What Works…and What Doesn’t

The first quarter of my school year ended recently, so I’ve been talking to my seventh grade advisees about how things are going so far in their classes: what they’re proud of so far this year; how they learn and work best; and what strategies they might try out in this next quarter to improve their homework, test-taking, proofreading, class participation, etc.

Those conversations have led me to do some reflection of my own. I’m currently working on the first draft of a new novel, and while it’s slowly but surely coming along and I’m  excited about it (most days), I know I could find new ways to maximize my productivity and make my drafting process go more smoothly. So I’ve been thinking about how I work best and what new strategies I might try out as fall moves into winter.

One great thing about my MFA program was that I worked closely with four different advisors, and they gave me lots of different writing techniques to try out. As I experimented with various ways of brainstorming and plotting and drafting, I learned plenty of things that work well for me, such as freewriting backstory scenes, determining a character’s controlling belief and vacuum, and figuring out a crossroads scene that my main character is moving towards.

But I also tried out some techniques that didn’t work so well for me. I like to plot out what will probably happen around the midpoint and at the end of a novel, but it just doesn’t work for me to write scenes out of order. I’ve tried to write those midpoint and ending scenes before I get to them, and I can’t do it. I know lots of people swear by writing out of order, but it makes me anxious and gets me stuck. The dynamics between characters are so important for me that I can’t seem to put my characters into a scene if I haven’t accompanied them through every stage of their journey to get there.

Similarly, I have a really hard time pushing forward with a draft if I have a new idea that influences something earlier in the story, or if I’m just feeling disconnected from a character’s voice. In both of those cases, it’s my very strong impulse to go back, re-read from page 1, and rework what’s already on the page before I keep writing new scenes. (I was relieved when I listened to Sara Zarr interview Siobhan Vivian on this excellent episode of This Creative Life and learned that Siobhan Vivian, whom I greatly admire, does something similar!)

There are times when this impulse doesn’t serve me well and I have to fight it. Sometimes I tell myself that I need to reread a bit from the beginning of my manuscript when really I’m just avoiding the next scene. But for the most part, I’m okay with this part of my process.

I’ve been talking to my students about how they learn best, and I think this is part of how I learn. I need to reconnect with the voice I’m going for from time to time, and I’m not able to say, “Oh, when I revise I’ll go back and change that, but for now I’m going to keep drafting as if I’ve made that change.” Some writers are, and that’s great. But I can’t write the later scenes as well unless I’ve had the physical experience of revising the earlier ones first.

I’m glad that I’ve come to understand some things about what works for me and what doesn’t work for me as a writer. The challenge, though, is to make sure I don’t fall into a rut and resist trying new strategies that might be difficult or tiring at first but ultimately really great (kind of like the Pilates classes that I stopped going to when my 10-class card ran out).

I know some writers who are pushing through 50,000 words of a novel for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) right now, and I really admire them. I make modest monthly word count goals when I’m drafting, but it doesn’t feel feasible for me to write that quickly in November because of my teaching workload (and my whole I-need-to-reread-this-from-page-1-again-now compulsion). But maybe I’ll get back into the habit of trying some early morning writing sessions here and there to switch things up, and I’m going to come up with a list of things I can try if I am feeling stuck before I give in to the impulse to reread my draft from the beginning. Things like writing by hand instead, or doing a quick relaxation exercise first, or trying a timed writing sprint.

How about you? How do you work best? What does and doesn’t work for you? What new techniques could you try?

6 Responses to “What Works…and What Doesn’t”

  1. L. Marie

    Great post, Laurie! What I’ve appreciated about working with advisors is the fact that each said, “You need to discover your process.” That was all new to me. I didn’t know I even HAD a process. But like you, I went the trial and error route. I have to write scenes in order, though I have written some out of order. But that’s only because when I began writing from the perspective of three characters, I didn’t realize some scenes needed to happen in a certain order.

    I’m glad you’re enjoying your novel and also that you know what works for you and what is just a hindrance. I didn’t push through this month with my novel. I haven’t written very much fiction lately, because of my weekly curriculum deadlines and also general discouragement. I’ve discovered though that NOT writing doesn’t work well for me. 🙂

    • laurielmorrison

      What do you know, not writing doesn’t work for me either! 🙂 I’m so sorry to hear that you’re feeling discouraged. I sometimes have to let writing fiction slip, too, when other things are busy. But the good thing is, the manuscript is still there waiting for me, and I often return to it feeling much more excited than I was before. Thanks for reading and commenting, as always, and hope you get some good, energized writing time soon!!

  2. laurasibson

    Laurie, thank you for this post. I agree that it’s very important to give yourself time and space to see understand what works and then to be sure not to judge it. I write scenes out of order, but I wouldn’t say I swear by it. That’s just how scenes come to me. But that’s just the early drafting phase. After I have maybe 50 pp, I need to sit down with a calendar, map out everything that I’ve written and then move in order from then on. So I’d say that the out of order scenes are my way of writing myself into the story, of getting to know the characters at crucial moments — even if those scenes are dumped later or changed drastically through subsequent revision. Happy drafting! Can’t wait to read that new manuscript!

    • laurielmorrison

      That makes a lot of sense, Laura, that you’d write out of order in the early drafting stages. Maybe someday I could handle writing out of order to get myself started 🙂

  3. dksalerni

    Like you, I can’t write out of order, which is why I don’t swear by Scrivener like other people do. I just use it to keep all my notes in one place. The only time I can recall writing out of order was when I was struggling in a first draft and I jumped ahead to a romantic scene that was coming up because I’d been thinking about it so much. I let myself have the fun of writing it, then went back to the tough part. (Of course, when the romantic scene actually arrived, I rewrote it almost completely, because now the dialogue no longer worked!)

    As for hitting that mid-point and going back to revise … I’ve done that, too. On two different manuscripts, I’ve stopped in the middle and gone back to start over again from the beginning. In one case, I did it twice! It wasn’t until my third attempt at writing the beginning that the MC revealed he had a younger brother who was crucial to the story!

    • laurielmorrison

      Good to know you’ve stopped partway to revise, too, Dianne! I think often there’s something that needs to get nailed down before moving forward, like in the case of your MC’s younger brother. But personally, I need to be careful that I’m only going back to the beginning when it’s actually useful, not just because I don’t want to write what’s next!