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!

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41 thoughts on “A Writer’s Process

      • Naomimguer – you might enjoy Robert Olen Butler’s book. He’s big on allowing the story to come out organically — as long as your character has a desire to propel him or her.

  1. I really loved the evolutionist idea! That is how I view my writing… I personally write, then after I find my way through the whole draft (what I then call my “outline”) I will rewrite, and I just keep doing that, working my way through, and with each rewrite the story grows…

    • Thanks for commenting! I passed your comment to Laura. She’ll probably stop by. I’m probably an evolutionist also because my process is the same as yours, though I thought of myself as a pantser. I’ve tried writing an outline and I wrote one for a book. But I’ve had difficulty finishing that book. Have you tried writing an outline first? If so, did it work for you?

      • Whiteravensoars – first of all – love the name! Also, I like how you refer to your first draft as an outline. That really frees up pressure that it’s a real, coherent thing! I’m finding that I can’t go deep into individual scenes until I have a full draft because arriving at the end will inevitably inform the beginning on forward, you know?

      • I have a “form” of outlining I do… based loosely from a really helpful post I read. In case you are interested it is here ( http://www.screenwritingtricks.com/2008/10/story-structure-101-index-card-method.html ) I have of course developed my own structured loosely based on this in that, I take my main idea, run through all the possibilities I see for it and make little one or maybe few word “titles” for each scene. That changes a rather lot while I am writing, but it has helped me to actually make my way to the “end” of a story, where I wasn’t before. It gives just enough structure to not hit writers block, and yet is loose enough to change really easy! I then look at my “first draft” as my “outline” as it is usually just the bare bones and I like to rewrite and not revise. I get more out of just rewriting it than if I try to “make changes” I just plain “can’t” make an outline… that is too rigid of a format for me, *grins*

      • That’s a good post. Have you read Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder? He also mentioned using index cards and writing a logline. There’s something to having a good logline. While writing one, I realized I had too many subplots that needed to go. I couldn’t write a one-sentence synopsis for my novel. Once I cut those subplots, I could. Great tips!

      • No I haven’t, but I will write it down and check it out! I actually LOVE the index card method, and I have found a few others to develop what I do…
        NaNo has been amazing in helping me “learn” my personal process!

      • Thanks, I have been lucky enough to be able to snag that name for almost all of my accounts online… And yeah, if it is “only an outline” you don’t have to worry so much about perfection… not that I ever do in the beginning. I am a pretty “messy” writer. I don’t like structure, but I do want to have enough to keep me writing through all of NaNoWriMo without ending up stuck, hence creating my “framework” that holds my outline.
        I really can’t do much for the beginning outside of that preliminary stuff until I have managed to work my way through most of the draft! The end really does set the tone of the whole story, and where and how you truly start. At least, that is what I have found.

      • Drafts are supposed to be messy though, so that’s okay. 🙂 I’m pretty messy too. I have notes all over the manuscript like “fix this” or even “get rid of this.” But I keep everything until the revision phase.

    • Scrivener is exactly the index card method without physical index cards laying around your house or stuck on your bulletin board or walls. In face, the Scrivener screen background is an image of a cork board and the notes are actually images of index cards. You can color code and everything. It’s a great program, especially if you don’t have room for index cards or like to change the text on them frequently.

      • Shelby!! Welcome! Thanks for your comment. I forgot about the Scrivener index cards. That’s a great system.

      • I looked into scrivener, but I really couldn’t use it. I like physical objects, that helps me think. Not to mention I write almost exclusivly with https://yarny.me because then I always have my writing, and often can be found writing on my phone even! I wanted to use things like scrivener, but it just left me feeling confused, because I couldn’t figure out the whole “chapter” thing ect…

      • oh no problem! I learned about it from NaNoWriMo or some such… and it was similar enough to OneNote (by allowing me the different “tabs”) that I fell in love! Not to mention it has a place to put in your word count goal, and you can see that at a quick glance how far/close you are!!!

  2. Linda, thank you so much for including me in your new series. I’m looking forward to hearing what other writers will share. One thing I’ve accepted about the experience of writing is that there is no ‘right’ way to write. And comparing myself to others — the way they write, what they write — never feeds my creativity. Thanks again.

    • Laura, wise words. I sometimes fall into the comparison trap. But one thing I learned with working with Amanda especially is that you have to discover your own process. That’s why I think every writer will bring something different to the table in a discussion on process! Thanks for your willingness to share!

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  4. Very interesting! I hope you do some more posts in this vein of subject matter. Sometimes it’s great to read other people’s writing, but sometimes the magic is found in learning how they do it. The best part about writers is that each one is unique. Where one might write, another would be too distracted to even consider writing, etc. Great post!

    • Thank you so much! I’d like to do more. While I’m too random in thought to have specific days for posts like other, more organized bloggers have, I do consider this post the start of a series of posts on writers’ processes. Thanks for visiting!!! 😀

  5. I love this idea for a blog series, Linda! And Laura, I love the idea of an evolutionist writer and writing out of order. I’ve been trying to build up the courage to just write the scenes that come to me instead of trying to write strictly in order (especially when I don’t really know what the order will end up being).

      • Shawna, you might really respond to Scrivener. Because all of the scenes are listed on the left side of the document, I feel safe jumping around because they won’t get lost as I move on to other areas of the story.

      • And P.S. — calling myself an ‘evolutionist’ is just my way of trying to accept the difficult realization that my stories never end up as they start! I’ve heard that I’m in good company on that note, but it’s still hard to let go of the original idea sometimes.

      • And Laura, I do use Scrivener 🙂 I love it. I think I just have a fear of jumping off ledges and writing out of order feels like that. And I think I am much the same way in terms of what I write changing throughout the process. I found that to be especially true when I tried to write a picture book because I could write through the whole story so much faster. By the time I got to the end I realized it had to be very different. Now I just need to get to the end of a novel!

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