Teachers Write 7/11/14 – Friday Feature: Embracing the Process

Congratulations! It’s Friday, and that means you’ve survived your first week of Teachers Write. Gae is hosting Friday Feedback on her blog today, so even if you’re not quite ready to share, you should go visit & see how that works.

And we also have a Friday Feature with guest author Lynda Mullaly Hunt. Lynda is the author of ONE FOR THE MURPHYS and the forthcoming FISH IN A TREE.

Lynda does frequent school & Skype visits. She’s pretty terrific, and she’s here to talk about embracing your process.

Roll with the Hunches: Thoughts on Writing Process

As a writer, I struggled in the beginning because I thought that writing was done the right way or the wrong way. I figured the right way was to write things in sequential order and the wrong way was the way I do it.

Thing was, characters dropped into me. I’d imagine things that would happen to them almost as if coming back to me as a memory. So, I started taking notes. Soon, those notes became scenes. The writing wasn’t great but it was better than it had been. So, I decided to try and go with this lack of form.

I wrote an entire novel that way. It’s a novel that will never be published but it taught me character development, plotting, pacing and–most importantly–to trust myself. To stop emulating my outline-loving friends and to embrace my own process even though it felt like that first white-knuckle hill on a roller coaster. Soon, I realized that at the end of a “writing ride” I was happy and wanted to ride again, so…

When I write a book I write the first two chapters and then I write the last chapter. All the middle chapters are written out of order. I don’t plan it that way—it comes to me that way. While I’m in the kitchen making coffee I have no idea what will leak out of my fingers that day.

I begin by reading some of what I’ve written the previous day and then begin writing—I just jump in even if it’s not coming easily. (I often cut the beginnings of scenes as those words were the map that helped me get to the important stuff.) When I’m finished with the chapter I give it a title and write it on a 3 x 5 card. Then I add three bullet points of important things that happen. Finally, I slap it on a giant magnetic whiteboard in my office.

cards

So, by the time I finished the first draft of Murphys what I had was 50 chapters about a girl named Carley Connors who lands in foster care. Then I had the task of laying them all out on the floor in such an order as to make a novel. Was this hard for me? Very.

I use those cards to organize the book. In the upper left-hand corner of each card I use colored circles to represent each character. When all the chapters are laid out it tells me if I have left a character for too long. For example in the first draft of One for the Murphys I had 11 cards in a row without a green circle which stood for Daniel, an important charater. So, I switched the cards around 🙂

I also put the setting in the bottom right-hand corner and if I have too many similar chapters I consolidate them. For example in writing the Murphy’s I had four conversations between Carley and Toni take place in the bedroom. So I printed those four chapters out, highlighted the material I wanted to keep, and rewrote them to make two chapters.

cards plot

When I have it all together in what I feel is novel-form, I put aside a day and read the entire thing out loud in one sitting. That really tells me the shape of it. Then I go back to those cards—still lined up on the floor and go through each card to think about questions, tension, repetition. I look at the length of the chapters, too.

Finally, I make cards of “scenes to write”—holes that need to be filled in the story. I spread those out on my desk upside down and pick from the pile. Then I take a stab at writing the one chosen. This approach to writing is not as smooth. These scenes start our clunkier than most but I smooth them over eventually—the ones I keep, anyway.

So, the beginning really is from the guts and the card part is cerebral. It’s a strange system but it has worked for both One for the Murphys and Fish in a Tree (Feb, 2015).

I spoke with a few phenomenal writers and friends about their processes in writing a novel.

Apparently, Leslie Connor, author of five books including The Things You Kiss Good-bye also writes in a similar style to mine which made me happy. Because I’m *such* a fan of her writing! But, I thought you may want to hear from a couple of others who have different processes:

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~~Stacy DeKeyser author of Jump the Cracks , The Brixen Witch and One Witch at Time (follow-up to Brixen Witch out Feb, 2015) writes about her process:

“I’m more a stepping stone person. If I have a character who wants something, I give him some obstacles and plot out Turning Point #1 (at about the 25% point), the middle, and Turning Point #2 (at around 80%), climax, and resolution. And ending that is full circle in some ways but changed irrevocably in others. Then fill in the blanks! So easy! (Ha!)”

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~~e.E. Charlton-Trujillo, author of Fat Angie, writes of her process this way:

“As a filmmaker and short fiction author first, the novel writing process in the first draft is very dialogue based. I hear the characters talking and jot down the tension, texture and nuance of what they need to say. Followed by notes on key sensory detail. I don’t spend a lot of time describing the scene when I’m going. I know I can fill that in, but the dialogue is gold right off the rip. Often I’m thrown right in the middle of the character chaos. Whether it is the beginning, middle or end of the novel, I’m just there.

I also build a soundtrack for the overall book. Music that the characters laugh to — cry with — drive to their passion. The music is something that can drop me right into the story. Often there are specific songs for particular chapters. Sometimes a character theme. This allows me an immediate emotional access to them if I’ve had to step away from the story for some reason. I tend to write the way I would edit a movie. Ten to twelve hour days, six days a week for four weeks. Then I’m done with the draft. Let it sleep for a few days and revisit or send it to my agent to put eyes on the spine of the piece.”

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So, dear fellow writers, experiment with different approaches. Sometimes, you’ll dovetail processes. Have fun with it. Don’t over think it; ironically, the brain sometimes gets in the way of good writing.

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36 Comments

  1. Posted July 11, 2014 at 7:21 am | Permalink

    Lynda thank you for sharing. Your beginning plans for writing allows for a lot of flexibility and reflection.

    • Posted July 11, 2014 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

      Well, goodness knows I reflect a lot. My family will come in and see me staring out the window and I have to say, “This *is* working!” 🙂 Thank YOU for coming by!

  2. Posted July 11, 2014 at 7:33 am | Permalink

    When I saw your notecards, I had to laugh – this is EXACTLY how I wrote out and prepared my #ISTE2014 Ignite speech (shown in the first post on my website.) Although it wasn’t a novel (only 5 minutes and 20 slides to be exact, lol), It was indeed a summarized story; a framework from which I can expand into a novel should I choose.

    I appreciate the insider’s view on how you brainstorm and organize your thoughts. I tend to visualize the big picture, then random details will pop into my brain. Your post has inspired me to capture those details in writing – maybe create new blog pages for each idea which may/may not develop into chapters. Hmmmm… you have my brain swirling now! Thanks again!

  3. Matt Little
    Posted July 11, 2014 at 7:49 am | Permalink

    Thank you, Lynda, this is super informative! I never considered such a system, and as I imagine something like this, it resonates. I am not, by nature, a particularly organized person. Having a framework for keeping track of what’s going on will help me as I push beyond short story. It will also be most informative to my students this fall, as they figure out how to manage their stories.

    Thanks!

    Matt

  4. Posted July 11, 2014 at 8:23 am | Permalink

    Let me begin by saying that I absolutely loved One for the Murphys and so did my students. I couldn’t believe how hard I cried. I really related to the mother. While it was written from Carly’s POV, I was surprised by how close I felt to her. You did a wonderful job making us care about each of the characters. I am so happy to know that you have this weird process. It gives me hope. I tend to be a writer that just starts where I left off and go again. But this is not working too well because I can’t seem to get finished. Maybe I need to go write the last chapter. Thanks!

  5. Amy Benoit
    Posted July 11, 2014 at 9:02 am | Permalink

    I’m a big fan, of OFTM and Lynda! Thanks for the advice. I’m looking forward to trying this new approach.

  6. Deb Krygeris
    Posted July 11, 2014 at 9:05 am | Permalink

    Hi Lynda,

    I’ve often been frustrated in that I can’t just sit down and “see” the whole story. I like your method of different scenes and then organizing and looking at characters and setting. I’m also the kind of person that thinks about things a lot before writing anything down and ideas do just pop into your head at random times. I’ve learned to write them down quickly or (now that I’m in my 50s) I do tend to forget them. I’m the kind of teacher that doesn’t force student to use graphic organizers. I provide several kinds for those students that need it, but also allow them the freedom to write the way that feels best. The examples you provided from other authors demonstrates that there is no one “right” way to write. That makes me feel better.

    My 6th graders this past year loved ONE FOR THE MURPHYS. I’m so excited it’s one of the title for the Global Read Aloud because I plan on using it for my incoming 6th grade class. I’ve already pre-ordered FISH IN A TREE. Can’t wait to read it! Thanks for participating in Teachers Write!

    deb (@DebKrygeris)

  7. Posted July 11, 2014 at 9:08 am | Permalink

    Lynda,
    I haven’t read One for the Murphys, but I read your excerpt for Fish in a Tree and I am really looking forward to reading some of your work once I finish my prep on an Action Research for next year.
    I love the organization you use. I have all these ideas about a novel that includes older versions of my daughters and these boys down the street-not necessarily these kids, but an idea around their friendships-but I don’t know how to get it together. I write little vignettes and adventures, but haven’t figured out how to get them together in a way that makes sense. I will be trying your process to see if this works for me! Looks right up my alley! Thanks for sharing.

  8. Kristina Paustian
    Posted July 11, 2014 at 9:26 am | Permalink

    My 24 year old daughter, who is also a writer, and I were just discussing writing process last night. This advice will be invaluable to her. I have started using Evernote on the computer in a very similar way to your index cards. One notebook will hold all of my notes that I am working on. That way I can find what I have written which isn’t always easy in a handwritten notebook. I love your index card and whiteboard system though. Thank you so much for this advice!

    • Posted July 12, 2014 at 9:25 am | Permalink

      I love that you use Evernote. I’m going to do the same thing! Thanks for the suggestion.

  9. Posted July 11, 2014 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    Thank you for sharing your process. I think sometimes my students get caught up in “the right way” and don’t do what comes naturally as scholars. I will definitely share this with them. Your system makes so much sense to me!

  10. Posted July 11, 2014 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    I could almost cry reading this because I write in a very similar fashion! I’ve struggled with figuring out how to organize it all and fill in the gaps. I’ve got a better plan now because of Scrivner. I use an index card for each scene. I’ll need to see what I can do with color coding them because I like that idea!

  11. Jennifer Kraar
    Posted July 11, 2014 at 11:03 am | Permalink

    Lynda,
    I’m enthusiastically joining the bandwagon – I adored One for the Murphy’s and so did my students.

    Thanks for sharing your process – it is fascinating and helpful. As a beginning writer, I think in scenes, characters and themes and had no ideas about how to put those fragments together. Your post gave some concrete ways to proceed – someday. Valuable!

  12. Posted July 11, 2014 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for sharing your process, as well as a few techniques used by others. The main message I get from these are to have the confidence to follow my own process. There doesn’t have to be a right way and the rest are wrong. My “organizational process” is pretty disorganized, and scattered. I basically see the story as a myriad of puzzles pieces strewn about. Some turned upside down. some missing. Pieces from other puzzles mixed in, just to keep me sharp.My job is to curate those pieces, and find a meaningful overall picture from them.

  13. sheryl
    Posted July 11, 2014 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

    I loved One for the Murphys and am excited for your new book. Thank you for this post. It makes me think about the variety of ways people think and work, especially creative processes. I was thinking about how writing processes correlate to reading processes. I have a friend who always reads the first two chapters and then the last chapter of a book before reading. My sister in law has to start a book from the beginning, read every page in sequential order and NEVER gives up on a book until she is at the last page. I enjoy reading dialogue and tend to skip over settings, where I also have friends who skip over dialogue and relish in the settings.

    Your post was also reaffirming. I always write in scenes. I thought I could never write a novel because I can’t seem to see plan out a novel. You give me hope 🙂

    • Posted July 11, 2014 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

      Hey, Sheryl!

      You should absolutely have hope 🙂 Seriously, I was a pretty unlikely candidate to publish a novel. When I eventually submitted the Murphys to my dream agent, one of her pieces of feedback was that each chapter felt episodic. So I did go back and smooth out the segways.

      The creative process is such a funny thing. I do think that 10 writers or artists will have 10 different processes. True, there will be some similarities, but no two work exactly the same way.

      Go for it! If I can do this, so can you 🙂

  14. Posted July 11, 2014 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    Lynda- I’m with you here! Though I do what you do via my Scrivener software, it’s good to feel I’m not alone. Great post.

    • Posted July 11, 2014 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

      Hey, Augusta! I’m happy to be in such great company 🙂 Thanks for weighing in!

  15. Posted July 11, 2014 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

    Having a crazy day, Folks. I appreciate you all reading my post and commenting. I will get to answering everyone. Promise! 🙂

  16. Maureen Johnson
    Posted July 11, 2014 at 7:33 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for explaining your process and making me feel that I am not crazy. You have given me so much to think about. Thanks!

    • Posted July 11, 2014 at 8:56 pm | Permalink

      Well, if you’re crazy, so am I. 🙂 So glad you found the post helpful. Once you realize there’s no wrong or right way, you’re ready to go!

  17. Cathy Duffy
    Posted July 11, 2014 at 8:41 pm | Permalink

    Thank you Linda for sharing your process. It made me reflect on my process.

  18. Posted July 12, 2014 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

    Thank you, Lynda for sharing your process and what works for you. I tend to *over think* most things!

  19. Posted July 12, 2014 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    Part II:
    Not only do I over think, I over looked the ending to my comment. For some reason, my comment is incomplete.

    Your approach is very helpful and insightful. Thank yo for the tips.

    Read, write and create every day.
    ~Suzy

    • Posted July 12, 2014 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

      Just can’t seem to get this right as I continue to write and once again *over think!*

      Thank YOU, Lynda!

  20. Pam Vaughan
    Posted July 12, 2014 at 10:03 pm | Permalink

    Lynda,
    Fantastic post. Not just informative, (I love my index cards!) But you are so generous with sharing photos – it’s like a behind the scenes view of things that we all really appreciate!
    Thanks for taking the time to share!
    *Pam

  21. Posted July 13, 2014 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

    Thank you so much for sharing. This helped me reflect on my own process as a writer.

  22. Wendy Chaulk
    Posted July 13, 2014 at 9:14 pm | Permalink

    Lynda,

    Thank you for being part of this! I was able to meet you and listen to you speak in Denver at the Colorado Reading Conference in February. I also love One for the Murphys and had to have 2 copies in my classroom because it was so popular with my 5th graders! I can’t wait for your other book to be released!

    I so appreciate having these ideas for writing. I have yet to ever write a novel, partly because it is such a daunting task. I have so many ideas in my head and had no idea what to do with them. Now, I have some ideas so I can at least start and see how my creative process works. Thanks!

  23. Posted July 14, 2014 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    Loved this post. So inspiring to hear an author I admire discuss insecurities and doubt about doing it “the right way”. Thanks, Lynda for sharing your process. It gave me some ideas for my current project!

  24. Posted July 14, 2014 at 11:39 pm | Permalink

    I really appreciate the caution about “overthinking.”
    I feel like that has been a major stumbling block for me.

  25. Andrea P.
    Posted July 15, 2014 at 8:27 am | Permalink

    Thank you for sharing, Lynda. I’m a visual person and the colored dots will be a great tool for me to try!

  26. Jennifer Howe
    Posted July 15, 2014 at 10:06 am | Permalink

    Thank you so much for sharing! While I love writing and have always written, I have never really thought of myself writing for a large audience. Teachers Write! and life have been slowly prompting me to expand my thinking and think about what I might be able to one day publish. I love that you started by telling us about a work that will never be published but taught you lots. Thanks again!

  27. Jennifer Howe
    Posted July 15, 2014 at 10:07 am | Permalink

    P.S. One for the Murphy’s is on top of my TBR pile and I can’t wait for Fish in a Tree!

  28. Posted July 16, 2014 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    Thanks so much for sharing Lynda! I’m writing my dissertation right now and although not fiction, I write in a very similar way. I was struggling earlier today with how to take all of the little “chunks” that I have and put them into coherent chapters. I’m going to give your notecard method a try – my brain works in a very similar way and I like the idea of getting away from my screen a bit. Obviously, I’ll code the cards a little differently – but I can already imagine that it will help me to see holes and disconnects that need to be filled. THANK YOU!!!

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