Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Know How You Tick as a Writer

By: Deb McLeod

I had the opportunity to teach my 5-point Scene Structure class online to RWA’s Kiss of Death Chapter. A month-long delivery of the process of crafting scenes. It was a great experience. At the end of it, for those who opted into my mailing list, I sent out a brief survey. I always like to know who I’m addressing when I teach. It helps me know what to teach when I know what people want to learn. The subject is vast and I could write and talk about it forever – just ask my clients.

One survey question asked writers to tell me which of several areas they felt they still needed to master. Their responses showed me that most are still looking for a novel writing process. That didn’t surprise me, really, because mastering the writing process was the craft element I needed most myself.

I remember the early days when it was just baffling to me how novels were ever written. I didn’t really have any organizational method and certainly didn’t understand structure. I wrote when the muse struck or there was a deadline. While I learned a lot by studying writing books and getting my degrees in creative writing, I hadn’t yet discovered what worked for me or why that was important.

The novel writing process isn’t simply learning the steps of novel writing, it’s knowing how you work within those steps. Writing is process. Mastering process in writing, and in life, is, in my opinion, the invisible barrier between becoming the author you always knew you were going to be and writing for a very long time before you see any success.

Knowing how you tick as a writer is essential to becoming successful.

Because I didn’t realize I needed a process, and that’s what I needed to learn, I have devoted my teaching to studying the writing process and creating classes and coaching environments to fit.

I have had clients who came to me early, early in their writing careers with the notion that writers sit down and write a novel basically the way they see it on the published page. Learning that there are layers to the process is a bit sobering.

But writing a book horizontally can add years to your apprenticeship. I have done my fair share of mentoring academic students in writing labs. The trend these days is to write one perfect sentence after the next, thinking that it saves time if you don’t have to go back. But that thinking only ended them in the writing lab with me and a next morning deadline. There was no way I could have them write in the layers they needed to see what it was they wanted to say. It was frustrating for one and all.

I know from personal experience and studying my clients' work that writers in general and novel writers specifically save time by writing in layers in a combination of pantsing and plotting.

I teach and monitor process with my clients. And I continually work on my own to understand myself better as a writer.

Here is the framework of my general novel-writing process:

The first part of the process is key and seems to be best served by pantsing. Freewriting, clustering, mindmapping, all of these exploratory activities flesh out what your book is about. If you do it right, you’re accumulating scenes, exploring character and beginning to see the patterns of meaning while you’re uncovering themes. Basically you’re finding your voice within the story. 
Once there are enough scenes and explorations from the freewrites, in the next step you have see what you have and create a story. This is where your inner plotter must be honored - even if you’re a pantser. I can say that because I was a hard-core pantser. I had to train myself to first identify and then make friends with the plotter inside. And that has saved me time and headaches. I enjoy plotting now. 
There are all kinds of ways to structure plot – screenwriting structures, the journey model, 3 Acts, etc. Exploring these and finding out what works for you is essential. Creating a well-structured plot means you’re probably right on in your pacing, your story has an arc, and it’s balanced. There’s far less revision necessary when you use a structure. 
I use my 5-point Scene Structure Method to structure and prep scenes before I write them. When I was a pantser I liked surprising myself and was convinced that if I preplanned that wouldn’t happen. But what I discovered instead was that I’m surprising myself when I’m preplanning and when I’m writing. When I’m preplanning I’m right in the scene and able to investigate while beginning to create some sort of order. Then when I write I use my five points to direct the movement of the scene. For some reason that takes some sort of pressure off to figure out the scene as I’m writing it. So I immerse myself into the scene more than I would. When that happens everything is more vivid.
Once I’ve written the first draft I begin the method of revision I came up with for myself and my clients. Here we discover what problems there are in the structure or the scenes themselves and more. Here you are your own teacher. The idea behind the revision step is to analyze your work as you might a book you’d like to write. To me this part is like taking a class. And I love taking classes and analyzing fiction.
Here, it’s time for a professional. A copy editor and a proofreader. But make sure you pay attention to what they find. Make a cheat sheet for next time of the most typical editing mistakes you make, whether its grammar, continuity, dialogue tagging, or whatever. Many of my clients keep their cheat sheets by the computer.
Ongoing pieces to the process

I use Scrivener and can’t speak to anything else and probably wouldn’t change even if something else of worth is out there. But you need a system or way to organize all the vast material you accumulate when you’re writing a novel. I love my Scrivener and keep finding new ways to use it in my process. Here is where I will accumulate what freewrites make it into the novel and which are simply notes for the scene I want to tell. I come up with a to do list of scenes.
While you’re working on steps 1 through 5, you also need to master writing discipline. I’ve only begun to explore the results of dedicated and consistent writing time. I just started tracking word counts and deepening my relationship with my internal editor. I'm pushing myself harder and seeing results. 
I knew habit was important, and I did have a habit, but it was easily pushed aside for the demands of life. I wasn’t consistent. It’s only now I realize how important it is to my writing, and my clients' writing. I am seeing how we’re changing the more we honor the discipline.
So if you haven't yet mastered your own process, find out what makes you tick as a writer. Certainly you can work with me and I'll teach you a process that works, but even if you don't there are ways you can own each step. 

Honoring the process you discover can cut the time you take to begin the author phase of your career.

By years.

About the Author: Deb McLeod, MFA, practices novel research immersion. For her novel, The Train to Pescara, Deb journeyed to Sardinia to study ancient goddess worship and spent time in the Abruzzi village her great-grandparents left in 1905. Her metaphysical knowledge for the Angel Thriller, The Julia Set, culminates from four years of studying and teaching meditation, clairvoyance and chakra healing. For over fifteen years, Deb McLeod has been a creative writing coach helping other writers to embrace their passion and get their words on the page. For more, see


  1. What a useful post, Deb! Thank you!

  2. Deb, one small point. This article isn't only applicable for authors starting their career. Often, an author may have written one to several books and can get stalled by the intimidation factors out there. Raising hand, and appreciating so much your expertise.

    1. Thanks for pointing that out, Donnell! Process is like craft in my writing world. I will never stop studying and refining.


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