A Writer’s Process

I think of this blog as a talk show, which means I should have a mug of coffee in front of me. Wait. I do. Are you sitting comfortably? Then let us begin. With me today is another friend from VCFA and a fellow blogger—the always delightful and lively Laura Sibson. Welcome, Laura!

Laura Sibson

If you read the “Check It Out!” post, you read about her participation in the Next Big Thing Blog Hop and her contemporary young adult novel, Edie in Between. You can also read it here from her blog. For those of you who don’t know Laura, here’s a brief bio. Drumroll, please.

After years spent counseling undergrads on career issues, Laura discovered a passion for writing novels geared toward teens. This passion led to obtaining a MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts in July 2012. When she’s not writing, counseling, or drinking impossibly strong coffee, you might find her running miles around her home in suburban Philadelphia, talking books with her writing friends or ingesting pop culture (along with great take-out) with her hubby and two teen sons.

Since I love hearing about a writer’s process, I asked Laura a few questions about hers.

El Space: Are you a plotter or a pantser? How did you discover this?
Laura: You know, I’m not really sure. Maybe you can tell me. After an initial idea presents itself, I think hard on the main character’s external and internal needs, which can also allow me to consider obstacles and a general sense of how things will end. Does that make me a plotter? But I write as scenes come to me—completely out of order. Does that make me a pantser? I think maybe I’m an evolutionist because it seems that as I write scenes and develop a sense of the main character’s desire lines, the story inevitably evolves into something else entirely.

El Space: You sound like a blend of both. What tools do you find helpful as you write?
Laura: I firmly believe that I would not have been able to create a novel-length manuscript without Scrivener. Did you ever hear the story of the five blind men and the elephant? The five blind men come upon an elephant, and each experiences the elephant as something completely different, because each is only touching one part of him. One thinks the elephant is like a wall (side), another a pillar (leg), a third a snake (trunk), and so on. That’s how I felt before I started using Scrivener. I would get lost in the sheer size of a novel in progress and become either lost in it or overwhelmed by it. Scrivener organizes my scenes in a visual way that makes sense to my wacky brain.

El Space: I’ve heard the elephant analogy before. And I tried Scrivener on a trial basis. Now, tell me this: some writers write at home; some write at the coffee shop. What’s your best environment for writing?
Laura: I’m noticing that it depends quite a bit on where I am in the process. When I’m in the early stages of drafting a new story and the scenes are coming fast and furious, I can write pretty much anytime, anywhere, and I won’t become distracted. But when the going gets tough and doing four loads of laundry seems preferable to figuring out a secondary character’s emotional arc, I either take myself to a coffee shop (where I’m less likely to do laundry), or I plan a writing date. Virtual dates with you have been great! Being held accountable by another writer for a specific period of time helps me to focus, and I’ve found that when I stay in the seat long enough—miracles happen.

El Space: The virtual dates have really helped me too, Laura. You mentioned to me once that you don’t use chapter breaks when you write. Please tell me how this has been helpful for you.
Laura: Well, I’m not sure it’s helpful exactly, it just seems to be the way it goes for me. Awhile ago, Sandra Nickel, a fellow Secret Gardener at VCFA, suggested that I read Robert Olen Butler’s From Where You Dream.

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To say that it revolutionized my approach to writing would not be an understatement. Rather than force myself to write whatever logically comes next in the story, I write scenes as they come to me, which is usually in the form of dialogue between two characters.

This approach seems to have helped me avoid some measure of exposition and another pitfall I used to fall into: walking X across the room and out the door. But, the mind, at least mine, is not a tidy thing, so those scenes are rarely in the same order that the story takes place. When they start to pile up, I’ll loosely organize them—usually by the timeline of the story. Now that I’m in the homestretch for Edie in Between, I’ve gone back to read the scenes and evaluate where the chapter breaks make the most sense in terms of pacing.

El Space: When you’re working on a project, do you stick with it, or do you stray to others? Why?
Laura: When I’m in that drafting phase, I stay with the one story I’m working on, because I want to figure out the voice. But that doesn’t stop new ideas from popping in my head. I have a lot of trouble ignoring the shiny allure of a fresh idea, so when that happens, I open a new document and write down a page or two to hold the idea or voice and then return to the main project.

Thanks, Laura, for sharing your process! If you have any questions for Laura, or want to share your own process, please comment below. And be sure to visit Laura’s blog: Laura Sibson—A journey toward writing dangerously!