January 14th, 2015

Writing Process Throwdown: Jenny’s Story Quilting

story quilting

Quilt a story, piece by piece… https://www.flickr.com/photos/tweedledeedesigns/4932424821/

Writing is a very imprecise process for me, which surprises no one who knows me well. I’ve tried a gajillion tools in my quest to get a book off the ground and finished. Fast Draft, W-Plot, Snowflake Method. They all helped me be a better writer, but none of them got me to “The End.”

Those cool big picture methods aren’t concrete enough to get me to the end. My busy brain says, “Ooooh…GLITTER!” And I’m off doing something else, instead of writing the 60 scenes that make up a book.

The only thing that gets me to “The End” is putting my butt in the chair and writing one scene at a time.

If I don’t stay completely immersed in the moment and the scene, it’s an open door for “Ooooh…GLITTER!” That’s the way busy noggins like mine work.

Here’s my process in a nutshell:

1. Like many writers, each book usually starts with an idea or a scene that comes into my head fully formed. I write that scene to get it out of my head and onto the page. I keep writing until all the scenes are out of my head.

2. Near the beginning of the process, I bat some ‘what if’s’ around with my writing peeps and decide on the overriding theme for the book and the internal and external conflicts for the main characters.

3. If I’m really lucky, the turning points get decided in advance too. At the very least, I take time with my critique group to discuss what I think the turning points are to see if I’m remotely on target and if it all sounds believable.

Note: For a great summary of turning points, read this breakdown of Jenny Crusie’s talk at the 2009 RWA conference.

4. I make a list of all the scenes I know and I write whatever I can see clearly that day, until they’re all done.

5. I try to write at least five days a week as it keeps my brain open to receiving new scenes. When I let more than a week go by without visiting my story, I start to lose focus.

6. I use a timer. My deal with myself is I have to do at least 30 minutes of work on my fiction for those 5 days a week. While it doesn’t sound like a lot, it really makes a difference. If I’m digging it that day, I go way longer than 30 minutes. If I’m not digging it that day, I know “I only have to do this crap for 30 minutes.”

As an extrovert, online sprints help me a lot. Marcy Kennedy’s post on Twitter hashtags will help you find all the Twitter sprinters.

[In case you missed them: here’s Orly’s Writing Process, Laura’s and Fae’s.]

I didn’t know how to describe my writing process until one of my crafty relatives said, “Hey, you’re a story quilter!” It turns out, she was right. I read an article about Diana Gabaldon and how she wrote the Outlander series. Like Fae and I, she sees the story as a movie.

For Outlander, Gabaldon re-constructed the movie in her head, scene by scene, until everything she saw was on paper. Then she shuffled them all together into the books we know and love. While I won’t pretend to be anywhere near Gabaldon’s league, we both do books in short little pieces. Perhaps it has to do with being a busy mom.

When I read that article a light went on in my head. I finally accepted the truth: I’m a scene writer. I stopped trying to write from beginning to end like all my friends. Some of us are “story quilters” and that’s the way we’re made.

What are the Must-Haves for the “story quilting” approach?

You don’t have to have every one of these mastered, but it really, really helps if you at least have the first one. I use them all, especially in the editing process.

You must have a good grasp of 3-Act Structure.

Otherwise you end up with a pile of scenes, or “story blocks,” you can’t use. It also helps to know the 12 steps of the Hero’s Journey. Here’s the most helpful link I’ve found, which combines the two (this downloads a Word doc). I work with 3-Act structure because I can keep track of it better in my head.

Two words – Conflict Lock.

If you don’t have a conflict lock, you don’t have a story. So says Bob Mayer, author of Warrior Writer and co-founder of Cool Gus Publishing. Here’s a blog to tell you more.

Scene-dissecting tools like Margie Lawson’s EDITS system.

If you don’t have tools like the ones Margie teaches you, it’s difficult to figure out where you missed with a scene, especially if you’re a pantser. Invest in yourself with Margie…you’ll be glad you did.

Understand your story’s DNA (theme) before you get too far.

This is why I think hard about theme pretty early in my process. If you have a strong visual of your story’s underlying message, you automatically write to it. That DNA will inform every scene choice you make because it has to. John August, the screenwriter for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Big Fish, says it much better than I do in this post.

The advantages (and I know this is subjective):
  1. I never get writer’s block. There’s always another scene to write or edit.
  2. I’m able to write fast and stay immersed, because it’s “only one scene.”
  3. Scrivener allows me to store scenes separately and move them around.
  4. The story theme is naturally interwoven when you write this way.
  5. I’m able to move between fiction and non-fiction pretty easily.
The disadvantages:
  1. I need objective eyes to tell me when the story is “really done.”
  2. Continuity edits are a must for long works – I need to know that all the loose ends got tied up.
  3. Scene transitions bug the crap out of me (and I’m terrible at them). I need to be double-checked on these.

As you read about all our writing processes here at WITS, I encourage you to think about your own. Like underpants, process is personal. You’ll find out what fits you best by trying it on for size.

At the end of the day, it comes down to this: You must write your stories in a way that allows you to finish them. Period.

Where are you at in your “process journey?” Do any of our methods resonate with you?

~ Jenny
@JennyHansenCA

*  *  *  *  *  *

About Jenny Hansen

By day, Jenny provides training and social media marketing for an accounting firm. By night she writes news articles, humor, memoir, women’s fiction and short stories. After 18+ years as a corporate software trainer, she’s delighted to sit down while she works.

When she’s not at her personal blog, More Cowbell, Jenny can be found on Twitter at JennyHansenCA or at Writers In The Storm.

44 comments to Writing Process Throwdown: Jenny’s Story Quilting

  • Fabulous post, Jenny. Thanks for all the links too. It’s amazing what different things you pick up when you continually study the craft. Different things are sinking in now than say a year ago.
    Scrivener has really helped me to flush my process out since I too jump around. For the most part, I write from the beginning to the end, but not always. Sometimes when I get my butt in the chair, it’s a different scene that spills out.
    One last thing, Margie, Margie, Margie. <- Love her packets! 😀

  • Good information. I think we as writers develop processes that work, and we understand that we’re not locked into them. I could no more be a quilter than I could be an outliner or plotter–YET. Who knows what will happen with the next book. I use a tracking system to see where I’ve been, and the visual helps. For my current project, I started with NaNo and am not happy with the results. I need to fix as I go, and I need to see where I’ve been. I did end up with a 50K start to my novel, but the cleanup has been a headache.

    • Terry, I agree that the more we learn, the more our process changes. I didn’t have good enough structure at the beginning of my journey to write like this, and I have 9 unfinished manuscripts to prove it.

      It’s kind of fun to go back and doctor those books. 🙂 Plus, a lot of short stories have come out of those “Ooooh, glitter!” moments.

  • I write like this, only without the clarity of what I’m doing. I think this will help me improve my writing habits. Thank you!

    • Judy, it’s a long road to published for almost everyone and I agree with Laura, “You have to want it bad enough to keep climbing over all the walls.”

      Keep writing!

  • Awesome links, Jenny.
    And you’re right – what works, works. No use cramming yourself into a square hole – those things hurt!
    Seriously, I’m going to check out this quilting theory because that sounds a lot like what I do.

    • Wooo!! High five to another scene writer. 🙂

      Enjoy the links – I wanted to give the post a good take-away for everybody while it’s all about me-me-me. And it was a great exercise for me to read back over everything.

  • carrienichols

    This quilting sounds a lot like my process. Thank you so much for this wonderful post. And for the links too.

    • Carrie, it’s fun for me to see all the story quilters come out of the woodwork and raise their hands. NONE of the other gals at WITS write like this, so it’s good all you readers are “outing” yourselves. Thank YOU.

  • Love the article, Jenny. I was able to check out most of the links and they are also so helpful. I don’t write like this, but then I’m a pantser so I just run with an idea. But sometimes it helps to know more than an idea before I begin. lol

    Do you have another link for “this breakdown” for Jenny Crusie and your “most helpful link?” Those two wouldn’t work for me. I got the 404 error.

  • I’m with you taking classes, and kind of find the things that work for me in each process along the way. Hopefully getting to “The End” soon…and having it be just the beginning of a Happily Ever After!”

  • Orly Konig-Lopez

    Oh, Jenny, I need a nap after reading about your process. 🙂
    I can’t imagine writing scenes out of order. For me, each scene builds on the last one.

    It’s so much fun to see how everyone tackles the writing process. There’s always a nugget of “ouuu, must try that.” 🙂

  • Great article, lots to take in so I’m gonna reread it a couple more times. Thanks for all the info.

  • Holly Robinson

    Jenny, I love this whole idea of “quilting” a story! And I’d never heard of “conflict block,” so thanks for that, too. Lots to think about here, definitely, as I steamroll through my final draft before handing it in to the editor TOMORROW, eek!

  • You know how frightened I am by your process, Jenny. Great links – and I hope that they help everyone. I have to go forget I read this now *shudders*

  • Dot

    Jenny, I started my novel by writing whatever scene popped into my head. They were appearing there in no particular order. After a few months of stopping and starting this way, I decided to try writing the scenes in order. That seems to be working much better. I can sense some flow in my work. Still, I continue to think a scene at a time when I sit down to write. Otherwise, I become paralyzed by the enormity of the thing. A NOVEL! Who am I to think I even know that many words?!?

    • Dot, my approach started because I have that same “big novel paralysis.” I understand completely. Often, once I’ve defined the basic three acts and turning points, I will write to them, which means I know what I’m writing that day. It doesn’t happen at the beginning of the process. Ever. But it will often happen toward the end.

  • karenmcfarland

    Wow, do you ever have a process. But at least you’ve figured out what works best for you so you don’t get discouraged and stay productive. “Story quilter.” Like that. I too see my story as a movie in my head. I like to write scene to scene as the story unfolds. Although I know where the story is heading from start to finish before I ever begin writing. My frustration is I’ve written the story a couple of times, which is okay because it helped me to flush out more info on characters, etc. What I didn’t take into consideration was the major plot points and where they’re supposed to be. Yeah. Duh. So now I may have a mess on my hands. Don’t know yet. Marcy’s working on it at the moment to see where things lie. And then my other story has been sitting for a few years unfinished. It’s almost two-thirds plotted out and I know the ending. It’s just that I have to wrap my head around it again. I’m sure it’s up there somewhere in my brain waiting to come out. And then there’s been my life. Need I say more? But it’s getting better. Great post Jenny!! 🙂

    • Karen, I used to get absolutely paralyzed by the fact that I didn’t know what happened next. I’d know about this other thing, but not THIS thing. I have many, many books that stopped somewhere in Act 2 because I didn’t know what happened next, and was afraid to skip around.

      Once I stopped worrying about what was happening NOW and opened to the idea that I could stitch it all together later, I started getting real stories written.

  • Great article and fabulous links, Jenny. At the first stages of planning a story I’ll think in terns of number and types of scenes. Your process is fabulous. And LOL on “its as personal as underpants.” I need some More Cowbell right now. 🙂

    • Deb, you knew I’d find a way to get undies in there, right? My impatience with stopping was what started making me write this way. I was feeling like the crappiest writer in the world before I gave myself permission to write out of order.

      I do it with my articles too. Write in little pieces of what I know and then do all the research at once, then finish 4-5 at a time.

      I think it’s just “A.D.D. Brain.”

  • Jenny! Thank you for permission to be a story-quilter! LOL. I LOVE that term. It’s taken me a long time to see that it’s okay to write out of order. I used to hit a wall when something didn’t feel right because I wouldn’t allow myself to move onto another scene I DID know worked. How could a scene written out of order be infused with all the proper emotions, reactions, dialogue…?? Well, it can – if we know the story intrinsically. You’ve got to honor your creativity by getting those scenes that are bursting to be written onto the paper, before they fade. It’s revision that will pull it all together. Love this post. I’m a quilter and glad to admit it! 🙂

    • Darcy, I took a serious tackle to the self-esteem over my own quilting. I wish I could find the Diana Gabaldon article that sparked my epiphany.

      Lorna Landvik (Angry Housewives Eating Bon-Bons) does a similar thing. She writes all her scenes, then creates an index card for each one. She strings a clothesline down her hallway at eye-level and clips the cards on. Then she walks back and forth until the cards are in the order she needs, changes everything around to match, and hits “Send.”

      That’s basically what I do in Scrivener, plus I add in colors for each Act so I can see that at a glance.

      (Funny fact: If Laura gets brave enough to read this far, I can tell you she has hives right now from our discussion.)

  • Fae Rowen

    You must write your stories in a way that allows you to finish them. Period.
    AMEN!

  • Jenny, this describes a big chunk of my method perfectly. It’s the only way I know to combat the “length of the novel” terror as well as the “Ooh, SQUIRREL,” thing. Thank you for the links.

  • Yup, that is EXACTLY my writing process. And my biggest stumbling block now (50,000+ words in) is linking all those scenes together and filling in the gaps. Oh and keeping my main character consistent!

    I heard Diana Gabaldon speak at a writer’s conference a few years back and as she spoke I was Holy Sh*t! I write just like she does!! I didn’t feel so weird after that 🙂

    • WOOO! High five, Carrie! *hand slap*

      There are a whole bunch of story quilters moving quietly through the writing world. We’re out there, and we are mighty. 🙂

  • Felicia

    You nailed it! I’m a story quilter! LOL! I’ve read many resources recently – well, since before NaNoWriMo 2014, and while I found some guidance, and the answers to a few questions, your article feels like “home”. Looking forward to checking out the links and references so I can finish this first book of…. “OOOHH! Glitter!

  • Thanks for the blog. Call me old-fashioned, but I also recommend printing the episodes out and entering them, correctly ordered, in a loose leaf binder for re-reading when you’re alert–or having someone else do it, as available. That way, you can sense the way a story ‘sprawls’ (or doesn’t) Re-reading the assembled fragments gives a clear impression of narrative line and plot-logic. It also points out (correctable) shortcomings of pacing, since the reader must never be bored or languish in a narrative doldrums. I, too, recommend just ‘doing it’ and the practice of the art of becoming less dis tractable. I heartily recommend giving away your TV and moving to Maine.

  • Jenny, this is an awesome post. Immediately bookmarked. It’s funny because, reading this, I realize I “quilted” my first novel. The second wouldn’t stop flowing so it was easier. I might just try this method on the one I’m working on now. Thanks, again!

  • OH excellent post! Thanks for the links too. I write my fiction like you, I see the scene in my head and have to get it out. I like the fun of rearranging scenes and have no trouble deleting them entirely if they don’t work. Ok, I save them in different file for use somewhere else. But I take them out of the main work. 😉 I’ll check out Margie Lawson’s site too. Just a quick look has grabbed my attention.