3 S.R. Johannes: From the Inside Out

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

From the Inside Out

I have had several people ask me about my writing process. (Truly I have no idea why :) Keep in mind - as you read this - that I am currently "unpublished" so this is purely "non-expert" writing advice. I did get some of these ideas from many editors that responded to me personally during my first book's submission process.

So read at your own risk!

Backstory -
To date - I have written 2 MG/YA books: 1 epic MG fantasy (50,000 words/350 pages) and my current YA thriller (30,000 words and 150 pages).

I used different processes on both.

First Book - no process! what a mistake!
The first book - I simply wrote haphazardly trying to envision where my character was going and how she was growing. My book did not do bad but obviously it did not get sold. I did get about 5 requests for manuscripts, 2 Acquisitions Meetings opportunities, and several personal editorial letters. When it still did not sell, I used an editor (Harold Underdown) to review the book for me not understanding what was wrong. He told me I had major plotting issues and inconsistencies and suggested I create a "File" of information including an outline. I went through all of Harold's comments - (and trust me there were alot! about a 10 pages editorial letter) and tracked where all my problems stemmed from.

That editorial letter along with some other personal advice from editors/agents helped me form my second book.

I actually shelved this book because going back and replotting seemed impossible at this point.

Second Book
I like to say when I am creating a book - I am creating a whole person from the inside out so here is how I envision it.

1) The Soul/Heart - I created character profiles for the people I knew I would have in the story - at first it is main characters. I try to include descriptions and backstory. I eventually add in mannerisms, phrases, clothing style - anything I needed to keep track of . I feel is is very easy to forget these little things that make your characters real - especially when you are writing a long book - it is easy to get confused and lose track. Even JK Rowling has her characters and their backstory written out. You may not use it all but it help breath life into your characters from the very beginning.

2) The Brain. I then go on to write a high-level summary about the story that I want to tell. I think most writers know what they want their story to be about. That is why you start writing it. To me - if you can not really pin down what you want your story to be about - you may miss the mark. Kinda like if you go on a trip - you know where you are going. You may not know how you are going to get there or how long it takes or what you see along the way - but you know you generally the direction and destination. This - in a way - is a beginning step to your one-page synopsis. But at this point - I do not spend alot of time on it. Again - this does not mean your story can not evolve - my story is different than when I first started - it just gives you a starting point. I also make sure I include what are the 3 things that make my book different from the other that may be in the same genre. I have to make sure I play up those 3 things so my book is sellable.

3) Pick the Bones - I create a high-level outline. Yes an outline. This is like my skeleton. I know some people do not like outlines. But to me - this is a general path of how you are going to tell your story. Again, if you know you are going to California, you draw out a way to get there. You may not take that route - you may get off track - but you generally need to know that you wont end up in Oregon. In my first book - I refused an outline because I felt it hindered my creative process. Unfortunately, my character ended up in Oregon when I wanted her in Southern California. I realize now it just gave me a rough path to follow. This does not mean - I fully outlined my entire book. My outline is as organic as my book is. I just helped me decide what the chapter was really about which kept my story focused. At first I only wrote a sentence about what happened in that chapter.

4) Building a frame- I go through and write the book. As I write my chapters - I always kept my outline open and added to it as I go. This helps me track things that came up in the writing process or remember question/lines/plot points that I want to include later. During this time, I do not stop to fix anything, I just write from my heart. Most of it is fixed later. I do not worry about spelling or grammar (like I have that anyway :) I just write with no judgement without really thinking. I try to go as far as I can. I force my way to the end, keeping my outline updated as I go.

5) Look at the Skeleton. After my first sweep - I print out my book and read it as a book. This is a very rough draft with tons of spelling and alot of the story is not in place yet. But this helps me see the big picture and figure out where holes are. As I read it - I get ideas on how to build out the story and where my holes are.

6) Reshape Frame. I go back and blow out my detailed outline and character descriptions based on what I read and figured out. I add more detail to the outline and try to have a paragraph for each chapter. I may move chapters around based on what I read. I cut and paste alot. My story may change and the chapter order may alter. Some characters comes in, some change, and some even leave. If they are not needed, they get the boot. I don't like to many characters in a book. I like enough to create a world but not too many that I cant keep track and that they are not generic. They are all essential to the story. For example - I don't bring in the butcher or teacher or a friend unless it is critical to my story line. I try to find a way for that character to have some information for the reader.

7) Add the Meat - Here I focus purely on my plot line. What are the clues? What are the steps on my characters journey to growth? What are the plot points in each chapter? What does the reader discover in each chapter? What is each chapter really about? I work on my outline until it feels complete. I track all my clues and plot events in the outline. I mark them in blue if they are addressed and red if they are a loose end or may not be needed. I make sure all these line up in the story. Every clue has a place. This doe snot just have to be mysteries, there should be clues or points where the reader learns something in each story that pushes the story forward - even they learn something about them selves. I find each chapter needs at least one things learned or it is a wasted chapter. This helps me spread out the information. I cut out any chapters that don't offer something.

For example - I took the book into a 6 week critique class and my whole book has evolved much more just since my last draft.But it feels complete. I have redone my outline, added to character descriptions and kept my process going. I put everything in its place.

8) Add in the fat - I expand the chapters to be sure everything i think needs to be included is. I go back through the book and add in little details. ie - Instead of my character having long hair. I had in mannerisms - she brushes her bangs back alot - nervous habit. She says - "Crapola" alot. She never looks in the mirror and actually avoids them at all cost. Little things like that. I try and sprinkle those through the book. These are things I go back and add to my character descriptions. This helps me make sure that all my characters do not have the same color eyes or say the same phrases or talk the same. I try to give them each 3-5 characteristics that make them different. For example in my Grace book - her Native American boss called her Elu (Native American for Grace), her ex calls her "G", her dad calls her Gracie, her boyfriend calls her "blossom." Things like that. IN the first drafts - they probably all called her Grace.

9) The Whole person - I read the book aloud to someone - this is where my critique group, my mother, and my poor hub get dragged into my process. God bless them! This process may happen several times deepening on changes. I take notes and make sure there are no loose ends and everything is where it needs to be. At this point, the chapters do not change order and the story is finalized.

10) Trim the Fat - I go back through and cut anything that does not have a specific purpose in the chapter or any chapters that don't in some way move the story along. This is where I am now and it is hard. I cut great lines, funny dialog, overstated descriptions that stall the story. Alot of good writing is cut here but it is in the best interest for the reader.

In the end, I have a book, a synopsis I have added to, character descriptions, and a detailed outline with clues and key events. And more importantly, I hope a publishable book.

Side note:

I thought I would include a few things that help this writing process....

  1. Music - I like to write to music (it is the ADHD side of me). I know some people can't but I do. I actually choose a song for each chapter that I feel gets me in that moment. For example - I use Pink - I'm not dead for my opening chase scene. I now have a playlist that follows my book so I listen to those songs as I write that chapter. I don't know why but it helps me get into the moment and block out the world.
  2. M&Ms - unfortunately these are an issue :) I like the peanut kind and have to reign myself in from getting them too often. I've tried fruits and veggies but it does not give me the same effect.
  3. Coke Zero or Coffee with flavored cream - this can also be dangerous. But helps.
  4. Darkness - I especially like to write at night when everything is quiet - besides my music of course.
  5. My dog at my feet.
  6. My comfy leather chair.

This process helps me keep the organic side of writing alive while still being systematic in creating a compelling story.

Hope this helps :) Feel free to ask me questions.


Katie Anderson said...

HOLY MACKERAL!!! I am going to print this and advise others to do the same! What a brilliant process! thanks!

Shelli (srjohannes) said...

K - look forward to seeing you. Glad this helps!

Casey Something said...

This is fabulous Shelli. You've got quite an impressive process. I might follow Katie's lead and print this out for reference while I'm trying to find my own process. Thanks so much!

Anonymous said...

Holy Mackarel! I had no idea your process was so sophisticated! I've just been writing (also trying to get pubbed in YA fiction, in addition to MG nonfiction). Yikes. I'm impressed.

Carrie Harris said...

How interesting. You're so much more organized than I am. I usually start with the character profiles, which I take to an obscene extent, an idea for a first scene, a general gist of where it will go from there, and some foggy ending concepts.

I am the reason that critique groups were invented. ;)