Even when I’m drafting, I often think about other books I have in the pipeline that are not the current work-in-progress. I used to have a rule that I was allowed to write whatever I wanted on any project, as long as I only used a pen and paper on things that were not my main focus project. That way I could jot down scenes and dialogue and ideas all I wanted, but I wouldn’t risk project hopping.
These days, I type everything, but in my days of paper freewrites I developed a rhythm that’s still useful to me. I might open a file and write down a scene, but once I’m done emptying my head of the ideas, I’ll stop writing, not pushing myself to do more like I will on the project I’m focusing on. I’m allowed to do that as often as I like, but I don’t skip out on the project I’m supposed to be doing to write long sections of other books, because I don’t want to get distracted by shiny projects when I should be doing other things.
Still, I love freewriting. I get to write whatever I want, no matter how stupid it is. I get to write scenes exactly how I picture them, without having to fit them into the plot. The parts of the book that I daydream about are almost always the climactic relationship scenes: moments of conflict or resolution or fulfillment between two characters where for both parties, the stakes are high. I almost never include setting or much action; I always write long, long strings of dialogue. Writing these scenes helps me to figure out how my character will react to conflict and pressure, and how struggles between her and other big players in the book might go. These scenes are always heavily re-written if they make it into the book, but getting the ideas down helps me to figure out what I want the character arc to look like.
Those are my rules for pre-writing: write it down and put it down, don’t project jump, write whatever I want, explore the relationships. This is one of my favorite parts of writing, so I try to enjoy it.
For me, writing a pitch is the first part of turning an idea into a novel, and it’s the first thing that I write down. This isn’t because I will need to sell the idea to others, although I do use the pitch for that and it’s handy to have one ready for my agent when I tell him what I’m working on next. But in truth the pitch is for me: I’ve found that if I try to write a book I can’t pitch, I’m setting myself up for trouble. For years I thought I was just bad at pitching, and then I discovered that actually, there was something wrong with the books I was writing.
My pitch will contain the main conflict of my novel. The so-what. The tension. The hook. That’s the piece of a book that gets readers reading, and keeps them there as the pages go by. Without knowing that, I can’t possibly write an effective outline, I can’t flesh out the characters, I can’t structure a plot, I can’t know which pieces of floating story belong in this book and which ones I should throw out. The pitch is my focus. It’s the filter for every other aspect of the book. As I create more things to go in the novel–characters, plots, events, settings–they all have to fit under the umbrella of the pitch, which will curtail the addition of anything that does not fit in its shade. If I can’t pitch the book, then I don’t know what it’s about. And if I can pitch it, then I know what it’s NOT about, which is just as valuable.
Another perk of having a pitch at this early stage is I have something to tell people when they ask what I’m working on. And the pitch is the only thing I tell to anyone (besides my husband), until after the first draft is written. This protects me from unwelcome comments, and from burning myself out on the story by talking about it too much.
So how do I go about forming a pitch? I take my initial idea–whatever drew me into the story in the first place. And then I figure out who my character is, and what the tension they are going to experience is. Then I try to assemble a single sentence that will convey all three.
Here’s an example pitch from a book I’ve been working on: sixteen-year-old Penny’s older sister is trying to adopt and failing, so Penny decides to get pregnant, so she can give her sister a baby.
I first came up with the idea to write this book while looking at a website full of profiles of families trying to adopt. Because these profiles were essentially appeals to birthmothers, they had to keep the information positive and happy, but through every word bled the pain and suffering these families were experiencing from so desperately wanting a child. It felt heavy to me. I’ve always been uncomfortable with the rhetoric surrounding the “wonder” of adoption, because before (and often after!) an average adoption can take place, all parties involved have to experience tragedy and pain. So, there is the issue of trying to adopt and failing. That’s my instigating idea, and what draws me to the book. Into the pitch it goes.
The tension is, of course, that Penny is sixteen and pregnant and it’s not at all a simple thing to do for someone, and is of course a terrible idea, though a well-meaning one. Penny’s character only goes into the pitch in the barest of ways, but after reading it you know that Penny is the sort of person who would want to help her sister, that her goal is to get pregnant, and that she’s trying to solve other people’s problems when maybe it’s not her place.
A good pitch is one that leaves the audience with questions, because then they want to know more. I don’t know how well I did at that, since I’m the writer and not the audience, but there are a number of questions I’m hoping you ask after hearing the pitch. How will Penny go about getting pregnant? How will her sister (and parents) react? How will their family sort out the complexity of relationships?
The answers to those questions (which I will ask, even if you don’t) become the bones of the structure of my book. Once I have a pitch, the next steps are build those bones into a functional plot structure, and generate all the ideas for the meat that’s going to hang on those bones.
I have a post up today over at the teamTEENauthor blog. This month, we’re blogging about Twilight. Hop on over and check it out.
It’s no secret to anyone who knows me well that I write under what some consider ridiculous circumstances. I’ve talked about this some in my Mommy Writer posts. I write while my toddler runs around the living room. I write while she stands, ever by my chair, saying “up.” I write with her on my lap trying with all her toddler might not to reach for the ever tempting keyboard, because she knows if she does I will put her down. I write while my husband plays video games. I write while he plays whatever music he wants. I write while friends are over. I write while on vacation to relatives’ houses. I write, even in the dreaded silence that suddenly feels very distracting after all that chaos.
It’s because I do all those things that I write at all.
Sometimes the writing goes well, and sometimes it doesn’t. And until recently, I thought that was largely outside my control. I can control whether or not I sit down to write, I told myself. I can control whether or not I try. But I can’t control whether this is a good day or a bad day, writing wise, because some days things just go, and some days everything is stop.
And then I discovered this thing. This wonderful thing.
My writing goes well in direct proportion to how much I have thought about what I was going to write while I was not writing.
For a while there I had gotten compartmentalized with my writing. In the first few weeks of a new draft, I would write all the scenes I had been daydreaming about. And then I would go back and fill in the gaps. This part would move ever so slowly, because I had already written everything I was thinking about while not writing. I did a lot of putting my butt in the chair, but I was arriving unprepared. When I showed up for work, I was like a director with an empty stage. It’s time for the performance, and I’m still casting about, searching for the right actor for the part, making up the blocking, changing the script. It should have been obvious why so many of those days were bad days.
A few months ago I sensed this pattern, and I started doing some enforced daydreaming. Because of the aforementioned toddler, I have plenty of time where my hands are busy but my brain is not. So during this time, I started telling myself that I was absolutely required to think about whatever that next scene was, no matter how straightforward.
Suddenly I started having a lot more good days. I started getting a lot more done in a lot less keyboard time. And, more than that, what I was writing started coming out better.
I discovered that it is simply boring to daydream about flat characters. So to spare myself the boredom, I had to round them out. I had to add more relationships to every scene, no matter how mundane, just to keep myself interested. I had to stretch the tensions throughout the book just so my mind would have something to chew on. I couldn’t afford to wait for myself to be bored. Making myself think was also part of the work. I discovered if I made myself think about what I was going to write, I also had to figure out how to stop boring myself. I started spending lots and lots of time asking myself, “how else could this happen?” or “how else could the characters react,” or “what would happen if they talked about this, instead of keeping it to themselves?” And suddenly I was writing not only more scenes, but better ones.
Maybe this has improved the overall quality of my work, and maybe not. I always got around to developing scenes eventually before, so I don’t know if this discovery will matter much from a reader’s point of view. But for me, it was everything. It gave me something tangible that I could control about a job where not many things work that way.
So now I think, and then I write. And when the writing goes badly, I point a finger at myself and ask why I didn’t think about this scene before I came to it. And then I pick up the whining toddler, carry her around the house as is always her most desperate desire, and think some more. When I’m making sure to do lots of thinking away from the keyboard, scenes click together. I work out answers. I figure it out. Some say your subconscious will do this for you if you just let yourself get bored, or if you spend time thinking about other things. Mine doesn’t. The problems are always waiting for me there at the keyboard, unless I make a conscious decision to solve them when I’m not sitting there.
Fortunately, my life is full of times when I can think but not type. So I think, and I daydream, and I work things out.
And then I write.
I wrote about how I developed the idea for Chasing the Skip over on John Brown’s blog a while back. I won’t repeat myself, but you might want to check that out if you’re interested in such things.
Here are some other thoughts on the subject.
It’s true that ideas are everywhere, but I’m pretty judicious about what ideas I’m willing to entertain. I don’t write down every idea I have; I wait for an idea to stick with me for days or months or even years. If an idea is good, I’m not going to forget it; if I forgot it, it obviously wasn’t compelling enough to entertain. I usually come up with about two or three ideas per year that I think would actually be worth writing about.
Most ideas come in pieces. I’ll think of a character I’d like to write, but no concept to go with it, or vice versa. So I collect good ideas and let them rattle around in my brain, bumping into one another.
For example, I have an idea for an adult dark urban series that has been rattling around since 2005. I have a concept; I have a couple of characters. The books seem like they would be a ton of fun to write. But they’ve never connected themselves to a good conflict, and without a conflict, I can’t write a pitch or an outline. I’ve actually tried pitching and outlining the book with a couple different conflicts, but none of them have ever been compelling enough for me to want to write them. I could work more actively to develop this idea, but I haven’t felt like it’s a great investment of my time, since none of my other books are adult. I have friends who bug me periodically to write this idea, and someday I probably will. But for now, it rattles.
Sometimes ideas come together in a way that makes me excited about them. I’ll have a concept that when it collides with a character opens up all kinds of exciting possibilities. A conflict will attach itself to them, and I’ll see how that particular conflict with that particular character would be complex and interesting enough to explore over the length of a novel. When I have several ideas that I think fit together like that, it’s time to attempt to turn them into a pitch.
I’m presenting this weekend at the LDS Storymakers conference. My presentation is on Friday the 10th. I’ll be talking about balancing artistic life with the demands of running a business. Should be fun. (True of both the balancing life and the presentation, in case you were wondering.)
If you’re local and a writer, this conference should be full of awesome presentations by awesome people. Hope to see you there.
My husband does this thing that drives me crazy. Sometimes we’re trying to fix something. (This week it was the sprinklers.) He will try something, hoping it will work. It won’t work. Then he will stare at it. He will try it again. It still won’t work. He will look at it both before and after. He will do it again and again. I suppose if I let him be, he would probably stop on his own, but I never manage that. “What are you doing?” I say. “That isn’t helping.”
Here’s the truth: it probably is helping. He’s probably got some learning process I don’t understand in which the repetition of this thing will help him to see what the right thing is to do. And I suppose, when I am not there to interrupt, that’s what he does. (Obviously I should be more patient. But that’s not actually my point.)
It turns out, I hate doing the same thing over and over again when I know the process at hand is not yielding the results that I want.
I’ve been working a lot on my writing process lately. I’m emerging from a couple of years where every word I wrote made me feel genuinely miserable–the kind of misery that comes from knowing things aren’t working but not being able to pinpoint why.
I kept working because I had long-established work habits, a goal I’d been working at for more than a decade, and an adult life built around producing fiction. I didn’t know how not to expect it of myself, so I wrote even though it was drudgery. I went on for years that way, poking the same button, hoping that one day it would yield a different result. I looked at my writing and honestly thought, I hate this. Why am I still doing it? And much as everyone around me argued that it wasn’t, I knew in my heart it was a fair question.
Here’s the piece I was missing: I thought it was the writing that was making me miserable. And so I thought to lose the misery, I had to ditch the writing. And then, one day, I started writing a book that didn’t make me miserable. In fact, I was happy. I was thinking about writing without forcing myself to do it, something I hadn’t done in many years. I was caught up in my own story. I was writing something that was exciting to me. And once I realized something was different, I went about figuring out what all the differences were. There wasn’t just one thing; there were many. And so I set about revamping my writing process at virtually every stage, so that I could keep these new things that made me happy, and never go back to the ones that made me miserable again.
(And so I spent a few months writing books I enjoyed instead of blogging. Um, sorry. Forgive me?)
Now I’m sure these new things are working, and I’m afraid if I don’t record them, I’m going to lose them. Simultaneously, I’d like to share them, in case there is someone else who has the same problems I have had, who might not be as slow a learner as I apparently am. Instead of one blog post, it’s turned into many. I have a series of posts on the details of my writing process. That might not be of interest to anyone but me, but I’m going to post them anyway, just in case. I also have a few thematic posts about things I’ve learned that aren’t process-related, but have remade everything for me all the same. These things may be obvious to everyone but me, but sometimes the root of a paradigm shift is just a realization of things that should have been obvious all along. And, being on this side of the shift, I can live with that.
So look forward to those things on the blog in the near future. If you’re into that kind of thing.
I take all the pictures here with my Canon PowerShot S3. It's not the best camera on the market, but I love it.
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