by Jenny Hansen
It took me years to discover that I am an A.D.D. writer. Though I don’t have a startling amount of Attention Deficit in my everyday life, the facts don’t lie and my A.D.D. shows up in my writing like a big ugly neon elephant, along with my fear of commitment.
For more than a decade I’ve gone from manuscript to manuscript, even jumping from one to another then back again. I wasn’t having a writing problem, I was having a finishing problem.
I’d crank out 100-150 pages and have a stellar story started but I wasn’t completing any novels. For a while, I’d simply write a short story whenever I was stuck on a book (and I have at least one chapbook of those piled up). Then I’d alternate between feeling great that at least I finished something and berating myself that I was batting zero at finishing my novels.
There are at least five unfinished books that came out of this ten year long learning process, which equals a lot of pages that spent years going nowhere.
I tried everything, going to workshop after workshop to learn what other people knew about finishing books that I didn’t. I’ve created outlines, which worked out fine for knowing what happened in the book but definitely stifled my creativity. I’ve tried seat of the pants writing, rushing through the first three chapters to find out what the book it about. Character studies, synopsis writing, praying to the creativity gods…really anything and everything I could do to get a book off the ground and enjoy the process.
The enjoyment was the biggest rub, along with the commitment. Typically, I’d get stuck on one of three things:
1. It was boring to do it this way, and my creative side isn’t very patient or structured.
2. Once I knew what happened, I didn’t want to write the book any more.
3. Transitions are pure hell for me and I’d get stuck on them.
The first two are just my own lovely personality flaws (back to the A.D.D.). The last one is something I hope I get better at over time. I can write emotional scenes or funny scenes all day long with complete focus and pretty good results. However, if you ask me to get the heroine out of her office and over to a restaurant for the next scene, I go blank and dither around, either writing too much or getting complete writer’s block.
Finally, in desperation, I asked my critique group if I could just ‘get a pass on transitions’ and they were sweet enough to say yes. We have a system worked out: I highlight a note like “Get heroine from point A to point B please” and they help me fill it in later, after the first draft is finished and in the bag. In return, I help them amp up their humor or their emotional scenes. Sharla Rae writes the steamiest sex scenes you’ve ever read so she weighs in on those (thank God!). I believe this is the magic of a great critique group – everyone has their talents and when you combine them all, everyone gets a fantastic book out of it.
What I really am is a scene writer. I can manage to stay sustained and interested in a single scene. Most of the time, I can even manage to write it from start to finish since I am lucky to write fairly quickly. I work really hard to focus on nothing else besides that scene because the end of the book always feels like a big black scary hole to me. If I think about it, I get stuck. So I don’t even consider THE END OF THE BOOK until I’ve finished the first draft containing all the scenes I think need to be in the novel. I know I can put them together later, sort of like shooting a film out of order then sending it to the editing department.
My process has evolved into something pretty close to the following:
1. Like most writers, each book usually starts with an idea or a scene that comes into my head fully formed. I write that scene when it comes to me so that I have it out of my head and onto the page. This process seems to keep the gates open for more scenes to come crowding in.
2. I try to write at least five days a week as it keeps my brain open to receiving new scenes. When I let more than a weekend go by without keeping my work in progress on my mind, I start to lose focus.
3. I take some time out from the writing to bat some ‘what if’s’ around with the people I plot with, decide on the overriding theme or message for the book as well as the internal and external conflicts for the protagonist and antagonist.
4. If I’m really lucky, the turning points get decided in advance too. I’m not always lucky and sometimes I have to have a second plotting session over this one. At the very least, I take time with my critique group to discuss what I think the turning points are to see if I’m remotely on target and if it all sounds believable. (For a great summary of turning points, read the following breakdown of Jenny Crusie’s talk at the 2009 RWA conference: http://www.amypadgett.com/2009/07/romance-writers-of-america-conference.html)
The good news is, now that I understand my process and the simple fact that I’m a scene writer, I can stop berating myself for what I’m not and just focus on the joy of being what I am. I finally understand why I’ve been able to finish short stories: they come to me as one long scene and I can hold my focus long enough for that.
Two writers I deeply respect – Diana Gabaldon (Outlander series) and Janet Fitch (White Oleander) – are both scene writers. For Outlander, Ms. Gabaldon wrote the scenes that came to her and stitched them together later, like a quilt. Janet Fitch published White Oleander originally as a series of short stories which she later realized were chapters in a larger story that she combined into a novel. Everything worked out well for them, right? I remind myself of that whenever I feel myself losing focus and force myself to slow down, breathe, and take things one scene at a time.