Jaye Wells

Tag Archives: Plotting

Craft Thursday: The Juice Is Worth the Squeeze


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.

Craft Thursday: Kaleidoscoping

Quick post today.

I recently read a post by the fabulous Jordan Dane about how she puts a book together. Her process was fairly similar to mine and I posted a link to it on twitter. Jordan, in turn, asked me to post a comment about how I do it. So I did. Follow the link to read her process and a down and dirty version of my own process.

Instead of calling myself a plotter or a pantser (seat of the pants writer), I call myself a kaleidoscoper. I’m currently working on a workshop presentation on this process so I won’t rehash it all here. So go read that post. If you have any questions or would like more details, let me know in comments and I’ll get into more detail. Here’s the link to Jordan’s post and my comment.


Craft Thursday: Outline Schmoutline

When most people hear the word “outline” they think of those dreaded roman-numeraled jobbies from high school. You know the ones. If you’re like me, the thought of those subsets and highly logical left-brained exercises give you the shakes. If you’re not like me, they give you a sense of order and linearity, and perhaps even control over your ideas.

I sat on a panel last weekend at Fencon about how to take an idea through to an outline. I’ll admit I had some trepidation going in. I don’t outline in the traditional sense, and the idea of talking for an hour about them sounded about as appealing as, well, outlining. However, during the course of the discussion something occurred to me: Everyone has a different idea of what an outline actually is.

For example, I’m often asked if I’m a plotter or a by-the-seat-of-my-pants writer (aka a panster). The short answer is I’m neither but sometimes I’m both. If you’ll remember in my last post, I advocated resisting the urge to impose structure on your ideas too early in the process. That is because when I sit down to write a story, I focus first on accumulating ideas. I write scenes or images that I see very clearly. These little nuggets are like the shiny stones in a kaleidoscope. I get them down and then I spend a long time shifting them around, looking from every angle to find the vein of gold that will lead me into the heart of the story.

Usually, once I have pondered and shifted these stones around for a few weeks, I start putting them in some semblance of order. I do this by using a tool more often associated with screenwriting: a storyboard. This is not the same as a storyboard used by advertising people or animators to show images. Yet it is inherently a visual exercise.
Here’s how it works. I begin by writing the the main idea or goal of my core scenes on Post-It notes. Those are placed on a poster board in approximately the location I see them fitting into the story. The board has been divided into four horizontal sections. The top section is Act One, from inciting incident to the first story turning point. The middle two sections represent Act 2, which is the longest act and contains two turning points. The third section, obviously, represents Act 3.

When I begin laying out my scenes I may only have about ten or twelve beats, or scenes. Most of my books are around thirty chapters, each with one or two scenes. That means a book requires anywhere from thirty to upwards of maybe forty-five scenes. But now that I have a skeleton for the story with my initial 12 or so scenes, I can start playing with the white spaces. Using more Post-Its, I connect the dots between my existing scenes. Usually, I also use different colors Post-Its for different subplots or major elements. So, for instance, in the story board shown above for GREEN-EYED DEMON, the main plot is blue and another element I was keeping track of is green.

After I get my main scenes on the board, it’s kind of like planning a road trip, where each Post-It is a destination. I know, for example, I need to get from Dallas to Atlanta in the first act. Maybe I have a couple of stops on the way already mapped out. This is where I figure out whether I want to add a detour to see the world’s largest ball of twine or if I’d prefer to take the scenic or more direct route.

I can assure you that this method is not easy. It’s circuitous and non-linear and can be quite frustrating. But it reflects how I think about story–in a visual, right-brained sort of way. Often times, I don’t know what I want to say until I’ve figured out what I don’t want to say by writing lots and lots of scenes that won’t make it into the final story. The story board helps me rejigger my plot on the fly. It also allows me to know with a quick look if my pacing of any of the story elements is off. And because I use short one-line descriptions for each scene, it also allows me enough leeway for inspiration to strike while I’m writing. It also allows me to write the book out of order, which means that I’m always working on scenes I’m excited about on any given day. When the first draft is done, the board also allows me to reorder scenes easily and then apply those changes in the document.

As I was sitting on the panel last weekend, I realized that while I don’t plot or outline in the traditional sense, my storyboard is, nevertheless, a visual outline. They might not work for everyone or make sense to anyone else who sees them, but they work for me.

Part of becoming a writer is figuring out how your mind processes story. I figured out a long time ago that trying to impose linear plots on my ideas results in formulaic story, so I shun any tool that pushes me in that direction. But some writers’ best work comes from linear thinking. Roman numerals get them excited and that’s okay, too.

I guess my point is that there are as many types of outlines are there are types of writers. Some using excel spreadsheets to track action, some use index cards wrapped with a rubber band, some write synopses using the hero’s journey template, some don’t use any outline at all during their first draft and then write one to use for revisions. Your job is to figure out what works best for you and your project.

The process I described above for my process often gets tweaked depending on the story. Sometimes my story boards are densely packed with notes. Other times they’re sparse. Sometimes I create them early in the prewriting phase and sometimes I really don’t create them until closer to the end of the first draft.

If you’re looking for a list of types of outlines, you should check out this post by Check Wendig:25 Ways to Plot, Plan and Prep Your Story. If you’re not already reading his Terrible Minds blog, do yourself a favor and add it to your blog roll.

Every story needs structure. As the writer, it’s up to you when, how and what kind of structure it has. Be open to experimenting with different forms of outlining until you find one that works for you.

Craft Thursday: Playing God with a .38 Special

As a sort of corollary to last week’s post, The Journeyman Writer , I thought I’d share how I’m currently working on my own craft.

But first, a musical interlude.

Writers are control freaks.That’s why we find creating worlds from scratch and torturing the poor inhabitants fun.  Playing god is a gas.

But if you’re like me, this tendency to want to control everything can cause more problems than it solves in the early stages of writing a book.

This is exactly the issue I was struggling with earlier this week. I’m working on a new proposal. It’s an idea that I’ve wanted to write for a long time. As the date neared to start working on it, I had romantic notions about the freedom to create without a deadline. How these new characters would be charming and interesting and so fun to work with. What I was forgetting was how much work is involved to create a world from scratch. I forgot that it’s not easy to get to know new characters. And soon, the pressure I put on myself to make this next series a blockbuster, ruined all my fun.

Then I realized that while I am pretty good at dishing out advice, I am not so good at listening to it myself. I wasn’t having fun. I wasn’t being patient with my process. But most of all, I was trying to force the story into a plot way too early.

It hit me on Monday that I needed to take a step back. That I needed to reread the blog posts I’ve been doing for you guys and take my own medicine. So I did.

A few weeks ago, I was talking to a novelist friend who mentioned she was working on a scary new idea herself and found THE 90-DAY NOVEL by Alan Watt helpful. As it happened, I realized I already owned that book, but had not read it. So I pulled it out this week and got to work.

Watt’s central idea is that we must allow ourselves time at the beginning to let our imaginations play with our ideas. Imposing structure on these fragile things too early can destroy a story’s promise before its had time to develop. Which brings us to the reason I’ve had a .38 Special song stuck in my head all week: Watt says that in the beginning, we must hold our ideas loosely.

Maybe this sounds a little granola or woo-woo to you. But to me it makes perfect sense. My best work comes after a period of play. When I allow myself to toy around with images and snippets of ideas for a while, by the time I am ready to write the process is much smoother. It’s smoother because the better I know my characters and the world, the more organically the plot unfolds.

Why? Because all that futzing around is actually laying the foundation for your story. It’s work, but it doesn’t feel like work. Brainstorming while we do dishes and watching movies and reading other books and answering character questions (and Watt’s questions are great–much better than ridiculous character profiles) and writing down images without judging them allows our subconscious to do its job. It allows us to understand what drives our characters. To delve into their backstories. To understand what themes drew us to this idea in the first place. In short, it allows us to understand what we want to say before we commit it to paper.

Imposing loose ideas into molds breaks them. It prevents them from blossoming into their potential. It also results in forced, formulaic writing. Why formulaic? Because when we’re stuck and stressed, we tend to fall back on easy fixes. Genre fiction is filled with examples of books that rely on formulas to act as short hand for telling a good  story. But my absolute belief is that the best genre fiction respects the conventions of its genre while also elevating them through rich characterization, fresh writing, breaking some rules, and honest treatment of theme.

Now, I will say that my patience an only be stretched so far. Spending a month doing freewriting exercises is just not going to happen. It also won’t, as Mr. Watt suggests, take me a month to write the first act of the story. But I have a few books under my belt and writing is my full-time job. I’m confident enough in my abilities to work through issues beginners face and can therefore skip some of the more elementary steps. So, basically, I am using the lessons as a reminder to be patient with the story and let it develop.

This approach might make some of you itchy. You might do better just diving in and discovering your story as you write it. But I know this does not work for me. And that is part of the challenge of learning to be a writer: Learning what works for you and what doesn’t, while also being open to new approaches that might push your craft to higher elevations.

If this post resonated with you, you might want to check out THE 90-DAY NOVEL. Just understand, writing is an art and a craft. Just like formulas don’t result in good plots, they also don’t magically result in a finished book. You still have to do the work. You have to be open to trying new tools to do the job. But most of all, you have to …

“Hold on loosely and don’t let go. If you cling too tightly, you’re going to loose control.”