Monday, July 28, 2008

Write Smarter, Not Harder

As a teenager, I made up stories. I had a favorite story about a girl name Sylvia. Every night when I went to bed, I started at the beginning and let the scenes play out in my head. All these years later, I could write the opening scenes of that story easily. But there was one problem….I always fell asleep…oh…around chapter three or so.

And that’s what my readers will do if I don’t plan ahead. Okay, I know there are plotters and pantsters. Plotters are the ones who plan everything out ahead of time, and pantsters write “by the seat of their pants”. There is no right way or wrong way. I’ve done it both ways and am still not sure what my natural inclination is. But I have found that plotting seems to work better with my limited writing time.

When I do have an hour or two to write, I’ve found that I need to have a very detailed plot in place so I can get started quickly. With my last wip, I had over 70 scene ideas when I started writing, but then I discovered that either I had mapped out the external thread of the story or the internal for some scenes but hadn’t fully developed both areas. And that bogged me down when I sat down to write.

By internal and external threads, I mean, "What needs to happen in this scene?" Sometimes my paragraph for a scene might be two or three sentences that focus on the internal. For other scenes they might focus on the when I start to write the scene, I have to think about the one I didn't flesh out. And I discovered I really needed that information ahead of time. I can get discouraged and/or bogged down if it takes thirty minutes to work out the logistics of a scene and I only have an hour to write. For instance, let’s say I have a scene ¾ of the way through the book where the hero finds out that the heroine is a crook and a swindler. Sounds pretty good, huh? So I sit down to write my scene, and I’m a loss. What are the “stage props”? Where are they? Whose POV is the scene in? Is it cold, hot, raining? Is it day or night? Are there secondary characters in the scene. Thinking this out ahead of time helps jumpstart my writing.

In a plot driven scene, the external "stage props" are key, so I would develop that first, then develop the internal to go with it. But in the above scene, the internal thread is what will move the story forward (and in this case, drive a wedge between the hero & heroine). I could just as easily set the scene in a bank, a restaurant, or in a hotel lobby....or anywhere, I guess. What I'm saying is that their physical location isn’t as important in this scene as what they're thinking and saying. I would go so far to say that in a character driven book, the backbone of most scenes will be the internal thread, and in an action adventure, the external thread the most critical. Not that the other isn’t important, but one has to lead.

So, I’m making a concerted effort to plot more deeply, to know where my scenes are going ahead of time, internally and externally. Hopefully, I’ll be able to churn out twice as many words when I do have time to write.

I’d love to hear other people’s methods for writing smarter….not harder!


  1. Getting in the ZONE takes me time and I can't do it with short writing bursts. It really involves getting into the heads of your characters and becoming them so you know their motivations. Not just plotted on paper but you really know what SYLVIA would do.

    But wow, once you get in the ZONE it is an awesome and beautiful thing.

    Great post Pammer.

  2. Wow, I've never thought of writing like this. Great insight.

    Thanks for sharing.

  3. I put on a pot of coffee and plan to lurk to get ideas.

    What do you-all think of "mood" music for your WIP? Does that help you pick up where you left off?


  4. Great post, Pam. I guess I'm a combo plotter/pantster. I'll think ahead about what's going to happen in the next few scenes, but I don't think so much about internal and external when I jump into a scene. Somehow I picture it in my head already.

    Of course, maybe if I paid more attention ahead of time, I wouldn't have to spend so much time on revising! :)

    Ann, I've used mood music on a couple of manuscripts. I've also used a particular scent. (For Her Unlikely Family, I had a peach gel scent--was afraid of burning a candle because I could get so involved in writing!). The heroine worked in a diner, and she used peach-scented shampoo that the hero would notice. So I was thinking of food as I wrote.

    Man, maybe that's where I got the extra pounds! :)


  5. lol, you sound like a plotter to me. Stuff like props has never even crossed my mind. I just sit down and write, then of course later I have TONS of revisions.
    Good post.

  6. Great post, Pam!

    Like Missy, I'm a combo panster/plotter. I have a beginning and an end when I start a book with a few main points to guide my panster tendencies along the way. I've found this gives me the freedom to let the characters develope on their own and I get to discover all sorts of things about them as the story progresses. At the same time, I know a story will work out and I don't write myself into a corner because I didn't have *some* direction in the first place. ;-)

    As far a getting started, I write every night, so I don't ever completely lose the thread I've been working on. I also think about a scene during the day while I'm sitting at stop lights or running errands that don't require *all* of my attention. Most of the time, this gets me excited and I can't wait to write once I get home and have a chance to sit down at the computer.

  7. I'm with Tina--getting into the zone takes a little time. It helps me to reread and do light editing on the previous 2-3 scenes.

    And much as I'd like to be a better plotter, I find even when I do in-depth planning, once I sit down to write, it all comes out differently. My characters apparently don't like whatever I planned for them, so they mutiny and do things their way. I make more progress if I just go with the flow.

    Still, Pam, I like your idea of deciding which props add the most to a scene. I end up layering in stuff like that on revisions, though.

  8. My thing with plotting is I'll have a goal for a scene but not be sure how I'm going to reach it.

    That I often create on the spot or daydream it up before hand, but I definitely don't know what course I'll take before I start writing the book. Wow, that'd be hard work!!!

    So right now, I'm sort of twisting back and forth with this scene toward the end of my wip.

    I know the bad guy is going to finally get his come-uppance but I keep going back and forth between exactly how.

    Right now, I think I'm going to kill him off. Yes, he will attempt to escape and perhaps fall to his death. Because I want him to not be able to talk. I want him silenced so one more twist can unfold.

    I always lay awake at night and focus on what I'm going to write tomorrow. I toss ideas up and down, brainstorm, think through 'if this, then that'. I find this amazingly entertaining.

    I have a power thing going on I believe. Me manipulating the world, life or death, mercy or vengeance, sprained wrist or severed arm.

    It's no wonder I can't sleep.

  9. Whenever I've attempted to work out plot issues as I'm trying to fall asleep at night, I get myself so wound up that sleep never comes. So instead, I make up stupid stories I have no intention of writing. Like inventing new twists for characters in a favorite TV show.

  10. For some reason planning the next day's writing is soothing to me. When I'm going to have an insomniatic night, instead of plotting the book, I find myself having political debates or scolding Ivan for something he did sixteen years ago. (all inside my head of course)

    When that happens I just give up on sleep for a while and get up and read a while.

  11. Pam, I knew this was you without looking at the calendar, date, time, name notation....

    'Cause who the heck else would be this systematic about something as creative as writing?

    Our Pammers.

    But I can see plainly how well this works for you because your work is engrossing and thought-provoking.

    I think a lot of us are a mix. I plan in my head, occasionally on some books I'll jot down notes to firm up my mental timeline, but then I never go back to them. Ever. Once the flow starts I find the story creates its own turns and twists mostly due to the character flaws within the H/H and the supporting cast.

    Of course my first books were CRAP...

    Can we say that here? Uh, oh, just did...

    And of course I sent them out....

    Because I thought they were good...

    And got my butt handed to me on a silver platter. Ouch.

    But now that I'm fairly confident that I'm ready for the prime time players, I still don't plan. I push myself to work in those narrow timeframes because they're my only choice, but I love the odd turns and twists the story takes when I just let it flow.

    And I puzzle on it at my jobs, weighing up who would do this or that, so mental plotting is a huge part of my final draft.

    And then editing to add in layers, emotion, better setting, descriptions, etc.

    Mood music?

    I get inspired by songs all the time.

    Darius Rucker's new song (Hootie of Hootie and the Blowfish, what a freakin' horrible name THAT is...) Don't Think I Don't Think About It is a story song. I hear that and I can make that a book in a heartbeat because all the basic story elements are there in those few words of regret, pain, whiskey and work.

    Love it.

    Okay, way too long like usual and I didn't bring along a thing to eat except:

    Mint chocolate chip brownies with dark chocolate frosting....

    And green stripes of mint....

    I'm very happy right now.


  12. What do you think -- is the "chocolate velvet" coffee too much with the mint brownies?

    As if! As if anyone could havee too much chocolate!

    I have viewed planning as story four-wheel-drive: I can see where I need to go but am stuck in the mud. (This happened IRL this spring taking DH his lunch. He and the dog were on the tractor and I was in the truck in the mud. But I did get out before he had to come wiht a chain.)

    Sometimes I just dig myself in deeper, though, if I try to plan out every detail. I've been writing myself a list of things to do with the story.

    I don't know if it's working or not since I haven't sold anything other than short devotionals.

  13. Fascinating post, Pam! You've found a method that works for you. I envy that. Better to say I admire that. :-)

    I think of myself as a plotter but I never have as much information as you before I write. I'm a huge reviser, both as I go and when the book is written. I'm not certain how I write, which is why I can't give a workshop on craft. Well, I know a little. I get an idea for the inciting incident where the hero and heroine meet and clash ... or not. I get that down, then figure out the ending and what needs to happen to get there, but I don't do the Hero's Journey or any of the methods that other writers use. So I panic. It's not pretty.

    Next book I'm going to try some new things. Like not revising as I go. Though doing so may make me physically sick.


  14. Forgot to say that music is too distracting for me until I get in the zone and then I can't hear. Just ask my husband.

    Missy, I'm sensitive to fragrance so that doesn't work either.

    Ruthy, we've all had our butts handed to us on a silver platter. Mine was even tarnished. Where's the respect?


  15. That is so funny, Mary, because that's exactly what I do. I lay in bed and plan my next scene. Actually, what usually happens, I wake up in the middle of the night and spend an hour or two watching my next scene play out. I hate to write out anything like a plot outline. Gives me the heebie-jeebies just thinking about it. But if I don't know what's going to happen in the next scene when I sit down at the computer, I get nervous.

  16. Sorry I've been unavailable today. I have a day job and it's been pretty hectic the last few weeks.

    Tina, getting in the zone is exactly what I'm talking about.

  17. day job takes a LOT of brain cells. I'm a Materials Manager for a multi-million dollar OEM corporation. My brain is fried by the time I get home every day.

    So the more I have to work with (plotwise) when I have a few minutes to write, the better off I am.

  18. Ohh...Ann, mood music sounds like a good idea. I don't use this technique, but I think it would be just great with the right music.

    I'd probably get used to it, then be frustrated because I couldn't find just the right soundtrack to listen to for a particular scene.

    Still, I just might try this. I'll need western themed music. No words, I think, just music. I'm afraid the words would distract me.

  19. Missy, I love the idea of candles or potpourri. Stuff like that.

    Some pine scented candles with some soundtracks of a soft breeze would be ideal for outdoor scenes.

    Carla, I love the way you keep your story front and center in your brain all day. Right now it's not an option for me (I'm actually still at work right now, waiting on a report to run.) lol

  20. Myra, the same thing happens to me too. I was pleasantly surprised that my last "batch" of scenes came together so well when I was writing the home stretch of my last wip. It doesn't always turn out that way, that's for sure.

  21. Myra, that's what happens to me if I'm plotting after I go to bed. I have to be able to think about it AND be able to write down the twists and turns I come up with.

    Many times I've just gotten out of bed!

  22. See, Ruthy, that's my problem.

    I have a job that requires ALL my brain cells. You DON'T want to know what my day has been like today. Sigh.

    There hasn't been one second to think about my this-close-to-being-polished-and-ready-to-submit wip.

    Not one second.

    And I'm still at work.

    And leaving a bunch of things undone.

    And I have to stop at the grocery store. We're out of everything!

    But I think we're going to have tomato sandwiches tonight. Is that a Southern thing, or do NY'ers eat them too, Ruthy? Lots of pepper is a must...and I'm not really a big fan of pepper!

  23. Janet, I have my own little system for plotting, and it's far from perfect. I try to come up with 70 or 80 scene ideas to begin with, but a lot of them get tossed, and a lot get added.

    So, I don't think I'm much different than a lot of you. I just like my ideas put in a spreadsheet so I can SEE them.

    There's so much (junk) in my brain, I'm afraid I'll forget them if I don't have them written down somewhere!

  24. I'm not a systematic plotter, but I'd like to be because otherwise I get lost too easily. And I get stuck and can't think where I need to go next. I need to see the whole picture even if it's sketchy. I can always fill in the blanks, but I need to see what's ahead.

    Writing is hard, isn't it?

  25. Hi Pam, You're a writer after my own heart. I like to have everything planned out. We're sooooo left brain. smile. But I like the ideas of music and mood. I put up pictures of the setting and try to find photos of people that look somewhat similar to what I have in mind. It helps me to keep them true to character.

    And Ann, Chocolate Velvet coffee goes with EVERYTHING.

  26. I'm like Tina...I have to get into a zone and every time I get interrupted by a minute it seems to throw me back by an hour.

    I try to set a few days where all I do is write...and get a book done in a matter of a couple of weeks. To do this writing spree I prepare by already knowing my characters by filling out characters charts. I also have a loose plot outline that is in the form of a scene index.

    Great post, Pam. The internal/external stuff boggles my mind. I love hearing other writers' methods. It amazes me to see what works for different people.