Friday, May 9, 2014

Tagged: My Writing "Process"

I was tagged by the wonderful Suzanne Warr to blog about my writing "process." Yes, that's process with quotes because I use the term loosely. Scheduling writing into my life is something I'm pretty formulaic about; the actual writing is something else again.

Picture Book Class
I can hear little gasps all around cyber space from the young students who take my picture book classes. We do go over a tried and true picture book writing process--but it's only one of many ways to write a picture book. Here's what I teach the kids to get us to our deadlines:

1. Decide on a character--species, gender, name--the good stuff.
2. What is your character's problem?
3. What other problems might the main problem cause?
4. What will your character do to solve their problem? (We usually try three things--there are three bears, three musketeers, three billy goats Gruff, get the picture. Stories love threes.)
5. What will finally solve the problem?

We throw in some discussion of tension (internal, external, and time--for those interested). We talk about about exaggeration, word choice, proper picture book length, and using illustrations to tell more story than your words do. We don't talk about rhyme because I'm no good at rhyme...

Anyway, this is all well and good for a picture book class on a schedule. In fact, it's not so bad for a professional picture book writer as long as they remember that not all great stories fit into the mold--still, it's uncanny how many of them do.

Novels--The Adventure
But I find when I write novels it's a whole different thing--not so much a process as an adventure from beginning to end. I've outlined, written cold, used 3x5 cards, interviewed my characters in type and out loud, used the plot point methods, and for me it comes down to this: whatever gets that story out of my head and onto the page is what I have to do. For me, it's never been the same thing twice, but there are some vague similarities between all my projects:

I always start with a character and their problem. Okay, almost always. Sometimes I start with just a concept, but the story never gets moving until I have my particular character and their specific problem.

The second thing I need to know is where my character ends up at the end. I can't just write and get somewhere good in the end by rambling. I just can't. Some people can. I can't even write the next chapter unless I know where I'm going with it. I need a map: beginning point, end point. Then I experiment with all the ways there are to get to where I want to go, and hopefully choose the best one.

No matter how well I outline (and I have outlined superbly at times, trust me) I feel lost in the middle of a novel. I can't hold it all in my head like a picture book and frankly, I don't like that feeling, still, I keep moving forward. Once I've written the entire thing--only then--does it begin to come together as I rewrite (and rewrite and rewrite). Only then can I plant the clues in the beginning, bring out the running gags, play with character descriptions, depth, and finally (my favorite) add VOICE. I think that's because, finally, it does start to all have a place in my brain. But boy, that first draft, no matter what, really stinks. The  3x5s help in their way, the plot points in theirs, and I have a current thing I like that I'll explain below. But my book never really sings until I've gone over it so much that I can forget methods and mechanics and give it life--making it real once my framework is built all around it. It's sort of like a house becoming a home, or (to be more literary) like Dr. Frankenstein building a monster.

The Thing That Happens To Work For Me Now
Now, this is the current thing I like (stolen from the bestselling Jonathan Stroud). I prefer it hugely to 3x5s because I spend an untold amount of time fiddling with those things, not to mention color coding them, and dropping them in parking lots. So, I finally made a list of every one of my current book's scenes (a list of chapters would work just as well).

Because my POV shifts, I write the POV character, too. Then I make precise little notes about what to add and where as needed during my many rewrites. You can tape a blank page to the left and right of your list if you need to (for notes). That's it.

I can see my whole book at once. When I panic about a character being at breakfast when they're supposed to be saving the day, I don't have to sift through the manuscript to figure out how to fix it. I just pull out my handy dandy list which helps me figure out exactly where to add things and how.

I'm telling you with this current book, it's all about this list. Next book, it will probably be about scribbling on the tablecloth or taking lots of baths.

Whatever gets it on the page, that's what I'll do.


  1. Great post! And you've got me thinking that there must be a way to save the day while eating breakfast, right? (and baths is one of my plotting techniques for sure.)

  2. I'm fascinated by your new list system, though I suspect that my eyes would go all squinty and fall out of my head if I tried it myself. But, it sounds like it would be a great way to compress the novel info, and might also help with the transition to outline.

    Fun post, and lovely glimpse inside your beautiful writing brain!