A Writer’s Process (7)

With me today on the blog is the incomparable Ingrid Sundberg, who is—say it with me—another friend from VCFA. You might know her through her blog, Ingrid’s Notes, her website, or Twitter.


El Space: Please share four quick facts about yourself.
Ingrid: I’ve dyed my hair every color of the rainbow and shaved my head once. I love to draw silly monsters, particularly ones with horns and polka-dots. My favorite TV show is Battlestar Galactica. I grew up on an island in Maine.

El Space: Cool! Now, let’s get to your work in progress. A brief synopsis, please.
Ingrid: The Nevers is a YA steampunk reimagining of Peter Pan. There’s no magic, and Peter and Hook are the heads of rival gangs that sell a hallucinogenic drug known as Fairy Dust. Wini Darling, the daughter of a bank mogul, is lured into the whimsical and artistic world of the Nevers, a secret underground artist community, in order to help her drug-addicted brother who’s been captured by pirates. Only it’s not so easy to find her brother and leave the Nevers as she thinks.

Wini finds herself intoxicated by the no-rules artist culture of the Nevers and simultaneously mixed up in a street war between the pirates and the Lost Boys. And then there’s that thrill-seeking, drunk-on-life Peter fellow who’s got one hell of a sweet spot for Wini Darling. Sometimes, not growing up can be a dangerous adventure.

El Space: Wow! Sounds awesome! What’s challenging or exhilarating about working on this story?
Ingrid: It’s really exciting to work with pre-existing material. I get to reinterpret Peter Pan with the themes that excite me. I’ve also been having lots of fun thinking up creative ways to reference the original story while still inventing my own world. There’s a great creative energy in this process. Of course, staying too true to the original material can also be a trap. I’ve had to keep giving myself permission to deviate from the original story when I need to.


The biggest challenge for me is world building, and the sheer size of this project. In the past I’ve written small, intimate contemporary stories. Suddenly, I have a whole world to invent, rules and politics to create, and an ensemble of over a dozen characters to develop. Dang!

El Space: A great challenge. You’re an author-illustrator-screenwriter. How does your novel reflect your cinematic experience?
Ingrid: I enter all of my stories visually. I see images before I see whole scenes. Those can be anything from a wisp of hair to a dramatic landscape. I always have to start with that image and then look around and see where I am and who’s in the scene.

Imagery has also really helped with world building. I have a huge photo file for this book and have been creating character and setting collages. These help me to imagine costumes, character traits, and details in a setting.

It’s interesting to see how characters will have a color palette, or how specific details will tell me about their moods. I’ve even begun to create image systems and metaphor motifs based on these collages. I have a whole secret Pinterest page dedicated to this with 35 different boards.

Here’s an example of some of my collages:

Jolly Roger_Collage 1

The Jolly Roger

Mermaids_Collage 1


Lagoon_Collage 1


El Space: They’re gorgeous! What other tools were helpful as you determined the scope of your world?
Ingrid: In The Anatomy of Story, John Truby talks about having a single arena for your story. He says that the smaller your arena, the stronger the story will be, because it will have a single “unity of place.” It turns out my book has two arenas, but they’re linked together because one hides within the other. So it’s helped me to think about developing those two arenas to their full potential and not venturing outside of them.


The other idea that I’ve thought about lately is the metaphorical meaning and thematic significance of each arena. For example, Neverland is supposed to be an imaginary utopia of playfulness and wonder. It’s an island that separates itself from the real world and is outside of time. So I’ve been asking myself how I will design a landscape that enhances the wonder and keeps that magical sense of exclusivity. Meanwhile, I have to contrast that with the tick-tock of the “real world” that is inevitably heading towards old age and death.

El Space: What books have you read recently with impressive world building?
Ingrid: Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor blew me away with its world building. Everything was very specific and it had a history.


It didn’t feel like it stood on the shoulders of what others had previously invented. It had a unique and compelling world of its own. It had depth and weight to it. Every detail seemed intricately woven into the whole. I saw Laini Taylor speak about this book at a signing and she mentioned that she read a lot of folklore while writing the book. She said that every culture invents its own folklore, and you can tell a lot about a culture’s values by the stories they tell themselves. Plus, Laini Taylor has pink hair, so she must be brilliant!


El Space: I think so too! So, what excites you about the steampunk genre?
Ingrid: Honestly, I don’t know a lot about steampunk. I’m learning as I go. But I think I’m visually excited about a steampunk world. I’m obsessed with the textures of it. I love the precision of intricately woven clockwork, or the allure of emerald-colored goggles. Oh, and the fashion! Can you really get enough of velvet top hats and triple-buckled boots? This world is a smorgasbord of delicious imagery that allows me to really play with language!

El Space: Love the fashions! Now, what’s the best writing advice you’ve received recently?
Ingrid: I often get overwhelmed by the scope of this project. The best advice I got recently was to imagine a picture frame, and to only look at what’s inside that frame. Forget about the rest of the world. Focus on what I can see inside that small box of space. Write about that. Then look in a new picture frame and write about that. It’s really helped me to focus on small pieces, which amazingly seem to find their own way of linking together.

Thanks, Ingrid, for sharing your process and your collages. If you have questions for Ingrid, you know what to do: please comment below!

Laini Taylor author photo, book cover, and Peter Pan cover from Goodreads. Truby cover from macmillan.com. All other photos are courtesy of Ingrid Sundberg.

On the Cutting Room Floor (1)

From time to time I’ve mentioned that I’m a pantser. I begin a story with a character in mind, and write scenes with that character, letting him or her take me where he/she will. Scary huh? But some scenes later wind up on the cutting room floor as the novel takes shape in revision.


Have I made you curious enough to want to read an excerpt? If so, the following is the start of a prologue for a novel I thought was YA, but might be MG. Writing it was an experiment I made awhile ago. Since I wound up with four different prologues for the same novel, this one wound up on the cutting room floor. Perhaps I’ll find a home for it elsewhere. Read on if you dare. Mwwwwwhahahahaha! Okay, here goes:

She was always in his thoughts, especially now that he headed home. The rose of a dawning blush on her cheeks as she smiled. The velvety softness of her skin seared into the memory of his fingertips. The delicate chestnut hairs that always escaped from the tightest braid or crown. Eyes the fresh blue of forget-me-nots. Need drove him home. To her.


But something besides Madelyn drove him to urge Rex faster. It was there like a splinter, a nameless fear, waiting to be teased out.

He’d hated how he’d left Madelyn on the hill outside the palace gates. Hair a pennant in the wind. Thin fingers like bent stems slightly raised in farewell. No hint of reproach on her face.

The flapping pennant of chestnut hair slowly faded into the standard flapping from the saddle of his standard bearer on the gray just ahead. Night shadows faded in the coming dawn. And still they were many miles from home.

Snapdragon glanced behind him at the long line of soldiers cantering two abreast, voices lifted in song even after thirty leagues. His garden of soldiers, Madelyn had called them. He’d handpicked every one of them. Still eager and battle ready after the last sortie. Still singing about the wine of war.

Although victorious of late, he was tired of war—the one he faced back home especially. Weariness threaded through his bones. He listed slightly to the left while his destrier Rex plodded on, the clop of his hooves on the road almost hypnotic. Da-da-dum, da-da-dum. Da-da-dum. Almost sleep inducing. . . .

He caught himself suddenly, on the blue edge of a dream, on the edge of falling out of the saddle.

Rex snorted and tossed his cream mane as if to say, “Wake up!”

Wake up indeed. They would have to stop soon. He had to get out of the saddle at least.

Even with the teasing spring breeze, surely he was cooked to a fine turn in the mail beneath his surcoat. His hair felt sewn to his forehead and neck. Sweat gave birth to more sweat on the cliffs of his shoulder blades, adding to the waterfall down his back. He half imagined his titian hair leaving rivulets of rust on his neck.

Only his twenty-third summer, and he felt like an old man of twice that number of years. His ribs hurt, thanks to a blow he couldn’t blame on the war. Humiliating really. As he raced to mount his horse just before the last skirmish, he’d tripped over his own sword like a clumsy, unblooded squire and fallen against a stone. Knocked the wind out of him briefly. A blow to his pride.

A king didn’t trip before his men.

“Make way!” Felix, his standard bearer, called to a man heading east in a laden cart pulled by a skittish pony.

A troop of fifty heading west always took precedence over a cart of one. The man barely got the pony under control and to the side, before Felix approached. As they thundered past the bewildered man, Snapdragon tossed a silver coin his way—the only coin in his possession. He didn’t stop to see if the man caught it or not.

His corns hurt. He just wanted to go home. Home to Madelyn where he was just plain Phil when they were alone in their chambers and could forget the name he’d taken at his coronation.

He should never have left her. And he wouldn’t have this time, had she better news on the day the summons came to aid his blood brother in battle.

No child, she’d said. After three years, still no heir. He had allowed his disappointment to drive him from home. It all seemed so foolish now.

Snapdragon glanced at the steadily lightening sky. Perhaps they should have stopped for the night in Thistle instead of taking the road outside the city gate. But even after riding through the night, they wouldn’t arrive back home before nightfall. They would have to camp another night.

But the urgency that niggled—one that wasn’t Madelyn shaped—suddenly redoubled. They had to get to the Bog. Tonight.

No time to analyze why now. Get there, they must.

That’s all for now! Thanks for reading! I’ll post the rest next time, so please stay tuned. After that, maybe I’ll tell you why I cut it. 🙂

Pants from easleys.com; forget-me-nots from fanpop.com.

A Writer’s Process (5b)

El Bette photo

We’re back with E. L. Kaminsky—the awesome El. Thanks for your comments yesterday—always appreciated. We’re continuing our conversation about mysteries and El’s work in progress. If you’re just tuning in, this is part 2. You might check back to part 1. Also, might I remind you of the suggested blog theme music courtesy of Dreamland’s Insurgents.

As we begin, let me share the GOOD NEWS: Congrats are in order for El! Her short story, “All in the Family” was accepted in the short story anthology, Death Knell, edited by Nancy Daversa, Terry Friedman, and Elena Santagelo (Infinity Publishing). It is available here. Huzzah!!!


El Space: Happy to hear that, El! So, what authors influenced you as a writer? Why?
El: I started reading Kurt Vonnegut in high school, then got hooked on Tom Robbins. Jitterbug Perfume is one of my all time favorite books.


I started seeking out the humorous, sarcastic characters of Gregory MacDonald, Elmore Leonard, Tim Dorsey, Christopher Moore (who wins best book title ever, IMHO, for Island of the Sequined Love Nun.


I then sought out the strong heroines of Rita May Brown, Sara Paretsky, Patricia Cornwall—love them all. But then along came Janet Evanovich and that changed everything for me. Her style, her humor, but mainly her characters were everything I ever wanted in a mystery novel—to read or to write.

What attracts me to all of theses authors is the “quirk” factor, either in their characters of their use of language. The humor, sarcasm, zany situations all appeal to my desire to get lost for a while in a novel.

El Space: You mentioned that your main character is haunted by her grandmother’s ghost. What do you find appealing about working on a ghost story?
El: I’ve had a few experiences in life that lead me to believe there is more to our existence than meets the eye. I thought it would be interesting to explore the concept of my main character’s conscience through the use of a ghost, her grandmother, who meddles in her everyday life, giving her advice—solicited or not.

El Space: Will you pursue an agent, a publisher directly, or go the indie route?
El: That’s a really good question. When I began this journey, it was traditional all the way. I have queried agents, gone to conferences, entered contests; as yet none have brought me much luck. I received good comments, had encouraging scores, but no deals. So I stopped spinning my wheels for a while and decided to write again. The activity of trying to get published was too much like work. It was stressful and dissatisfying. I went back to my characters for a while.

In the meantime, I helped a dear friend write his memoirs. We used CreateSpace for his process and it was fairly easy. In the future, I may go that route. This book is available on Kindle and in print here.

El Space: It’s great that you could help out in that way. But what do you like most about the mystery genre?
El: It absorbs me and entertains me without disturbing me. I have an imagination that keeps me up at night, so I can’t read anything too realistic. I need the farfetched, wacky stuff.

El Space: What mystery books have you read recently that you thought were great? Why?
El: Anything by Donna Leon, because her descriptions of Venice put me right back there; Janet Evanovich’s Plum Spooky, because no matter how many times I read it, I still laugh out loud.


Fear Itself by Elena Santangelo, because the family she portrays reminds me of my own in so many lovely ways.


El Space: You’re also a singer. What’s your specialty?
El: Right now, I sing lots of stuff from the 50s, 60s, and 70s in a group called Package Goods Orchestra. My first love is jazz standards, and I have the good fortune of sitting in once in a while with some very talented musicians from the Somers Point Jazz Society. I had the great fortune of singing in a group that backed up the great Rosemary Clooney back in 1996 and 97.


El Space: Awesome!
El: Awsome is exactly the right word. Rosie was one of my mother’s favorite singers, so I heard her music all my life. I feel that my mom had a hand in my getting the gig. Mom had been gone about a year when I answered the ad.

To this day, I am amazed that I passed the audition and had the priviledge of working in Rosie’s great presence. She was an amazing musician, beloved by her band and all of us. Even with her physical challenges, she was a trouper. Generous, kind, and funny as hell. When she died a few years later, I felt as if I had lost my favorite aunt. I wrote a tribute that ran in a magazine where I was a contributing editor. Rosie’s official fan site also ran my story. Here is the link.

El Space: How do you incorporate your music in your writing?
El: There is a headspace that you go into when a song is lifting you up. Your voice is in the zone, harmony is flowing and it just transcends. That’s the way writing feels when my writing is working. Time flies and I have an exhausted, exhilarated feeling afterward.

Music plays a big role in my life, and my writing. I listen while I work; my characters have favorite music, too. And I have an idea for some music-themed mysteries. Stay tuned.

Well, as the old saying goes, how time flies when you’re having fun. Thanks again, El, for being my guest on the blog. If you have questions for El about her process or her music, please comment below. And don’t forget El’s blog here.

Photo of Rosemary Clooney from npr.org. Congrats from free-extras.com.

A Writer’s Process (5a)

Old friends can lead to new friends. I met writer/singer E. L. Kaminsky through Laura Sibson. And since this is El Space and she’s E. L. or El, it can’t get much cooler than that. Welcome to the blog, El!

El Bette photo

El Space: Tell us a little bit about yourself.
El: I’m an enigma wrapped in a riddle—no wait, that was Kramer from Seinfeld. I’m a funny, smart, sassy worrywart with a generous, loyal heart.


El Space: Cool beans! What are you working on?
El: A cozy paranormal mystery.

El Space: Intriguing! Please walk me through it.
El: The storyline and the characters led me to the decision that the book was a cozy, more than a hard-boiled detective novel. It is set primarily in a small town where people know each other’s business. The main character has a history in that town, albeit a troubled one, and she’s back there a bit against her will. That felt like a cozy to me, in the descriptions I have read.

I do admit to a fair amount of genre confusion, as there seem to be new ones popping up every day. Because it is more comedic than thriller, I think that influenced my decision as well. I struggle with categorizations in general. To me, a good book is a good book. I don’t have to know if it’s a romance or a true crime. I read across many genres, because I find many different styles interesting and compelling. I don’t really like throwing in the paranormal label, but the main character is haunted by her grandmother’s ghost.

El Space: Wow! So, what book has influenced you recently? Why?
El: Taken by Robert Crais. I love Robert Crais, especially his Elvis Cole series, the early ones in particular. His books are the best of hard boiled, with a heart and some humor.


El Space: Are you a plotter or pantser?
El: A pantser who should be more of a plotter. I have written my entire career, essentially putting words in other people’s mouths. As a speech writer for executives or while writing annual reports to shareholders, my words always made other people sound good.

When I was having trouble concentrating on my work, I would doodle with made-up characters and imagine what they might say or do. I started my first novel that way—with a character, then two—then I had series of strange, horrible, and wonderful incidents that changed my life and gave me the time and the head space to write freely with intensity, humor, and passion.

In case you want to know about the “strange, horrible and wonderful,” here goes my long-winded answer:

The “strange”—My mother was terminally ill, although we didn’t know just how close to the end she really was. She had been chronically ill and disabled for most of my life. As a distraction from all of the hospital stays and care giving, I took a novel writing class with a guy from Philly who wrote for the Inquirer. I’d get coverage for my mom and go to the class once a week. It was the only thing that gave me a little escape during that time.


El’s mom, Betty

The “horrible”—The second to last week of class, my mother took a nosedive. In fact, the hospital called while I was there to say, “Get back here ASAP, she’s not going to make it through the night.” She did, but it was only for another day. About three weeks later, my job was eliminated after a decade of dedicated service and thousands of hours of uncompensated overtime. I had gone from a totally consumed, stressed-out workaholic to a woman alone on an island, with nary a basketball for company. It was scary as hell.

The “wonderful”—My goddaughter was born, ten days after my mother passed. Mom was the only one who predicted that the baby would be a girl. She was named for my mom and for me. I rented my house, packed a bag, and left to find joy with this new little bundle. It was a magical time, watching this little miracle and helping ease her new mother into life with baby. I journaled my way through sleepless nights, rocking her with one hand and writing with the other.

Toward the end of my first month there, tragedy struck once more. We were up late with the baby and got a call that changed my direction once again. A member of our “chosen” family had taken his life. I packed my things, moved to the desert to be with his loved ones, and stayed a year before I knew it. During that time, I took my notebook to Red Rock Canyon every chance I got, and started my first novel as a way to escape from reality.


El Space: Wow. I’m so sorry for your losses! Sometimes life takes some horrible turns.
El: Life does take horrible turns, but that is the price one pays for loving people and caring about them. When you love and care deeply, you grieve deeply, and you have to be there for the crappy stuff as well as the good.

I wouldn’t trade those experiences; they’ve molded me and given me rich places from which to draw emotions to write about. I wouldn’t trade all the years I took care of my mom, either. It snatched away part of my childhood, but I grew up capable of doing a lot of hard stuff that helped me later in life. Through it all, good and bad, writing has been the calm, balancing thread that seems to quell the scary and celebrate the fantastic. I feel like I want to preserve it all by writing it down.

That’s all we have time for today. El will return tomorrow to discuss music and mysteries. If you have questions for El about her process, please comment below. Meanwhile, check out El’s blog here.

Kramer from seinfeld-fan.net. Red Rock Canyon photo from sagarmatha.com.

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.

A Writer’s Process (3a)

Greetings! Jonesing for books about time travel? (I sure am.) With me on the blog today is another friend from VCFA who has written a book about—you guessed it—time travel. (Huzzah!) Put your hands together for the erudite and elegant Nicole Valentine!


El Space: Please tell us a little bit about yourself.
Nicole: I’m a writer and techno geek with a deep and abiding love for all things literary. My day job has always been in technology. I’ve been the Chief Technology Officer to Internet startups since the mid-1990s. My first job leading a tech team was at CNN where my official title was Webmistress. Yes, my business card actually had that printed under my name. It was a great icebreaker at parties.

El Space: I’ll bet!
Nicole: Many who follow me on Twitter (@nicoleva) know me for my work at Figment.com, a community for lovers of YA fiction to meet and share their own writing. This was, by far, one of my favorite online communities I’ve had the pleasure of creating. All good things must come to an end though. I have since taken a much needed break to concentrate on my writing. I needed to give some time to the insistent voices in my head.

Most of my work is middle grade. I do have one YA novel waiting patiently on my desktop, and a short story for adults published in the Oermead Press anthology, Chester County Fiction. In 2012, I earned my MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from VCFA. This makes me a Secret Gardener.


El Space: Holla!
Nicole: I live with my caring husband, brilliant daughter, and two maniacal cats just outside of Philadelphia.

El Space: Cool! I’d love to stop by there at some point! But for now, I’m dying to hear a synopsis of your WiP.
Nicole: The Idle Tree is the story of Finn, who is about to turn thirteen in his sleepy Vermont town. It’s the kind of town where everyone knows everyone else’s business. Everybody knows Finn’s twin sister drowned when they were only three, and that his mother abandoned him and his father four months ago. It turns out they don’t know everything.

Finn’s Gran, right before she dies, reveals the family secret to him. All the women in his family are born with the ability to time travel. His mother had been battling The Others, a shadowy group intent on changing the timeline, when she disappeared. She didn’t abandon him. She was taken. Now, he must find a way to save her, even though boys can’t time travel. If only his sister were the one who had lived. It would all be so much easier, but no, it’s up to Finn and his best friend, Holly. They have to put together answers from what his mom left behind. He’ll need to find out who is leading The Others in order to save his mother and the world as we know it.


El Space: That description gave me serious chills. I love a good time travel story. Are you a pantser or a plotter? Please walk me through your process.
Nicole: I was just reading the Donald Maass book on craft, The Breakout Novelist, which had a bit on the whole pantser vs. plotter thing. My first thought when reading it, was that the term pantser makes me uncomfortable. I immediately think of pulling a mean prank on someone in front of the entire cafeteria. I would say I probably begin most projects as a pantser, but would like to call it something more benign.


My novels begin as characters and scenes written in notebooks. After awhile of doing this, they begin to form full narratives. The next thing I do is start the outlining, which I suppose isn’t very pantser-like at all. I’m a bit of both really. This particular novel has required a ton of plotting. You can’t write time travel without a lot of charts and timelines. Well, maybe some people can. I need charts.

El Space: I admire you for taking on the challenge. How has your process evolved as a writer? What tools have been helpful?
Nicole: My process has changed a lot over the last few years. I think an MFA will do that to you. Before the program, I found myself holding back my best ideas, thinking they needed to be delivered in some big reveal later on in the work. I’ve realized that a novel is made up of a constant reveal of brilliant ideas, and you should never hoard them. New ones will always keep coming along. Trust your inner genius.

The single best tool out there is Scrivener. I’ve been working with it for over three years now, and it’s truly indispensable to my process. I take my scenes from my journals, type them in, and begin to play around with them. I mold them, look at them in different ways, and move them around. Having different ways to view your novel is key for me. When I switch to corkboard mode, I inevitably think of something new. I also love having a repository for all my research in the same file. I keep images that inspire me, information on my setting, time periods, etc.

If I find myself stuck on a scene, I’ll leave Scrivener and open up OmmWriter. It has a zen feel that usually zaps me out of any writer’s block. I’ll write one or two scenes in it, and then copy and paste back into Scrivener.

Finally, if you’re a café writer like me, go to simplynoise.com to drown out the incessant background music and loud talkers. It’s white noise, so it works like a charm.

And judging by the music, that’s all we have time for today. But Nicole will be back tomorrow to chat, so please stop by. If you have questions for Nicole about her book or her process, please comment below.

Key and clock photos from eastonclass1.bltnorthants.net and cloudcentrics.com respectively.

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.


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!