Jessie: In NH watching for the first frost of the season

For the last few weeks I’ve been poking around and working on a new book in a new series. I’ve been brewing up plot and summoning up characters. I’ve been thinking about places and dreaming up spaces and enjoying all the possibilities the story could mean and be.

I’m enthralled. I’m also exhausted. Every possible choice twinkles and sparkles with its very own sort of allure. But not all choices stand up to scrutiny and many don’t play well with others. Every decision I make requires other decisions but it also eliminates many other possibilities.

Trusty pen and notebook

This will be my fifth novel and this time I am determined to do the better part of this sort of thrashing and handwringing before I begin to write. I always start out a new project with a fresh notebook and a gel pen. I begin by writing question after question in the notebook and answering them in a variety of ways. When I hit on an answer I like, I circle it. The answer invariably leads to more questions and before long I have a huge array of possibilities.

After a while, as the story sorts itself into order in my mind I get an itch to begin. This seems to happen when I have about a third of the scenes for the story in mind. When it gets to the point I have to scratch, I write out individual scenes with the goals I have in mind for each on index cards. When I am happy with those I transfer the information to color-coded sticky notes and start arranging them on my office wall. I rearrange them until I like what I see and then I set up a new file in Scrivener and  begin the actual writing.

Usually, by the time I’ve gotten to the end of that first third of the story I’ve been back to my notebook and have come up with the next third. The process gets repeated once more and finally, I reach the end. It works for me but it also requires me to make plotting decisions right along with all the word and pacing choices. Sometimes the possibilities blur the road before me and I just wish I had a map and a flashlight.

Hardest working spot in my office.

So rather than wishing, this time I’m building the whole road and the map. I’ve slathered myself with mental Calamine lotion and have ignored any itching. I’m still using my notebook and my wall of stickies but I’m finding it is easier for me to discard an idea that is no more than a single line on a yellow square than it is to slash and burn dozens of fully fleshed scenes.  I’m using a goal of finishing a sticky note outline by the last day of September to keep the urge to actually write at bay. I think it just might work so long as the local office supply store doesn’t run out of sticky notes.

Readers: Do you have decisions that overwhelm you? Writers: Do you have a favorite way to develop your own stories?



19 Thoughts

  1. I’m sure your method will make the writing flow much faster, Jessie, when you let yourself get started. I don’t think that method will ever work for me, though. I do plot ahead a few scenes as I’m going, though.

    1. I think the best we can all do is to figure out what works, and maybe even more importantly, what doesn’t for each of us. It sounds like your way works well for you.

  2. Jessie, I loved reading about your process. I’m facing the same thing on a mini-scale as I write my synopsis for book three. Who dies? Why? How are they found out? You describe so well what is going on in my brain. I’ve been working it out on the computer, but I might just pull out a notebook.

    1. I’d love to hear if you find a notebook helpful. I think there may be something different going on in the brain when people write with a pen rather than typing. I feel like there is for me.

      1. There certainly is for me when it comes to plotting as I go along. I just step back two yards into my office rocker, notebook and pen in hand, and it comes out differently.

  3. I always feel like the process of writing a book is one of solving smaller and smaller problems. The challenges start out huge–What is the book about? Who are the characters? What is the time frame? The big –What happens? With drafts the problems get smaller–where exactly was secondary character #3 at 11:20 the morning of the murder? Why does suspect 4 tell the sleuth her secret at exactly this moment? And finally the problems are tiny–why is everyone in this town always arching their eyebrows at one another? Why did a I use the word “just” 40 times, and can I “just” take it out or do I need a better word in this particular sentence?

    But as you say, it’s all about having the courage to make decisions and meet those challenges. Good luck with the new book. I know it will be fabulous.

  4. I’m the world’s most indecisive person.

    I think. Maybe.

    Seriously, I have a hard time making many seemingly innocent decisions because I just want to be able to do both. The few times I’ve dabbled with fiction, I’ve definitely noticed the things you are talking about – every decision leads to more questions but eliminates others. And when my brain wants to explore both, it gets really tricky.

    1. Mark, exploring both really is the trickiest bit for me too. That and knowing when to stop exploring and to just choose one or the other. Sometimes the only way forward for me is to grab chunks and turn them into a second book. Although, that feels a bit like cheating instead of really deciding!

  5. I never know where a book is going before I start writing. Often I have a one-word theme (the next one is “smuggling”). Then I sit down and write (by hand, in pencil) what I think may happen, which usually turns out to be wrong, as characters or events take off in different directions. Then I come up with an image or a statement that will make the reader want to turn that first page. After that it’s chapter by chapter: what happens next? (Of course, I’ve gotten to know my characters by now. It’s more of a challenge when you’re starting fresh and have to decide who you want to spend several years of your life getting to know.) Otherwise I stop at intervals and write down again where I think the story is going. I have learned to trust my subconscious, who apparently knows more than I do.

    1. Building from the ground up is a completely different challenge than keeping things fresh or growing characters over time. I like the way you take into consideration how many years you be spending with the characters.

  6. In terms of outlining and planning, it definitely varies for me. For a trilogy I’m planning, I came up with a end goal for my three main characters to reach by the end of the third book. I’m outlining each book separately as I go, though they are all defined by the stages the protagonist goes through in each installment. For a separate book (that’s standalone but in the same universe), I also have the ending in mind, but I can’t seem to plan more than a few scenes ahead. It’s really interesting that the approach I take varies from book to book by necessity.

  7. I think we must be twins. Right down to the Clairefontaine paper and the purple gel pen! Excellent advice too. I’m tearing (carefully) a page from your book!

    1. Separated at birth? So glad we’ve finally found each other. DOn’t you just love the way the purple gel slides across the pages of the Rhodia notebooks? Delicious!

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