5 Steps on the Journey to the First Draft — Author Tool Box

What can I share for this month’s Toolbox? What can I write about that could be even slightly helpful to other writers?

I’ve been trying to answer this question for a few weeks in preparation for this post, but I still didn’t have an answer until recently. Someone suggested I write a brainstorm about zombies… Well, zombies aren’t on the agenda this time; however, brainstorming was a great idea!

Image result for no zombies

This month’s toolbox will be dedicated to brainstorming, plotting, outlining, and all the little details that go into planning for a first draft — that is… if you’re not a pantser (someone who dives into the first draft without prior planning).

I’ll walk you through the planning process I took with my (yet to be published) first novel. Planning, like the writing process, is recursive — the appearance of linear steps doesn’t necessarily equal a fluid process, but a few steps do help…

1. Start with an idea.

No matter what your next step is, the first step is to have an idea. This idea can come from anywhere. You may have seen a cow while driving down the road or heard lyrics that spoke directly to your imagination. Maybe you were talking to your best friend during lunch and something at that moment stuck out to you.

Grab it! Take hold of that idea. See where it leads. My idea came from a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a poem asking a question.

Image result for what if you slept samuel taylor coleridge

2. Take that idea and see what shape it takes…

That would make a great novel! I have an amazing story idea!

How many times have those words come out of your mouth? How many times have you remembered your idea over the next few days before it faded into the everyday world that is life, into the abyss?

Don’t waste any time! Write it down! Take that wonderful idea to your writer’s notebook, and see what you’ve got. Free-write as much as you can about all the possibilities swirling around in your mind at that moment. It doesn’t matter how ridiculous they sound — write them down.

img_5988.jpg

That is just what I did. On October 12, 2014, I wrote down the story idea that was zig-zagging its way around my brain.

Would I use everything I wrote on this page? No. I have no idea who “Darren” is anymore since he’s not part of the current round of revisions I’m on, but he was important at one time, which is all that matters. The idea is written.

3. Choose a direction… a path…

Now what?

Do you get stuck on this step? I did. I had never written a novel-length draft before, which meant that I had definitely not planned for one, either. How in the world was I supposed to do that? What was I supposed to do next?

Research.

There. I said it. This isn’t the kind of research you’d expect, though. It’s research into different planning processes for building up to your first draft. If you don’t know how to get there, the best thing to do is see how someone else did it. Right?

img_5989.jpg

So I did. There are so many different ways to plan a novel. Did you know that? Out of the numerous ways I found, I decided to choose Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method because it seemed the most straight-forward for a novice (and it was free…).

It took me quite a few tries with his first step, a one-sentence summary, because I couldn’t decide how old my MC (main character) was going to be.

More research.

Have I mentioned before how much I actually enjoy research? I really do! (Is that weird?)

Image result for rite of rejection

Around the time I was starting to plan, I’d read a new YA (young adult) dystopian novel, Rite of Rejection by Sarah Negovetich.  Because of this novel, I thought about my MC… Maybe she should be a young adult… Maybe she should live in a dystopian world… Maybe…

After my research, I decided Macy should be a teenager, but she wouldn’t live in a dystopian world. Instead, she would be the star of an epistolary novel, an idea that came to me during another free-write for ideas (see that recursive writing thing?).

I finally had “step one” of the Snowflake Method.

img_5998.jpg

4. Start outlining… possibly scene-by-scene…

The snowflake method will eventually lead you through meeting your characters, discovering their motives and end goals, and figuring out why each of them is important to your story.

I didn’t know most of this before I started plotting scenes, however.

Don’t tell, but that means that I didn’t follow this method to the letter. You should know, if you don’t already, that you are not obligated to follow anyone’s method verbatim. You are a writer, different from other writers, which makes your process unique to you. Keep that in mind as you continue.

I did keep a small chart of characters handy, though…

img_6013

Anyway, back on track… I did like the scene-by-scene outline. Randy suggested using a spreadsheet, which I love because it allows you to move things around in the future, but I didn’t. This particular time, I used my notebook.

And I started over several times when the story changed somewhere in the middle… See why the spreadsheet would’ve been helpful?

See how many times it changed in such a short amount of time? I even started color-coding after awhile for POV (point-of-view).

I have encountered writers who don’t like the scene-by-scene outline (or chapter-by-chapter as I’ve seen some others do) because they feel it inhibits creativity. I am of the opposite mindset. The scene detail only states what will happen. It doesn’t state the why or how of the situation.

The only downfall to this outline is when characters start changing your story (trust me, they will) — then you’ll find out just how important an editable outline truly is. But don’t worry about that now… This is only the planning stage.

5. Leave a little room for whatever comes along.

Even if you plan, the whole basis of the story could change if one ornery character decides he doesn’t like the backstory you gave him. Or, in my case, he doesn’t want to reveal his backstory to you until you are well into the first draft.

As stated above, characters will change your story for you. They will let you know when something is working or not as you’re drafting, so keep an open mind while you’re planning. Try not to get too specific.

Write down your thoughts as you come to them to see if they get answered during your first draft….

img_6007.jpg

A great help may even be to write down a list of all the questions you have about your idea: the characters, the main and sub-plots, the action, etc. Keep a running list of things that are important and things that could change.

Sometimes you can even take a break from planning and learn some new words that relate to your idea: MC’s job lingo, vocabulary related to setting, etc. Since my idea revolves around nightmares, I dove into a couple terms related to that, which may end up having nothing to do with my novel in the end, but they’re good to have anyway.

What if I get stuck?

Don’t worry! Is it writer’s block that has you worried? Or do you simply need some ideas to push you toward the next step? I don’t have all the answers, but I can offer you a few methods that could help:

  • make lots of lists: characters, plot bunnies, settings, conflicts, etc.
  • draw a plot diagram: where do you imagine the story going, where is one particular character’s story going, etc.
  • free-write: whatever comes to mind, a scene you’re eager to see on paper, a letter from your character to you, etc.

What about you? What do you do when you get stuck? How do you plan for a first draft? I’d love to see what your strategies are in the comments below!

Author Toolbox

This post is part of the #AuthorToolboxBlogHop, which is dedicated to helping writers become stronger and more confident in their craft. Click here for more information, to continue hopping through other posts, or to join in!

Nano Blog and Social Media Hop2

Resources:

Snowflake Method by Randy Ingermanson

“The 8 Habits of Highly Successful YA Fiction Authors” by Noal Feeny

Parental archetypes in YA fiction

Camp NaNoWriMo

3 Steps for Writing a Poem

Poetry: a mellifluous word all by itself. Does it sound so beautiful the first time it’s written down, though? Or is there a process for writing poetry? That’s a hard question to answer. Some poets will say no. Others will say yes. The answer, however, depends on you and the purpose of your poem.

img_5893

For me, poetry is a process. I have to have somewhere to start and somewhere to end. I can write a micropoem on Twitter, but it’s not always a quick process. It takes a few drafts before I can make it sound right or fit into the 140-character limit.

How does that transfer to longer poems or poems that follow a specific format? Is the writing process necessary for poetry? For me, the answer is yes. Let’s take a peek into what that process looks like for me with three different poems…

Image result for poem quote

1. I need to research.

The type of research varies depending on the poem I want to write.

Example 1: A poem that doesn’t follow a format

My friend Veronica asked me if I could write her a poem because her current life circumstances were making her feel helpless. I asked her one question: What is your favorite animal?

A hippopotamus. I didn’t know much about hippos, so I searched for information about them through National Geographic. I now had details I could use in my poem.

img_5877

Example 2: A poem that does follow a format

I like the challenge of learning new poetic formats, so I’ll often learn about different ones. I don’t know how many poetic formats are out there, but there’s such a variety that poets will never lack for challenges.

Two such formats I’ve tried were the Pleiades format and Huitain format. I started by researching how each of these formats worked.

2. I write a rough draft (or two); then, I revised and edit it.

I know this step actually combines several steps of the writing process, but I didn’t think you’d want to see each individual step. I also don’t have pictures for each step, either, so it’s okay. Poetry is shorter, which means you can fix a bit more of it in one step anyway.

The most important thing, though, is getting your idea on paper before adding imagery, figurative language, and other poetic techniques. If you keep a writer’s notebook, then you’ll have a plethora of ideas at your disposal.

Example 1: The hippo poem was a bit easier to start since I already had a topic. However, it took the most drafts. I had to decide which parts of the research to include, what the theme would be, and if I wanted it to rhyme or have a rhythm.

Example 2: Topics for the formatted poems weren’t as easy to discover. The trick with poetry, if you’re interested, is similar to the Robert Frost quote above: use your emotions.

The Pleiades poem was inspired by the emotion I felt for a close family member, one who suffers from mental illness. I chose the letter ‘A’ to use with the format because it worked with the title, which I had first.

Family seems to always play on my emotions because the Huitain poem was inspired by a different member of my family, one who had recently went back to an abusive relationship.

With both of these poems, you can see that the idea, or rough draft, is written before I start changing the rhythm to match the pattern of the format. It’s incredibly hard to count out syllables while you’re writing, so my suggestion is to always write out your idea first — then fix it up how you like.

3. I write the final copy.

This last step can include publishing, too.

Example 1: Since Veronica, who goes by Roni, was going through a hard time, I decided to illustrate her poem. I am not the greatest at drawing, but I can do a decent job if I take my time. After I finished up her poem and drawing, I sent her a copy: published.

img_5882

Example 2: I chose not to illustrate my other poems. (It truly takes a long time for me, and I almost always have to have a point of reference.) I think it’s important to have a legible final copy for whatever you choose to do with it next (blog post anyone?).

img_5891

img_5892

That’s it.

That’s my process when writing a poem, but it’s not everybody’s process. How do you write a poem? Do you plan it out? Do you research? Do you go through a process? Feel free to share with me in the comments.

Resources:

What is micropoetry?

List of poetic formats I use for my students

List of more advanced poetic formats

 

The Wonderful World of Writer’s Notebooks

Teaching writing to middle school students has taught me many things, but one lesson screams the loudest: writer’s need to write.

IMG_5283[1]

I already knew this, right? I’m also a writer, so I had to already have known this. Of course I did, but it was never more true for me as a writer as it is now that I’m a writing teacher.

The one thing that writers need (whether they are students or not) is the freedom to write. This is where writer’s notebooks come in. They offer that freedom and so much more.

What is a writer’s notebook?

A writer’s notebook is a blank book waiting for a chance to hold your imagination within its pages. It can come in many different styles and can serve many different purposes. Some writers decide to have multiple notebooks: each serving a separate purpose.

For students and writers alike, a writer’s notebook offers a sort of playground for the mind.

  • Store your ideas
  • Build on your ideas
  • Collect new ideas and mentor pieces
  • Learn and practice new skills
  • Play with ideas
  • Model proper writing for others

A writer’s notebook is not a journal or diary. Diaries are a great place to look for ideas to add to your writer’s notebook, but it’s important to know that they’re not the same thing. Those are for writing about your day, usually in the order it happens. Writer’s notebooks are not as neatly organized: they tend to be quite chaotic.

How do I start a writer’s notebook?

Do you want to start a writer’s notebook? Are you wondering where to start? Before I give you my seven steps for starting your own, let me tell you something first: there is not only one way to start one or keep one. These are the steps I use and the steps I teach my students:

  1. Choose your purpose
    • Why are you starting this notebook? Is it for poetry, a novel you’re working on, a collection of ideas, or something else?
    • Determining your purpose can help you decide what kind of notebook to get.
  2. Choose a notebook
    • Maybe you want a smaller notebook for poetry, or a larger one for your novel, or something that is durable to hold all of your ideas.
    • Look around at different stores and figure out what will work for you. There are spirals (I don’t recommend since they fall apart easily), composition notebooks (my students use these), and many other options (I’m currently using a hardcover journal).img_5288
  3. Take ownership of it
    • This is probably the most important step. This is the personalization step: make it yours. Why? You are more inclined to write in it if you feel a personal connection to it.
    • One way you can do this is to decorate it (which is what you see in the photo above – and which I ask of my students to differentiate their notebooks in class).
  4. Create an “Idea Pocket”
    • This is a pocket in the back that you can use to store clippings until you use them.img_5319.jpg
  5. Create an index
    • An index will help you in the future when you are hunting down an idea you had in the past.
    • I’m reformatting the index we use in our notebooks in class in order to incorporate a modified version of the “Bucket System” by Jeff Goins.
    • An index is in the back of your notebook and works from the last page forward. In my opinion it is better than a table of contents because you do not have to save any pages; therefore, you will not waste any space.img_52811.jpg
  6. Create writing goals
    • Writing goals – these change so often that we’re never sure what our current goal is, right? That’s not true. You should create achievable writing goals every so often (weekly, monthly, etc.) in order to achieve whatever writing tasks you have set for yourself.
    • Setting goals also comes with reflections. There is no point in setting the same unachieved goal three times in a row. What will change this time? Reflect on why it wasn’t achieved after the first time, and rework it to incorporate a plan of action.
    • I keep writing goals alongside my students. They need to know that the work they have to do is important – what better way of proving that than to show them?img_5303
  7. Start writing!
    • Self-explanatory!

“Your writer’s notebook needs to become a personal source of pride to you…” -Corbett Harrison

Wait! Start writing what?

Your notebook is ready to be written in, staring at you helplessly empty. Hundreds of pages worth of empty. Hundreds.

Are you feeling a bit overwhelmed now? Don’t worry. This is where the goals you set earlier come in handy. Maybe you set goals that included collecting ideas (start by filling up Bucket 1- the idea bucket)…

Maybe you were hoping to learn a few new words or write some letters… I encourage my students to write letters to me in their writer’s notebooks, especially when they are struggling with a skill, and I always answer them back.

img_5296

The letters not only encourage handwriting and formatting skills, but they also encourage writing for a real-life purpose. I keep a copy of their letters in pockets of about eight in order to answer them when I have a chance.

A copy of the answer is made for them personally. I also keep a document in Google Classroom that displays each letter I write back. This allows them to read the answers, which could help with skills they too want help with.

img_53021.jpg

As you can see on the pocket and photo above, the best part of the letters for my students is that they get to choose their own pen names (again, a real-world experience).

Letters are an amazing tool because they can be used to write out your ideas or incorporate stories. We’ve used letters to write to characters, too. Have you, as a writer, written to your MC (main character) or from your MC’s point of view? That can supply a whole slew of information for you!

img_5297

 

Whatever your idea is, create it! Build up Bucket 1 with charts, lists of your favorites (songs, books, movies, etc.), newspaper clippings, questions, research, etc. From there you can take your writing anywhere. Use those ideas as inspiration and continue on your writing journey!

What do I do when it’s full?

You’ve filled your writer’s notebook? First, let me say: “Congratulations!” You should also congratulate yourself for all the writing you’ve accomplished.

Be sure to keep this notebook since it is not only filled with ideas you’ve used, but it’s also filled with ideas you could pursue in the future. Every now and then, take it out and reread it. See if a new idea is sparked.

Before you start a new notebook, take time to reflect. Did this notebook serve its intended purpose? Why or why not? What could you do differently with your next one?

Based on your answers, you may end up choosing something a bit different next time! Start hunting for your next notebook now, and have another wonderful adventure writing!

Resources

Bucket System – Jeff Goins

Writer’s Notebooks – Corbett Harrison

Article about the purpose of a Writer’s Notebook in the Classroom

Writing ideas – Ralph Fletcher

Writing prompts – Writer’s Digest

Heinemann Writing Strategies Book (page 118 idea used above)

 

“Who are you?” – Writing under a pen name…

Are the lyrics ringing in your ears now? Do you “really want to know” the answer? Do you have a pen name, a name other than your own, that you use for writing?

Why…

A few years ago, an author I admire decided to stop writing the series she was working on. It was an excellent series, complete with characters who stole your heart and made you want to visit them in real life. Debora Geary had her reasons for ending the A Modern Witch series, but I still grieved.

Image result for a modern witch

However, she decided to try something new. Since her life with “Witch Central” was over, she took up a new name, Audrey Faye, and continued to write characters who inched their way into your heart.

A pen name. A new life of sorts. A fresh start. I had heard of authors who had pen names, but I never thought about why they did (other than the obvious – stay hidden). Could authors have a pen name just to have one? Could I?

Research?

Of course I can have a pen name if I want one! I researched pen names and how to form them (I know, research…), and I found some interesting information about them:

  1. They offer the writer a way to discover themselves.
    -You may be more inclined to write about new and exciting topics if you weren’t “yourself” for a bit…
  2. They offer a way for the writer to differentiate their writing self from their career self.
    -You may have already made a name for yourself at your job, so you need the chance to try something new with a new name.
  3. They offer the writer a new challenge.
    -Trying to name yourself as a writer can be a challenge – finding the perfect name isn’t easy.

Now you may be asking if this applies to you… Does it? It definitely applied to me. I wanted to do all three of these things (I especially love a challenge), so I began looking into the many ways that writers rename themselves:

  • anagram of their own name
  • their initials
  • rearrange their name
  • parts of famous names
  • old family names
  • character names

These were definitely an excellent starting point!

A new name…

If you read about me already on this site, then you know that I’m a teacher. I use my name for teacher things, but, although I love my name, I still wanted a name that could be individually associated with my writing. Debora Geary inspired me to create a name that would do just that.

“Debora Geary inspired me to create a name that would do just that.”

As a child, my maternal grandmother would call me J.J. – my first and middle initials (Jessica Jean). I loved visiting my grandma, whom I call Nannie (not sure what the grandma naming story is though). I would still visit her if she didn’t live so far away from me, too.

I decided that J.J. would definitely be the beginning of my pen name since it brought back many happy memories of my childhood. The next step was picking a last name. I could easily use my last name (Houser), but as I’ve already said, I wanted it to be different from the name I use every day.

One of the suggestions was to look for old family names. This was by far the best idea I had seen, so I looked into them. I had no idea how many last names were associated with my family! I tried them all next to JJ until I finally landed on Burry, again related to my mom’s side of the family (sorry Dad). I even checked it to make sure it wasn’t taken – it’s all mine! JJ Burry, the writer who is Jess!

So, yes, it does take a little bit of time and effort to find the perfect pen name, but I think the process is worth it (thank you Debora Geary). There are all sorts of legal responsibilities to consider in the future, but I’m not there, yet. If you have a pen name, be sure to look into those as well!

Do you have a pen name? What’s your pen name story?

Resources…

Debora Geary’s website: http://www.deborageary.com/index.html

“Should You Use a Pseudonym?” by Moira Allen: http://www.writing-world.com/business/pseudonym.shtml

“What’s in a Pen Name?” by John Wray: http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/whats-in-a-pen-name