RWA has a new writing series for new romance writers called from Pen to Paper, and I just did a phone interview for it with the wonderful Erin Novotny. She wanted to know my process (stop laughing, you loons, have some respect) so I wrote up a quick outline which I’m including below. I think the interview is mostly us laughing, so the outline is probably more coherent.
The Jennifer Crusie Method for Story Writing
(Not Efficient, Fast, or Logical; Not Really Recommended)
I read or watch something that provokes a story idea.
I turn it around in my head until (a) I get tired of it or (b) people start talking in my brain
If (b), I start writing down conversations until (a) I realize it’s going nowhere or (b) it takes off.
If (b), I have a story.
If (b), I keep writing until I have at 30,000 to 70,000 words done, the more the better.
This draft is just to find out what the story is about, so anything goes and nobody reads it but me.
Eventually, I get to a point where I have to pinpoint what the hell this book is about.
Who’s the protagonist? What does he/she/they want?
Who’s the antagonist? What does he/she/they want?
How do those goals cross? Good time to do a conflict box.
The “what do they want?” questions are pretty much all the character work I do; no long sheets about eye color or what happened when they were children because I don’t care; I want to know what they want now, what they’re actively doing about it, and why (motivation).
Then I write down the scenes I have in scene sequence lists, trying to keep things tied to that core conflict. A big white board is a HUGE help here.
I find the major turning point scenes (always action, never thinking) for plot and character (main and subplots, main and important supporting characters) in the scene lists. There are usually five turning points for me: Beginning (Stability Broken), Things Get Worse, Point of No Return, Crisis, Climax, followed by the resolution that shows stability regained (not the same stability as at the beginning).
The four chunks of text between those turning points are Acts, each shorter than the last, escalating sections of story that end in the turning points; the turning points turn the story in new directions, making each section a new story because Things Have Changed. A good way to see the relationships among the acts is to give each act its own title; if the titles together sound like an escalating series of related stories, your structure is probably all right.
One important thing here is to pick a lane. If you’re writing a romance/caper plot, pick one to be your main plot, and one to be your subplot.
And then I rewrite over and over and over again, cutting anything that doesn’t contribute to the core narrative.
When I have a complete or almost complete draft, I go back to “What the hell is this book about?” This time, it’s “What is the underlying, general, non-specific idea about the human condition that runs as a spine under the entire narrative?” Lajos Egri’s “X leads to X” is a good template: “Risking leads to connection.” Big caveat: This is not a moral. It can be “Crime doesn’t pay” or “Crime does pay.” It’s just a general statement about the human condition.
Rewrite Some More:
Then I go back and rewrite to make sure actions, turning points, characters all connect to that theme, subplots echo or act as a foil to that theme. (I told you this wasn’t efficient.)
When I have a complete focused draft, I give it to beta readers for their feedback on what’s wrong only, not specific suggestions on how to fix; i.e. not “this needs a dog” or “your protagonist needs to smile more” but “this feels a little cold emotionally.”
Rewrite Some More:
Then I rewrite again. Lotta rewrites until I can’t stand it anymore and send it to my agent. Who usually has feedback, and if I agree, I rewrite some more. Then she sends it to an editor who has feedback, and if I agree, I rewrite some more. Then the galleys arrive and I find new things and I rewrite some more, which is necessary but annoying because usually by then, I’ve had another Idea . . .
Most Important Thing:
Nobody can write your book but you. Nobody knows your book like you do. If anybody asks you to do something to your book that doesn’t feel right, don’t do it. If the method outlined above sounds awful to you, don’t use it. There is no one right way for anybody except to stay true to her/his/their story as they know it.