A Writer’s Process (3b)

We’re back with the fabulous Nicole Valentine discussing her process and her book, The Idle Tree. If you’re tuning in for the first time, this is part 2 of the discussion. Please check out part 1. Thanks to all who joined in the discussion yesterday. Now, let’s get to it!


El Space: What was your biggest “ah ha” moment concerning your process? How did you come to this discovery?
Nicole: I was writing scenes and they were all fine and good. Everything in them was necessary; there was no passivity. The formula was there; yet still I felt like something was wrong. I knew it wasn’t a character or plot issue; it was something bigger: structure. I went back to the Structure Queen, aka Franny Billingsley, author of The Folk Keeper and Chime, and enlisted her help. She was integral in making me realize what was missing: the cog-like effect each scene should have on the next.


The cogs metaphor worked well for me. When I was a kid, I had this terrible Milton Bradley game called Downfall. I say it was terrible, because compared to Life and Clue, it’s like playing tic-tac-toe with a stick in the dirt. However, when it comes to understanding scenes, it’s a great visual to have, so I’m including a picture here.

El Space: Pictures are good!


Nicole: There were these cogs you had to turn in order to get your little round disks to fall and land in your well. If you didn’t line up your cogs correctly, your opponent could get their disks down before yours. A scene is like a cog in your novel. It must work like a precision instrument. The cog must deliver that reader into the next scene and the next. Your reader is that happy little disk that wants to land in the well of victory, aka “satisfying resolved plot-land.” If you just keep stacking cogs with no thought of how the scene will deliver them to the next cog, well, that will be your downfall. See what I did there?

El Space: I think so. You need a strategy to keep a reader invested. Speaking of investments, what steps do you take to safeguard your writing time?
Nicole: It’s hard. I have a wonderful and supportive husband who treats parenthood like a shared job, and I’m so thankful for him. He’s my first reader, too. Motherhood and the day job can put demands on the writing time, but I’ve learned to treat them as opportunities. I’m known to copy down interesting habits and facial tics in a boardroom for use later. I try to treat my writing time like an office job. I write at night as well. It’s midnight as I’m answering these questions, so you’re getting silly Nicole with lots of references to my misspent youth.


El Space: Ha ha! This is probably the time to hit you up for favors! But moving on, some authors feel they have to dumb down scientific concepts because they’re writing for kids. How will you make the science accessible, yet challenging for readers?
Nicole: I suppose I’ve spent a large portion of my life explaining technology to those new to it. I refuse to speak in jargon. Good teachers always find a corollary in the student’s knowledge base they can use to describe a new principle.

As for my own principles of time travel, they are really quite simple. Finn doesn’t need things to be dumbed down, and I believe my readers won’t either. I like to reside in that area where science falls short and conjecture begins. There’s this wonderful line where science and magic meet. That’s where you’ll find me.

El Space: Me too! What time travel books inspired you?
Nicole: My favorite time travel is less sci-fi and more magical realism. I’m more intrigued with time travel as a natural occurrence—no machines. My favorite novel of all time is Jack Finney’s Time and Again.


I’m a native New Yorker, and the city is as much a character in that book as the protagonist, Simon Morley. The first time I read it, I was so enchanted with it that I had to take the 5th Avenue bus to work every morning, even though it meant waking up an hour earlier. Time travel is part nature and part science in this book.

You can probably guess that my favorite series growing up was Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time (book 1). More recently, I’ve enjoyed Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me, which I thought was so brilliant the pages actually glowed when I turned them. Did anyone else notice this?


El Space: I’ll say yes, since I loved that book!
Nicole: I’ve also enjoyed The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger.


Michael Crichton’s Timeline was brilliant for the tie in of physics. As for non-time travel books, I love anything by Charles de Lint and Alice Hoffman. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern blew me away. I’m convinced she can write setting like no one else, it might not have been time travel, but I was definitely in that circus with her. I also love craft books. I keep a Pinterest page of favorites that many author friends help me curate: The Craft of Writing.

El Space: How did your technology background prepare you for writing your novel?
Nicole: I suppose it’s prepared me to get a handle on structure and plot. The planning ahead in creating an application is similar to outlining a novel. When I’m not in outlining land, I think the comparisons end.

When I’m pantsing (yup, still hate the term), it feels more organic. Something inside my brain takes over, and it just flows. That doesn’t happen to me with coding. There is nothing that beats the feeling of a successful writing session, one where the muse stood by your shoulder the whole time.

Thanks so much, Nicole! This has been awesome. If you have questions for Nicole, please comment below.

Stopwatch from dreamstime.com.

28 thoughts on “A Writer’s Process (3b)

  1. Thank you-its always interesting to learn how writers work.
    My immediate response to the references were:
    A Wrinkle in Time-I read this in primary school but alas my memory of it has faded, perhaps I should revisit it?
    Time and Again- I’ve got this book but have not gotten around to starting it yet. Again, perhaps…?
    Downfall-I remember this game well. Along with Buckaroo and Kerplunk!!
    This post was a good memory jogger, and with writing and time travel- its all relevant!

    • Andy, A Wrinkle in Time is worth revisiting. (Really, that whole series is.) I haven’t read Time and Again, but Nicole can champion that and Wrinkle. I plan to add Time and Again to my reading list soon!

      I love reading the classic children’s books, like Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising series.

      • I have The Hunger Games standing patiently in my back-log/to read list. I am told this is for children too?

      • Yes–YA (though I know some 11 year olds who plowed through the series). Though some adults balk at the notion of kids killing kids. Oddly enough, none of the kids I know who read the series (and ALL of the kids I know have read the series) had a qualm about that aspect.

      • I am already on Facebook and WordPress. If I go on Twitter also my other half is going to think I’m lost in time myself!

      • I recommend Twitter, since you’re a blogger. Your blog posts can be listed there the moment you publish. I resisted as long as I could. Resistance is futile, Andy. Sooner or later, you will jooooooooooin usssssss on Twitter.

      • Ha ha-you sound like one of those dastardly, hissing Ice Warriors! I do share my posts on Facebook. I may reconsider at a future date……..
        (my auto correct just changed ‘future’ to ‘untrue’. My technical God has passed

      • Ha ha! I should spell check, but I’m too lazy. Though it does come up with interesting alternatives which, if implement, could ruin a life!

  2. And don’t forget Mouse Trap. Though my mouse trap usually pooped out somewhere around the third contraption. I was giving advice to a neighbor yesterday, and I don’t think he understood that cog-like effect thing. He kept telling me that the unnecessary and confusing scene thirty pages from the end of the novel was there to reveal character. First of all, if your character isn’t revealed by the final third of the book (as opposed to changed) no amount of scene creation is going to matter. And it didn’t move the story forward–on the contrary, when the story did pick up ten pages later, the unnecessary scene undercut the later, more important, scene. “But I like the writing!” he protested. I told him that’s what his next book is for.

  3. Awesome wrap up! I LOVE that idea of scenes as cogs. It fits in well with Dwight Swain’s idea of scenes and sequels. Scene should lead to sequel should lead to scene, etc etc.

    Looking forward to The Idle Tree. Thanks for the interview, Marie.

    • Thank you. 🙂 Is that Dwight Swain of the Techniques of the Selling Writer? I sense another trend here. Now I feel like rigging up something with cogs now just as a reminder.

  4. Nice insights into the writing process and I like the cog metaphor. My 11 year-old daughter and I read When You Reach Me Recently and discussed the time travel element at length.

  5. Pingback: How To Keep Fictional Horses Real – Part 2 « The L. Palmer Chronicles

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