Friday, April 30, 2010

How I bang my head against my fist and a book comes out

When my CP Tawna Fenske asked if I wanted to blog about my writing “process,” I first thought, People really want to know how I bang my head against my fist?

Then it occurred to me that what she actually meant is my map for how to go from the blank page with that taunting cursor to The End.

How I do it is probably not like anybody else does it. Tawna’s way is different. Nelsa Roberto, my CP as well, has another way. Several phenomenally talented authors agreed to share theirs. When you’re done with me, be sure to visit Tawna and Nelsa, along with Sean Ferrell, Linda Grimes, and Kiersten White to learn what works for them.

I am a control freak. I plot everything. That’s not saying the final MS turns out anything like what I originally plotted. That’s just saying I can’t go to the grocery store without plugging it into my GPS. I gotta know where I’m headed.

The Idea Stage: (Nano-second) I hear a song, an anecdote, a news item or experience some random act of life and think, Hmmm, what if …? Since I’m usually knee-deep in another story, I promptly go to my Word document of story ideas and write it down.

The Rolling It Around In My Head Stage: (anywhere from days to years) I figure out a few things, like characters and conflict.

The Movie Synopsis Stage: (An hour max) I write down a short synopsis of what happens. I write it like I’m telling a friend about a movie. Yes, I’m a freak who writes a synop before I write the MS.

The Mall-Map-of-Life Synopsis Stage: (An hour max and proof that I really am a freak) I write another synop, concentrating on the character arc. My heroine starts out HERE (maybe without a backbone), and she ends up OVER YONDER (backbone firmly in place.) I pull out specific plot points to illustrate her growth.

The Write-the-1st-3-Chapters: (a week to a month) This is where I really let the characters breathe and realize, Hey, my heroine has a dog.

The Plot-it-Within-an-Inch-of-its-Life Stage: (an afternoon) I calculate total pages, divide them into chapters, and plot out each chapter in a sentence. And now I can write!

Yes. I am a mutant.

On a good day, I can churn out a chapter a day, which is about 12 pages. I send that to any willing CP who’s not neck deep in a deadline, and I start a new chapter.

Tawna will say, “OK, this is good, but what does your hero look like? Is he hawt? Cuz this is supposed to be, yanno, a romance.”

I remind her that I’m trying to write an inspirational romance, which only marginally shuts her up.

Nelsa will say, “OK, this is good, but what’s your character’s motivation? What makes her want to grow a backbone?” Nelsa is probably the inventor of the old saw about how many shrinks it takes to change a light bulb.*

I go back and rethink my hero's looks and my heroine's motivation, and send my CPs my next chapter.

I revise at the end, unless they tell me I’ve really gone off the rails. The chapter-by-chapter critique helps me stay focused and know when something’s not working. That’s when I scrap the whole thing and say, “Hello, Square One.”

While it’s heavy on plotting, it works for me. I’ve tried pantsering, and I just get lost. And it’s not pretty when I’m lost. Just ask The Husband.

But my way is not the only way. My way may drive you up the wall. Tell me how you do it, and then visit these fine folks!

Tawna Fenske (romantic comedy)
Sean Ferrell (literary fiction)
Linda Grimes (light paranormal mystery)
Nelsa Roberto (young adult)
Kiersten White (young adult)

*The answer to the joke: it depends. Does the light bulb want to change?


Mia said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mia said...

I enjoyed reading about your writing process! I'm kind of in between. Not really a plotter, yet not quiet a seat of the pants writer either. Generally, I write the first chapter first, just running with an idea, no clue what's going to end up on paper. After the first chapter is done, I figure out who the MC's are, and then fill out a brief worksheet for each character so I know a little about their looks, personality, friends and family, etc.

After that, I write a quick summary of the plot. I have to know the basic beginning, middle, and end. I still leave plenty of room for me to discover the story-line as I write, but I make sure I know where I'm going.

Then it's just writing. Lots and lots of writing. I do research, deeper characterization, and editing after the first draft :)

Linda G. said...

LOL! We are polar opposites with our processes. Goes to show you, huh? Whatever works. :)

Toby Speed said...

What a terrific post! You should make a list of posts that help writers, add this one, and put it in your side column. I know I'm bookmarking it.

I can't wait to visit all your writing partners' blogs. Thanks, Cynthia!

Toby Speed said...

p.s. I love the illustration for today's blog.

out of the wordwork said...

I am in constant awe of your plotting expertise, my friend. If only I could be that organized. But, then, that isn't my process (grin)
Great post and I'm popping over to Linda's now...

Cynthia Reese said...

Mia, you and I sound like we approach the story from the same angle ... enough pantsering to fulfill our creative side, but enough plotting so we're grounded.

Hey, Linda, different is good! Most people are shocked when they see what all I have to do to get beyond chapter three. But after YEARS of being stuck in Chapter Three, because I pantsered and didn't plot, I'm glad I figured out what works for me.

Oops, Toby, I guess I forgot to label this! It should have gone under Writer's Toolbox. Thanks for the compliments and the tip!

Nelsa, I only wish I could be that organized in REAL life. The Husband dearly wishes that, too!

Off to see our other blog-mates for this topic!

India Drummond said...

I always find it so interesting to hear about the process other writers use to pound their mss into shape!

Unknown said...

Hi Cynthia! So far, your method sounds the most like mine. Of course, I'm only part way through my first MS, and I'm only beginning to recognize I have a method at all. But your steps resonated with me, and I have muddled through similar "stages." I tried pantsing my MS, but only got halfway in before I hit a wall I couldn't get around. In the end, going back and outlining the whole thing was my saving grace. Things are back on track and moving forward again!

Have a great weekend!

Patty Blount said...

Oh, I'm so happy to see an outliner! I was beginning to think I was the mutant here.

Great idea, great series.

Perhaps I am on the right track, after all.

Linda Bob Grifins Korbetis Hall said...

you are funny.

Kathi Oram Peterson said...

I've used outlines, but I've also tried the hitting my head on the desk and the plot leaks out. ;) Great post!


Cynthia, you're actually the reason I thought of doing this blogfest in the first place. All these aspiring authors were asking what my process looked like, and I thought, "I should probably make sure they see what a REAL organized author looks like so I don't scare them with my chaos." I'm always envious of your methods and wish I could have it together more like you!

Thanks for doing this!

Cynthia Reese said...

India, so do I ... and regardless of how different the approach, I ALWAYS learn something!

Nicole, I swear, pantsering was the reason so many of my first tries ended in a bitter defeat at Chapter Three! Good luck ... there's something so empowering about being able to type THE END for the first time!

Patty, I've decided we're not mutants! We're just aliens from Planet Plotter, and on that planet, we're rockstars! ;-)

Jingle, I'll pay you 10 virtual bucks if you'll tell that to The Husband. He swears I have no sense of humor. Of course, his sense of humor runs parallel with The Three Stooges, so who am I to judge?

Ooooh, Kathi, it's the DESK that's the key, and not my fist! Gotta try this!

Awwww, Tawna, me? A real author? Me? Organized? Awwww. You are a TRUE pal.

Nelsa said...

Cynthia scares me with how focussed and organized she is.

I've been trying to post a comment on Tawna's blog but some wacky error code keeps coming up. Will keep trying!

Harley May said...

Wow. You are really calculated. Interesting stuff and I'm thoroughly impressed at all your different stages. Thanks.

Toby Speed said...

I know I'm always asking for definitions, but what's "pantsering"?

My word verification is "ingestro," which is what I'm going to do with your definition after I get it! haha.

Heather Kelly said...

Oh, I am so NOT a plotter. This description of your process made me twitch a bit. :) It's very cool that you know the plot points before writing. What happens when you veer? Do you change the outline, or do you try to get back to the original track?

Thanks for a look at the other side!!

Claire Dawn said...

You're right. Your process would scare the hell outta me. In fact, it already does.

I'm a pantser. Not as bad as Tawna though, there is actually a plot. Somewhere. Maybe.

My process is most like Linda's. I also tried outlining once. I was writing a fantasy and I figured I should keep track of the names of the plants and their properties and all the other strange stuff in the world. Lasted two seconds before I got distracted.

I keep the momentum going once I'm in a rhythm. No looking back. If I need to look up something, I CAPSLOCK it. For example, the first draft of one MS has this winning line, "Chevelle sat in her purple CARCARCAR." I wanted a cool car, but just couldn't think which one off the top of my head. It'll get fixed in edits.

So my process?
1. Mull it over til I feel like exploding.
2. Hit the ground writing (running)
3. Never look back
4. Churn out novel in 17 days or do and leave it alone for 5 months. (not on purpose, but this is what happens. Every time.
5. Reread. Laugh at gaping plot holes and characters so thin they could be kites for Easter.
6. Edit. Cry. Repeat.

Thanks for this. You just became more awesome. (If that's possible.)

LR said...

Great post. I'm a pantser by nature but have just recently learned that it might be a really good idea to write at least a general synopsis before starting.

Can save you a lot of time in the long run, rather than toiling for a year and then realizing "Uh oh, this isn't going to work."

Cynthia Reese said...

Nelsa, *grin*, you scare me with how you have character motivation firmly in your brain! ;-)

Harley May, I never thought about it, but, yeah, I guess I AM calculating -- at least when it comes to writing. It's my analytical brain that I can't shut off!

LOL, Toby, ingestro sounds ... serious! Pantsering comes from the phrase "by the seat of your pants" and is a tried and honored method of writing by people who don't, ahem, have to plug in their grocery stores into their GPS system.

OK, so I AM a little OCD.

Heather and Claire, that's why I'm not in charge of making all people write like me ... because of those twitchy reflexes my process creates in Pantsers the World Over. But I'm convinced that Pantsers can learn from Plotters and Plotters can learn from Pantsers and not kill each other. See? Tawna and I have not killed each other. Yet.

And LR, you have hit the nail on the head. I wasted way too much time painting myself in a corner and sinking effort and sweat into novels that imploded, all because I had a secret, lurking plothole.

Matthew Delman said...

This sounds a lot like the changes I've implemented in my own process.

I just added a Scene Development doc to my repertoire, where I detail motivations/goals/obstacles/turning points/etc for each scene in each chapter. It also helps because I can compartmentalize the scenes in my head (1.1, 1.2, 3.5, etc) and know precisely where in the book they're supposed to fall. It also helps when finding which portion of the book I'm stuck on. ("Uh, what happened while they were at the docks? Oh, that's scene 16.2").

I also put together capsules of each character's main motivations, their roles in the story, and their relationships to each other. For my MC and villain, I have detailed character arc sketches for where they start out and where they end up in terms of their characterization.

Other than that, I just write the story as it comes to me.

Pantser + plotter = moi!

Jayne said...

Hello! I came by via Nicole's lovely blog 'One Significant Moment at a Time', and really enjoyed reading about your writing process. The 'rolling it around in your head' stage is very familiar! I also rather enjoy the 'plot it to within an inch of its life' stage. I find that stage usually works well with a little bit of chocolate and a large glass of wine (or the other way around!)

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

I wish I could be a plotter like you. Seriously. It's rather annoying to have write a whole bunch of stuff before knowing where the story is going.

Next writing challenge: pretend I'm a plotter for a while, and give it a go. See what happens. Oh, wait, that's doing it by the seat of my pants again. Crap! :)

Unknown said...

Shit! I love this! I'm gonna try it out your way and see if it works for me too. My way is just to tackle the story like a amateur football player~ all sloppy with arms and legs shooting everywhere. I've had some novels that are like a massacre at the end instead of a touch down and some pre-strategizing would have fixed it all. I'm all for organization. Love that. Gonna do it. Thanks for the great post!!

Elisabeth Black said...

Wow, finally someone else who plots beforehand. Although I never stick to mine.

Thanks for sharing!

Cynthia Reese said...

*swoon* Matthew, I likes you LOTS! We're like-minded souls. I LOVE how you detail the goals and motivations and conflicts in each scene. GOTTA do that!

*swatting Tawna over the head because she's laughing hysterically at me*

I DO use this during revisions (with, ahem, an Excel spreadsheet. Weird, I know), but I've never done that much detail work in the planning.

Jayne, the chocolate, oh, yeah, chocolate improves ANYTHING.

Susan, you never know. I THOUGHT I was a pantser until I plotted out my first successful novel. After that, I never looked back.

LOL, Misty, love the analogy of the amateur football player!

Elisabeth, I've learned that sometimes, even when it's plotted, you have to go with your gut. The thing about plotting it out ahead is that at least you know that most things will SORT OF work, and then when you get to the one thing that doesn't, you can depart from it.

Plotting it helps me highlight problems I have with conflict and motivation (yes, Nelsa, I do SOMETIMES think about motivation before you nag me! :-) )

Angie Paxton said...

Wow, now that is a process! I'm impressed I'm not really sure what I do even deserves to be called a process. I'm pretty much a total pantser.

Al said...

I am not a planner. I only write a plan so I can ignore it.

One thing we do have in common is a word document for saving future ideas. The trouble is there are too many ideas and not enough years.

* said...

I just came away from a fab writing conference last weekend. Someone suggested to outline 1/3 of your novel, then write it out, then go back & outline the next 1/3, write it out, and then finish it off with outlining the last 1/3 and writing it out.

So far, it's working (after trying many other techniques).

Glad to have found your blog. Happy weekend & happy writing!!

Unknown said...

I'm such a liar. I read T's post and said I didn't know you, but yes I do. :)

I had no idea you two were CPs but what a great pair.

And I love that you're a mutant. ;)

Cynthia Reese said...

Angie, the whole point of this blog chain is for writers to embrace who they ARE ... and to know that it's okay to write any way that works. Plotter, pantser, we're ALL writers!

Al, I'm thinking you and I would NOT make good vacation partners, huh? But on the too-little-time-too-many-ideas thinking, you are so right! I'm only now half-way (two-thirds?) through with a WIP with a germinating idea somewhere around 2003. Yeah. 2003.

Terresa, what an intriguing idea ... I do know that I tweak the plot based on feedback from Tawna's longing for more romance and Nelsa's, "WHY ARE YOUR CHARACTERS ACTING LIKE THIS?" Can you imagine? A romance author who has to go back and edit more romance in?? *hangs head in shame*

Karen, The Husband would say lots of folks neglect to claim me. I figure it's Freudian repression, but he contends it's more deliberate. Thanks for claiming me in the end, though, and celebrating my "mutant" status! :-)

BillRicksofSoperton said...

With 32 comments, you don't need mine. I enjoyed reading your post and all 32.

Crystal Posey said...

Am loving all these posts! Thanks for sharing.

Cynthia Reese said...

Ricks, I ALWAYS need your comments! Glad you enjoyed it!

Crystal, the pleasure is ours!

Susan Fields said...

That was really interesting - thanks for sharing! I'm a total planner too, but you put in some extra steps I haven't tried before.

Lola Sharp said...

My process is pretty much Claire's process. In fact, the ONLY difference is that I use a bunch asterisks on either side of a word needing research. ***car***

Which explains why I love first drafts and slog around revision hell.

I want to be a plotter like you. I really do.

Great post.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the advice on my blog. Hopefuly time and some space should help but your right i do need friendship and writing in my life xox

Me said...

Woahhh! You really plan out everything! You look really organized and from what you've been telling, it's worked wonders for you! I can't, though..I have a hard time planifying anything in my life..!