The Jennifer Crusie Method for Story Writing

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.

Discovery Draft
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.

Core Conflict
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.)

Beta Reads:
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.

24 thoughts on “The Jennifer Crusie Method for Story Writing

    1. I meant to post it, but I was half asleep at 3AM, so . . .
      You know me so well (g).

    2. Oh dear. For a moment, Jane, I thought you meant: “You forgot a title, Jenny — you can’t start writing or even outlining a story until you know the title.”

      Silly me.

      Jenny, this is going straight into my All Things Jenny Writing Advice Folder.

  1. Love your method because even if it doesn’t result in a book. We get lots of lovely snippets of story.

      1. Let me know about this, please, so I can tell Mollie. I think other people mentioned this but I was distracted by the stove on fire.

        Also The Goblin Emperor is a BookBub deal right now at $2.99. I know that’s a big fave here.

    1. See, I wouldn’t have called that a smirk but rather a simper. She‘s too coquettish for a smirk.

      For me a smirk is edgier, perhaps eyes a bit narrowed and one corner of the lips raised.

      Oh,. And FWIW, this is the smirk emoji: 😏

  2. I think my method is:
    a) wake up with a snippet of a scene in my head;
    b) make a few notes and noodle around with possible connections to my universe;
    c) run away and do something else for a while;
    d) when real life becomes too stressful or out-of-control, hunker down at keyboard and bang out 4000-8000 words;
    e) decide if there’s a story;
    f) write some more.

  3. It’s funny because other than Lani’s Storywonk stuff and a theater teacher I had in high school, you’ve been the most influential in teaching me how to write. But it didn’t really click into gear for me until I realized I need a (loose) outline and to write chronologically. I don’t know the shades of what they’re feeling in this scene if I haven’t felt every scene leading up to it with them.

    Thank you for a) all the wisdom and b) the ever present reminder that it’s ok to have a different process.

  4. So, now that we’ve read the coherent version, where can we hear the two of you laughing like loons?

  5. I loved all of your guidelines, suggestions, and expertise. Now I choose to leave it all to others and don’t miss the writing at all. Definitely a sloth these days.

    1. I’ve been slothing. But it’s time to get back to work. I had a consult with a developmental editor and I realize that I have to go back in and rewrite Lord Byron’s daughter. This is great advice and I’m going to use it to start. She wants me to make it part of a series.

  6. My creative side LOVES your methodology. My STEM side says “WHAT methodology??”

    1. The thought of having an actual methodology makes me need to lie down until the thought goes away.

  7. I really like your writing method, and I think you have been one of the influences on me changing the way I write. I used to be a dedicated plotter – mainly to control my anxiety about the whole process. These days I’m much looser, more exploratory – and the whole thing is more fun. So thank you, Jenny!

    1. No, no, don’t let me lead you astray into chaos. Although if it’s more fun, good for me.

  8. Faking It was a joyful read and based on your acknowledgements – at the beginning of Faking It – I began to read some of Catherine Aird’s Calleshire Chronicles.

    I was delighted to find the source of Gwen’s quote at the end of His Burial Too: “If, Crosby,” said Sloan letting out a long sigh, “you can’t be a good example, then you’ll just have to be a horrible warning, that’s all.”

    Just like finding an Easter egg.

    1. You know, that was one of those things where it was a perfect thing for Gwen to say, but no way to credit Aird smoothly in the narrative. So I put it in the acknowledgements, and now it’s showing up in quote lists with my name on it. Which makes me feel guilty, but at least I tried to give Aird credit.

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