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Writing Your Manuscript a Third at a Time

By Johnnie Alexander

Every manuscript begins as an idea-perhaps a character whose voice won’t leave us alone or a situation that demands to be explored.

Our challenge is to turn that idea into a story. What blueprint, plan, or method will we use?

One popular approach is to write the draft fast. Anyone who has participated in NaNoWriMo understands the benefits of shutting off the internal editor and moving steadily forward. I’m a NaNo cheerleader, especially since my first two published novels began as NaNoWriMo projects.

But writing a fast draft isn’t the way I write anymore.
Where She Belongs
In September I faced a December 1st deadline for a novella. Thankfully, I had a solid synopsis for the story (a first for me-I’m more of a pantser than a plotter), but I intuitively knew the “write fast” plan wouldn’t work.

Before beginning the novella, I’d spent several months on the second novel in my Misty Willow Series. I didn’t have a plan, but on looking back over my writing process, I realized I had written the story in thirds.

When I reached about 30,000-words, I started over because I was frustrated. By this time, I knew the characters and had a better idea of their journeys, but certain elements weren’t working. At all!

This time, I made it to about 70,000 words before the frustration set in again (a little more than 2/3). The protagonist’s motivation still wasn’t right. After having one of those infamous duh! moments when the obvious motivation finally made itself known, I started again. Scenes got discarded. A character or two totally disappeared. But now the story worked.

I wrote and revised until I reached “The End.”

So I wrote the novella the same way-writing a third, starting over with revisions and additional writing till I reached the 2/3 point, then starting over again with revisions and additional writing till I reached the end.

This method works because I have a solid beginning before I move into the rest of the story. The foundation is especially strong by the time the characters and I reach the last third of the novel.

I think this approach appeals to me because it’s how I wrote papers in grad school. I spent most of my time on the opening section because once I got it “right,” the rest of the paper practically wrote itself.

One of our challenges as writers is to find the story-writing techniques that work best for us. If you’re frustrated with your current work-in-progress, maybe the writing-in-thirds approach will be helpful to you.

Johnnie Alexander Aug 2015Johnnie Alexander is celebrating the release of her first contemporary romance, Where She Belongs (Misty Willow Series; Revell). Her debut novel, Where Treasure Hides, won the ACFW Genesis Contest (Historical; 2011), and her first novella, The Healing Promise (Courageous Bride Collection; Barbour), will release in July. She lives near Memphis with alpacas and Rugby, the princely papillon who trees raccoons.

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9 Responses to Writing Your Manuscript a Third at a Time

  1. I never thought of writing this way, but it does make sense. I usually have to go back and work on the beginning once I get a feel for the story. So your way makes sense. Thanks!

  2. Renee Osborne says:

    I love the sound of this method. It feels natural to me. Thanks for writing about this, Johnnie. Can’t wait to see the novella in print!

  3. Emily Conrad says:

    Great suggestion, Johnnie! I’m mostly a panster, too, but that can be problematic as the story develops while I write it. This seems like a good way to build a story. 🙂

  4. I appreciate the positive feedback on this process. If we think of a story as a series of questions to answer, then the further we get into the novel the fewer questions we face. So if we have that solid foundation, the story tends to narrow. Not that we don’t surprise our readers, but we’ve already made important decisions about our characters and those decisions now affect the story’s direction, it’s scope.

    If you try this out, please let me know how it worked for you. Thanks!!

  5. chandra says:

    Johnnie, This is an excellent method. It appeals to my pantser side but makes my editing job seem less insurmountable.Thanks for sharing! Your new book is in my queue on my Kindle! 🙂

  6. Chandra, I’m so glad the novel is in your queue (especially since you saw it in its draft stages). Hope you try out writing in thirds–be sure to let me know!

  7. Stacy says:

    I think this is sort of how I do it, but now I’ll be more aware of the process. Thanks!

  8. Amanda says:

    Hmm…an idea I’m willing to try! Thanks for sharing!

  9. We’re kindred spirits, Stacy! Being aware is helping me plan ahead for my current novel.

    Hi, Amanda. I’m glad you think it’s an idea worth trying–let me know how it works out!