, thesis last.
Bottom-up scholarship is just putting one foot in front of the other instead of trying to jump to the end. And in my experience, it makes things sooooo much easier. With this method, you literally can build an entire 60-page honors project based on something you noticed in one sentence. You saw that one sentence first, and then you went from there. It was the seed of a much larger plant. The spark of a fire.
Creative Bottom-Up Reasoning
I’ve spent all this time waxing nostalgic about your English class you’d probably rather forget because the same goes for creative writing.
Books don’t come out of the earth as fully formed redwoods. They start as seeds. And then you have to provide them with warmth and sun and water—nourishing, being patient, allowing them to grow, pruning, taking care of any pests or fungi that sprout up along the way.
Books are the finished product, not the process. There’s a lot of work that we have to do first before we have a draft on our hands. And I use Obs / An / Synth as my literary method of doing that very work.
In the creative context, observation is both the first noticing a potential story seed and also the commitment to looking for more inspiration. Analysis, like in scholarship, is breaking it all apart—thinking about what that spark is doing and what effect it has on you as a potential writer and as a future reader. And then synthesis, as always, is the so what: why bother running with that particular spark? Why does this tiny spark of an idea matter in the larger context of a story?
If that all seems daunting or confusing just now, it’s because I’m giving you the whole thesis. But don’t worry, we’ll spend a few body paragraphs (re: blog posts) exploring the nuances of what I mean.
But the main gist is that we have to let our stories be sparks before they can be forest fires. We have to trust the process of putting one foot in front of the other instead of jumping all the way to the end. And we have to stop comparing our mess of process to other authors’ finished products.
What to Expect
Eight posts in eight weeks? We’ll see if my little plantser heart sticks to that outline. And if I actually stick to a dang posting schedule this time.
In any case, in these posts, we’ll talk more about how Obs / An / Synth is a literary method that helps me chase down story ideas.
We’ll also talk about nitty-gritty detail stuff: how I use Pinterest and Spotify algorithms to collect the ~vibe~, how I set up my scrivener notes doc before drafting, how I sort through beta feedback, how I roadmap my revision plan with the cutest motherfucking eight-dollar corkboard from Walmart I ever did see. Which, more than likely, is what those people who ended up in my DMs were really after anyway.
That being said, you can come for the how-tos and stay for the obs / an / synth, or you can just skim and cherry pick. As always, any writing advice I ever give should be taken with a grain of salt. From my own experience, not every approach to writing a novel works for every person.
I mean, heck, I’m a plantser, and not everyone is. Some people need to plot out every scene, and other people will feel bored and stifled if they don’t have the freedom of a blank page. There’s no one way to write a novel. I’m literally just going to spend some time saying what works for me. Do with that what you will!
But at the very least, this will be fun for me–taking a real look at what my process is. Observing what patterns I return to time and time again, analyzing what about those patterns are effective for me as a writer, synthesizing why they are more than just writerly superstition or ritual. And then writing it all down in my finished blog.