"My Writing Process" Blog Tour

I've been invited by fellow kidlit author Lynne Kelly to be part of the MY WRITING PROCESS Blog Tour. I loved Lynne's beautiful middle grade novel, CHAINED (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012). Set in India, it's about a 10-year-old boy who takes a job as an elephant keeper to work off a family debt. He thinks it will be an adventure, but he isn’t prepared for the cruel circus owner who abuses the elephant until she learns her tricks perfectly. The boy hatches an escape plan that evolves into a beautiful story of friendship-- Do check it out! If you'd like to learn more about Lynne's book -- and the one she’s working on now, check out her Writing Process Blog Tour post here.

What are you working on?  Now that my LIES BENEATH trilogy is out in the world, I am wrapping up a “final” draft of a stand alone novel. For now, it’s called A PLACE TO BELONG, but it’ll probably be called something completely different tomorrow. It’s about a girl’s journey (both literally and emotionally) to discover who she is after learning that--as a small child--she had made claims about a past life. The story takes her from Burbank, California to Wellfleet, Massachusetts, where some clues add up, some not so much, and in the end she has to figure out how much she intends to let a tragic past define her future.

How does your work differ from others of its genre?  It’s always hard, I think, to characterize your own writing. To answer this question, I have to go to what others have said--either directly to me, or indirectly online--which, apparently, is that my style of writing sets it apart from others in my genre. While my work is commercial in appeal, it is literary in style. I tend to describe things lyrically, or poetically, and I can tell when I’ve hit the “sweet spot” when I can actually smell the pine needs, or feel the water washing over my feet.

Why do you write what you do?  I write YA because, in my head, I never left high school. That might have a little to do with the fact I married my high school boyfriend and live in the same town I grew up in. The best part about writing YA is escaping back to that time in life when all you had was a clean slate and an open highway.

How does your writing process work?  I am an outliner. In fact, I have a very mathematical approach to my outlines, which you can read about here, if you’re interested. But once that outline is done, my writing process can best be described as “layering.”

1.) The first layer of a manuscript is virtually all dialogue. I see the scene in my head. At this point I barely know my characters, they may even be faceless, and they are actors on a blank stage. But I can hear them talking, and I can hear their tone of voice. I write entire chapters in just dialogue with the major action points from the outline. It might read like this:

“I’m not going to put up with this any longer,” Jennifer said.

“You’re an idiot if you think I’m going to let you leave,” Mike said.

Jennifer’s foot came down hard on his. Mike howled in pain as she walked past.

Once I’ve written most of the whole book in this bare bones way, I know where my story is going, and I start to understand who my characters are. Sometimes, at this point, I realize I have to change all their names, which really upsets my critique group!

2.) Then I go back and layer in the scenery. Where are they? What kinds of hazards does the physical environment create? How is the setting symbolic of what’s going on in the plot?

The train station was crowded with people heading home after a long work week. It was a churning sea of black coats and weary faces. Ellie pushed her way toward the counter, trying to ignore the crush of bodies.

“I’m not going to put up with this any longer,” she said to Mitch as she reached her destination. She handed her money to the man behind the counter, and he handed her a ticket.

“You’re an idiot if you think I’m going to let you leave,” Mitch said. She turned, and he blocked her path.

Ellie’s foot came down hard on his. Mitch howled in pain, as she pushed her way back through the crowd. The train hissed steam onto the platform.

3.) Then I go back to the beginning, and layer in the internal dialogue the characters are having while all the outward stuff is happening.

The train station was crowded with people heading home after a long work week. It was a churning sea of black coats and weary faces. Ellie pushed her way toward the counter, trying to ignore the crush of bodies.

“I’m not going to put up with this any longer,” she said to Mitch as she reached her destination. She handed her money to the man behind the counter. Why did Mitchell think there was anything he could say that would change her mind? They’d been through it a hundred times by this point.

The man handed her a train ticket. It was stamped Chicago, but it might as well have said Freedom.

“You’re an idiot if you think I’m going to let you leave,” Mitchell said. She turned, and he blocked her path.

Ellie had a moment of sympathy for him, but it didn’t last long. Her foot came down hard on his. Mitchell howled in pain as she pushed her way back through the crowd. The train hissed steam onto the platform.

4.) The layering continues. The next layer might be working on the characters’ subtle reactions to things (facial expressions, body language); the next might be tiny bits of strategically placed backstory; the next might be putting clothes on everyone. Not that they were naked before (well, yeah, in the LIES BENEATH series they were pretty naked), I just never think of that level of detail in the earlier rounds.

So that’s basically it. I really wish my novels leapt fully formed from my head, but they don’t. I keep layering and layering until everything feels as real as I can get it. Though reader beware, even after all that layering, the manuscript looks like a big, hot mess. There are a lot of cuts and pastes that haven’t been smoothed out, highlighted sections, arrows and scribbles over the manuscript, and notes to self that say really helpful things like: [ADD SOMETHING REALLY GOOD HERE]. But the beauty of this draft is that it’s all on the page, and it’s not going anywhere. The story is captured and from here I can start the work of editing. That’s where the magic is!

If you follow this tour, every Monday you can read about different writers' processes and their current works in progress. It’s fascinating to see all the different approaches writers take, and it’s actually liberating to recognize that there’s no wrong way to do it. Each participant tags two or three new writers, and we all answer the same set of questions. So following me next Monday, will be two YA authors. One is Kristen Simmons, the author of the ARTICLE 5  trilogy, and Heather Anastasiu, the author of the GLITCH trilogy, two very different dystopian series that I have read cover-to-cover.

Happy writing!

3 Comments

  1. Wow, Anne, your WIP sounds so cool! Can't wait to see it as a real live book. I tend to be a pantser for sure, but the book I'm working on now will require more outlining than I'm used to so I can make sure everything works out, so I love reading about how true outliners do it!
  2. Gina Rosati
    Your process is brilliant! And I'm looking forward to seeing your WIP in print. Hopefully, a research trip to the Cape will be necessary.
  3. Kerstin
    Excellent post, Anne -- I'm going to try this approach while writing my next chapter!

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