Friday, April 30, 2010

You say po-tah-to, I say eggplant:
6 authors share their methods

I’ve heard from a lot of aspiring authors lately who want to know my writing process.

While I’m flattered by the interest, I don’t want people thinking my formula is the ticket to publication.

Believing an unfamiliar writing technique is the key to your success is kind of like me believing that if I lick my own butt, I’ll be able to catch a Frisbee like my dog.

In the interest of showing multiple approaches to writing, several phenomenally talented authors agreed to share theirs. When you’re done with me, be sure to visit Sean Ferrell, Linda Grimes, Cynthia Reese, Nelsa Roberto, and Kiersten White to learn what works for them.

But here’s what I do:

Step 1: the idea. I’m not an author whose brain generates zillions of stories, so I grab little idea nuggets wherever I can. My debut novel, MAKING WAVES, began percolating in 2006 on an Australian sailing trip when I noticed there was something kinda sexy about a man steering a boat. (Honey, if you’re reading, it’s totally sexy when a man steers a station wagon, too).

Step 2: the pondering.
This lasts for days, or even years. It’s the part where my brain chews the idea nugget and either generates a story concept or spits it out like a bad jellybean.

Step 3: the beginning. Once I have some vague notion of the characters and setting, I dive in and start writing. I don’t do much plotting beforehand, so I seldom know how the story will unfold or which characters I might kill. The first three chapters are the toughest for me, and can take a couple weeks.

Step 4: the beating. After I’ve pounded my head on the keyboard enough to produce three chapters, I let someone else pound me in the head. It’s usually critique partner Cynthia Reese, and the exchange goes like this:

CYNTHIA: This part’s good, that needs work, this part is funny. Where’s the story headed?

ME: (long pause) Did you like the poop joke on page 12?

Then Cynthia will graciously suggest that while my characters are amusing, the story might benefit from a plot. And conflict. And I will go look those things up in the dictionary and have a glass of wine.

Step 5: let’s get serious.
Though I won’t have a concrete plot outline, I’ll usually have ideas for key scenes and I’ll know my characters pretty well. From this point forward, I don’t share pages with anyone but my cat. I set weekly word count goals, and achieve them through some combination of diligence and dumb luck. I pick up speed as I go, sometimes writing 75 pages a day near the end. Because I don’t map things out beforehand, I’m always adding details to the earlier chapters as I develop a plot twist or new character trait. I’m also rereading constantly, making tweaks to chapter 5 when I need a break from writing chapter 20.

Step 6: more beatings. Once I’ve finished and spent several days revising, I email the manuscript to critique partners Cynthia Reese and Linda Brundage. As fellow authors, they’re terrific not just at identifying problems, but suggesting how to fix them. After I’ve made their changes, I email my beta readers. These three women are voracious book fiends, and I trust them to tell me when my hero sounds wimpy, my heroine is unfashionably dressed, or a character has blue eyes on page 26 but green on 314.

Step 7: the home stretch. I do a final round of editing before emailing my agent, Michelle Wolfson. Then I hold my breath. Inevitably, Michelle will have another round of edits that make the manuscript stronger and/or more marketable.

Step 8: squeal and drink wine.
Oh, who am I kidding? I do this to celebrate all the other steps, too.

Step 9: panic. Because now the part I control is done, and my fate lies in the hands of my agent, the editors, and the readers who might eventually buy my books.

So now you know how my writing process works. Don’t forget to visit these amazing authors to see how they do what they do:

Sean Ferrell (literary fiction)
Linda Grimes (light paranormal mystery)
Cynthia Reese (southern romance/inspirational romance)
Nelsa Roberto (young adult)
Kiersten White (young adult)

33 comments :

Cynthia Reese said...

Well, yanno, plot is a GOOD thing, Tawna! And it's usually in there already -- you just have to write it to tell it! :-)

Linda G. said...

*Taking notes* Let's see...write, beat, drink. Repeat.

Got it! And thanks for another great post. :)

~Nicole Ducleroir~ said...

Thanks for sharing this! You made me laugh, but also I was seriously soaking in every step and comparing your methods with my slowly-emerging-so-I-can-sort-of-recognize-it method.

I have a follow up question. How do you keep your own facts straight? Blue eyes becoming green is a simple example. But when I reread my own earlier chapters, it's like I'm reading it for the first time. Is there something wrong with me? LOL. As the MS grows, I worry I can't keep everything straight. Does this happen to you? And if so, how do you tackle the problem?

Claire Dawn said...

We're sitll TWINSIES! Except I don't look back at earlier chapters on a first draft, and I'm still in edits, so no betas, agents, editors, publicists. YET!

Candyland said...

The drinking probably helps...maybe that's what I'm missing.

Claire Dawn said...

PS, I just saw your note about Pythagaras in the side bar. How cute! :)

Lisa said...

A nice glass of wine is always helpful :) I agree! Thanks for the post :)

Christi Goddard said...

Pft. Plot is over-rated. I've already shared my writing method with you. Total pantser.

Patty said...

Great idea, great post.

What resonated the most with me was your Pondering. I do that, probably way more than I should. I've started writing down Pondering Points, my own personal X Files... because I can't remember what I've pondered.

I'm not as good as you and Sean where I can write without an outline. I need to know how my story is going to end before I start writing it. If I don't, I find I'm never done.

Kathi Oram Peterson said...

It's so true that not everyone's path to publication gives a magic formula for others to follow. Great post!

danicaavet said...

I think writing, like my cooking (which is seldom done btw)is trial by fire. I've been a panster and a plotter, but I totally fall between the two...so what would that make me? A plantster? A plonster? Hm, either way, whatever works, right? I'm a big project runway fan and I live by Tim Gunn's motto "make it work". You like poop jokes, I like farting dogs. Collaboration time? j/k :)

Delia said...

I think Sean and I may have been separated at birth. A little scary.

Oh, and thanks for turning me into a stalker. I've just installed Google Analytics, which is totally your fault since I didn't know it existed until I read your blog yesterday. You've corrupted me. I hope you're proud.

Tawna Fenske said...

Cynthia & Linda G, thanks so much to both of YOU for taking part in this little blogfest! I loved reading both of your methods as well, and I'm so excited that all our readers will get to see how differently we all approach things.

Nicole, this is actually an excellent question, and maybe I'll blog about it in the future. One thing I always struggle with in any book is time-lines. How long has everyone known each other? Is this date taking place on a Tuesday or a Friday? How long has this piece of property been in the famly? When did this character go to rehab? When did the heroine start her job? These are the kinds of things I don't know for sure until almost the end of the book, so I choose to highlight any instance where I need time-line info. At the end of the book, I go through and make a little chart and figure out the exact timing of everything. Then I go back and add it to the manuscript. I'm sure there are other ways to do it, but that's how I handle one element I always find tricky. Good luck!

Claire Dawn, I'm so nutty about reworking older chapters that for the first half of the book, I start every writing interlude by reading every preceding chapter and making tweaks before I can start any new chapters. Helps with the flow, but I do get tired of those early chapters pretty quickly!

Candyland, you jest, but the drinking does sometimes help! Someday I'll do a blog post on how :)

Lisa, a glass of wine? You mean I'm not supposed to guzzle it straight from the bottle?

Christi, it's fun to see what works for everyone else, isn't it? The panster thing works for me, but I love having Cynthia as a CP so I can try out other methods from time to time.

Patty, you're right -- Sean is indeed the extreme in the panster division! I couldn't do that, either.

Kathi, that's why I was so nervous when I kept getting requests to share my process. Pretty sure my process wouldn't work for most people, nor would yours, nor would my CPs, nor would...well, you get the idea.

danicaavet, funny, I actually played with a cooking simile before I settled on the butt-licking one I used in the first part of this blog post!

delia, my pleasure for turning you on to Google Analytics and for helping you find your long-lost twin!

Thanks for reading, guys!
Tawna

Karla Nellenbach said...

Thanks for allowing us all a peek into your process. I have to say that of all the writers you have listed I am most like Linda (no wonder I blog stalk her too). My process is fairly chaotic and yet I like to think it's got some order to it! :)

PS....I really think that if you ever do figure out a way to lick your own butt, catching that frisbee should be no problem.

Heather Kelly said...

Thanks for the insight into your process and the laugh. And good to know that I can excuse my glasses of wine as a necessary writing tool. Now, how about the chocolate??

Jason said...

Tawna - this whole thing made me laugh because, well, your process is very similar to my own (except subsitute "cold beer" for "wine"). Not that I've been at all successful with it as someone just getting into it, but the things I have written start exactly like your Step 1. Though they don't usually involve hot guys.

As a writer, and you mention this in your comment above, I've struggled with the need to build concrete outlines. Do I need character sketches? Should I do a timeline? I've not done those to date...but I sometimes wonder if I should try it once, to see if that makes it easier for me.

LR said...

That's probably a good idea to have the first three chapters critiqued right off the bat, as those are the ones editors care most about too.
And if your crit partner hates them then you can just cry or go catch a Frisbee.

L. T. Host said...

I'm glad I stayed tuned for this morning! How awesome! Thanks for sharing :)

Tawna Fenske said...

Karla, isn't it fun to see how different the processes are? And even though my process is fairly well dialed-in after eight full manuscripts and seven partials, I can STILL pick up little tidbits of good info from all of these.

Heather, the chocolate goes well with the red wine. I prefer cheese with the white. These are all essential tools in the writing process.

Jason, I know I could never do the time-line BEFORE I wrote the book because I want to keep tweaking these details as I go along. However, it's essential for me afterward so I can make sure everything lines up. However, if you look at my critique partner Cynthia's process, she nails down all of this stuff beforehand. I guess it's whatever works for you!

LR, exactly! The first three are toughest for me, and they're also a crucial part of setting the story up and determining who the characters are. Then I rely on Cynthia to help with the "now what?" part of the equation.

L.T. Host, glad you're enjoying it! We all had a blast putting it together.

Thanks for reading, and welcome to all the new visitors!
Tawna

OfficeGirl said...

Tawna thanks so much for doing this series. I can't tell you how much better I feel that actual authors struggle too. Most whom don't use outlining. Which is great news for me because I freaking HATE doing outlines! I always thought I was a defective robot unable to write but willed to do so...I'm so excited that everyone else who writes is just as dysfunctional and disturbed in their own special wine drinking way.
Now, I have a bottle of Merlot waiting for me and a blank Word document calling for a story!!

Jayne said...

Hello! Been skipping about your blog a little (introduced myself on the post below this, and very happy to be here!) but this post rang very true to me. Love Step 4 especially - the excited telling of plot, the friend pointing something important (what plot?), the pause, the pointing out that isn't it printed in a nice font? Hee. :)

Elisabeth Black said...

You're so funny. This series was a great idea.

WendyCinNYC said...

Just so long as your process always includes poop jokes. Because who doesn't like a good poop joke?

I'm impressed that your writing process picks up speed as you go. I'm the total opposite and it's very un-fun to see the finish line ahead and just inch across.

Shannon said...

It's all about the drinking.

Great idea for the series. Really entertaining!

Patty said...

*bounces* More! Can we do more! ? ?

I LOVE the blogfest idea. Make it a regular feature.

Please? (*throws razor clams in for good measure*)

out of the wordwork said...

Yay! I can finally comment!!

I was feeling particularly targetted when I wasn't allowed to post my thanks to you, Tawna, for starting this. It's been a fabulous and entertaining (you crack me up!) as well as a great learning experience.

I love our diversity (and our connections)
Nelsa

Misty said...

I read them all and I am so appreciative that all the authors you asked were so open. Thanks for circling the wagons for us, Tawna!

Karen Amanda Hooper said...

I don't know Cynthia, but I like her already. And of course I still love you because you crack me up are a shameless wine addict--like myself.

Your system is fabulous. Don't change a thing.

Tawna Fenske said...

OfficeGirl, indeed, there's definitely no "right way" or "wrong way" to write, and there's definitely still a lot of struggle involved in the process even after you've sold a book or two.

Jayne, the wonderful thing with having a critique partner who is my complete opposite in terms of process is that we're both good at helping each other with our weaknesses. Mine is plotting, and Cynthia is terrific at helping me with that, and I like to think I offer her some decent assistance with fleshing out characters and setting (which tend to be my stronger points).

Elizabeth, I'm so glad you enjoyed it. We might have to try this again sometime with a different topic!

WendyCinNYC, you know what's funny? I wrote this blog entry a few days and threw in that poop joke reference without actually HAVING a poop joke in my current project. But then I was tweaking some things in the first chapter, and lo-and-behold, the opportunity presented itself to insert the perfect poop joke. Go figure.

Shannon, glad you liked it! Go have a drink for me :)

Patty, if we find another topic that lends itself to this format, we'll definitely try to do this again sometime!

Nelsa, I don't know why the comments weren't working for you earlier, but I'm glad you made it over! Thanks so much for being a part of this. It really was fun to see how different we all are.

Misty, you know what's funny? I've never met a single one of the other authors in person, not even my critique partner (with whom I've worked for about six years). That's the great thing about the internet and social media, I guess. You get to know a lot of people you may never meet in person!

Karen Amanda, isn't Cynthia terrific? It's been a real pleasure to work with her all these years. Alas, she doesn't share my fondness for wine, so you and I will have to make up for her :)

Thanks for reading, guys!

Tawna

Crystal said...

"And I will go look those things up in the dictionary and have a glass of wine."

*sigh* I'm in love. The dictionary is my best friend and when it comes to a process... I don't even know what that means. Plotting, um yeah. I just jump in and do it. Also, my ideas come to me and then nothing. Many, many, many, many thoughts later, which comes after many days, weeks, months, even a year, then writing begins.

Love this post!

Sarah Enni said...

This was so tremendously helpful. I agree with WendyC -- when I get to the almost-done stage I seem to chug along soooo slooooowly.

It's great to hear about lots of different processes. It reminds me that we're not talking about construction work here, it's writing. It's okay to be different, and yes, slightly dysfunctional. And (as I set my pinot blanc on the coaster) it is good to know that others drink and write!

Liz Czukas said...

Your process sounds a lot like mine. Especially the beating of the head on keyboard during the first three chapters. It's refreshing to know I'm not the only plotless, self-loather in the beginning of a project.

Thanks for sharing!

- Liz

Matthew AT Banning said...

Wow, thanks for sharing :D

My process differs from idea to idea. Some of mine books start with the idea of putting a single well-developed charater through a situation and little heed to plot. Most of my others have an idea for the plot (and the dimentions of the world I've created) and no characters as of yet.