How do you write?

For the last week or so, I’ve been struggling to sit my butt down and write. I want to get back in the saddle and send off the first 50 pages of my current work in progress to a contest, and the deadline is ten days away.

But it’s taken me three days to scratch out a bare-bones synopsis. I wake myself up at the usual time, stare at the screen, and write a few words. Then delete them. Wash, rinse, repeat.

I couldn’t figure out what exactly was wrong with me. I always work better when I’m up against a deadline – it’s one reason I enter contests. It gives me something to write toward. Sure, work’s been taking a lot more mental energy than usual, but romance writing is a great way to escape spreadsheets and conference calls.

So what is it? Today I got the April edition of RWA’s Romance Writer’s Report, and it starts off with an interesting article by Jo Beverley called “Once More into the Mist”. She writes about how detrimental it is to her writing when she tries to pre-plot. Instead, her writing style is to let her imagination work as she’s writing instead of beforehand.

It was lightbulb moment for me. I already knew this is the way I write too. I start with characters, some conflict between them, a setting and – if I’m lucky – a plot. It all germinates in my head for a bit before I start putting it down on paper. But that paper is my working draft, not a plot outline or character sketches.

I write scenes as they come to me, and they usually come around midnight Sunday through Thursday, keeping me wide awake and making me the teensiest bleary-eyed for work. The first scene I wrote of my current manuscript will probably end up happening around page 200. Or it may be 150 or 250. Hard to say at this point because I’ve only got a third of it written.

And that’s my problem. I need to put together a synopsis which shows what will happen to my characters, and I have only a glimpse into their future. I know quite a bit more about what happens to them than I did when I wrote my first manuscript. But I’m still not totally clear. I feel like I’m trying to explain the taste and texture of a gourmet cake when I’ve only got half the ingredients in the bowl and I’m searching the cupboards to see what other goodies I can add.

I’ll get there. It might not be the most brilliant synopsis ever, and once I finish it I have to fix some problems with the story itself. By the time I get the judge’s comments back, it’ll be summer and the story will probably be very different by then. But going through this process will spark ideas for scenes I can write over the coming weeks.

So how about you? Do you pre-plot or peer through the mist and see what happens?

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “How do you write?

  1. Both. But mostly it’s letting the characters tell me what they want, what they fear, and what is the one thing that means more to them than anything in the world. Then I throw things at them to force them to re-think that and either change their minds, or behavior, or die.

    And you’re right about the synopsis. If nothing else, it helps put things in sequential order, and forces you to decide where/when/how to end it. The middle will always change as you write.

    • Katrina

      Kaki, I really like that. “What they like, what they fear, and what is the one thing that means more to them than anything in the world” is so much clearer than goal, motivation and conflict.

      I find that the weakest parts of my own writing and of some of the stories I’ve read come from the author trying to control the characters. I sometimes find myself thinking “I need these guys to get to Y, so they have to do X” when it would be more natural for them to do D and get to M. As a writer, it’s always hard for me to figure out that that’s what’s wrong. As a reader, it’s usually very clear.

      If only we could see our own work with the clarity that we see other people’s.

  2. Robin Hillyer-Miles

    I tried to write my first ms for six months before I had an epiphany.

    I created an excel spreadsheet for the story.
    I have columns titled: Day/Time/Weather/Location/Characters/Romance Plot/Mystery Plot/Sub Plot/Main Character 1/Main Character 2
    Then I have rows titled with the scenes. Scene 1/Scene 2 and etc.
    I was able to finish the book in six months because I kept the analytical side of my brain busy.

    • Katrina

      Wow, Robin, that’s really detailed. Do you fill in the spreadsheet as you write each scene, or before you write each scene?

      I tried something like that after I wrote my first ms. I went through the whole thing plugging in information about the conflict in each scene, the character arc, the ending hook, etc, and it helped me figure out what was wrong and what scenes weren’t working. I thought I’d do it for my second ms, but I just can’t do it while I’m doing the creative stuff. Maybe it’s because my job’s too analytical, and that part of my brain’s usually fried.

      • Robin Hillyer-Miles

        Okay, I hit the reply button under your post that’s under my post and it went wiggy.

        I do this before I write and I fill in details of things that would stop me (to do research) while writing.

        I have a creative job as a graphic designer so my analytical side is hungry by the time I’m ready to write!

        i can see where your analytical side is ready for a break if that’s what you do all day.

  3. Katrina,
    I’m not sure if this helps because it comes from my work as a tv writer – but here goes. I always think of a synopsis as a selling document rather than an attempt to nail down the story. It’s a way to get the juices flowing. It’s usually the energy and commitment people buy into here rather than the detail. It’s rare for someone to come back and say, hey, that wasn’t in the synopsis. And they can be deadly to read. So keep them light, fast and free-flowing.
    The I plan/I never plan distinction is usually a false one. Every writer I know does something in the middle.
    Melody x

    • Katrina

      Hi Melody. That’s great advice about the synopsis. I’m sure when someone has to read dozens (or hundreds) for their work, they’re more looking for something that stands out – whether it’s the writer’s voice, the plot, something about the characters, whatever. At least, that was the way I felt when I once had to read through 80 job application essays in a couple hours. The people who got through ticked all the necessary boxes, but they also showed me they had a personality. After sixty of them, I read one that made me laugh out loud, and at that moment I could’ve kissed the applicant for relieving my boredom!

      Thanks for sharing your knowledge/experience, Melody! Hope you’re having a great weekend.

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