When becoming a better writer means finding a new approach—and #ROW80 Round 1 goals

In late 2013, I made a big decision: I left my job in university administration to become a full-time writer. I was simply ready for a change and, thanks to some major changes my husband and I made, we were finally able to truly afford it. We paid off our debts and stuck to a budget. We’re replacing one of our vehicles with a bicycle and cooking more meals at home—among other cost-saving measures. The choice to focus on writing full time for a few years isn’t without risks—it was a tough decision made after many late nights of thinking and number crunching, but I knew in my gut that it was time.

So now, here I am, rested and ready to don the cloak of full-time writer. And, I realize, I need a new approach to writing.

The old, fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants way…

The old approach went something like this: I would take an initial idea—usually a character, image, or bit of setting or scene—and run with it, writing a first draft until, inevitably, I wrote myself into a corner. (Attention, fellow pantsers: Does this sound familiar?) Now stuck, I would go back to the beginning and rewrite until I had a plot that remotely made sense. I didn’t worry about how bad it was, how many holes or inconsistencies there were. After all, I could always revise. As a result, I was ending up with second or third drafts that were more like crappy first drafts. I made so many course corrections along the way that even my third drafts felt disjointed and unpolished. This approach worked fine when I was a novice, just dipping my toe into the waters of the craft. But I’m a few years along in my journey now, and, quite frankly, some examination of this process was necessary.

Last year, I began to examine my writing patterns. Why wasn’t it working? Why was I getting stuck so quickly? Why couldn’t I stick to an outline? Honestly, I didn’t get much writing down last year—some, but not nearly as much as previous years. I was stuck in my practice without knowing how to get better.

I realized that I needed a new approach. I’m a different writer now than I was five or six years ago. The old way just wasn’t working. So, with my latest WIP, “Good, Old-Fashioned Magic,” I’m trying a new approach.

A new approach—blending pantser and plotter methods…

First off, I’m trying to understand my characters better earlier in the process. After I got a couple chapters of the story down, I realized I wanted to know who my characters were as I was writing each scene and chapter. So I spent a lot of time doing character exercises and histories, including for my villain. Since the characters’ actions and reactions drive the story, it’s essential I know who they are and how they would think or behave from chapter one, page one. I don’t need to know everything about my world and my characters, but I’m trying to get to know them better before I’m too deep into the story. This way, hopefully the overall plot is more character driven and their reactions are more consistent and natural.

Secondly, all those years as an editor have given me a sharp critical eye. While it’s tougher now to silence my inner critic, I’m also better at seeing where a scene is working and where it’s not. Armed with that knowledge, I’m trying to revise each chapter once—just once, not ten times—before moving on to the next scene.

Hopefully, this new approach means that I end up with a more cohesive draft on the first go. I don’t expect that draft to be perfectly polished and publishable (how’s that for a tongue twister?), but I’m hoping to avoid the days where my third draft was really a first draft because it took me that long to figure out what the heck was going on.

What about your process?

Have you ever tried changing up your writing process? Process is such a personal, individualized part of being an artist, so what works for one person won’t necessarily work for someone else. It can take time to find a method that works. Have you ever reached a creative crossroads where you assessed your process and realized it was time for a change? If so, what changes did you make, and how did they help you along your journey?

#ROW80: 2014 Round 1 goals

That being said, here are my goals for A Round of Words in 80 Days (the writing challenge that knows you have a life):

  • Write/polish one chapter per week in WIP, “Good, Old-Fashioned Magic.”
  • Read, at minimum, the following books to hone my craft:
    • “Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish with Confidence” by Roz Morris
    •  “The Fire in Fiction: Passion, Purpose and Techniques to Make Your Novel Great” by Donald Maass
    • “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft” by Stephen King
    • “Walking in This World: The Practical Art of Creativity” by Julia Cameron
  • And, of course, I’ll be blogging on Wednesdays and Sundays to check in.

What are your writing goals for the first part of 2014?

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6 thoughts on “When becoming a better writer means finding a new approach—and #ROW80 Round 1 goals

  1. Hi Denise. Nice to meet you. 🙂 My process has evolved as I’ve practiced and become a better writer. I’ve improved with each book, but I have a couple of manuscripts consigned to a drawer from “dipping my toes” in the beginning, as you put it. It’s definitely important to write A LOT, and pay attention to story EVERYWHERE.

    I’ve been a plotter forever, but I find the magic happens when I let my characters take a scene somewhere I never would have thought to take it. Then I simply revise my outline if needed and move forward. Threads appear that you would never dream of when you let the creative side of the brain take over, and fleshing those threads out adds depth to your work. Mixing the plotter and pantser methods works great for me.

    Best of luck with your goals this round!

    • Thanks! Nice to meet you, too.

      I, too, have several manuscripts sitting on a shelf from my novice days. I’m a natural pantser, but I’m moving toward a sort of hybrid of pantsing and plotting–I don’t have a full outline, but I’m trying to form a much better idea of where the story is going earlier in the process. I think you’re right; mixing the two methods seems to yield the best results!

  2. I’ve always been a plotter, but I did try writing without one a long while back. Totally didn’t work with a novel, but I tried it again recently with short fiction, and it worked fabulously! Another change I made a few years ago was I wanted to make my revisions more efficient. I took Holly Lisle’s How to Revise Your Novel workshop and wow, was that fantastic! The One-pass Revision article on her website is a good starting point for that. Good luck with your changes – both craft-wise and in going full-time!

    • Jennette, I haven’t taken Holly’s workshop, but I bet it’s incredibly useful. I’ve read her one-pass revision article, but I really should reread it once I get to that stage with this story. I can see how it would be easier to go pantser with a short story versus a longer work. With a short story, the plot is much simpler and tighter, and with fewer plot points to cover, pantsing might be just as fast, if not faster in some cases.

      Thanks for the tips! Good luck with your writing goals as well. Thanks for stopping by. 🙂

  3. I am kind of a pantser/plotter hybrid; I’ll start off pantsing it but as I work, I find myself in a corner and then I end up trying to plot things out so that I can make sense of the pantsing I’ve been doing. I’ve set a goal this time around to do some more work on fleshing out my characters and my world so that I can do a better job on finishing my current draft.

    Good luck with your goals this round!

    • Kathy, wow, that sounds so much like my method. I start out pantser than realize part-way through that I need to figure out where I’m going. I know a lot of writers who work that way. I, too, am hoping that knowing my characters and my world better earlier on helps me with the plotting and drafting process. Good luck to you, too! 🙂

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