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.
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?
After 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.