Jill’s Planning Process

© Flickr | nist6dh

Howdy, friends! A few weeks ago, someone asked me about my planning process. The question corresponds perfectly with an upcoming NaNoWriMo session, and my current blundering toward it without a plan.

New projects usually start life on a document called Master Story Idea List. There are currently a dozen or so on there, ranging from picture books to thrillers to contemporary YA, although most of the ideas hover somewhere around speculative fiction. Whenever I get a new idea, I jot it down on the master list and there it sits until I get around to it. Some have been there for years. Some only live there for a couple months, or even weeks. When my docket opens up for a new project, this is where I first look.

Choosing which project I want to do mostly comes down to interest; if I’m not that interested in the idea, it usually translates into a super boring draft that I abandon midway and stuff in a dark corner of my closet. But if I have more than one project that interests me, I consider other factors. How much research does the story require, and do I currently have time for it? Is the idea robust enough to make a whole book, or is it so robust it’ll need to be broken into a series? It may take me a few weeks, but I eventually narrow it down to one project.

Once I have a project selected, I open up a blank document, copy over everything from the idea list, and start typing. Most often, I end up with a basic storyline, interspersed with character or setting notes. This is usually created in a single brainstorming session, and these are always so laughably awful that it’s painful to read years later.

After I have this basic information down, I typically start to dial in either the plot or the characters; for some reason, I can’t do both at the same time. Usually, I work out the characters first. I’ve found that when I work out the plot first and then shoehorn character profiles into it, the cast tends to feels more cardboard. (But that’s just me! Different authors write differently.) When I’m fleshing out a character, I start with their background, then move on to their personality, and then fill in gaps from there. When I have a really firm grasp on the people I’m dealing with in the story, I have an easier time seeing where the story will go when I boot them out the door with inciting action.

At this point, I proceed to one of two methods: fill in the blank, or lazy bum’s snowflake.

Fill in the blank works best on projects that are already about sixty percent of the way there outline-wise. If I have a really good idea of all the things that need to happen throughout most of the book, I can just inject bits here and there. The things I’m filling in most often have to do with why-because gaps- I know where the character will be, I just need a good reason why. It’s important that a character’s goals and motivations shine throughout the entire story. (They can’t just end up somewhere because the plot needs them to.) Fill in the blank allows me to make sure that, not only are there no giant plot holes sulking about, but the character’s inner workings are driving them just as much, if not more, than the outer conflicts.

Snowflake is my go-to method on projects that have a super interesting premise and maybe a few vivid scenes, but not a whole lot more. (For those of you not familiar with the snowflake method, check it out here. What follows is the so-lazy-it-hardly-counts version.)  I take what I have and I see if I can mold it into three sentences, one for the beginning of each of the three acts of the book. Then I balloon each of those sentences out to a paragraph. That point is usually good enough for me to move on to fill in the blank method.

I always intentionally leave a lot out of the outline. Side stories are more or less left to evolve as they will. The conclusion is always undecided. I leave these gaps for two reasons. First is my own short attention span. If I have a story worked out from start to finish before I sit down and write the thing, all the fun of discovery is over and I find myself at least twice as likely to get bored with the project and drop it before it’s completed. The second reason is that if I don’t let any parts of the story happen “naturally”, I sometimes have a hard time getting any of the story to feel natural. This isn’t always true, but it’s true often enough to be a factor. (Another reason is just that I know things are going to deviate wildly from the plan before this is all over, and I hate wasted effort, haha. Again, that laziness issue.)

So once I get past the fill in the blanks stage, I usually let it all rest for a week or two and then I’m ready to write.

None of this should be taken as meaning that I just decide to sit down and smoothly work out a story without any hitches. This process usually takes weeks of picking at it and thinking about it and starts and stops and erasures and you name it. (And the ‘weeks’ assessment is assuming we don’t count the time before the idea gets plucked off the master list.)  But once I get into planning mode, I can usually work it all out in a couple weeks, sometimes less.

That makes this the perfect time for me to start working on the outline for my NaNo project this November. A few weeks to plan it, a few weeks to rest it, and then I’ll be ready to roll. Time to go check out that idea list!

Happy writing!

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Farewell

A couple weeks ago, my favorite bookshop announced that they were downsizing and moving to a new location much farther from my house. And while I was more than happy to lead the raiding party that came to take advantage of their clearance sale (twice *coughs*), it wasn’t with pure bliss that I placed this latest batch of acquisitions in yet another of the neat little stacks clustered around my writing desk.

Gulliver’s is going away. I know they’ll still be around in a smaller incarnation across town, but I also know that I won’t go there as often, and the selection won’t be as good. They will no longer have that one corner that is my favorite to wedge myself into while deciding if a microhistory is coming home with me or not. There won’t be that one spot where I always crouch down, scanning B for Butcher or Brooks. They will no longer have my absolute favorite- that one claustrophobic corner where I always have to whisper ‘excuse me’ and scoot myself sideways past some other reader, and then turn and see all those books for my babies spread like a bank of shy dreams, spines out and half hidden.

It won’t be the same.

I’ve known for months that I wanted to do a sentimental blog post about favorite book shops, and the odd feeling of a store stealing a heart (as well as a paycheck), but that was before Gulliver’s announced it was for sale. That was before they downsized and moved. That was before I realized how melancholy that would leave me. You must forgive an old lady her rambling.

As I reached out to other avid readers on the web, I’ve found that my old-lady-ramblings aren’t all that uncommon. I asked my buddies about their favorite books shops and, of the ten responses I got, the shops of only three of them were still around, and one of those was sheepishly admitted to be a chain store. The others had all gone out of business.

I know that the fate of indie bookstores isn’t all doom and gloom. In fact, if Google is telling me the truth, the market share of independent book stores is actually on the rise. But my fair city (and my fair state in general) is in an economic slump and, according to the Gulliver’s employee I grilled about it, people just aren’t spending as much money in book shops as they used to, at least not here in Fairbanks. And so I clear out Gulliver’s bookshelves and fill up my own, and wonder with mixed feelings if maybe now I will get through the TBR list faster than I accumulate new titles.

It’s not all bad, I know. Gulliver’s will still be around, although different. And I still have a few other shops around town that I darken the doorways of every now and then. I’ll never run out of books to read. There are places that have far less than this.

But still. I’ll miss that one corner.

Reedsy Broadcast Recap: Revising and Querying

EditingSome months ago, I listened to a broadcast hosted by Reedsy called Revising Your Manuscript and Query Letter; it was moderated by Ricardo Fayat, the founder and CMO at Reedsy, and presented by five editors and literary agents from their network. I’ve since signed up for several of Reedsy’s free 10-email courses through Reedsy Learning, which you can learn more about here. Reedsy is a self-publishing service based out of London and, although I haven’t quite hopped on the self-publishing bandwagon just yet, I’m always down with further educating myself.

Anyway, I took a bunch of notes from the broadcast and quickly forgot about them. But recently, in preparation for an upcoming writer’s conference, blew off the dust and thumbed through it to help me get ready for a manuscript review. So here’s the quick version of the broadcast.

Revising Your Manuscript

For your opening, make sure that you start with action- something visual, intense, and unexpected. (‘Action’ doesn’t necessarily mean a gunfight or crossing swords. Action can be much quieter so long as it’s clear and powerful, drawing readers in.) Whatever your opening scene entails, be original and above all else, don’t be boring.

Some of the most common manuscript mistakes the broadcast’s presenters see are:

  • Telling instead of showing
  • Unbelievable conflict (forcing the plot, character out of character, etc)
  • Confusing viewpoint
  • Unnecessary Wordiness
  • Disruptive dialog tags (usually, just stick to ‘said’)
  • Misuse of tense

Once you’ve revised your manuscript as much as you can (read: several drafts), it’s time to get other eyes on it. (The broadcast didn’t specifically mention beta readers at this point, but in my opinion, they should have. Beta readers are great!) Professional editors are spendy, but they can also be transformative.

Because it can be such a costly investment, take care to make sure you have the right agent for your project. Start by searching reputable websites, such as Reedsy. 😉  Once you have a few potentials, take the time to do some background checking. Ask for testimonials or recommendations from previous patrons.

When you have an editor you trust, send the following information: kind of editing wanted; genre, synopsis, and target market; and a sample of the book. When deciding what kind of editing you want done, keep in mind that different types of editing usually cannot happen in the same sweep. (If you’re specifically getting ready for submissions, the broadcast folks recommend focusing on developmental editing.) Also keep in mind that good editors are often booked out months in advance. Don’t expect a rush job.

When your manuscript is all edited up and ready to go, shift your focus over to preparing your submission materials.

Sending Out Your Query

Well known agencies receive between one to two hundred queries every day, so it’s hard to stand out from all that.

The first hurdle to jump is avoiding these common querying mistakes:

  • Rudeness, arrogance, and a lack of professionalism
  • Not following guidelines
  • Too much plot and not enough hook
  • Submitting work that isn’t fully edited
  • Lack of research (both within genre and in querying specific agents)

As far as researching agents and publishers goes, there are a lot of resources out there, such as Writers Digest, Poets & Writers, Authors Publish, Submittable, and Publishers Weekly. You can search through genre specific blogs for agent interviews with more specific information. Most agents these days also have a public blog you can comb through. If you’re on Twitter, you can run a search for publishing pundits’ manuscript wish lists.

This kind of specific information is perfect for a query letter’s personalization; personalization isn’t necessary, but does make you stand out a bit more, flatters the editor/agent, and at the very least shows that you did your homework. If nothing else, a more personal query encourages a more personal rejection, feedback which can then be used for later revisions.

While querying, it’s important to keep yourself organized, especially if you’re doing multiple submissions (which you absolutely should). Nothing screams amateur quite like accidentally querying the same place with the same piece twice. (Intentionality is different. If it’s been six months and you’ve completed heavy revision, it’s usually okay to resubmit- just be sure to mention it in the query.) Keep all your information in one place with a spreadsheet, keeping track of names, dates, etc. Prioritize your top agents and send out batches of queries (they suggest about six at a time), giving each batch about six weeks before moving on to the next group. As you learn from the process and (hopefully) feedback, make tweaks as needful. If you get feedback but feel strongly that it’s not appropriate for you or your project, don’t feel like you have to implement it. The agents and editors of this broadcast also suggest that, if you don’t get feedback, it’s okay to politely ask for it; you might still be ignored, but you also might get some insights otherwise left unsaid.

The thing that was stressed over and over throughout is to not give up. The submissions process is grueling. If you’ve been at it a while and still aren’t making much headway, don’t give up. Keep polishing, keep researching, and keep querying.

Happy writing!

Working v. Writing 2: Some Final Thoughts

ironingSo, earlier this summer I wrote about my shift to working full time and how that affected my writing life. (Read the full post here!) Now that I’m back on the home front while hubby takes up the mantle of Math Master of Science and Stupendousness at Hutchison High School, I wanted to visit that theme once more to close out that chapter of the year.

I should just admit right off the bat that, sadly, I didn’t learn any earth-shattering secrets of the writerverse. (noooooo!) But I did pick up a few coping strategies, if you will, about how to deal with less energy, less brain power, and less writing time at the end of each day.

In the earlier post, I mentioned that backshop work (blog work, market research, submissions, etc) had more or less ground to a halt. I had to really push myself to get that stuff back on board, and in the end, it had to come out of slated writing time in the evenings. So while I was able to pick that up again, I had to get better at balancing things. I cut back on expectations in one aspect of writing to focus on another, and for that to work, I really had to get a better handle on my priorities. Before, I had the time to do pretty much everything to the degree I wanted. I could research agents and magazines and the lethal dose of dark chocolate (it exists!) and still have time to crank out 2k a day, or edit three pages, or whatever the current project entailed. With only limited time and energy, I had to really figure out how important each of those aspects was to me. Of course, this ratio will be different for every writer, but I do think it was valuable for me to know that about myself. I probably figured it out about midway through the summer, and felt a lot less stressed about the whole affair afterward.

Another thing I mentioned in the previous post was that I was getting better at working more efficiently once I did sit down to work at the end of the day. I think that at the time of writing, I had pretty much maxed out my efficiency- which was a little lame because I was hoping to eke out a bit more than I was getting. But I was very interested to see if that heightened efficiency would disappear once I had all the day to dillydally at the keyboard again. But so far it hasn’t. *blows tiny trumpet* Don’t get me wrong; this doesn’t mean that I can now sit on the couch and burn through ten hours of writing in Go Mode. Far from it. Actually, I’m still in the habit of separating my writing work from my day job, so to speak. My kitchen has been sparkling. Those dishes are done before the leftovers get cold. The meals I make are downright magical. And I’ve plugged back into the library at my boys’ school with a vengeance. It’s only been a few weeks back at home so I’m still waiting to see if this will fade (because let’s all face it, I’m lazy and a terrible housekeeper). But so far, I’ve kept to the habit of hitting the day job hard, and then hitting writing hard the minute the kids go to bed. So the efficiency at writing has actually stuck around so far. Maybe I’ll report back later if that changes.

All in all, it was a good summer. It was good for me to change my system up, and I think it’s still serving me well now that I’m at home again. We’ll see how things evolve in the meantime. I’m still working myself back up to fighting form for this November, but I think I’ll get there. One thing that I learned better than ever this summer is that, whether I’m working in the home or out of it, writing is important to me. I didn’t really get seriously into writing on a regular basis until my first son was born and I started staying home to raise him and manage the household. I’ve always had this kind of niggling suspicion in the back of my mind that maybe I’ll never really make it as a writer because I’m only a hobbyist; that I only took up writing because I was sitting around at home and what else was I going to do with myself.

Working full time this summer fixed that line of thinking. Storytelling isn’t something that I think I’ll ever give up, no matter how hard it gets or how short time becomes. And that’s been gratifying to learn about myself.

Pantsing v. Planning

blueprintWhen I was first getting serious about writing, somewhere between the ages of eleven and twenty-one (who can really pin down when they became serious about writing?), I was a definite pantster. I had one project and I flung myself into it with the careless abandon of a finger painting kindergartner. I let the story take me where it would. Characters sprang up out of nowhere. Story lines I never would have imagined branched off and grew. My one book grew into two, then three, and then four, finally fleshing out into a hefty five book series, each book clocking in at between 120- and 130k.

It. Was. Glorious.

And sloppy. And exhausting. And required so many drafts that I eventually stopped counting them after eleven or so. I mean, there’s no shame in taking 10+ years to draft a single project, but it’s hard to move other projects forward as well. And as a writer, I definitely hope to be more than a one-hit wonder.

These days, now that I’m an old lady and I’ve got things like jobs and kids to suck up my time, I tend to plan things out quite a bit more. I typically don’t start writing until I know the full cast, an unholy amount of setting, and at least eighty percent of the entire outline in detail. My books and characters still surprise me sometimes, leaving the path and running whooping and laughing down a flower-bedecked hillside instead. But generally, I know where things are going before I even type Chapter One.

I have sequentially planted my butt firmly on both sides of this fence, but I still can’t tell you which is better, pantsing or planning. (Hint: The better one is whichever one works best for you just then.) But just for the fun of it, let’s break these babies down a bit more.

Pantsing is typically a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants free-for-all where all you start with is an interesting premise and the determination to see it through to its unknown end. Planning is more in the vein of spreadsheets, flowcharts, and index cards; however they get it down, planners like to know what beast they’re working with and how to wrangle it- all before they step in the arena.

So what are the merits and demerits of these two schools of thought? I asked a bunch of my writing buddies on Twitter and Facebook their thoughts on this, and here’s what our think-tank was able to come up with:

  Advantages Disadvantages
Pantsing Room for surprises

Get right to the fun of writing

More organic characters and relationships

Allows for more exploration of a theme or topic without plot restrictions

Requires extra time in editing and cleanup

Wonky flow, pacing, and direction

Chaotic storylines

Bloated first drafts

More prone to ‘getting stuck’ mid-draft

Planning Gives sense of the story’s direction

Enough organization to remember what I’m doing

Less prone to writers block

Cleaner first drafts

Faster first drafts

Allows higher degree of story complexity without getting messy

Requires extra time spent in prep work

Can sap some of the fun and enthusiasm from a project

Sometimes creates rigid situations that serve the plot rather than agree with the character development

These are, of course, generalities. And like most things in life, these two poles rest on either end of a continuum, rather than being either a 1 or a 0. To reflect the murky middle ground, the term “plantster” has started cropping up around the internet as well, to represent those of us who like to hang out in the mix.

continuum

I mentioned earlier that I like to start a project with a mere eighty percent of my plot planned out. Because of this, and quite a few other gaps I leave open at a project’s advent, I don’t really think of myself as a true planner. I’m more of a preparation-leaning plantster. I like to have a really strong structure in place at the start of a project, and most of the major plot points planned out. But I also like to leave myself a little wiggle room for exploration, and an unscripted ending. I like leaving the ending unplanned because it usually takes me up until that point in the story to come up with an ending that a) fits the story naturally and b) isn’t coming at the reader with all the subtle surprise of a regularly scheduled freight train. Because of this, I do tend to have to go back and rework a bit of the earlier story (adding foreshadowing, tweaking storylines that end up being important, dropping the ones that aren’t, etc), but I’m fine with an extra draft or two.

Just so long as it doesn’t end up being closer to twenty drafts.

So whether you plan, pants, or something in between, keep doing what works best for you! The best routines are the ones that work, and don’t let anyone (or any table) tell you otherwise. Happy writing!

(And a special thank you to the dozen or so folks on social media who pitched in to help me articulate all the plusses and minuses of planning and pantsing- you guys are awesome!)

Mid-Race Regrets

My father-in-law is an amazing athlete. I am… somewhat less amazing. But I’ve actually felt like I’ve been pretty good about exercising this summer. (You know, until I exploded my leg at least.) I was bike commuting to work every day. I practiced rugby twice a week. I even did a few crunches once in a while! Not too shabby!

Earlier this summer, Hubby and I were gearing up for our annual Midnight Sun Run with Dad, and I was dumb enough to express confidence in my abilities this year. My sweet darling laughed in my face and reminded me that I hadn’t done any long distance running since, oh, the last time we did the Sun Run. You know, two years ago.

“But I’m fit!” I protested. “I do all the things!”

Apparently not all the right things. He didn’t argue that I was in possibly the best shape of my life. He merely argued that I was working all the wrong muscles. That I didn’t have the stamina. That I’d start off at a quick trot and then be sucking wind and puking by the end.

Bah! I thought. I’ll show him!

Why does he always have to be right? Why can’t I be the right one once in a while?

I don’t know if it’s just because I have an incurable case of lit brain, but I find that there are many correlations between my writing life and my everything-else life.

This last month, in case you didn’t notice from the discernable uptick of stupidity and laziness around here, was a NaNo month. *waves tiny flag* And I had every confidence that I was gonna throat punch that puny word goal into the Stone Age. Because, come on, I’d been working on writing stuff every day this entire year with like three exceptions. Like three! How can you be more ready than that?

But it occurred to me right around Week Two that the writing I had been doing wasn’t necessarily good draft-like-crazy-for-a-month prep sort of writing. A lot of the writing I had been doing was things like taking setting notes, or drafting out blog posts, or editing second or third drafts, or popping out a piece of flash fiction. The truth was, I hadn’t drafted a new full-length novel since last November.

Much like my running race, I felt that lack of training pretty badly toward the end. I mean, I still throat punched the word goal, although maybe not quite to the Stone Age, but it required a lot more oomph that I thought it was going to.

I’m not saying that I regret those other styles of writing projects I’ve been working on this year. I don’t. After all, if I never paused in my drafting frenzy, I’d a) have nothing but a bunch of embarrassing first drafts sitting around, b) not have won short story contests or placed other shorts for publication, and c) have gone stark raving mad from the whirlwind of writing so much, so quickly, for so long.

But I think next time, I’ll set aside my other projects just a little sooner and work myself back up to fighting form. After all, during Camp sessions, I have the option of scaling back my daily word goals; I don’t have that choice in November. And as much as I struggled to write an average of 900 words a day last month, 1700 would be exceedingly difficult.

So what can I do to make sure that I’m ready for writing come this fall? Well, for starters, I’ve reinstituted writing daily- new words, not just editing old ones. It doesn’t necessarily have to be fiction, or all from the same project, but it does have to be new. Currently, I’m only requiring 500 a day of myself, but I’ll start to up that more as we get closer to November. (I know not everyone goes in for a daily wordcount. Some folks like to put in a certain amount of time, or energy, or however they gauge themselves. I just find that counting words works best for me. You do you.)

Another thing I want to do is to put in more preparation in the form of outlining. I think one of the things that made the end of the month so difficult was that I really jumped into the project with little more than an idea for an opening scenario. I had absolutely zilch planned out for anything past like chapter four. I used to write like this all the time, but I’ve found in my old age that the speed and the quality of my drafts go up considerably when I have a solid framework laid out beforehand. (If you want to argue that with me, I’m currently drafting a post comparing and contrasting pantsing and planning and would love your input! Shoot me an email or hit me up in the comments!)

Finally, I need to start setting aside more time for writing again. I’ve given myself about half the writing time that I had before and, although I’ve worked at using that time more efficiently, I still need more time to hit those higher goals.

So that’s my big plan! If my sixty-something father-in-law can straight up curb stomp me in every single race we’ve ever run together (while smiling and holding a conversation no less), I can put in the time and the training to get good at writing again. Hi-ya! *high kicks off a bench*

*breaks leg*