Tag Archives: story planning

process improvement for writers

Cross-posted from my blog, barbrude.wordpress.com.

If there is one thing I learned from writing Demonspine, it’s that I don’t actually have a process yet.

It’d be easy to fall into the trap of thinking I did. I mean, I’ve been writing for six years, almost seven now. I’ve logged a lot of novels (lost count somewhere, which is fine because most of them don’t deserve to see the light of day anyway), and I’ve learned some stuff… right?

Well, yeah. There’s a lot more to learn, too. Not just fiction techniques and storytelling and words, but how to better use my time. How to spend less time spinning my wheels.

Because that was my downfall with Demonspine, and the reason it took 18 months to release it after Angelhide. To give you an idea of how much time I wasted, I actually had 90% of the first Demonspine draft done at Angelhide’s 2014 release and it still took me 18 months.

Granted, most of those months weren’t writing. They couldn’t be. I don’t quite remember what all I did then (other than a couple NaNoWriMo projects) but it wasn’t working hard on my next novel like I knew I should be doing. And I could play the ‘but but toddler’ card, but let’s be honest–it wasn’t his fault.

These hard lessons in self-awareness and procrastination have come at a cost–my time.

I can’t be alone in this. But I have some good news. There are a couple of things I’ve found that really improve my process, that help the writing go smoother and be more fun. And when it’s more fun, I suddenly ‘find the time.’ (And some days I still have to make the time–that will never change).

Without further ado, a list!

5 Process Improvement Tips

  1. Journaling. This one still surprises me. For the longest time, I compartmentalized journaling as that thing other writers do to daydream and that’s cool but that’s not me.Except it is.There’s a lot of junk in my head and it’s amazing what getting some of that junk out can do. Sometimes it’s writerly junk, I can’t do it, this is awful, why did I think I could write? but other times it’s health. I couldn’t sleep last night and now staying awake hurts. I’ll make a deal with myself–one more cup of caffeine for a serious attempt to finish this scene.

    I would have thought that allowing myself to whine in notebook form would create a storm of negativity that I can’t get out of, but the reverse is true. The junk comes out, it gets acknowledged, and it gets solved. This is soooo especially true for the writerly junk because once I get the words I’m so bad at this out they just stare at me until I keep going–I feel this way because I’ve stalled in a scene and I’ll feel better as soon as I fix it.

    After a page of working through ‘it’ (whatever it is at the moment) I usually have a pretty good writing day.

  2. Goal-Setting. This one seems super obvious, but every week that I don’t set goals is a week I get next-to-nothing done. What’s been working the best for me lately is plotting out the entire week, keeping in mind my other obligations like work and family. The big mistake I made at the beginning of September was I didn’t account for my family coming up over Labor Day weekend. Naturally I fell behind, but instead of whining it out in my journal and moving on, I stagnated. I didn’t set goals again until last week. Thankfully, my long-term schedule for Heaven’s Most Wanted hasn’t been fatally compromised–I built in a little fudge factor for getting the first draft done. Now that fudge is gone (I still want more chocolate), but I can do this.
  3. Aspire higher. Normally I cringe when other writers say they are aspiring writers or aspiring authors (author is a person who has written, so are you seriously aspiring to have written? Please, no). Stop aspiring and start writing! Your future writer self will thank you.But… I look at my greatest time sinks in writing. Combat and high-danger scenes take me so much longer to write than fun banter. For a long time I just accepted that as part of my writing self. It’s ‘how it is’. Except, it’s not! Writing to a halt became a self-fulfilling prophecy. It takes longer because I expect it to. Oh, here comes another of those scenes, gonna spend a week on that and hate every minute…

    This attitude is completely unprofessional. I aspire to be professional, to treat writing like the career I want to have. A professional doesn’t accept this kind of junk and gunk. A professional asks, how can I improve this process?

    I read a writing book on conflict. I wrote in my journal and learned that the reason I don’t enjoy writing these scenes isn’t the scenes itself–it’s because of the time sink I’ve made them into. The self-fulfilling prophecy of doom has come full circle.

    I made a list of ways I can work more professionally, and the most pivotal is this one:

  4. Prewriting. How many times have I started a scene and got 25%, 57%, 83% into it, only to realize I’m going approximately half a word an hour and I don’t like where I ended up.Whenever I take a page from Rachel Aaron’s playbook (the ultimate process improvement guide) and pre-write each scene before I get started, everything goes so much smoother. In fact, the difference is so extreme that some of my fastest, funnest scenes come out when I block each and every beat out before I actually write it.

    It’s like plotting to the extreme. First I ramble through concerns and questions I have about the scene–what’s really at stake here? What disaster is looming? Is there enough conflict? Is this an interesting location? It’s amazing how often asking a question, not just in my head but putting it on the screen or paper, gives me the answer.

    From there, I take that overarching idea and block it out. It’s tempting at this point to just start writing, but then I slow down again. I gotta keep it simple, even if that means making the beats ridiculous and the dialog unpunctuated. In fact, keeping it that raw keeps the flow.

    And once that’s done, it feels like no work at all to clean it up. I’m happier with what I wrote, it took me less time and anguish, and I still have energy to tackle the next scene. What’s not to love?

  5. Intrinsic motivation. The thing about writing and art in general is that no one cares if you do it. Oh, we say we do. We ask how it’s going and give a thumb’s up when you tell us you’re plugging along.But at the end of the day, the only person who can finish that draft is me. No amount of external pressure will make that happen (I’ve heard a contract deadline helps, but I’d still argue there’s strong intrinsic motivation propelling a writer to meet said deadline). Intrinsic motivation is the key–finding yours is a personal thing.

    I’m still looking for mine. Sometimes I remind myself where I want to be in a five years. I think about what my life would be like without writing. Almost always, I ask myself why the story I’m writing is important to write right now, more important than all the other things I could be writing. That’s usually a good jumpstart.

    How do you improve your writing process?

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story prep workshop

I had a great time at yesterday’s workshop, WriMos!

In case you missed it, we talked about a lot of ways to plan and prep your story, because NaNoWriMo is just around the corner. Here are some links we shared, plus a few more, because I love arming you with resources:

Candy Bar Scenes — Holly Lisle’s website is a treasure trove of writing inspiration and information.
Snowflake Method — Advancedfictionwriting.com has novel design down to a science, or close to it as you can get. This method is great for plotters.
Scene and Sequel, MRUs — Advancedfictionwriting.com has another great article for how to structure scenes, both large- and small-scale.
Story Engineering Beat Sheet — Storyfix.com has some great resources for story planning as well as this beat sheet.
Jami Gold’s Website — all the fill-in spreadsheets and plotting devices you could dream of, and then some.

NaNoWrimo YWP Novelist Handbook — ignore the fact that these are for kids. No, really. There is some great advice in these pages, as well as some awesome printouts.
Scrivener NaNoWriMO 2014 Free Trial — Scrivener is offering a free trial of their writing software for this year’s NaNo, from now until December 7th. If you win, you get a coupon for 50% off.
Sacred Cow of Publishing: Writing is Hard — deanwesleysmith.com tackles the myth that writing is hard.
Sacred Cow of Publishing: Writing Fast is Bad — deanwesleysmith.com tackles the myth that writing speed = writing quality.

We’re about to get very busy, WriMos. November is coming–we are ready with write-ins, workshops, and a write-a-thon. Check our calendar at nanowrimo.org or on the calendar button at the top of this page. I can’t wait to see you there.

Happy Writing!

prep your story

I am absolutely not going to panic that we have a month and 4 days left before NaNoWriMo. Nope, nope, nope, not gonna do it.

Instead of panicking, I’m going to talk story prep. We’re hosting a workshop on October 12th, but in the meantime, here’s a link I’ve found helpful in planning stories, from Storyfix.com: The Single Most Powerful Writing Tool (that fits on one page).

There’s a lot of balls for a planner to juggle. But one thing I’ve found is that if I can nail down the first plot point and set my character down the path of emotional growth and give them proper agency, then the rest of it comes together.

A few things to remember about the first plot point:

  • this is the moment your character commits to the story
  • there is no going back
  • it should be the protagonist’s choice, not coerced
  • it should show a shift in the protagonist’s emotions or thinking, for better or worse, a willingness to change or a realization that change must happen
  • the first plot point bridges the gap between part 1 and part 2 (of a 4-part story), in which the character goes from setup to response
  • plan this big moment between 20%-25% into your story

Don’t let first plot points scare you. They can be high-stakes or low-key, from betting the farm to admitting to yourself that yes, maybe the house is actually haunted. Both of these moments require a response–now the the farm is at stake, the wager (and work) begins. Once you admit the house is haunted, you have do something–either prove there are no ghosts, move out, call in a priest, or learn to play nice with your ethereal cohabitants.

In fact, your protagonist might have to do all those things, but first, they have to admit those strange sounds at night aren’t just mice in the wall boards. That’s the power of the first plot point.

what changes you bring

I’m writing by the seat of my pants this summer more than I ever have. It’s a lot of things–weird, wonderful, exciting, terrifying, roundabout, experimental, liberating, and slow-going.

Every novel I’ve written teaches me something. Sometimes the lessons came in failures. Others were simply in the practice of doing.

This pantsing summer for me has taught me much in the practice of doing (there’s plenty of lessons via failure, as well, I’m sure). How it feels awkward and stumbly, a bit like blindfolding myself over a tightrope of questionable stability.

There’s lots for me to cling to, to reinforce my sense of balance, of direction, and trust. After all, I’ve written a scene or two before. And dialog, physical conflict, emotions, all that good fictiony stuff. Now, instead of having a lot of these juicy bits planned out, prepared for, researched, and imagined, they come out as they come out.

It’s kinda neat.

One thing I still can’t rely on to come out by itself is mission-driven scene execution.

Someone really oughtta come up with a better name for it than that, because I can’t say that start to finish without biting my poor tongue. Mission-driven scenes really just means every scene has a goal, and knowing that goal helps carve out what needs to go in that scene.

Or put more poetically, what changes you bring (to the story).

Today I’m working on a scene in which a character learns a new piece of information. Often, this can be the change and that’s enough. But this new information, which she intentionally sought, doesn’t move the story forward–it’s a dead end. There’s nothing she can do as a response, other than say “oh, well, I tried.” I close the door on her, without opening a window or at least setting the house on fire.

The scene doesn’t bring any real change (new information that can/must be acted upon, raised stakes, escalated conflict, accelerated time-bomb, created a need, destroyed something important), and that’s a problem.

So that’s my new question: what change do I bring in this scene?

a (quick) scene checklist

We’re one week into Camp NaNoWriMo! Did you survive the holiday weekend with your novel intact?

I didn’t as well as I wanted to, but that’s okay–seeing family was good, and helping my toddler recover from all that family (and not enough sleep) was necessary.

Now Monday rolls in with this reminder that Camp is a quarter over and I’m right where I left off five days ago. So here’s something I’m using today to get me jump-started back into noveling excitement…

A (Quick) Scene CheckList:
Does my scene…

  • have a mission or story purpose?
  • raise the stakes, escalate the conflict, or introduce danger?
  • create/show motivation, needs, or flaws?
  • evoke all five senses?
  • have dialog/internal monolog?
  • have a strong point of view?
  • have a setting that the characters use/are influenced by?
  • show us something specific and new about the characters/story?
  • have a beginning/middle/end?
  • reflect the context of the novel (foreshadowing, setup, payoff)?
  • fit the story I’m trying to tell?

Setting out to make every scene fit all these criteria (and more, since there are more complicated checklists out there) can get stressful, but if I can’t check off most of these items, then my scene isn’t really a scene. The bolded are my must-haves.

What scene criteria do you look for to make planning your scenes easier?