by Jenny Hansen
To answer this week’s “throwdown” here at Writers In The Storm, I’m taking the Non-Linear approach. That means that where Laura must start at the beginning and move forward in an organized manner, I simply cannot do so. The linear approach kills my stories.
After nearly fifteen years of banging my head against the Organized Writer Wall (it’s this very sturdy, well grouted thing located precisely in the middle of the Novel Desert), I finally figured out what the issue is. I’m a scene writer AND a big fat Scaredy Pants.
For more than a decade I went from manuscript to manuscript, even jumping from one to another then back again, trying with all my might to hold focus and finish a book. About two years ago, I realized I wasn’t having a writing problem, I was having a finishing problem. I’d crank out 100-150 pages of what seemed to be a stellar story…but then I’d fizzle.
I’d write a short story whenever I got stuck on a book and, let me tell you, I have a big stack of those piled up. After whipping out the short story, I’d alternate between feeling great at finishing something and berating myself that I was batting zero at completing my novels.
In my yearning to be linear and organized, I tried EVERYTHING:
- Attending workshops to learn what other people knew about finishing books that I didn’t.
- Creating outlines: this worked out fine for knowing what happened in the book but definitely stifled my creativity.
- Seat of the pants writing, rushing through the first three chapters to find out what the book is about.
- Character studies
- Synopsis writing
- Praying to the creativity gods…
I’m pretty sure I’ve tried it all (at least once) in my quest to get a book off the ground and finished. Then I read an article about Diana Gabaldon and how she wrote the Outlander series. I saw that she had 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 in the Gabaldon’s league, we write the same. A light went on in my head and I accepted the truth: I’m a scene writer.
I can sustain interest and focus in a single scene. Most of the time, I can even manage to write it from start to finish since I am lucky to write fairly quickly. BUT. I work really hard to focus on nothing else besides that scene because the end of the book always feels like a big black scary hole to me (this is back to the Scaredy Pants issue). If I think about “The End,” I get stuck.
So I don’t even consider THE END OF THE BOOK until I’ve finished the first draft containing all the scenes I think need to be in the novel. At the end, I put them together, sort of like shooting a film out of order before sending it to the editing department.
My process has evolved into something pretty close to the following:
1. Like most writers, each book usually starts with an idea or a scene that comes into my head fully formed. I write that scene when it comes to me so that I have it out of my head and onto the page. This process seems to keep the gates open for more scenes to come crowding in.
2. I take some time, close to the beginning of the process, to bat some ‘what if’s’ around with my critique group and decide on the overriding theme or message for the book as well as the internal and external conflicts for the protagonist and antagonist. (I’ll discuss this in my “must-have” section below.)
3. If I’m really lucky, the turning points get decided in advance too. I’m not always lucky and sometimes I have to have a second plotting session over this one. 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. For a great summary of turning points, read this breakdown of Jenny Crusie’s talk at the 2009 RWA conference, plus I’ve put more resources below.
4. 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 weekend go by without keeping my work in progress on my mind, I start to lose focus.
Lorna Landvik, of Angry Housewives Eating Bon-Bons fame, does something that I’m planning to adopt when I finish my high-risk pregnancy memoir. I'm pretty sure it’s gonna work great! (Note: if you’re in need of high risk pregnancy information, click here.)
Landvik writes every scene in the book down on index cards (this is similar to Laura’s approach) except she does this as a FINAL step in the writing. She strings a clothesline at eye level down her hallway and, armed with clothespins, walks up and down the hall making sure her scenes are in order. She must not have small children at home because she said she keeps this clothesline up during the weeks of her second draft. I’m probably going to have to hang my string on the wall because of Baby Girl, but I am soooo doing this.
What are the Must-Haves for the non-linear approach?
- You must have a good grasp of 3-Act Structure so you don’t end up with a pile of scenes you can’t use. It helps to know the 12 steps of the Hero’s Journey as well. Here’s the most helpful link I’ve found, which combines the two. 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 or Warrior Writer and co-founder of Who Dares Wins Publishing. Here’s a blog to tell you more, plus I’ve included a three minute video of Bob teaching the Conflict Lock (see the bottom of this post).
- Be sure you understand your project’s DNA (theme) before you write. If you have a strong visual of the underlying message you wish to convey to your reader, you will 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.
- I have so much to say about theme, it’s likely I’ll do a separate blog on it. Often linear writers like Laura write straight through to help themselves discover theme. I usually start with theme and then write to it. Plus, whenever Laura gets stuck, I convince her to write a scene out of order…works like a charm every time. Shhhh, don’t tell her I’m trying to seduce her to the dark side.
There are two main issues that led me to embrace this non-linear style:
- The linear approach was leaching the joy from my writing.
- This less-structured approach seems to help me ease by my fears.
I’d get stuck on one of three things with the linear approach:
1. It was boring (for me) to write straight through, and my creative side isn’t very patient or structured.
2. Once I knew what happened, I didn’t want to write the book any more.
3. Transitions are pure hell for me and I’d get stuck on them.
The first two are just my own lovely personality flaws but the last one required an intervention in the form of teamwork. I can write emotional scenes or funny scenes all day long with complete focus and pretty good results. However, if you ask me to get the heroine out of her office and over to a restaurant for the next scene, I go blank and dither around, either writing too much or getting complete writer’s block.
Finally, in desperation, I asked my critique group if I could just ‘get a pass on transitions’ and they were sweet enough to say yes. We have a system worked out: I highlight a note like “Get heroine from point A to point B please” and they help me fill it in later, after the first draft is finished and in the bag. In return, I help them amp up their humor or their emotional scenes.
This brings me to…The Magic of a Great Critique Group
- A good critique group wants your success as much as you do.
- Everyone in the group has unique talents that, when combined, helps everyone get a fantastic book out of the deal.
- I could not take the non-linear approach without a critique group to read my work and catch my errors.
- If you’re a non-linear scene writer like me, I highly recommend you build yourself a writing A-Team to support you in your editing process.
Let me give you a good example of how this works for us, the founding bloggers here at WITS. Below are some areas of strength that we all depend on from each other.
- I have a great grasp of theme and how to edit or add in scenes to underscore this theme. I also tend to see the humor in every scene.
- Sharla Rae is a great all-around writer but she excels at word choice and putting Like with Like. She also writes the steamiest sex scenes you’ve ever read so she weighs in on those (thank God!).
- Fae is a World-Building Goddess who can invent everything from another galaxy to the medical accoutrements you’ll need to survive there.
- Laura writes descriptive prose that makes you feel like you’re inside a scene. Plus, she go, go, GOES.
Golden Gift - Bob Mayer's Conflict Lock LIVE
The good news is, now that I understand my process and the simple fact that I’m a scene writer, I can stop berating myself for what I’m not and just focus on the joy of being what I am. I'm a much better writer now that I've just relaxed and embraced my process.
I finally understand why I’ve been able to finish short stories: they come to me as one long scene and I can hold my focus long enough for that. This is also why blogs are pure joy for me – they’re short.
Two writers I deeply respect – Diana Gabaldon (Outlander series) and Janet Fitch (White Oleander) – are both scene writers. As I said earlier, for Outlander, Ms. Gabaldon wrote the scenes that came to her and stitched them together later, like a quilt. Janet Fitch published White Oleander originally as a series of short stories which she later realized were chapters in a larger story that she combined into a novel. Everything worked out well for them, right?
I remind myself of that whenever I feel myself losing focus and force myself to slow down, breathe, and take things one scene at a time.
Which side of the "throwdown" do you gravitate toward? Straight through or scene-by-scene? We’d love to hear your feedback on this!
REMINDER: Linda O. Johnston will be back with us on Friday talking about how to plot a mystery. We hope to see you then. In the meantime, if you hang out on Facebook, we'd love it if you stopped by the Writers In The Storm page to chat!