Last night my critique group partner Marla and I had the privilege of seeing a panel of five popular YA authors. The price of admission? Being an Oregonian. Yup, here in the great Northwest we have an enormously talented and supportive children’s writing community. Heck, we have a great writing community in general. But before you pack up your bags and head this way, remember that it rains here all the time. Every. Single. Day. We never see the sun.* Better just stay where you are and form your own writing community. But I digress.
The author panel consisted of Lisa Madigan (Flash Burnout), Lisa Schroeder (Chasing Brooklyn), Laini Taylor (Lips Touch), April Henry (Torched), and Christine Fletcher (Ten Cents a Dance). What a line up! They spoke of many aspects of their journey as writers, but in the interest of time, I’ll only share the two topics I found most interesting.
As talented as these authors are, you might think the words just fly unfettered from their fingertips. Not so. Each has her slow days, and her own approach to navigating the traffic jam. When Lisa M gets stuck she works on a more interesting scene that comes later in the book. Lisa S pushes through the hard parts, knowing things will get better eventually. Laini opens a second document, which feels “secret” from her characters and everyone else. A place where she can play with ideas and not have to worry about how silly they seem. April Henry works on another book all together (Laini calls these Slutty New Ideas or Newts—New Weird Things). Christine Fletcher talks about chasing the dragon, meaning that she’s compelled to keep writing through the difficult parts to achieve that elusive rush of a perfect writing day.
I’m with Lisa S and Chris on this I can’t allow myself to “cheat” by writing something out of order, and frankly, I’m too intensely courted by my current characters to flirt with those Slutty New Ideas. I see the not-so-fun-parts of the book as something I simply need to get through, and the exciting, emotional parts as my reward for doing so—my “weekend” after days of drudgery. One problem with writing out of sequence is that things change. I might discover something new in a low-key scene that affects the later scene. If I fall to the temptation of writing the fun stuff first, it might mean more revision later. One point that the authors agreed on was that while some scenes are less exciting to write than others, if a scene is truly boring to you it will probably bore the reader as well. Maybe it’s not necessary to the story.
The authors also addressed their writing process. To outline or not to outline? Lisa M calls it plotting or plunging. She considers herself a plunger, someone who uses the need to find out what happens next as fuel for her writing engine. Lisa S also plunges. Laini said that she initially dives in, but her order-loving brain won’t allow her to do it for long, then she has to work things out so she knows where the story is going. For April, it depends on what kind of book she’s writing. With mysteries it’s important for the author to know who the killer is, but with thrillers, she can get away with ambling along, waiting for the writing process to determine the story. Christine is compelled by the draw of the unknown. She’s said on other occasions that if she knew what was going to happen next in the story, she’d lose the passion to write it. Those of you who know me can predict where I weigh in on this. I’m a dedicated plotter. I hate having to cut scenes, so I reduce the need by making sure I don’t write unnecessary ones to begin with.
One thing several authors pointed out is that it’s those unexpected twists and discoveries that make the “plunging” approach so rewarding. As a fan of outlining, let me set the record straight. You get those moments when you plot, too. In my WIP I can recall two such moments off the top of my head. For example, I knew from my outline that Race and Jess would bond over a welding project (no pun intended) but I didn’t realize why until I wrote that chapter. Race’s life, compromised by a traumatic brain injury, makes him the perfect person to understand how Jess’s childhood has been altered by growing up with an alcoholic mother. They’ve both had to accept a version of “normal” that isn’t like anyone else’s. The idea makes so much sense in hindsight (another thing the authors noted about these discoveries) but it was the process of writing that allowed it to fully bloom.
The biggest danger of outlining is that it can compromise the story’s natural flow. But only if you let it. You have to know when things aren’t working and let go of the reins. Which brings me to my second example, a scene in which Jess’s boyfriend Cody was scheduled to give her hell for keeping a secret from him. But when I put the characters together, Cody had other ideas, giving her his support and understanding instead. And I let him. I’ve found that if you try to force these things, the story stalls. The characters (or maybe our subconsciouses) know intuitively where the plot needs to go.
So how about you? What trick do you use to get yourself unstuck when your story stalls? Are you a plunger or a plotter? Which of these awesome authors has a writing process that’s most like your own?
*Okay, maybe not every day, but we do average only 1953 hours of sunlight hours each year compared to the 3897 you’d get in Phoenix.