Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Finding the Writing Process That Works For You

By Joyce Scarbrough, @JoyceScarbrough

Part of the How They Do It Series 

JH: Not every writer writes the same way, and it's our creative diversity that brings out the best stories from all of us. Joyce Scarbrough visits the lecture hall today to share some thoughts on process and how to find yours.

Joyce Scarbrough is a Southern woman weary of seeing herself and her peers portrayed in books and movies as either post-antebellum debutantes or barefoot hillbillies รก la Daisy Duke, so all her heroines are smart, unpretentious women who refuse to be anyone but themselves. The former senior editor for Champagne Books, Joyce now does freelance editing in addition to writing full time. She writes both adult and YA fiction and has seven published novels as well as several short stories available as Kindle downloads. Joyce loves hanging out with other writers and stays active in her local writers’ guild as well as her regional chapter of SCBWI. She’s lived all her life in beautiful LA (lower Alabama), she’s the mother of three gifted children and a blind Pomeranian named Tilly, and she’s been married for 35 years to the love of her life—a superhero who disguises himself during the day as a high school math teacher and coach.

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Take it away Joyce...

Whether they're a pantser or a plotter, every writer has to figure out what process works best for them, and there's no single answer that's right for everyone. I have friends who start writing with nothing but the spark of an idea and others who spend a longer time planning out every aspect of their book than they do actually writing it. I fall somewhere in the middle, so I call myself a hybrid. I like to think it makes me sound contemporary, efficient, and nonpartisan. I also like to think I still look like my high school yearbook picture, but that's a completely different blog post.

I realized recently that the writing process I use now is a lot different from what I used when I wrote my first book, and its evolution came about from a combination of my growth as a writer and lessons learned from trying to force my characters to do something they weren't meant to do. More about that later.

When I wrote my first book eighteen years ago, I started with nothing but the two main characters and a “what if” question. I began writing with an impassioned literary furor to which most first-time novelists can relate, and I didn't slow down until I got about three chapters in and realized I needed a lot more conflict and at least one subplot. This is also when I discovered that I did my best plotting either in the shower or while washing dishes. My husband and three children showed their support by dirtying a lot of dishes. That book taught me that I needed to do more preparation before I started writing, so my process underwent its first modification.

One thing that hasn’t changed is that I always start with characters, because they've always been the most important thing for me when I’m reading. If I don’t care about the characters, I won’t read a book no matter what's happening. I would have read all seven Harry Potter books even if they were about nothing but Harry and his friends going to class, eating meals, and playing Quidditch. Since characters are so crucial to me, I get a shiny new spiral notebook and start by drawing out my main character with a plethora of details, most of which never make it into the book. Then I begin with a scaled-down version of the basic plot formula that works best for me.

1. I decide what my character wants and what is keeping them from getting it.

This usually allows me to come up with my inciting incident (the moment when everything changes for my protagonist) and also ensure that I have plenty of conflict, at least to start with.

2. I write a very broad narrative overview of the story.

I make sure this includes all the major plot points I intend to hit. The purpose of this is for me to envision the entire story and make sure I don't get stuck not knowing how to end the book. This is also where I plan the character arcs that don't always stick to my plan. This is the part of the process that's usually referred to as “prewriting” and can be minimal like mine or can be quite extensive and include storyboards, charts, sticky notes, and spider diagrams.

3. I write a more detailed overview of the first quarter/third of the book.

This includes a partial timeline and a list of as many scenes as I can predict for the first quarter/third of the book. If the setting is anywhere other than my hometown or a fictional city I invented for the book, as part of my research, I print out pictures of the real places I'm using. Sometimes I'll also print examples of structures or topographical areas I'm using in the story if I've never seen them in real life (hunting camps, lavish hotels, swamps, mountain trails, mansions etc.) to aid in my descriptions.

4. I sit down and start writing with my printed “outline” beside me.

As I complete each event or scene, I check it off because it soothes my inner list maker. I make handwritten notes to the outline as things occur to me about the section I’m writing—snippets of dialogue I want to use or reminders to include certain elements—but if ideas for scenes in the next part come up, I write them in my notebook.

5. When I get to the end of the outline, I write a new one for the next section.

In addition to giving me the chance to make adjustments to the plot for things that have changed as I'm writing, doing this allows me to take a brief vacation from the story (usually no more than a few days) and look at it with new eyes when I go back to it.

6. I repeat this process until I get to the end of the book.

Usually, my original major plot points remain the same, but more than once I've had a major plot element change because a character utterly refuses to do something I tried to force them to do. Every time I’ve tried to make the story stick to my original plan, it never works. I get hopelessly stuck until I finally listen to the characters and realize the new direction I need to take.

So that’s how I do it. I know some writers who do something similar, but I know others who have a completely different writing process. One of the best books on the subject is Janice Hardy’s Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure. Try one or more and see how it goes, but remember that you’re not locked into any one process once you try it. And the best way to figure out what works best for you is to start writing that book you’ve been thinking about for a long time!

About the True Blue Trilogy

It's 1972 in Chickasaw, Alabama—a time when kids ride their bikes all over town, spend lazy summer days finding shapes in the clouds, squirt each other with the water hose, catch lightning bugs in a jar, and play outside until the streetlights come on. Best friends Jeana, Wade, and Billy Joe have lived on the same street all their lives, but things start to change the summer after the fourth grade. The boys begin to look at Jeana and each other differently, and puberty is getting close to rearing its ugly head. Can the three of them stay friends, or will someone's heart get broken? And who is that new boy in Chickasaw with the royal blue eyes? Books two and three of the trilogy follow these four unconventional young people from childhood to college. They are bound by relationships as volatile as they are complex, and the road they travel to adulthood is paved with laughter, tears, and more than one kind of heartache. A savory Southern blend of The Wonder Years, Stand By Me and American Graffiti, the True Blue Trilogy is comfort food for the soul.

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  1. Always fun to see how other writers create.

    1. Yes it is. Did you recognize yourself anywhere? ;-)

  2. These are very helpful tips, Joyce. Thanks!

  3. I've never considered writing with a half-finished outline before. That's very clever! It also possibly solves a problem I've been having with my own writing process lately...

    Thank you for writing, Joyce! This definitely helped me :)

    1. I'm so happy it helped you, Cici! Best of luck!

  4. Joyce, I think you may have hit on something I'd like to try. After all, it's relatively easy to tell a tale making it all narrative. Besides, I know that I don't feel any stress when I'm writing dialogue so I don't think that part of writing is a big problem for me. Anyway, thanks for the idea. I'm going to try it.

    1. This makes me so happy, Glynis! I wasn't sure that anyone else would find this method useful, but it really works well for me. :-)