Thursday, February 20, 2020

Writing Takes Work, Even When You're a Pro

By Joyce Sweeney

Part of The Writer’s Life Series 

JH: Writers are always learning, and sometimes, we need reminding of the basics like everyone else. Joyce Sweeney shares thoughts on facing the things you stink at, even when you know how to do it.

Joyce Sweeney is the author of fourteen novels for young adults and two chapbooks of poetry. Her books have won many awards and honors. Joyce has recently switched to writing adult fiction and is represented by Nicole Resciniti of the Seymour agency.

Joyce has also been a writing teacher and coach for 25 years and offers online classes. In 2019, she, Jamie Morris and Tia Levings released Plotting Your Novel with The Plot Clock (Giantess Press). At this writing, 62 of Joyce’s students have successfully obtained traditional publishing contracts.

Joyce lives in Coral Springs with her husband, Jay and caffeine-addicted cat, Nitro.

Take it away Joyce…

I’ve spent the past twenty-five years teaching the craft of writing. Through that process, I’ve mentored sixty-three of my students to traditional publishing contracts. That stands as one of my proudest achievements. But a strange side effect has occurred. I took several years off from writing and am now launching a comeback with a potential new fantasy series. Who would I logically choose as beta readers to help me? Some of those well-published mentees of mine. That’s where the humiliation begins.

You see, just because you know how to preach something doesn’t mean you remember to practice it at all. 

I began my writing career as a character-creating wizard who couldn’t plot. That’s why I have become a plot whisperer of sorts and even wrote a book about plotting. I was studying the part of craft that was hardest for me. And as I studied and applied what I learned, I elevated my past book sales and was pretty proud of myself.

However, when my students took a look at my fresh work (which looked great to me), I heard strange things. Like, “You’re supposed to know this stuff, aren’t you?” or “You have subplots but I don’t see a main plot here.” and the most humbling of all, “Your main character seems to have no agency.” They told me gently, with curious expressions on their faces. They see me as the queen of craft. Surely this must be some kind of intentional move on my part to test them, or maybe I have had a brain injury they should have been told about.

Nope. Once a bad plotter, always a bad plotter. 

Even more frightening, if they hadn’t pointed it out to me, I wouldn’t have seen it. I really love my characters and that’s a good thing. But if they just show up in a story and say interesting things to each other, I feel pretty good. If it was someone else’s manuscript, my red pen would be out, but I am blind to this flaw in myself.

Joyce Sweeney
All this is not just to make you laugh at me, it’s to point out that at the end of the day every writer has issues and stumbling blocks, problem areas that never go away in any early drafts, no matter how much the writer ‘knows’ about what to do. I just sort of told myself I didn’t need to actually look at the Plot Clock, did I? Turns out I did and when I did, I came to the same conclusion. I had a pretty good novel with absolutely no plot. And in case you never heard, those don’t sell.

So, I had to go back to square one and not exactly start over, but definitely knock out a lot of walls in my structure. Luckily, I knew how to create steps to rectify my embarrassing problem. So, I now will share these with you. In case, like me, you write something pretty good…with no story. As I have told these same (laughing hysterically) students, the process is like having a baby first, then attempting to insert the spine. I gave myself a full year to do this (my agent is thrilled with me) but I knew I would cut corners if I rushed.

First, I had to hide the actual manuscript from myself, sit down with a blank Plot Clock template and think about my main character and what kinds of things she needed to do to take control of this story and live the character arc she deserved. I had to make up scores of events from scratch, but they all fit nicely into the other great subplot stuff I had going on. It wasn’t even that hard. 

Sometimes things matched up really well, as if the correct book was out there in the ether waiting to be found. Sometimes things had to be radically changed. I had to pay close attention to my major plot points: binding, low, change, turning and climax. I know what those points should feel like and I had to make sure I was hitting them with strong, external events that moved the story in a logical way. The timeline of the book immediately shortened and so did the chapter lengths.

In short, I realized right away that disciplining myself onto this template had shucked off tons of scenes and detours and messes that the book did not need. A tighter, sharper vision of what this book was really about came into view and most importantly, my excitement returned. I also noticed that a lot of smaller notes I had gotten on the manuscript now made sense, fit together, once I had committed to this big change.

So, I felt good, but I needed to know, this time around, that this would also work on the micro level. So, I started making scene cards (actually what I make are chapter cards that list the primary action in each scene) working act by act. Some of the original scenes fit in with modifications. Some of the original scenes had to go. Many, many new scenes had to be written. My favorite chapter of the book will, now and forever, be Chapter Four. On that card, I got to write, ‘as is’. The scenes as written fit right into the new plot perfectly with no change. That’s one chapter our of twenty-eight.

This revision began in October. I’m now already working in Act 3, so the process is moving much faster than I thought, but I’m very glad I gave myself that sense of time and space to do it right. I had feared all that cutting and pasting would give me a Frankenstein book, but when I read back the first half over the holidays, I found that the weaving is remarkably smooth.

In my rewrite of Acts 1 and 2, I made eight different drafts of the plot clock, and up to three different sets of cards for each chapter. My timeline for revision has shortened to six months and it might be five, but I’m still being cautious because a huge portion of Act 4 has new scenes to be written from scratch. I am so much happier with the book I have now, and so grateful that I carefully trained those beta readers in all aspects of craft so that they could be ready to call me out when I needed it.

So, the moral of this story is not that no matter how long you work, you will still suck. 

I do ‘know this stuff’. I have a bookshelf with fourteen traditionally published novels and two chapbooks of poetry. I have a wall full of awards, medals, certificates and so forth to remind me that somehow, I have banged out good work in the past.

The other moral of the story is that all of us, no matter how long we work or how much we achieve as writers, have to work hard all the time to do our best. 

Those same mentees who took me apart learned from me that you revise and revise until the work is great; no whining, no complaining. They all do it and that’s why they are successful. So, I can’t let them down by doing anything less.

I hope to make them proud of me. For now, I gotta get back to work!

About Plotting Your Novel with The Plot Clock

Storytellers, novelists, and screenwriters all encounter the problems of plot and timing: when should the events in your story take place? What order should they be in and how do they impact a character's development? Linear plot methods can ignore important nuance or even the critical events of third act entirely! Plotting Your Novel with The Plot Clock explores plot structure as it goes around an actual timepiece, a round mechanism that maps events, suggests the best timing for twists and surprises, and adds layers of insight into a character's arc.

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  1. What a wonderful post reminding me the writing journey is bumpy even for the best.
    Sounds like you had some potholes in your road to navigate too. :) Great to see you again, even cyberily. :) Miss you lots.

  2. Wonderful article Joyce! Even as you discuss the "work" involved in the writing process, your passion for your craft is palpable! That makes all the difference doesn't it? Thank you for this!

  3. Nice to know you struggle, too, Mama Joyce!!! <3

  4. So inspiring! Especially because I just started a revision.