Writers are pretty silly. We indulge in a lot of magical thinking and we believe people when they tell us there’s a right way to write. This is why, from very early in my career, I believed I needed to write a book linearly. I learned this method from my first critique group, which was filled with published authors. They were pros, I reasoned, they know what’s up. So I plotted and I wrote my books in order.
When I began submitting to agents, the feedback was all sort of similar, “You say this is a single-title, but it reads like a category romance.” All of my critique partners wrote category romance and they were the ones who drilled into me that I need to plot their way.
Eventually, I left that group. My exit had been coming for a while, but the final nail in the coffin was when they urged me to walk away from the book I was working on–a little Urban Fantasy called Red-Headed Stepchild that would later land me a six-figure, multi-book contract and make it onto the USA Today Bestseller list. I harbor no ill will toward those critique partners because I learned a lot from them, including when to walk away from a situation that was not doing my writing any favors.
After I got my deal and had to write the second book in the series, I stumbled for a long time. I’d written three novels by that point, but I didn’t understand my writing process. Cue two total rewrites that resulted in one of the most stressful periods of my life. It was only once my editor called me and said, “What happens when you start writing a book?” that I gave any real thought to how my mind processed story. The first version of Mage in Black was a mess because, terrified and self-conscious of performing under pressure, I resorted to plotting and linear writing because it was what the published authors I’d known in that critique group had done. The result was a terrible, formulaic book that lacked all the heart that RHSC had going for it.
When I began to talk through my process with my editor she exclaimed, “Oh! I get it–you’re a scene writer. I’ve worked with someone else like that. Here’s what you need to do … ” See, until that moment, I only knew of two types of writers: plotters and pantsers.What I learned from my editor that day is that false dichotomy was screwing me up. I had no idea it was okay to be some sort of combination of the two, which, I’ve since found, most of us are.
It’s sort of like saying, “there are two types of people: those who like night and those who like day.” It completely ignores the wondrous nuances that exist in a 24-hour period–dawn, midday, noon, afternoon, L’heure Bleu, dusk, evening, night, midnight, etc. In other words, you might have a tendency toward writing by the seat of your pants, but your version of pantsing is probably different from every other pantser out there.
My editor called me a scene writer, but I’ve since amended it to being a “puzzler.” Yes, I write my books as discrete scenes and I write them out of order. Some might say, yeah, that’s classic pantser. But, my friends, those people would be wrong. Pantsers are notorious for diving right into a story without any preparation. In fact, I do a lot of pre-work on my books. It’s just that instead of charting out each beat of the story, I prework by focusing first on world building and character development. I fill my subconscious with as much information as I can about the world and characters so that while I’m writing I have a ton of material that informs my choices. The first hundred or so pages of my books (sometimes way more than that) are a frenzy of scene writing with no regard to structure. It’s almost like writing a bunch of short stories about the characters. This period is me working totally on inspiration. I let my subconscious play until it starts to run out of fresh ideas. Then, and only then, do I start to plot. I take that collection of scenes and place them on a storyboard. Then I started shuffling them around (puzzling) until the story reveals itself to me. Once I have a pretty good idea of the structure, I fill it in with all the scenes I’m missing.
Look, I know this isn’t the easiest process or the most logical, but it’s how I best create stories. When I try to work against this process, my stories are terrible. That’s because when I don’t allow my imagination to drive the process, I default to formula to create structure. That’s no bueno, my friends.
I’m not sharing this because I think you should write stories the way I write them. Instead, I simply want to suggest to you that if you’re stuck, you might be struggling to understand your own process. Alternately, if you’re a plotter and find yourself hitting roadblocks, maybe try to shake things up a little. If you can’t write the next logical scene, jump ahead to another chapter or scene you know is coming. Sometimes we think we’re linear writers when we’re not. You can be a plotter and easily write your scenes out of order because you already have the plan in place. Or, if you write by the seat of your pants, maybe just do a quick sketch of what you think the scene you’re about to write is really about. That might speed things up a bit.
Bottom line: You have to go where the juice is, and to get there you have to understand your process (the squeeze).
You’ll know the juice when you see it. Your fingers will itch to start typing. When you talk about those scenes, your speech will speed up and people will remark on the way your eyes glow.
Knowing your process is basically understand where to find your juice. I rebel against structure and linearity, so my juice requires me to mix things up and not commit too soon to plan for the story. Your juice might require intricate plotting using Excel or a storyboard. Or your juice might be diving off the cliff and plowing through the story from page one to The End without stopping. All of these methods are valid as long as they get you to your juice.
Writing is work, but it should not feel like punishment. If you’re honoring your process, you will still have tough days, but you will move past them more quickly because you’ll understand how to get back to the juice faster.
Now, a caveat: It took me a long time to understand my process. It involved me blocking out all the well-intentioned advice and getting out of my own damned way. I took a lot of classes and tried a lot of methods. In addition, sometimes a story will throw a curve ball and you’ll have to try some new approach. The point is, don’t beat yourself up if you don’t know your process. Also, if you know your process, don’t be slave to it to the detriment of your work. And for goodness sake, don’t turn into one of those insufferable artistes who use process as an excuse for being a jerk.
Getting to your juice is simply about knowing how your imagination processes ideas and how to best organize your work flow to optimize it. If you’re stuck, try something new. If you’re not sure what your process is, keep working. Eventually the patterns will reveal themselves. Just never forget that if writing feels like punishment you might be approaching it in a way that doesn’t optimize your flow.
Happy writing, friends.