Monday, January 02, 2012

What the Heck was I Thinking? Reevaluating Your Writing Process

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Beginnings are great times to reevaluate things. Be it the start of the week, month, year or even the start of a new novel, taking time to step back and ask, “am I doing this the best way I can?” can be incredibly helpful.

Several blog posts over the last month started me thinking while I was finishing up my current YA project. One was this wonderful post by Jami Gold on What Do You Suck At? She urges writers to admit and own up to where our writing skills are weak so we can improve them. Around that same time, the always helpful Kristen Lamb had one of her awesome posts on antagonists. Then to cap it off, YA Highway linked to a remarkable post by Rachel Aaron on writing 10,000 words a day.

I couldn’t get these posts out of my head. What did I suck at? Endings. I always have to write them several times to get them right, even though I know what makes a good one. Why did I suck at endings? Typically because I rush them once I get to the end (I just want the book over so I can start revising), but for this particular YA novel, it was because I didn’t know my antag’s goal well enough. What did this have to do with writing 10K words a day? Because I kept getting stuck in my current project because I didn’t know enough about what was going to happen, because I didn’t know what my antag was doing, and I didn’t really know what he ultimately wanted beyond a vague plot point. (Something Rachel covers in her post)

So it’s time to change how I write.

My process evolves all the time, so this isn’t a huge deal. Whenever I hear about something that sounds intriguing, I try it out. But I meet frustrated folks all the time who struggle with their writing. They try to do what works for others or they try to write “the right way” and that’s not a way that works for them. I’m a firm believer in always striving to improve your craft to tell the best stories you can. Even if everything is going well in your writing, it might be worth taking a minute to think about what you can do to improve.

Here’s a 2012 challenge for you:

What aspects of your writing can you work on this year?

Even if it’s one small area, take a step to being better. If you’re just starting out and have a lot of places to grow, try picking one per month and working on mastering that before moving on. If you’re solid in all your craft techniques, try looking at your process, or your story ideas. Make an effort to do something to improve how you write.

This is what I’m working on this year:
1. My endings
2. Writing more in less time

How I plan to do this:
1. Really know my antags and their goals in the outline process. I always have a basic idea of what has to happen in the end, but sometimes that’s pretty vague. With my current project, the antag’s plan is critical to what the protags do, so being vague here caused me a lot of extra work and revision. (it has a strong mystery plot).

I have a mystery writer friend who always plots out exactly what her killer does before she writes a book. Since the protag is trying to solve that murder, it makes perfect sense to know where the bad guy is at all times and how that affects your heroes. This is a trick that easily translates to other genres with mystery elements.

For stories where the antag isn’t so critical, (not working off a plan of their own) I’ll spend more time thinking about the ending and what’s going to happen--what constitutes that win in a more specific way. (Here’s where all that practice writing hook lines will come in handy. If I can’t state what the end goal is, I need to do more work)

What I hope to gain from this: To avoid the inevitable slow down I always hit when I get within a few chapters of being done. To have a clearer picture going in of the ending, which will make the rest of the book easier to plot in a first draft. To make early drafts more solid and require less revision after the story gets down on paper.

2. Inspired by Rachel’s post, I’m going to go back to my outlines. She talks about doing a pre-writing summary before she starts each day and jots down what’s going to happen in the scene she’s about to write. Sometimes I do this and sometimes not, and it hit me that when I do, I actually am more productive. So why wasn't I doing this every writing session before every scene?

What I hope to gain from this: To write more in less time, and write more keeper scenes than brainstorm scenes (scenes where I write them to see how it plays out, then revise heavily later).

I know I work better from a plan, and I’ve veered away from some of the things I’ve always been successful with. I think being a little more structured is going to make me more productive, and hopefully allow me to write better books.

What about you? Do you have any areas you’d like to work on this year? What about your process? Is it the best it can be for you? Any places you might tweak and see if it helps?


  1. I'm always looking for ways to write more in less time! Your post made me think about my endings, and how I struggle to get them right (or, at least how I'm struggling with the ending of the book I'm revising). Thanks!

  2. I've been thinking about this a lot lately. For me, my big goal is to enjoy writing again. I've been trying to write what I think others want me to write. I've worried about what people who know me would think if I wrote about certain things. In effect, I stuffed myself into a box and the writing has gone flat.

    I want to remember why I started writing in the first place. And whatever happens after that is pie in the sky.

  3. This is exactly what I've been thinking about lately. I love how you've outlined your goal in concrete steps. When I wrote my first manuscript, I pantsed through it and quickly learned that I really needed to focus on plotting. Plenty of creativity can flow between the stepping stones, but I need those steps outlined/planned in order to be effective. This year, I want to focus on making sure my H/H conflicts are not only strong, but cross paths. I need to make sure they're intertwined.

    Thanks for a great post!

  4. This year I plan to keep working on craft bits I am weak in, but my main focus is my mentality.

    I think our outlook on our writing can sometimes be the biggest thing we need to work on, so this year I am going to work on not putting so much pressure on myself. Some pressure is good, but I tend to go off the deep end with it until I am paralyzed. I am going to make a list of things I can do to combat this, and make a concentrated effort to not let it get to me as badly.

    Great list!

  5. Endings. I definitely slow down as the end approaches because I feel my endings are never strong enough, never have enough impact so i hesitate writing them. I need to go over that insecurity and just put words on the page.

    I'm a pantser but I find working out the general direction of a scene like a movie in my head before writing is a great way to sort out events enabling me to churn out words. I'm sometimes amazed that I can get 5000 words out in an hour (rare, awesome moments) but it can happen which makes me strive for that on a near daily basis.

    Also, knowing when to take a break and get away from the computer. (Do more of this is my new year's resolution) It's amazing what a quick stroll around the lake with my dog can do for the cobwebs in my brain, clogging up the story mechanics and yet I don't do it as often as I should.

    Thanks for the post - inspirational as always!

  6. Thank you SO much for that link to the Rachel Aaron post!!! I really think her suggestions will work for me. I tend to like data, but it's been hard for me to see that kind of analysis as anything but another procrastination tactic. I've read similar sorts of posts, but I've never run across anybody backing it up with the sort of data she has. She's made a believer out of me.

    What do I suck at... This question has gnawed at me most of last year. I participated in an online class where I submitted my novel to an editor, and I point-blank asked for feedback as to where I should concentrate my efforts to improve my writing. All I got were references to general improve-your-craft resources -- what I would have found in just general web-bowsing. Perhaps everything still sucks!! I think my spelling and grammar are halfway decent, so I was disappointed to not at least get a little back-patting there.

    I am rewriting that book I submitted for last year's class. I plan to submit a piece to Real Life Diagnostics to get some feedback from you and others here. And I think I really need to look seriously for critique partners/groups this year. I've been nervous about that - if you're still learning craft, how do you know if the people you are working with are giving good advice?? But I suspect I've gone as far as I can on my own at this point. I NEED to trust others in order to improve now.

  7. Yeah, I definitely need to work on writing more in less time as well. Good luck!

  8. That's a wonderful idea for the new year! I definitely need to sit down and figure out where I need the most work. Thanks for putting that idea out there! Good luck with your endings situation!

  9. I need to work more on learning to plot and plan--at least more than 1 scene at a time. And to stop rationalizing that I've done other "important writing stuff" when I don't make my meager 1K/day word count. And I need to learn more about marketing and promotion.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  10. I need to get better at thinking through my characters better - my current WIP has discrepancies I'm going to have to go back and rewrite because of stupid things I didn't consider until later.

  11. I've found that some aspects of writing are counter-intuitive (actually a lot of them are). The best way (in my opinion) to find the beginning of things is to know the end. Can't travel somewhere you don't know exists or are only vaguely aware of. I've also found (through a cool writers group I'm part of run by someone you mentioned above) that starting with the antagonist is a good idea. They are the heart of the conflict and their actions will determine much of what the hero and other characters have to deal with and overcome. Basically, know where the destination is and who stalks the road between.

    As for me, this year is all about productivity, learning to get out of my own way and just write. Trust my instincts and apply all the solid lessons I learned in 2011.

  12. I definitely want to make my writing time more efficient. I've got my launch this year and I want to have the sequel submitted and (hopefully) accepted in time to make it for next year's line-up.

  13. Andrea, most welcome! I think if we get those endings clarified we'll be better off :) Good luck to both of us!

    Charity, I'm so sorry it hasn't been fun lately :( That's rough. Write what makes you happy. You can always write under a pseudonym if you're worried about it. Then no one will know it's you :)

    Rula, thanks, sounds like a good plan. It's so much easier when we take it a step at a time.

    Elizabeth, oh you are so right about that. If you're not in the right head space you get nothing done. Good thing to work on!

    Xan, wow, great word output there. Breaks are underrated. They're so important to refresh the brain. Don't give up those walks, hehe.

    Khanada, most welcome. Amazing what she did isn't it? And it sounds really easy to try. Finding crit groups can be hit or miss, but good feedback often rings true when you hear it. Have you tried the Ladies Who Crit site yet? (I think there's a link to it in the resource tab). That might be a good spot to start looking for crits. I'll keep an eye out for your RLD submission :)

    Joe, I think we all do :) Probably holds true in all aspects of life, hehe.

    Colene, Most welcome!

    Terry, all good goals. I do that same rationalization :) On the other hand, writing isn't all about the word count. Some days it IS good to have gotten that other stuff done.

    Tasha, oo, good one! That happens to me too.

    Gene, you're totally right there and that is my plan this year. Love that: getting out of your own way and just writing. Wise words.

    Paul, efficient is a good way to put that. That makes it more than just "write more" or "write faster." I like that!

  14. Great post, Janice.

    What I particularly loved is that I also read those three articles you linked to, and have been having very similar thoughts. I've just outlined my writing goals and action plans for the year, and part of that includes utilising some of Rachel Aaron's suggestions, as well as following Jami's advice and fessing up to my weaknesses.

    In my case, it's planning. Big time. (Yes, I set concrete goals even though I suck at planning. I'm a riddle wrapped in an enigma.) So I'm going to use Rachel's suggestion of writing out what happens in each scene before I write it, and see how that goes.

    Good luck with your goals for the year, and I look forward to hearing how this all works for you!

  15. Thanks for the link! Good luck with your process. For me, it seems like every story has a different troublesome spot. :)

  16. I haven't tried Ladies Who Critique yet - but I know I've been there because I remembered that post you wrote for them! I will take a closer look - thanks so much.

  17. Loved the article from Rachel Aaron. Good stuff that I have just been starting to recognize, but not really labelled and made into a graphic. Just super...Thanks!

  18. Jo, they were all such great articles. Good luck with your planning plan (hehe). I know it helps me, so hopefully it'll work for you.

    Jami, most welcome, I loved that post. I've noticed that too about the stories, actually. I wonder if our own trouble spots come out more on certain books? Like we naturally move toward something we're weak at to work on it?

    Khanada, good luck!

    Amelia, I bet her article changed many a writer's life. Such basic stuff, but so awesome.

  19. I read that post by Rachel and bought her book on it a few weeks ago. Quick, helpful read. Since then I've written down what I want to write BEFORE I start writing, and you know what? It really works. I'm writing more "keeper" scenes, as you put it, in less time. Now on to what else I suck at... :)

  20. Amy, that pre-planning is so helpful. And you don;t suck--there are just things you could improve on :) Think positive!