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Facing the abyss

Every time I talk about my evolving writing process, I’m sure my long-time blog followers just roll their eyes and think, “Again?” Watching me over the last two years has been like the proverbial tennis match where I’m the ball bouncing between Plotting and Pantsing.

My first three books—and two in there that went unfinished—were written “into the mist”, begun with only the spark of a premise and a rough idea of my characters. After the pain of cutting as many as 15,000 words to work myself out of a corner, and being unable to finish those two books for lack of direction, I decided that I should approach my writing in a more organized fashion. One that befits a logic-oriented, list-making planner like myself.

I came to this opinion after reading brilliant books from the likes of Larry Brooks and Blake Snyder and hearing others wax on about plotting and structure and how it saves them. Published authors talked of the need to provide synopses or outlines for future books to their editors, and I wondered how I'd ever do that if I remained firmly in the pantser crowd.

And while I did manage to do some rough outlining before I wrote BLIND FURY—outlining that helped keep me on target during NaNoWriMo—I still ended up writing blind a lot of the time. Which, to be honest, is half the fun.

So, I fancied myself a hybrid writer, plotser, tweener, or whatever your favorite term is. If I could just take a few weeks of “prewriting” to nail down the GMC for the main characters and get my major turning points in place before I got started, the words would flow like the great Mississippi.

Or not.

So—for now—I’ve decided I’m this kind of writer: a heavy-on-the-pantsing hybrid writer who must (as my friend Sharon Wray put it) “embrace the abyss of revisions” at the end. Because, let’s face it, my need for perfection from the outset came from a desire to avoid those agonizing rewrites that I now think are unavoidable whether I plot or not.

I had become so paralyzed by my need for a workable structure that I didn’t write anything of value for four months! I played with scenes, wrote ten—I’m not kidding—different story openings for a book I’ve been thinking about for months, wrote getting-to-know-my-character scenes, and generally goofed off, but didn’t sit down and get serious.

Some of those words will be useful, but it avoided the real work of starting the book.

A few things helped get me unstuck. Dwight Swain’s amazing book TECHNIQUES OF THE SELLING WRITER. A lot of omphaloskepsis. And just this week, this post by Allison Brennan.

So, I’m back to where I started, but with a different perspective. I now have an awareness of structure and of what types of scenes I need to be writing if I’m in the first 25K of the book versus the last 25K.

I know about scene and sequel, motivation-reaction units, active setting, and ending hooks. I know that if I finish the book and it doesn’t need any plot changes—ha, I wish!—I’d still have to go back and layer in more emotion, dig into deeper POV through setting, tighten the action, polish the words.

I know that if I finish the book and the structure is off, I can fix it.

I know that if I run with my original idea and get stuck along the way, I can always back up and forge a new path.

I know that the first draft doesn’t have to be—and in fact, will never be—perfect.

So I'm standing on the cliff facing the abyss again.

Time to jump.

Photo credit: MORARU RIDGE IN FOG – BUCEGI MOUNTAINS © Iuliana Bucurescu | Dreamstime.com

Trusting my process

I’m in pre-writing mode. It takes 4-6 weeks. I know this. And yet I still get frustrated when the process doesn’t go faster. I get frustrated when I think my outline sucks and the story premise blows and that I never should have started this story in the first place.

And then I take a break, read a book, work out, walk the dog, take a nap, anything to get my mind off the story and my suckfest of an outline. And then I decide to just write some scenes.

Maybe they’ll end up as backstory. Maybe they’ll never even be part of the story or the character at all. And once I decide that’s okay, the ideas start flowing and the scenes magically write themselves. Okay, not really, but the ideas do start flowing, and scenes appear with less effort.

At this point, I may not have adjusted the outline to my satisfaction, but every scene I write will inform the final storyline. That’s the whole point of my pre-writing phase, but sometimes I forget this. I want the rough—but essentially final—outline to be done so I can start cranking out the words.

But, I have to just trust my process, because when I don’t, I end up with a dead carcass of a half-finished story that’s going nowhere. Even though a month-and-a-half sounds like a lot of time to “waste” just to get started, it saves me months of agony and rewriting down the road.

So for now, I just breathe, and fume, and doodle, and write.

And trust that someday I’ll have another story.

Word processing

I’m starting a new manuscript. I love the feeling of having a new story rolling around in my brain. Usually, it’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while. And after two years of working at this, I’m starting to learn how my creative half works.

It starts with the spark, whatever that is and wherever it comes from. For example, the spark in Slow Burn was the idea that a guy on a mission finds a woman floating in the water and his reaction when he realizes she’s alive is: “damn”.

But how to go from there to a 300-page book? Good question. I used to just write. It was an exciting and stressful process wherein I wrote about 10-20,000 words and then realized I didn’t know where to go next.

On a few occasions, I backed up and started over and the end result is much better, especially after several rounds of revisions. In a couple of instances, I stopped altogether. I have two 100-page manuscripts out there whose characters I still think about and hope to someday find a story for.

If you’re one of the diehards who’s been around since the early days of me yapping in bits and bytes, you know that I’ve begun a slow progression towards plotting. Actually, that makes it sound like a smooth transition, but it happened in fits and starts with plenty of backtracking. And a one-eighty or two. Be honest, you were all just rolling your eyes as I went back and forth trying to find the magic process that would make writing easy. Hah! As if.

I'm envisioning my journey like a football game where I gained and lost a lot of yardage, but eventually made a first down. I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself a plotter—and although I’m migrating toward that end of the scale, I’ll probably never be a detailed outliner like Suzanne Brockmann (she of the 80-pagers)—but I’m definitely not writing into the mist in quite the same way that I used to.

In fact, that post about writing into the mist was written shortly after my first attempt to outline Blind Fury. It turns out that I just hadn't found the right story. I gave up too soon. I didn't play enough.

After I tackled outlining a second time, I met with success. Blind Fury is currently in the CP comment stage after a first-pass round of edits, and is my first book to surpass 70K. I still changed the outline as I went. And in between the major turning points I was still writing in the fog, sure only of my approximate destination. That’s the pantser part of me getting to play.

And yet, I rarely got lost in the fog precisely because I knew where I needed to be and could correct my course—or decide to take a detour—as needed. This doesn’t work for everyone, but it works for me, and I’m so glad to have figured it out. I think knowing your own process is as important as understanding the craft of writing.

Because suddenly, I can estimate how much time I need to write a book. And while that doesn’t matter now, since nobody’s asking, I hope it will someday. I know that I need 4-6 weeks of brainstorming, teeth gnashing, and general fretting that I’m a two-trick pony, before I’m ready to start (though an advance check might induce me to get creative in a hurry ;-)).

During that pre-writing phase, I write random scenes and backstory ideas. I try to come up with a log line and a short pitch, and the GMC for each major character. I get a feel for which story ideas I do and don’t like. I play with the outline. I tweak it. Once I have it down, my brain ruminates while I do other things and bubbles up suggestions while I’m driving or reading a book.

Then I play some more with scenes that I think will fit the outline. Just the ones that pique my interest. And then at the end of that, I have a pretty good starting outline that will probably change—but not enough to make it unrecognizable—along with some scenes which may or may not make it into the final story in some form.

And then I start writing in earnest. With Blind Fury, I wrote almost 80,000 words in two months. That accounts for more than half of the total words I wrote in 2010. And I think it’s some of my best work ever (but I could just be delusional—ask my CPs).

Today I filled in the basic story structure for MS1_2011 (uh, working title) and I’m getting excited. Based on what I came up with, I started playing with character backstory scenes and I’m having fun again. Maybe in another week or so, I’ll be ready to hit the keys in earnest.

I can’t wait.

Meme, myself & I

Christine tagged me on her blog, Digging out of Distraction, so I'm supposed to do this meme for you. What the heck is a meme you ask? I'm not too ashamed to say I had to look it up, so if you don't know, click here and then come back.

I don't have anyone left to tag since the instigator in my group, Martha of Just Me & You, posted hers on Friday. Oh, well. Feel free to add your own responses in the comments!

So this game of 26-question “meme” tag goes like this: answer the 26 questions then tag those who have to do it too…

1. What’s the last thing you wrote? What’s the first thing you wrote that you still have?

Last thing: a scene from my current WIP, Floater

First thing: a recount of a trip to Switzerland (when we lived in Germany) written in 3rd grade, and illustrated by my grandmother

2. Write poetry?

Not too much anymore, but have a whole folder of it. The last one was for that same grandmother several days before she died.

3. Angsty poetry?

Mostly romantic poetry, or random ramblings.

4. Favorite genre of writing?

To write: contemporary and romantic suspense

To read: most romance (limited paranormal, though), mystery, political/spy thrillers

5. Most annoying character you’ve ever created?

Hayden Farmer, the nerdy stalker from my very first MS

6. Best plot you’ve ever created?

Always the one I'm working on. Plot is actually my weak point, so I struggle with this. I'm still pretty proud of how Counting on You turned out, though.

7. Coolest plot twist you’ve ever created?

Since none of my books are published, I don't want to share, just in case. Hey, I can dream. 😀

8. How often do you get writer’s block?

True writer's block? Almost never (even though I blogged about it a few days ago). Usually I struggle if a scene isn't working. When it hits, I go jogging, or start making lists until I figure out where to go with the story.

9. Write fan fiction?

Heck no. I'm trying to emulate, but not recreate.

10. Do you type or write by hand?

Mostly type, but I often think creatively better on paper. I always have a notebook dedicated to the WIP I'm working on where I can put notes, ideas, and write lists, or just think through several scenarios. If I had to write a book longhand it would never happen. Plus, Scrivener just makes organizing so easy…

11. Do you save everything you write?

YES! I even have old one-line ideas that I emailed home from work years ago, transferred to Word.

12. Do you ever go back to an idea after you’ve abandoned it?

Yes, and I have several WIPs that I started before I was ready for them. I definitely plan to repurpose them at some point.

13. What’s your favorite thing you’ve ever written?

There are some scenes from Counting on You that I absolutely love. There's no better feeling than going back over your own work and thinking, “Wow, I wrote that?” It doesn't happen often.

14. What’s everyone else’s favorite story that you’ve written?

The only one anyone else has read is Counting on You, so by default, that's it. 😉

15. Ever written romance or angsty teen drama?

Um, yeah. Romance, obviously.

Teen, but not angsty. I wrote my first novel (the term is loosely applied here) in 7th grade. The parents died and the girl goes in search of her biological father after escaping from an orphanage. (Like in Disney, all good adventures start when the parents die or disappear.) She also meets a friendly gang (I know, right?) of boys along the way, and rides a Greyhound bus. (After the Air Force sent me on the bus–twice!–I realized it wasn't all it was cracked up to be.)

16. What’s your favorite setting for your characters?

San Diego, hands down! It's one of my favorite cities. I started two MSs set in Virginia (near D.C.), but didn't finish either of them. I'll eventually get there, but I think writing about San Diego is a great excuse to go back for a visit, don't you? 😉

17. How many writing projects are you working on right now?

One WIP, the monthly newsletter for a military spouse group, my blog, occasional articles for SM newsletter

18. Have you ever won an award for your writing?

Yes! Counting on You won 1st place in the 2009 Heart-to-Heart Contest.

19. What are your five favorite words?

Oh, Lord. I can never do favorites on the spot, but I may come back and fill them in as they occur to me.

20. What character have you created that is most like yourself?

Probably Kate from my first MS, When You're Not Looking. Similar career, personality, and some life events. That was my “get all your biographical crap out of the way” book. It's not all me, but there are a lot of little bits.

21. Where do you get ideas for your characters?

I really don't know. I'm sure they are combinations of people I've met, but I don't base them consciously on others. They just pop into my head along with the story premise.

22. Do you ever write based on your dreams?

Not so far, but I get great ideas during the alpha state just before sleeping and after waking.

23. Do you favor happy endings?

They are an absolute must! Of course, I write romance, so the HEA is essential.

24. Are you concerned with spelling and grammar as you write?

Yep. I'm an editor by nature. I can't leave something incorrect and just keep writing.

25. Does music help you write?

I usually prefer silence, unless I need to block out the noise around me. Occasionally, music is inspiring, but mostly I like peace and quiet.

26. Quote something you’ve written. Whatever pops into your head.

This counts for my Daily Squirrel, right? 😉 This is the rough draft of the last scene I wrote for my current WIP, Floater. I'm sure my lovely CP will have some comments… (love ya C!)

Libby threw her bag into Diego’s truck and shivered in the ocean breeze. Strands of her dusty hair whipped across her face and she pushed it away to find Steve looking at her. He stood with his head down, hands in pockets. If he dug his toe into the ground, he’d look like a nervous third grader.

Screw this. She wasn’t letting him walk away without a fight. Rather than yell or cry, or leave without saying goodbye, she closed the space between them and wound her arms around his neck.

“Lib—”

She stood on tiptoe and cut him off with a firm kiss. His muscles stiffened, and he pressed his lips into a tight line.

So she fought back.

Her tongue darted out and licked his lower lip, teasing as she ran her fingers down his chest. His body trembled and he slammed her hips against him as he opened to her, sweeping his tongue into her mouth. She poured all of her love and longing into him, the world shattering around her as they melted together.

She relished the heat and hardness of his body molded to hers and forced back bitter tears as she released her desperate grip on his waist. Reluctantly—her body screaming in protest—she untangled herself, ignored the shock and naked desire on Steve’s face, and got into Diego’s truck.

If that didn’t brand Steve’s heart, nothing would.