December 9th, 2015

Honey, I broke the writing process

Writers are all about the process. Whether you’re a pantser or a plotter; if you write early in the morning or whenever and wherever you can; to music or in silence; with your favorite duck PJs on inside out and the must-have mug of coffee, we all have our quirks. And we swear by those quirks. After all, if the quirks come together and result in a completed manuscript (triple bonus points for manuscripts that sell), they’re worth gold, or your first born, or both.

So yeah, I’ve been kinda smug with my process. I “meet” my characters in fits and spurts then let them loose to run the asylum until the story is done in a messy, chaotic first draft. Then I start organizing and plotting, complete with color coded index cards taped on the wall and color pens marking up the hard copy. I call it the pantser with suspenders approach. I pants the first draft but I’m a methodical plotter after that.

Imagine my dismay when I started on the new project and the process. Did. Not. Work. Instead of twirling around and sharing their stories, the characters sat quietly in their chairs waiting for me to tell them who to dance with. So I turned up the music and waited. And still they sat.

IMG_0559My process was broken. Not even my Minion duct tape could fix this. Oy!

Now what? I tried outlining once and became so completely word-constipated that I swore I’d never do it again. But desperate times and such … nope, that didn’t work. I sat and stared at the stinking blinking cursor for two full days. Then tapped a pen to notepad for another two days.

I did what any card-carrying, neurotic writer would do at this point—consult every author I know for tips on their process and practically spit-shined my toilets and kitchen.

Step one was to figure out why this manuscript wasn’t flowing the way the others had. Somewhere between evicting dust bunnies and wrestling the vacuum cleaner, it came to me.

For starters, this one has a historical element that requires research. While other stories may have had flashbacks to days of old, they were fleeting and easy to pull out of my imagination. This story requires me to go to a time and place I’m not familiar with. Not to mention a time and place that’s highly emotional.

Then there’s the structure of the story. The manuscript that just sold has chapters that jump back to the main character’s childhood. But it was still her POV. This one jumps back two generations. In the previous book, I added the flashback chapters in the second draft. It was easy to see where I needed them to help move the story forward. But in order to write this book, I need those chapters NOW.

The solution—at least for now—seems to be index cards. And duct tape keeping those cards in order on my office door. I brainstormed each chapter on a card and moved them around until the flow felt right. The cards don’t feel as permanent as an outline (it’s all in my head, I know that, but it’s a happy place for now so give me that small win) and by keeping the notes focused on specific elements rather than spelling out everything in that chapter, I don’t feel like they encroach on the freedom of the story to unfold.

My broken process has been successfully patched together. Slap on the smug mug again.

Except it didn’t last long. Because in addition to the WF manuscript, I also just started a middle grade book. And the process that seems to now be working for the WF is causing major word-hiccups with the MG book. And pantsing that one has turned up negative words (it’s possible, trust me). Looks like I’m a MG plotter. Go figure.

What I learned—in addition to stellar toilet cleaning techniques—is that it’s okay for my process to morph. And that if my usual method isn’t working, there’s a reason for it. Analyzing what about the story is stumping forward progress is critical to figuring out how to patch a new process together.

What about you—didn’t your process fail you on a given project? Has it changed over the years or been consistent? If you write in multiple genres, does one approach work?

About Orly

orly1.jpgAfter years of pushing the creativity boundary in corporate communications, Orly decided it was time for a new challenge. Three women’s fiction manuscripts later (plus a handful of picture books), it’s safe to say she’s found her creative outlet. When she’s not talking to her imaginary friends, she’s reading or at least trying to ignore everyone around her long enough to finish “just one more paragraph.” Orly is the founding president of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association. She is rep’d by Marlene Stringer, Stringer Literary Agency LLC.

Orly’s debut novel, The Memory of Hoofbeats, will be released by Forge in 2017.

You can find her on Twitter at @OrlyKonigLopez or on her website,

40 comments to Honey, I broke the writing process

  • Orly, Isn’t that terrifying? I’m in the middle of the same thing with my next book. A good chunk of it takes place in a courtroom. I’m a bean-counter, not an attorney! Luckily I found an expert, but I don’t know enough to know what to ask! It’s slowing and stopping me at points.

    You feel like you’ve finally found the cheese, and some idiot moves it! Grrrrrr.

    • Orly Konig-Lopez

      Yeah well, when the idiot who moved the cheese is yourself, it’s kinda hard to say much. 🙂

      How we approach each project is dictated by the project, not by our comfort level. And sticking with our comfort level is boring. I know you … you’d find a way to complicate any project for the fun of it. 😉

      • I love this discussion!

        I’m the idiot that leaves the cheese out of the fridge, and my husband is the idiot who moves it. My solution? Go buy new cheese, or at least the ingredients to make some new cheese whenever I want.

        In other words, when I get stalled, I open a new chapter or scene, or go to a new place to write. It works well for me.

  • I think that we have breakthrough moments in our writing and breakthrough moments as writers. The first happens with the words. The second happens — yup, you guessed it — with the process and the progression of our art.

    I have no doubt that by “breaking” the process, you’re breaking through to the next level of the craft. (It’s all about perspective, rignt? I’m an eternal optimist.)

    Happy writing!

    • Orly Konig-Lopez

      I think you’re absolutely right. In order to get better at anything you have to push beyond what works and has become “easy.” It makes writing fun – you never know where a new project will take you.

  • Holly Robinson

    Love this post, because it’s SO true–writing books is like raising kids, in the sense that whatever worked for the last one won’t necessarily work for the new one! Thanks for sharing this. I’m writing a novel with an historical plot line (my first ever) and it is KILLING ME.

    • Orly Konig-Lopez

      I only have one child, maybe because I knew I couldn’t do it as well the second time. 🙂
      Luckily I had more confidence (maybe it’s not confidence but I’m going with it – sounds better than blind stupidity) in my writing to jump into another one and another and … yeah!

      We should compare historical plot line angst. That’s what is tripping me up with this new project too.

  • This sounds kind of crazy, but when I felt a hiccup coming on when writing “The Late Sooner” (set in 1890s Oklahoma Territory) I’d pick up my reproduction of the 1890s Sears & Roebuck Catalog and thumb through it. It helped center me back in that era.

    • Orly Konig-Lopez

      Oh that’s perfect!
      I’ve been looking at old family photos and that’s been grounding me a bit. And, of course, sending my brain into story thread squirrel chases.

  • Oh yes – I feel you, Orly. My process is constantly morphing. Heck, it even morphs from rewrite to rewrite on the same manuscript! But thinking about it now, it begins to make sense. After all, every project is different. Even every rewrite has different goals, with a writer at the controls who’s at a different stage than they were the last time. It’s sort of funny that we expect it to be like a recipe for cookies. And we don’t want the same cookies each time, right?

    On a separate note: Mmmmm, cookies.

    • Orly Konig-Lopez

      Seriously, Vaughn, you had to go the cookie route? Because now, COOKIES!!!!!!!!!!!!

      I have such different process for women’s fiction and picture books and that makes sense to me. Not sure why it surprised me so much when the women’s fiction process took a detour. But yes, each project is different and it does make sense that we’d tackle each one slightly differently. Even with cooking – sometimes you kneed dough by hand, sometimes you use the KitchenAid. Sometimes they have to rise overnight, other times it’s a quick process.

      And now I want bread. See what you started?! 😉

  • I deeply sympathize. We come to rely on our processes. It feels “unfair” for them to desert us when we need them. This past week our generator, water heater and clothes dryer all quit for different inexplicable reasons. Plus I lost a tooth. It’s probably easier to fix all of them, though, than it has been for me to develop a writing process that works even most of the time. Congratulations on getting back on track.

    • Orly Konig-Lopez

      Wow … that’s been some week. Yikes!
      Here’s hoping your process doesn’t follow the trend!!!!!

  • Fae Rowen

    Yes, Orly, each of my books has had its own writing process. Don’t know why exactly, but they all worked at the time. The last book and the current book started out as single books, but “grew” into trilogies. I’m only fifty pages into the new book and instead of being a single title, there is now enough material in my head for three books. Now wonder I forget everything else!

  • sfreydont

    I think we should change the word outline. Does anybody really do the Roman Numeral capital letter, little number little letter indention thing? I’ve never heard anyone say they did. I consider myself somewhat leaning toward being a plotter but I’m really more of a storyboarder which is like a floating outline to me- easy to add to , easy to rearrange.. Maybe instead of outline we could change the name to insquiggle and feel more comfortable with method hopping.

    • Orly Konig-Lopez

      “insquiggle” … I love that. sounds so fluid and fun. And something I’d hurt myself doing. Oy!

  • Great post, Orly! Yep, I needed different approaches for different genres. I wrote a contemporary WF a few years ago during NaNo and, except for characters and a vague plotline in my head, it was a totally pantsed job. Which, I discovered, does *not* work with historicals. It needed a timeline, research and character interviews and slowed me way the heck down. Good to know the process can vary with everyone and it’s not just me getting old. Lol

    • Orly Konig-Lopez

      Ha! it’s not just you. At the next retreat we’ll be comparing “remember when” stories. 😉

  • Only, does the CIA know about your telepathic abilities? Wait, if they do know I don’t want to know. I have just gone through the same process with a novella that I swear is trying to kill me. I followed your example — wrote the thing, then took it apart on cards. (And the publisher is waiting for it.) Thank you for making me feel better about doing it that way, and for another great post.

    • Orly Konig-Lopez

      Thanks, James!!! Glad that approach worked. And doubly glad to have someone else in my crazy process corner. 🙂

  • Argh! I change up my process ever story! Things work or not. Processes from the previous book work or not. I have a handle on characters, history, plot or, well, I don’t know or not. It’s all a work in progress and I’ll take them one at a time.

    • Orly Konig-Lopez

      One project at a time … that’s pretty much it.
      I think you’re right also about what you have a handle on first for each story dictates to some extent how you write the story. If you have the plot first but not really the characters flushed out, the story may need to be worked out a bit before you jump in. Characters can sometimes take over and help you pants through the plot for that first draft. Always fun though. 🙂

  • […] Orly Konig-Lopez wrote about how she discovered that her tried-and-true process didn’t work when she switched genres. Whether it comes down to genre, story, characters, themes, our moods, life chaos, or anything […]

  • After writing my previous book, I wandered around, cleaning toilets, and cleaning the basement. When I start the next one, if I have to begin cleaning again, I’m going to have a shiny house…..

  • PS: I use post it notes the way you use index cards. Less duct tape.
    You might also want to check out Martha Alderson’s The Plot Whisperer. As a pantser, myself, it was valuable.

    • Orly Konig-Lopez

      LOVE The Plot Whisperer!

      I used post it notes except they always came off the wall, especially after being moved once or four times. With index cards I have an excuse to buy funky tape. 🙂

  • Love this post! I keep thinking I’ll learn my process, and it will be a set thing. But while some things stay the same, others seem to be in flux. Good to know it’s par for the course!

    • Orly Konig-Lopez

      It makes sense though that the process will morph a bit. After all, you’re not writing the same story each time. Doesn’t help much when you’re dog paddling up a deadline with an uncooperative process but at least you know you’ll eventually get to the other side. 🙂

  • karenmcfarland

    Oh goodness Orly, wow, this post is so helpful. I am, or perhaps I should say, I hope to embark on my next novel that I’ve let sit for way too long as I went into a major rewrite and edits of the previous book. I am horrified that I may not be able to jump back into a story that’s almost half way written. Yet, after working with Rachel Funk Heller, the author of the Writer’s Coloring Book, I am convinced the story is there in my subconscious somewhere. Where? That is the question. Meanwhile, my toilets and kitchen looks fabulous. I am going to have to duck tape my butt to the chair soon. I am determined to do this. You inspired me today! 🙂

    • Orly Konig-Lopez

      Minion duct tape!!!!!!!!!!!!! 🙂
      The story is there. Just play around with different ways of coaxing it out. Mind mapping, brainstorming with a friend, index cards/post it notes … so many options.
      Get to it!!

  • “word-constipated” How I love that! 🙂 Nothing radical has changed with my process with the exception that with each book I tend to plot more. Good luck, Orly!

    • Orly Konig-Lopez

      Oh don’t tell me I’m becoming a plotter in my old age! No offense plotters!!!
      Ah well, goes with my reading glasses. 😉

  • Every genre has its own quirks. In some my characters take me on lovely tangents; in others I have to plot every move (well, as much as I can possibly predict). And every project is new, fresh and absolutely terrifying until I get the process right for that book.
    Thanks for sharing. Happy writing.

    • Orly Konig-Lopez

      That’s what keeps writing fun. You never quite know where you’re going or how you’re going to get there. 🙂
      Thanks for stopping by! (and sorry for the late response)

  • […] Post you’ll like: Honey, I Broke the Writing Process […]

  • […] Post you’ll like: Honey, I Broke the Writing Process […]