The Writing Process

Plodding through Plotting

I’ve officially spent too much time plotting/outlining Memory Thieves.  How do I know this?  My dream last night was plotting out my dreams, moving scenes around.  Seriously.

I used to be a pantser.  I’ve always thought of myself as a pantser.  I always want to be a plotter.  But there’s just so much of the story that is discovered along the way, a thorough, complete outline is beyond me.  But there is some middle ground.  For me, that’s plotting out as much as I can, writing some, then plotting out some more.  Lucky for me, most of my plotting occurs in the first half (first quarter!) of the book.  Want proof?

Below is a screen shot of my current plotting method.  (This is the first time I’m using Scapple for mind-mapping, and I’m trying to figure out how to best use it for plotting.  This method is not perfect, it will probably change.  But for now, this is it.)

Note that there are eight column-like areas.  Columns 1, 3, 5, and 7 just say “Scene XX.”  1-25, 26-50, so on.  Columns 2, 4, 6, and 8 are actual scene ideas that I’ve placed roughly where I think they should go.  Do you see anything…interesting?

Plotting attempt using Scapple to outline

Plotting attempt using Scapple to outline – “Column 6” is completely empty, “Column 8” isn’t much better


As you can see, and as is normal for me, I have the first quarter of the book nearly fully fleshed out.  The second quarter is close, too.  The second half of the book?  No idea.  I have a general idea of where the plot is headed, but I don’t have scene ideas in my head to get me there.  And that’s where I tend to stall out when it comes to writing.

I’ve mentioned it before, but the other books I’ve (partially) written follow this same structure.  My beginnings are solid.  I have characters, and settings, and details, and backstory, and I feel really great about the beginnings of my works in progress.  But then, the idea just sort of…peters out.  I get to a spot and all I’ve got is, “And then this happened and then that happened and then they lived happily ever after.”  Unfortunately, 40,000 words does not make a novel.

Obviously, it’s a conflict issue.  The whole middle of the book is about conflict, about what the Protagonist wants and what is preventing her from getting it and how she keeps trying.  Heck, I could start throwing in scenes where aliens land on her house and take her hostage and she escapes but then she’s hit by a car and now she’s in a coma and can’t talk and then she wakes up but somehow she can’t talk and there are no pens around so she can’t communicate through writing and then someone finds a pen but it’s out of ink and then someone finds a pencil but the lead breaks and there’s not a pencil sharpener and then….  Well, you get the picture.  That’s conflict, eight whole scenes of it, a series of events preventing the main character from doing what she wants to do.  The problem is, none of these issues work with the books I’m writing – if they did, I’d be set!  I understand the concept, I understand how to do it…I just can’t apply it, evidently.

I did play around with the plotting a little bit, and it’s now better than the screen clip above.  I have some stuff in the 6th column now, although I’m still lacking anything in the 8th.  Except, you know, resolution scenes.  But I’ll keep plodding along…



Categories: On Writing, The Writing Process | Tags: | 1 Comment

Writers write. Every day.

250 words a day

You’ll hear this over and over again as you struggle to find time, inspiration, motivation, and energy to write.  Writing is a practice, just like piano, or golf, or yoga.  The more you do it, the better you get, and, with writing in particular, I think the goal for most people is to write every day.  Most people don’t have the time.  I don’t have that excuse.

So what is my excuse, on the days I don’t write?  Inspiration, most of the time, or lack thereof.  I’ve mentioned several times (most recently in yesterday’s Sum Sunday) that I have various works in progress that need to be finished and edited, yet I can’t seem to figure out how.  Maybe it’s truly a “writer’s block” type issue.  Maybe I’m just too lazy to sit down and figure it out.  Maybe I’m just not meant to really be a writer.  I don’t know.  What I do know is that most of the time, those days that I don’t write, it’s because I’m so stymied by the creative process, so unutterably unable to come up with a complete sentence, that it’s easier (and more fun) to clean the toilet and mop the floor.  Yes – I said those things were more fun than writing.

Sure, motivation has also been an issue for me.  To combat that, I tried using The Magic Spreadsheet.  I had heard about it on one of the podcasts I listen to, “I Should Be Writing.”  It’s a tool that tracks your writing progress (based on how many words you wrote in a day) and awards an increasing number of points based on how many days in a row you’ve written.  There are people who love the spreadsheet, it’s helped them write more often, even helped them finish books.  I’m not sure, though, if it’s for me.

Let me be clear:  I think that if you have an idea and you want to sit down and pound out 100,000 words and have a finished product, The Magic Spreadsheet is a great tool.  Seeing your word count go up every day, seeing the points you gain, simply by writing a measly 250 words a day – that’s very motivational.

Where I feel the Spreadsheet fails, at least for me, is in the brainstorming and editing process.  Sure, if I’m writing a story out, I can bang out 250 words (or more) a day.  But what about the days when you’re doing research?  Brainstorming?  World-building?  Going through things in your head and trying to determine how to proceed?  And what about after it’s written, when you’re removing more words than you’re putting in, when you change 50 words in one scene, 20 words in another, and 5 in another?  Tracking words become cumbersome.  Editing, at least for me, is not something I can sit down and do a half an hour of.  It’s full immersion, it’s notes and highlighters and hair pulling and cursing and “Shit it’s been five hours and I’m still nowhere with this piece of crap book!”  So I might do a couple of days of editing, then take a couple of days off.  Boom – my chain on the Magic Spreadsheet is broken.

I think time off can be beneficial.  Yes, writing every day is important.  And sometimes, taking some time off is just as important.  The problem, of course, is that most people “take a day off” and suddenly it’s been a month or more since they’ve written.  That’s me, in the past, certainly.

Oddly enough, as I was thinking about this post and what I would write, I realized the most recent “I Should Be Writing” podcast deals with the Spreadsheet, eight months after it’s inception.  As Mur states in the podcast, why not try it.  What’s the harm?  It’s simply a tool, you’re on your honor, and if it gets you to write, then great!  And I totally agree with all of that.  She also touches on the fact that when you’re between projects, it gets really hard to focus and come up with something to write.

I’ve always been about trying different things until it works for me.  In my past jobs, I’ve created several processes that ended up being adopted by other people.  I take something, tweak it, tweak it again, tweak it again, until it works for me.  The Magic Spreadsheet is one of those things that I intend to build on.  I know I should keep better track of my writing than I have in the past, keep track of word count to make me feel better about the whole thing, mark down what else is going on in the writing process for the days I’m not writing.  I know I should be writing (almost) every day.  I don’t know – they’re working on a website for the Magic Spreadsheet (it’s currently a shared worksheet in Google Docs), and I’m interested to see the functionality there, so I might still use it.  We’ll see.

In the meantime, I’ll keep writing.  Because that’s what’s important.

What I wrote this week:

  • (On Thursday, I decided to keep better track of what I’m writing.  What story am I working on, how many words did I write, am I plotting, thinking about things in my head, editing, etc.  So, this week is a little scattered, but next week I’m going to try to log my writing every day.  This is mostly for my benefit, but I hope that putting it into the public domain, I’ll be more likely to ensure I actually get some writing done.)
  • On Tuesday, I wrote out (longhand, 568 words) a new story opening idea for Again (working title).  My main problem with this story is that my main character is way to laid back, easy going, and patient.  She’s worked through all her flaws (and yes, she has indeed worked through them all – that’s part of her characterization).  She needs a flaw, and I’m at a loss as to what it should be, other than “too patient.”  I also need something to glue the two main characters together, other than simply “magnetic attraction” and fate.  Otherwise, why don’t they either simply get together or go their separate ways?  So I changed him to a professor and had her take a class…except, for purposes of the story, she can only audit a class, so again, it’s not like she needs to keep going to class.  (This is one of those stories making me bang my head against a wall.)
  • Wednesday:  I typed up what I wrote Tuesday, but was still against a brick wall with that story.  Several weeks ago (I think while Stephen’s parents were here) I had this idea that I wrote down on a scrap piece of paper.  Well, Wednesday, I picked it up, and the story started talking to me.  I did a rough synopsis, then wrote down a few random thoughts throughout the night (Stephen laughed as I frantically searched for my notebook while trying not to lose the thoughts in my head).  The story is set in the near-ish future, not quite dystopian, but probably a tad bit.  Can’t say too much about it now, other than the working title:  Memory Thieves.
  • Thursday:  I did quite a bit of brainstorming on Memory Thieves, coming up with the three main characters, doing some plotting, writing some rough scene ideas, doing a little bit of world-building in my head.  I’m loving the story right now, it’s really playing out in my head.  Happy writer today.  🙂
  • Friday:  Ah, the joys of young writing, like the joys of young love.  That carefree, easy, idealized love for the story that seems to be perfect.  Yep, I’m in the throws of it.  I sat down and wrote about 1300 words today.  The words were just there.  Such a lovely feeling.
  • Saturday:  Just did some brainstorming, and Pinning on Pinterest, trying to see what my characters might look like.
  • Sunday:  Lots of world building today – what the world is like 200 years from now, technology, how people live, etc.  It’s kind of fun, making up a whole world – and no one will be able to tell me I’m wrong about something.  😉
Categories: On Writing, The Writing Process, Writer Sara Johnson | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

Deadline: May 1

I’ve been working really hard over the last couple of weeks to revise my current WIP.  My goal is to be ready to query agents by May 1.  What does that mean, exactly?  It means having the whole story written and revised to the point where I feel confident that it’s the best I can get it.  It means I am happy with the plot, the story line, the spelling and grammar, and the overall tone.  Ready for publication, even though I know that if I do get an agent and the book is snapped up by a publisher, I will still have a ton of edits to do.

As the deadline approaches, I will say I’m a bit daunted.

I’ve almost finished revising the first half of the book.  I feel it’s solid, and the word count is almost spot on (at 40k – I’d like a bit more, but that’s okay).

The second half currently has about 15,000 words.  (Compare that to the first half – you see how it’s nowhere near equal?  And how a 55k word book is not really a full length book?)

This is pretty much my MO, though, when it comes to writing.  All of my previous attempts at writing a book follow this same path.  I write the beginning, edit the hell out of it, but then I get to the end and I go, “This happened, then this happens, then this, The End.”  It’s like I run out of steam (or creativity).

Plus, I can’t help but rethink the story line.  I have three different tangents in my head – all basically the same plot, but different things happen in certain places.  And I can’t determine which story line is best.  The one that’s the most written, I suppose, but I keep thinking this other story line, Story Line B, might be better.

And this is part of why I’ve never finished writing a book.

Let’s be honest here.  I’ve had a year to “write full time.”  I’ve had the dream of not having to work.  I’ve always said I would love to be able to write full time, I’d have a book done, no problem, if it weren’t for that pesky day job.  And yet…

And yet, here I am, a year later, an incomplete book still sitting on my desktop.  What have I done with this time?  The book should be done by now.

But it’s not.  Not yet.  But it will be.  Come May 1.  Or else.

In other news…

New in my zazzle shop, by special request from my mother:

Categories: The Writing Process, Writer Sara Johnson | Tags: , , | 3 Comments

Story Structure Stress

It’s been a tough month.  I spent the month of October preparing for NaNoWriMo – actually plotting (gasp!).  A definite first for me.  And now that November is here, I feel like I have a good grasp on what I need to do and how I need to do it, but it took some doing.

I had serious doubts about calling myself a writer this month.  Of course I write.  I’ve always written.  Lots of random scenes.  A couple of very solid starts to novels, which never got a middle, let alone an end.  I’ve partially written a couple of novels.  My one main work in progress is hovering at 62k words, with a very solid beginning, most of a middle, and a rough “this is how it’s going to end” ending.  My other main work in progress, hovering at around 50k words, has a shaky beginning, an iffy middle, and an abrupt ending.

Oh, I can tell a good story, and I have some serious dialogue skills, don’t get me wrong.  I know that what I write is fairly strong.  But, to be perfectly honest…I felt like I didn’t know what I was doing.  It’s the plotting and outlining that have had  me frustrated this month.  I had serious doubts that I have the aptitude to be a writer, simply based on my inability to outline.

Beyond one creative writing class in high school and a couple of writing workshops in the years since, I didn’t study writing.  I didn’t read The Greats.  I didn’t pick apart a hundred plots to determine turning points and climaxes and resolutions.  I didn’t learn about 3 act structure or 4 act structure or The Hero’s Journey.  I’ve read many books on writing, hundreds of blog posts, and I still had issues structuring a damn plot.

Which begged the question – What hope do I have at being a writer?

My husband, bless him, suffered my mini-breakdown a few weeks ago over this and told me to shut up.  He’s read what I’ve written, and he says it’s good.  (Is that like your mom telling you that you’re pretty?)  He said I should stop worrying about all that other stuff and just write.  He said my structure is fine and I know what I’m doing, I just need to stop thinking about it.  Stop reading the hundreds of different ways other people do things and just do it my way.  That there is no right way, no correct answer.  And he’s absolutely right, and I never thought otherwise.  But I wanted to outline, to connect the dots, and I kept trying all these different ways to try to figure out my way and that’s what drove me batty.

Oh, but the joy of mini-breakdowns.  Clearing out my head like that made me better able to function.  I wanted the outline to happen within an hour, the plot to be perfect immediately.  And I wanted each new blog post I read about structure to work for me.  But none of that happens immediately.  Writing is still a study, a practice, like yoga.  Each practice makes something new click, stretches your mind further, but you will never be perfect each and every time you sit down to write.  Your muscles might be sore, your balance might be off, your mind may wander.  You just have to do the best you can that day.

NaNo starts in 13 hours.  I’m ready.

Categories: The Writing Process, Writer Sara Johnson | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

Being a writer is not very environmentally friendly

In an attempt to get a handle on my WIP Ann and Luke (working title), I printed the whole thing out this morning.  All 60,000 words.  It wasn’t something I wanted to do, because, you know, I’m killing trees, and I feel bad about it.  And I know it’s something I’m going to have to do many, many times in the course of editing and revising.  If only there were some other way!

I struggled with how to print the pages out.  Wide or narrow margins?  Single spaced or double?  Narrow margins and single spaced means less paper (less dead trees), but I’ll need space to write notes.  The way it’s currently formatted (compiled out of Scrivener) I have plenty of space between paragraphs, so I set the line spacing to 1.5 and kept the margins normal, hoping for a happy medium.

Then I wondered if I should print front side only, or front and back.  Again, front side only leaves room for notes, but really, do I need that much space for notes?  I probably do, but I’m hoping not, at least not at this juncture (it’s not a full edit at this point).  So I went with front and back, figuring I could slip in a blank page if/when I really need it.

I ended up using 112 pieces of paper, down from the original 330 when it was first compiled into Word.  And I feel a little less guilty about those dead trees.

But then again, I live in Finland.  Maybe I shouldn’t worry so much about the trees.

Categories: The Writing Process, Writer Sara Johnson | Tags: , , , | 4 Comments

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