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Writing Techniques

Thursday, April 9, 2009

I know I said I was going to write on what I learned about doing book signings today, but something came up in the e-mail loop of my local writers’ group today, and I thought I’d share here what I shared there.

Fellow writer Carol Collett posed a few questions:

  • When y’all start a story are you able to sum up the story in one sentence? Or does that come as you get into the story?
  • How much do you know about the story before you start writing? Do you know all your subplots?
  • Do any of you do any writing in longhand?

Here was my response:

Mary Connealy, MaryLu Tyndall, Christine Lynxwiler and I discussed these very questions at length last week. And the conclusion we reached is that we’re all somewhere in the middle between being a complete seat-of-the-pants writer and a plotter. Because all four of us write romance novels, though, we automatically have a structure to our stories: boy & girl meet, boy & girl fall in love, boy & girl are separated seemingly forever, boy & girl reconcile and live happily ever after. So we know there are certain beats we have to hit with our stories, which we can figure out ahead of time.

Do I know my subplots? Not usually, and that’s where I struggle with writer’s block when I get past the third or fourth chapter of a first draft. At that point in time, I stop writing and just start “living” with the characters and the story. I start brainstorming ideas of who the other people in their lives are: family, friends, former college roommates, neighbors, etc., and look for subplots there. For example, in A Case for Love, I need a subplot for Forbes, and one of his younger sisters just flounced in and begged him to sign up to take ballroom dancing lessons with her. I wasn’t sure where that little subplot was going until I realized that as the social-scene reporter for one of the TV stations, Alaine would be covering the first night of this dance studio’s lessons for her noontime “Talk of the Town” type show. Which puts them both in the same place at the same time. That’s how I usually come up with subplots. They build out of listening to the characters and paying attention to the minor/secondary characters surrounding them.

When I got toward the end of writing Menu for Romance and kept getting stuck, I did something I’ve never done before. I sat down with my notebook and plotted out the remaining ten to twelve chapters. I knew what needed to happen; I knew the setting for the climax; I knew what had to happen to pull them apart. But every time I sat down to write, I was lost as to where I needed to go next. So I figured out how many more words I needed, which dictated how many chapters I needed (my chapters naturally fall between 3,000 and 3,500 words), and I wrote paragraph-long chapter summaries for the remaining part of the novel I needed to write. It made those last few chapters just fly—because every time I sat down to write, I knew what I needed to write. But again, I was already at the point where I knew what needed to happen. I just wasn’t getting there.

To start a new story idea—or just to remember it later—I’ll write a two- to five-page (or longer) summary of the idea. Sometimes, it’s just about the characters in a certain situation (i.e., the meet); sometimes it’s an almost entire idea for a story. Right now, I’m at the point in my journey when I have to be able to summarize the full story idea before writing the novel, because that’s on what the publishing houses are basing their decisions for future contracts. With A Case for Love, I have a five page story summary I wrote about a year ago that’s really helping me out now, because I know the ultimate conflict that I’m building the story toward. Now, I just need to write another seventy thousand words to make it happen. (That’s where subplots come in very handy—and I need a few more!)

As to writing longhand—the gals I was with last week all had a good laugh at me when I dragged out my spiral notebook anytime we had downtime at the book signings (which was quite a few of them). None of them do any writing longhand anymore. I find, though, when I’m writing with pen and paper, that’s when I can more fully enter the right-brain/creative state and just write. Not think about editing or word choice or structure, just let the characters speak to me, let the ideas flow. And I find that when I am writing longhand, I tend to get a lot more ideas of where I’m going with my characters and story—I have notes scribbled all over the top margins of my notebook pages from when I’ve gotten an idea while writing a scene—an insight into a character, a tweak of his/her backstory, something that comes later in the story.

I also have a Post-it brand flipchart/easel pad that I got at Sam’s that I use for brainstorming. I’ve got one sheet stuck to the wall on one side of the office that has a bulleted list of backstory/personality traits for the hero and heroine of Case—in addition to things like the name of Forbes’s law firm where he works, the types of art prints Alaine has hanging in her townhouse, what charities Forbes is involved with, and what sorority/fraternity each was a member of in college. Of course, I’ve also put all of this information into the “character file” I have (in PowerPoint) where I’ve also collected images of the Real World Templates for the characters. But it’s nice to have it there on the wall where I can just glance at it without having to go to a lot of trouble to pull up the file on the computer.

How would you answer Carol’s questions?

  1. Carol Collett permalink
    Thursday, April 9, 2009 4:24 pm

    Kaye, I’m honored!! Your response helped me tremendously. What you say makes a lot of sense. My goal in all of this is to explore ways to stop writing my characters into corners. Then I just get horribly frustrated and stop writing that story. I have parts of three stories that each have potential.


  2. Thursday, April 9, 2009 5:52 pm

    I soooo needed this post! I am nearing the end of my WIP and keep getting stuck. So to hear how you managed to break through is really helpful! Thanks.


  3. Friday, April 10, 2009 8:57 am

    Somewhere in the middle too. I sometimes get an idea and start writing. Sometimes I begin with a summary, then begin to write. After four or five chapters, if I don’t have a summary, I need one. If I do, I need to revisit and maybe revise it. Every few chapters, I check back, revise summary, plot a few chapters, then write. This is becoming my process, the one most likely to get me from idea to The End, anyway.


  4. Friday, April 10, 2009 12:07 pm

    I used to write all first drafts in longhand, but the deadlines of SHU made that a little hard to keep up with. Now I’m comfortable writing first drafts on my laptop (must be a laptop–hubby’s desktop is still too far removed from my creative process!), but when I get stuck, I often go back to pencil and paper until I figure out what’s going on. ALL outlining, plotting, research notetaking, etc. is done longhand–I just can’t make lists in Word:)

    As to plotting, I like to have summaries of chapters/scenes before I start, though I only have to keep a few chapters ahead of my actual writing to feel secure. I summarize the basics, but as you said, little subplots and added character info come along as you’re writing. I’d been planning for a long time to have my protag try to get a job in a defense plant (WWII, Rosie-the-Riveter-type job) with her girlfriends and they get jobs but she ends up doing something completely different. At first I thought maybe the boss could reject her because she’s not American, but as she left the factory yesterday, she and I realized that the noise of the factory reminded her too much of bombing and fighting she’d seen living in Germany and England. Talk about discovering as you go along, and that’s what makes writing so much fun!


  5. Friday, April 10, 2009 2:01 pm

    I usually have a basic barebones plot written when I begin. But by the time I’ve finished my third draft, it’s usually drastically different from the original plot. 😉

    I haven’t written longhand since I got my first laptop at fifteen. It’s just too difficult for me to have to totally re-type it onto the document.

    And I love your RWT, too. I started a Character file with my current story and I love it!

    Great post!


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