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April 2017

My Process Went Gently Into that Good Night

So we’ve been sharing our different approaches to writing our books, our individual processes, and we’ve covered that there’s no one way that works for all authors. The best you can hope for is to cultivate the way that works for you. And I did.

I spent years not only learning how to write but getting to know my writing. Before I sold, I went to workshops, attempted to read numerous reference books (although Stephen King’s ON WRITING may be the only one I actually read cover to cover), honed my craft through nearly a dozen “practice” manuscripts and logged hours at the keyboard. So. Many. Hours. Then after I sold, my process was further shaped by the advice of a great editor and the interesting addition of tight deadlines–“interesting” in the same way I imagine piranha teeth are interesting. Every book has its own unique challenges and therefore its own unique panic, but on the whole, once I was about ten books into my career, if you caught me on a good day, I might have told you I knew I what I was doing. (FYI, there are no good days the week before a book is due. Then it’s all crazy-eyed fear and profanity-laced rants about why did I think I could do this.)

ANYWAY. The career progressed. I sold twenty books. Thirty. I successfully wrote books for different houses, different lines and different editors. I was fortunate enough to win a few awards and I felt pretty confident I had a process. Not necessarily a great one and certainly not one that used a cool white board or color-coordinated plotting index cards, but my ugly, messy process was mine and I loved it.

Then shit went sideways. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when I realized that my process no longer worked, but my tendinitis was one part of it. I can physically no longer type manuscripts. I delayed the inevitable for as long as I could with ergonomic keyboards, wrist braces and painkillers, but there came a day when my fingers just wouldn’t do it anymore and it was time to get dictation software. I was SO FRUSTRATED. Both of my kids are kinetic learners and maybe I have a little of that going on because it was like I couldn’t focus without the movement and sound of my fingers clicking on the keys. Plus, since the software was “learning” my voice, I had to slow down and make sure I was speaking clearly; half the time, when I reached the end of a paragraph, I couldn’t remember where I’d been going with it anyway.

The only passages that felt natural to dictate were sections of dialogue since they’re meant to be spoken anyway. I found myself wanting to skip to conversations later in the book instead of finishing whatever prose I was supposed to be writing, but I fought this temptation because I’d always been an organic writer. My process was that each scene should evolve naturally out of the scene that came before. On the rare occasion when I had tried to write out of order, I ended up cutting those nonsequential scenes anyway because they didn’t flow. Deadlines were too tight to invest in a scene I’d just delete later. Also, my usual process was to dangle fun dialogue (my favorite thing to write) as a carrot for slogging through other stuff. “Just get through this transition paragraph, and you can have fun with that juicy fight.” If I wrote all the fun stuff first, what would I have to look forward to? Except this was no longer working.

There were other things happening, but what it boiled down to was, I had begun to fight my own process. And I’m not sure why. I sold my first book in 2001, when I was a twenty-something with a three-week-old baby. It is now 2017. That baby has a learner’s permit to drive! We live in a different house. I am not the exact same person. So why did I subconsciously believe that my process should stay the same?

Back in the day, my process involved spending a week thinking about all the stuff I wanted to write, then pulling an all-nighter to get it on the page because I am a night owl who thinks best between midnight and three a.m. But I no longer have the stamina for all-nighters. As it turns out, sleep is healthy. I still get great ideas at two a.m. but now I reach for my smart phone on the nightstand, type a few words into the Notes section and sometimes even remember what they mean when I look at them the next day.

I have recently realized that almost none of how I used to work actually, you know, WORKS anymore. But I’m not sure why I let that terrify me. It’s kind of fun, after more than forty books, to experiment with new creative methods. Change can be good, right?

I hope you have–or develop–a process that works for you. But if your instincts start screaming to find a new one, consider listening instead of battling yourself. You may be pleasantly surprised with the results.

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My Weirdest Plot Bunny

Better Get to Livin’–available May 31st! Chock-full of ghosts! Most of them are friendly!

Back in January I broke with the program to talk about 42 things I’ve learned in 42 years. This month I’m going to go back and hit upon my weirdest plot bunny because it’s a doozy.

I’m pretty sure that the idea for Better Get to Livin’ started germinating back when I was a high school senior. As first chair trumpet, sometimes Mr. Fentress Casey–best name for a funeral director ever–would come to get me to play taps* for military funerals. It says something about small towns that such absences were never unexcused. I mean, someone needed to play taps, didn’t they?

The perks of being the taps girl was that I would get to skip class and I would get paid to do it. The downside–at least for many–would be that I often rode to the cemetery in the hearse. While waiting for the procession to start, I also had to cool my jets in the back kitchen of the funeral home listening to the insanely slow chime version of “When the Roll Is Called up Yonder”** and speculate on what it was like to be a funeral director, whether there were any ghosts hanging around Casey’s, and what might be behind the door that I knew led to the embalming area.

Oddly enough, I think I forget just how much the idea of funeral homes creep so many people out because the experience at Casey was never all bad when I was there with my family. Sure, I was grieving. Sure, once the funeral came around I would be weeping, but visitation always proved a bright spot. Family members would take a break in that same kitchen where I used to wait, and they would tell stories, often funny ones that brought a warm glow for the person we were missing. For all of their sadness, funerals have a way of bringing people together who haven’t seen each other in a while, a nice reminder that life is short and that people are the most important part of it.

So, back to the plot bunny….

My mom sends me the local paper even though I don’t live in Henderson anymore. Ah, not only does The Independent scratch that itch for home, but I also find all kinds of great stories and ideas–especially from the “Only Yesterday” section where they pull information from past editions of the paper. One day, I got The Independent and saw that Mr. Casey had passed away. One small snippet of that story captured my imagination: Mr. Casey considered being a doctor but decided to continue on in the family’s mortuary business. That started the what ifs. What if he didn’t want to be a part of the family business? What if he had to be? What if some idiot started a rumor that kept him from finding love or even that many friendships?

This is the point where I tell you that I’ve met a few funeral directors at this point, and that they have all been fine upstanding men and women who don’t seem to have any problem falling in love. Also, I need to remind you that I totally made up the part about the bourbon parties. Everyone I have met or interviewed has been a consummate professional. (Hopefully, someone just said, “Bourbon party? I need to read this book!”)

I tried to be true. I tried to be considerate. But I also wanted the story to have southern quirk. Enter Uncle Hollis, who’s very loosely based on Teddy from Arsenic & Old Lace. Instead of a bugle, he sings Elton John songs. Enter the idea of bourbon parties. One character surprised me–I figured out that Caroline, matriarch of Anderson Funeral Home, writes romance. It’s not something I mention directly in the book, but that is the answer to one of the discussion questions in that back. That is what she’s being sneaky about: writing her first book.

The plot bunny from my high school days then led me to read books like Mary Roach’s Stiff: The Curious Life of Cadavers and Thomas Lynch’s The Undertaking. Both of those books are especially outstanding. Through other sources, I learned all about cemeteries, the history of embalming, and the embalming process. I read up as much as I could on ghosts. As I wrote I incorporated things happening in my life at the time. For example, I went on a field trip with my son to the Pickett’s Mill battlefield so I had the Colonel, one of my ghosts, lose an arm there back in the Civil War. I’d also been reading Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations, so I made her the idol of my Hollywood ghost, Pinup Betty. You might also note several books about serial killers on the list to come. For reasons. If you are interested in some of the books I read while doing research, you can find them all on my Better Get to Livin research shelf on Goodreads.

Then my plot bunny gave birth to another plot bunny: the hearse from Better Get to Livin’ became the focal point of a novella about a group of mourners who are spreading ashes from one end of Tennessee to the other while driving around in an orange and white checkerboard hearse. Did I mention those ashes are housed in a Carmen Miranda cookie jar? You can get Orange Blossom Special on e devices in late July.

I think I’m done with hearse now.

Then again, you never know. . . .

*While we’re talking about plot bunnies, check out this post about why the military bugle call, taps, is both lowercase and not in quotation marks.

**May this be an official warning: if anyone plays any of that slow chime crap at my funeral, I will come back and haunt them. Seriously. My funeral is to be a joyous occasion. There is to be liquor, hip hop, and New Orleans jazz.

 

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Process? I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Process!

How many writing processes are there? Answer: How many writers are there? I find that writers tend to land on what works for them naturally.

My process is pretty much the same for every book. Now, being a former engineer, you might think that I’m all about Excel spreadsheets and plots and knowing where my turning points are within +/- 500 words.

Nope. I’m a total panster. I come up with a general idea, the characters, and a scene. Preferably the first scene which should be the inciting incident.

Sometimes, I’ll get the spark of an idea from a news story or song (while driving…always while driving.) This often happens when I’m in the middle of writing a different book. I like to use spiral bound notebooks to keep track of ideas. I’ll jot everything that comes to me in a notebook and set it aside until I have time to actually write it. IF I have time to write it. I have many notebooks waiting patiently for me.

I’m all about letting an idea marinate in my subconscious as long as possible before I start writing. Maybe that’s my equivalent to “plotting.” One thing I’ve learned is to keep scraps of paper around, including a waterproof notebook for the shower, to record ideas down that come out of my subconscious at the oddest moments. It could be a piece of dialogue or a plot twist or backstory. I’ve learned to be prepared to capture these jewels before I forget them. And I will forget if I don’t record them. (You will too!)

Let’s be clear: I don’t encourage anyone to follow my “process.” (Does it even qualify?) It can be stressful as you wander the barren landscape of a manuscript as the slobbering wolves of your deadline gain on you every minute.

What I would do is encourage you to embrace your process, whatever it may be. Don’t try to change your process because someone else says you should. I don’t care if they are an NYT bestseller or a well respected craft writer. You do you!

I’ve tried to change my process. I’ve read plotting book after plotting book. I’ve tried beat sheets and character interviews. But, I’m an impatient writer. I want to jump in and sink or swim. I don’t like the prework when I already know the first few scenes. I get to know my characters and learn their backstories and idiosyncrasies as I write. It’s fun!

Does that give you hives? Then, plot your little heart out before you write. Don’t fight the feeling. Embrace it. Learn to work with your process. And know that your process is as unique and as special as the book you’ll write!

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Of Course It Makes No Sense. Just Go With It.

You know that crazy person on TV (or maybe in your life) whose office/home/room/laboratory is an absolute disaster? You walk in and have to pause because the sheer chaos makes your skin crawl?

And yet, ask them for anything, and chances are that they can reach into that mess and pull it out in a minute or less?

It makes no sense. It’s inefficient. It shouldn’t work. But for them, it does. So you go with it.

That’s my writing process.

Not really, but that’s how it feels sometimes, especially when I try to explain it to hardcore plotters. I’m what I charitably refer to as a “plotser”. I start with a concept, usually an idea for a character or a snapshot vision in my head of a scene that speaks to me for some reason. I play with it in the back of my mind for a while. I do some quick plotting, typically referring to a simplified beat sheet to make sure I have a beginning, middle and end in mind. I try to get a basic sketch of my characters done. All told, my pre-writing adds up to maybe one page of hand-written scribbles.

And then I draft.

The upside of this method of working is that I have enough structure to write the book but enough flexibility that I get to discover my characters as I go. If there weren’t any surprises, I’d get terribly bored. For me, this keeps the writing process lively and fun.

The downside is that my characters often wait until awfully late in the game to reveal some key information that I would have really liked to have had earlier. This means I have to go back and sew things in. Usually, I pause at about the 20-25k mark to reevaluate. By then some gaping hole has probably revealed itself. I notice there’s not enough conflict or that one of my characters needs a better motivation or that I don’t have a plot after all. I’m not going to pretend it’s fun to go back and fix these things, but after I’ve done it, I’m usually clear to go with drafting the rest of the book. Once the manuscript is finished, I’ll likely have to add another element or two in revisions. All the back and forth and revising used to scare me when I first started, but at this point I’ve come to accept it as just how I work.

My process is a mess. It makes no sense. It’s inefficient chaos that makes more organized people cringe.

But it works. So I trust it. I trust myself.

Just go with it.

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Unorthodox Writing Process

Let’s  talk about the writing process. My process. Wait, what is that? 😉

Kidding!!

My process starts with an idea — which turns into a scene. The scene isn’t always the first scene of the book. Sometimes it is (very unlikely). I usually start in the middle. Because the scene that inspires me to write the book is usually somewhere down the line in the plot.

Where do I get my ideas? Songs, people, real life (this happens a lot), imagination. Ideas come from all over, I think we can all agree on that. You’re driving down the road and something ah-may-zing pops into your head–so you have to use the voice feature to dictate a note into your phone. Or you write random ideas on the back of a Target receipt (or–my personal favorite–airline boarding pass).

After I get that idea, I write the scene in as much entirety as I can at that moment. I know it will change. I mean, if I start in the middle, I have no clue what comes before that, so timeline and wording is going to change. But that scene usually dictates where I go next. Obviously they all come together, so the inspiration for plot is going feed from the scenes I’ve already written.

I write scene by scene until I have about one-third to half the book (25,000-30,000 words usually). Then I create a W-Plot and really plot out the book. From there, I start to put my scenes in order, using “Chapter” with no number. This allows me to see where I need to “fill in.” Sometimes I need to move entire scenes to a different section, re-write scenes that done’t quite fit–and yes–delete entire scenes that don’t work at all. 🙁

Is it confusing? Sometimes. Is it a bit unorthodox? Sure. Do I ever get stuck because I’ve written all the scenes I’m SUPER EXCITED about already? Sadly, yes.

But as writers, we trudge through. I know I’ll be excited about the entire book, just gotta muddle through transitions to get there.

Did I just say transitions? Yeah, I need to work on those. Still. Always be improving your craft, right??

Do you have an unorthodox writing process? (What is unorthodox, really? We’re all individuals and no one’s mind works the same way.) Tell me about it in the comments.

And keep on being you!!!

Sophia Henry writes Heartfelt Flirty Fiction featuring hot, hockey-playing heroes. DELAYED PENALTY and POWER PLAY, the first two books in the Pilots Hockey series from Random House Flirt, are available now at all major e-book retailers.

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