Anne here, and today I’m musing about the process of writing. Several readers have indicated that they’re curious about how we wenches go about writing our books, and while I can’t speak for any of the others — all writers’ processes are unique — this is mine. (Photo by Rhett Wesley on Unsplash)
A wall is made of bricks and mortar; a novel is made of scenes and the mortar is causality.
I once attended a talk by Queensland writer Kate Morton — read her, she’s fabulous — and in the question session at the end, someone in the audience asked how she decided what book to write next. I love knowing what sparks a story idea and why, out of the many story ideas you might have buzzing in your brain, one stands out.
For me, a story usually starts when I have a really strong scene in my head — it usually comes when I’m waking or drifting off to sleep, and unrolls in my head like a movie. I always write it down, but I don’t always start work on it until later — sometimes years later. But if it’s good, it will stick in my brain, and eventually it will spark a whole book.
For every one of my books, I can point to the scene that generated the story. Sometimes it’s an opening scene, sometimes it’s in the middle of the book. In my first book (Gallant Waif) it was the black moment (the ballroom scene, if you know the book) and it comes almost at the end. In The Autumn Bride, the scene that came to me first was the one where Abby meets Lady Beatrice. In His Captive Lady it was the scene at the start where Harry gives his hat away. You can read it here. Click on Read Sample.
So for each book at least one scene has come to me, strong, vivid and unforgettable, and it will somehow nag at me until I write it. I think of it as the muse, telling me there is a story there, somewhere. Once I have the scene, I then start working out what the story is about, asking myself who are these people and how did they get to this point. So having that one strong scene is crucial to my process.
Kate Morton’s approach was an eye-opener. She said she didn’t start a book until she had three strong scenes. Three — the power of three — a tripod being so much stronger a support than one or even two legs. Ever since, I’ve pushed myself to come up with several strong scenes. Not that I always know how a scene will turn out. Some of the best ones have surprised me.
One day a man watching me type (which is four finger typing while watching the keys — and even then I make typos) commented that if I did a proper typing course I would be able to type much faster and better and so write more books and make more money. (This, I will add, was a completely gratuitous comment — we weren’t talking about writing or money at all. He was just being ‘helpful’. <g>)
But typing faster would make very little difference in my level of productivity. Every writer has a different method, and mine is that I put my writing down in layers, a little bit like a watercolor painter builds up intensity by painting payer upon layer until the desired level is reached. (Photo below by Jr Korpa on Unsplash)
Here’s how I will often approach a scene. First I will brainstorm what I think needs to happen. I try to think of it as a unit where something will change between the beginning and the end of a scene. It might be a moment of insight by or about a main character, a discovery, a crisis, a challenge, a kiss, the revelation of a snippet of backstory — anything really, as long as it advances the plot. And by the end of the scene things have changed in some way for the character(s) concerned. Often there’s a question in play, which is resolved, or has been refined, or added to, and which leads into the next scene. (Photo by Marcos Paulo Prado on Unsplash)
I will jot down the stages in the scene, often on the back of an envelope. (High tech, that’s me.)
Sometimes I’ll handwrite some of the scene in my notebook, but it’s rarely in complete sentences. Usually it’s just dialogue, and when that happens my pen flies, trying to keep up with the dialogue exchange happening in my head.
Then I type up my “scribble” adding in bits showing who said what, and where they are, and what I call choreography (but I don’t mean dancing) so it’s not just “talking heads.”
Later, I will go back over the scene, and layer in more things — thoughts, small evocative details, reactions, sensations, etc. Writer Barbara Samuel (aka Barbara O’Neal — read her, she’s also brilliant and this book is on special at the moment) calls that “layering in the lusciousness” which is a lovely way to put it. It’s often at this stage where I know what the scene really means — relating to the theme of the book. Not the what happens, but what it’s really about. At every stage of writing, I will go back and forth in the manuscript, adding, pruning, rewriting, which is why I’m not a fast, churn-em-out writer. (Photo by hannah grace on Unsplash.
So some scenes come to me in an almost dream state, and some are just logical progressions, but all of them get built up, layer by layer.
What about you, are there any scenes in a book that have really stuck in your mind, long after you’ve finished reading them? Or are you the kind of reader that lives deep in the book until it’s finished and then moves on and dives into the next book?