A ten-step snowflake versus a five-step star: Organizing a manuscript my way

This entry is part 9 of 24 in the series The plot thickens (Mwahahaha)

Planning out a novel? Be sure to join my newsletter for a FREE plotting/revision roadmap, and check out the full series on plotting novels in a free PDF!

by Carol J. Garvin

If you were to ask, my family would tell you I have a thing for snowflakes. Childhood efforts to catch and melt them on my tongue evolved into a slightly out-of-control adult passion to amass the ultimate collection including jewelry, embroidered fabrics, candles and other home accessories. Every December we dangle giant snowflakes in our windows instead of wreaths and display a tree decorated entirely with a variety of snowflakes set aglow by tiny white twinkle lights.

It isn’t surprising, therefore, that the idea of a “snowflake” method of writing would appeal to me. Of course, if you’ve read any of my whining about outlines and plotting you might guess that I’d grasp at anything likely to improve my odds of producing a more organized manuscript.

I’ve never liked being tied to an outline so when Randy Ingermanson’s recommended Ten Steps of Design appeared to offer a less rigid approach I gave it a try.

KochFlakeThe first step in the Snowflake approach required getting the essence of my story condensed into one sentence—always a challenge but something I was going to have to do sooner or later to answer the always-dreaded, β€œWhat’s your novel about?” question. The second step was to expand that one sentence into a short paragraph—once again a useful exercise that could later form the basis of a synopsis. I shirked somewhat on the third step that called for a full-page summary sheet for each of my characters and instead created summary paragraphs.

At this point my good intentions balked. The remaining steps had me spending too much time repeatedly going over the same ground in an effort to record information that I hadn’t yet created. I wasn’t developing a snowflake design so much as creating a daisy pattern, each step causing me to return to the centre fulcrum and trace ever-increasing loops.

All this building on the basics was meant to leave me with the story virtually complete and thus simplify the writing process. The theory is sound but for me it had the effect of capping the fountain of creativity and dragging me to a standstill.

I didn’t cease writing permanently, of course. I examined what had been working and analyzed why it no longer was. Just as Jordan suggested in her post on story architecture. I learned that what I need is to have a basic plan in place but with reassurance that I’m not locked into following its every detail. I need more flexibility than the true Snowflake Method allows. As a result, I adapted the steps for an abbreviated approach that helps create my initial building blocks and then keeps track of scenes and chapter content as I write.

If I have to backtrack occasionally to accommodate a new character or scene, that’s okay but usually I write straight through to the conclusion of a bare bones first draft. As I review and revise I add a succession of new layers of description and detail to flesh out the story, setting and characters.

Since I skip half the steps, what I’m doing doesn’t represent the true Snowflake Method but only a vague version of it. It has just five points (kind of like a star rather than a snowflake):

  1. Create a one-sentence summary of the story.
  2. Expand the one sentence into a paragraph that outlines the story basics.
  3. Expand the paragraph into a page or two that introduces the main characters, the conflict, complications, and resolution. Include how the MC will change throughout the story (i.e., intended character arc).
  4. Create a spreadsheet into which highlights of each chapter’s action will be inserted as the first draft is written.
  5. Revise draft, adding details and description to enrich the writing.

I could be criticized for taking shortcuts and not giving the Snowflake Method a fair try but I’ve already admitted I need flexibility. My commitment to begin with that method didn’t extend to any kind of promise that I would stay with it. I truly believe each novelist must approach story building via whatever method works, however unique it might be. There is no one right way that will suit everyone. The only way to guarantee the successful completion of a novel is to keep writing and the smart novelist utilizes whatever tools it takes to reach that goal.

About the author
Carol J. Garvin, blogging at Careann’s Musings, is a freelance writer with articles in various Canadian magazines and publications. She lives in southwestern British Columbia and is a member of the Federation of BC Writers and the Langley Writers’ Guild. She has written a family memoir that is not meant for publication, and began writing novels ten years ago. She is on her third but so far none are ready to send out into the world quite yet . . . but soon. Besides writing, her other passions are her church and family, gardening, reading, music, painting and purebred dogs.

Series NavigationA quick look at the Snowflake MethodPros and cons of the Snowflake Method

8 thoughts on “A ten-step snowflake versus a five-step star: Organizing a manuscript my way”

  1. My equivalent to step #3 above is 9400 words/31 pages long. I started #4 but I’m looking at using Access instead of Excel.
    I also feel you’re missing step 4.5 which is “write the first draft.”
    This is my first experiment with outlining so we’ll see how it goes.

  2. Thanks, Jordan, for this opportunity to be your guest blogger today. It was interesting for me to think through my experience in order to write this. I agree with the observation by lapetus999 that I haven’t specifically mentioned the actual writing of the first draft. In my rough notes I worded #5 as, “Write and then re-write as necessary, adding details and description with each successful revision.” I probably should have left it that way. πŸ™‚

  3. I’ve heard some writers say that too much planning – a too-detailed outline and character profiles – sap their enthusiasm for the actual writing. They feel as if they’ve already told the story by the time they’ve done all the groundwork. I think I’m that way, too, so I don’t think I’d be a great one for the snowflake method, either.

    Before I start a first draft, I like having the one-sentence pitch and the narrative voice (both of which will likely evolve as I go but they give me some focus without feeling restrictive), and a vague idea of where I want things to end up. That’s it. Pitch, voice, destination, then I write. At least, that’s the way I’m doing my current novel…. I reserve the right to change my method completely. πŸ˜‰

  4. @Andrew—Pfft. Writing the first draft. Like that’s important.

    @Carol—thank you.

    @Shari—Ooh . . . what do you do to choose the narrative voice?

  5. I like these ideas. I use a rough outline that continually evolves with extra notes as I go along. I think it’s important to have some kind of outline, but to still allow the characters to move the story. In my WIP, I had outlined one of my characters to leave the main point of action, but he really wanted to stick around. This is where it’s important to be flexible with your outline because I really like what he’s doing now! πŸ™‚

  6. I notice that your version of the snowflake has eliminated ALL the character prep steps.

    I’d definitely pare it back – a full snowflake would choke the life out of a story for me too. But isn’t SOME character prep still warranted?

  7. @Irrevenoid-
    I’d have to say that the character prep is by far the hardest part for me, which is why it was quickly cut from my methods. I used the snowflake method for my first novel. Once I got to the full detailed synopsis, I got so frustrated with this step that I just started writing my first draft. I skipped step 7 completely, did a rough step 8 and edited step 8 as I wrote. The end result was weak characters and story elements that no longer fit, and a few minor descrepancies within the story. In the end, as I edit my first draft, I’m going back to step 7 and redoing step 8 to clean my story up and make more interesting characters.

    I think there’s a lot of value in the snowflake method – especially for first-timers – but I agree with a lot of people that it sapped the life out of ME, not really my story. I spent too much time not writing a story and trying to figure out every detail of my characters. It has its pros and cons, but if you don’t enjoy fleshing out your characters, you’ll hate it. I think the most accurate con for the method is that it is unbalanced – too much time on characters, and not enough on plot. I think that’s the biggest reason that some people that use it only get through the first 5 or 6 steps before giving up and just start writing, or sadly not writing at all.

  8. I’m not quite sure I can agree with your 5(.5) step method. The Snowflake method has definitely helped with organization for me. I do skip around, and sometimes I do get the “analysis paralysis” because every detail has to be ‘perfect’ -whatever that means. I usually ignore the one-page synopses and character synopses, and focus on the paragraph description of plot, character details, and scene details.

    There is an over-emphasis on character detailing, but then again, agents tend to enjoy character-driven stories, from what I’ve heard. The last two steps, actually going through each scene, is definitely worthwhile to get the whole picture in there and break it up in manageable pieces.

    There is also another method, typically used for NaNoWriMo, but can be valid any other time of the year. Typically, the novel is divided up in 300 chunks (or scenes) that can be expanded to about 200 words or so. It is up to the author to write as many as he/she can per day. This is effective if combined with the character planning in the Snowflake method.

    Of course, any outline can (and should) be altered if need be. Nothing in writing is ever set in stone, unless, of course, it’s published. Even then, it’s paper…not stone. πŸ™‚

    Basically, there are more than enough ways for people to outline or plan their novels. Usually, a quick search on Google will yield more results than necessary. Combine that with NaNoWriMo, and you have yourself a few weeks of searching through links. There’s always something out there for everyone. It just depends on what works for YOU.

Comments are closed.