Friday, March 9, 2007

How I Write...or...Jet Engines Work Best

by Heather Horrocks

How do I write? Let me count the ways . . .

I’ve been writing for nearly 15 years and I’ve written in many different ways as I’ve worked myself from a beginner into a system of writing that works enough I’m really excited about it and what I can accomplish when using it. I’m going to toss out quite a bit of information here, but I will get down to some ideas you can use (at least the general list and order of how my group plots a book, though I couldn’t possibly go into the detail of how to do each step here today).

To begin with, I wrote sporadically. I was the hare sprinting along madly, in wild bursts, then stopping for days, weeks, even months at a time while the tortoise writers passed me up. It was during this period that I wrote the first draft of a novel in four days. Yup, count ‘em--four. One-hundred-sixty pages of dreck that then took over six months to revise (but fun to say, at least, that I wrote an entire book in only four days).

Next, I began to emulate the tortoise. Even my critique group renamed ourselves Turtles for awhile, because we wanted to work consistently. But, unfortunately, we didn’t have our system figured out yet and so we ended up plodding along, still writing sporadically, but now without the rush and temporary accomplishment of our wild hare days.

Now, years later, I still instinctively want to take the hare’s pace and path (and I do on plotting day), but I am working at instilling a new habit of writing one scene a day, but taking into account all the days (vacations, school/work days off, my husband’s every-other-Friday off) that I realistically won’t get any writing done, and on those days I don’t write. I do have a life, you know : )

Before I tell you what I actually do now that is working so well for me that I will probably be able to write 3-4 books a year consistently, let me share a great, apparently true story with you from the book One Minute Millionaire. Artists David Bayles and Ted Orland tell about an art teacher’s experiment with his grading system. On the first day of class, the teacher announced he would divide his ceramics students into two groups, grading those in Group A on the quantity of pots they produced and Group B solely on quality. Group A students would have their works weighed and receive a grade based on the poundage: an A for fifty pounds of pottage, B forty pounds, C thirty, etc. Group B only had to produce one pot to get an A—but it had to be a perfect pot. At grading time, which group do you think produced the best pots? You might be surprised. The teacher certainly was. The highest quality pots were all produced by Group A—the group being graded for quantity. While Group A students were busy turning out pot after pot, they were learning from their mistakes and improving their technique. Group B students sat around theorizing how to produce a perfect pot—but were unable to learn from their mistakes. (Much like many of us writers, as we spent years thinking about writing--but never actually writing. And I know many of you do that, because I did it for years, too.)

Make mistakes—and learn from them. In our case, write lots. Create lots of ‘plots.’ Assign yourself into Group A, and start churning out plot (book) after plot—improving your technique with each one. Stop worrying so much about how to create quality—and turn out enough books that you automatically begin to learn how to create a quality book.

After all, it might not be your first or second book that sells. What’s if it’s book #3? Or #5? Or (gasp!) even #10? Sometimes it happens that way. And if you get stuck waiting for Book #1 to sell and don’t get on to the others, you may not sell at all. Or you may go insane waiting. Yes, in this business that is a distinct possibility.

In a related vein, my father worked in the oil field for most of his life. Years ago, if there was an oil well fire, the famous oil well fire fighter, Red Adair, would be called in. He would come in with his team of experts and they would put out the fire. After the Gulf War, my father (then in his 60s) was called out of retirement to head up one of the teams (Red Adair was also there with his team) to put out the numerous oil well fires in Kuwait. My father told me that, because they were putting out so many fires, one after the other, they were able to learn how to do it efficiently and quickly, sometimes with one team putting out several fires during a single day. They would pull in a jet engine, aim it at the well, fire it up and let the huge blast of air from the engine blow out the flame, at which time the team would quickly cap off the well. Done. Over. Fire out. Just like that. Efficiently. Quickly. Nearly effortlessly (compared to the old method). Plus they now had a plan that any other team could follow, with the same results.

That’s what my critique group and I have been doing for the past two years--plotting book after book (18 in all, if I include the book we’ll be plotting tomorrow). I decided I wanted to master plotting (next is marketing, though I’m not even close at this moment--but I will be : ). I already had a system--I’d even taught it--so we decided, the three of us, to begin meeting once a month to plot a book using that method. Every three months, that book would be our own. We committed to staying until the book was done, no matter how long it took (the latest was 11:45 p.m. and we were exhausted, so now we schedule and push to make sure we’re done by 8:00 or 9:00 at the latest). And, at the end of the day, someone walks away with a plotted book.

What a wonderful period of discovery and learning this has been! We’ve learned to use a jet engine to plot with, and it’s fantastic. To learn what elements make up a satisfying ending, and how to use key scenes to give our plot a skeleton. To use our time wisely, because plotting a book is awfully hard, even if you do it with a plan. To take copious notes on our AlphaSmart (if you don’t know what that is, go to and check out the coolest writing tool, ever, second only to the computer, itself). And, for those of you who might be thinking ‘formula’ or ‘too restrictive’ to plan all this so quickly, instead think ‘recipe’ (for success : ) and someone who cooks up an entire month’s worth of dinners in one night in order to free up dinner-making time for other things.

Anyway, one of us walks away, at the end of the day, with a completely plotted novel: key turning-point scenes, all the regular scenes in between those key scenes, and about 20 double-spaced pages of incredibly rough first draft outline. A book. In one day. Who-da-thunk? (And, yes, we go through that outline nearly ten times, and add more scenes and think of other stuff--but the basic skeleton stays in place and we add lots of beefy muscle to the book until it can stand on its own, and do handsprings around the block : )

So how does that help you? Well, when my book comes out . . . (I’m only half joking -- there will be a how-to book that comes out of what we’ve learned, because it’s so exciting and because I absolutely love to share what I’ve learned with other writers, as some of my previous students can attest). Okay, before my book, you can catch one of my classes at Lana Jordan’s cool site,

But for right now, this moment, reading this, here are some tips for you to use in writing your next book.

Tip for beginners: Learn your craft. Take a class. Find a mentor. Read your dialogue aloud, and listen to conversations around you for rhythm and flow. Begin spending a little time each day learning the craft of writing--and the separate craft of plotting.

Okay, here's what my group does on plotting day ...

(1) FIGURE OUT YOUR BASIC IDEA. Can you state it in 25 words or less? (Groundhog Day: Wacky Pennsylvania weatherman Phil Connors has to relive one day over and over until he gets it right.) Choose three motivators/spicers (at least one of them a motivator) to give your novel enough oomph to get through 300 pages (motivators: love/hate, ambition, betrayal, catastrophe, chase, discovery, grief/loss, jealousy, persecution, quest, rebellion, rivalry, self-sacrifice, survival, vengeance; spicers: honor/dishonor, authority, conspiracy, criminal action, deception, madness, making amends, mistaken identity, rescue, searching, suspicion, wealth/lack of). Choose them at random and brainstorm for five minutes on possible plot twists of your book with the twist of jealousy, authority, and deception . . . Or how would it affect your book if the motivators/spicers were grief/loss, rescue, and rivalry? You can get some great ideas that way.

(2) INTERVIEW YOUR CHARACTERS (or answer questions) as if you are the character, and not the author. We want to find out who the characters are and how they’re going to react a certain way--and why. Either have someone else ask you the questions (and forget the questions you’ll find on many lists like ‘What’s your favorite color?’ as they are of no use for our purposes of finding out what kind of person this character is and what they’ll do) or fill out the questions on your own, but, either way, it’s important that you answer AS THE CHARACTER, NOT AS THE AUTHOR. Interview the hero, the e, and the villain. The questions are important, too. There’s not enough space to give you my entire interview sheet here, but here are a few important questions to get things going: What’s causing you the most trouble in your life when the story begins? What will case even more grief in your life? Even though other people might respond differently, you respond to this problem by doing what? You respond this way because you have an incorrect perception or notion about life and/or love, which is ...? Your epiphany comes when you realize this perception is incorrect and learn the truth, which is ...? The only reason your character has baggage is to motivate them reacting a certain way NOW to what is going on NOW.

(3) Figure out the STORY THREADS. In a romance, the threads will include the hero, heroine, romance, friends, family, jobs, etc. In a mystery, there will be one thread for each suspect and the murderer, main characters, sequence of events leading up to the murder, etc; in a fantasy, the threads could include magic, dragons, main characters, relationships, etc). Figure out where each thread begins and ends--and what your reader needs to see in between to believe that the thread goes from beginning to end. And then work those threads into your book. (A former colleague of mine, Sherry Lewis, came up with this great idea.)

(4) Ask yourself a few important questions . . . "What will make this story unlike every other book of its type out there?" and "What is the totally unpredictable, yet logical, twist at the end?"

(5) Come up with a truly SATISFYING ENDING. I can’t tell you how to do that here; there’s just not enough space to do that. But you do need one, so readers will want your next book. (I do have an online endings class that runs periodically.)

(6) Figure out the KEY TURNING-POINT SCENES, and the main characters' new section goals at each.

(7) Fill in the scenes from one key scene to the next, in sections.

(8) Now put it into paragraph form, one paragraph per scene, and go over it at least six times.

Whew! Now you know why it takes three of us a full day to finish the process! But imagine that! A plotted book in a day! That’s awesome! I’m so excited about the possibilities.

So now I get the best of both worlds. I get to be a hare on plotting day, and then I need to make sure I’m a tortoise the rest of the time, getting my one scene a day written and polished, so that I can consistently finish books.

Consistency. That’s really the key. The motivational speaker, Brian Tracy, said that genius is doing the same thing over and over again to get the same positive results. The opposite is the quote that says insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. So first you have to figure out how to do something right, and then do it over and over--creating plot after plot, becoming one of the quantity group, learning from your mistakes and creating beautiful plots.

If you haven’t learned methods of plotting yet, take a class. Get a mentor. Learn what you need to in order to free yourself up to write. Some people might say that the plotted book restricts them, as do outlines. I say outlines free you up. I can have a fully filled out, scene-by-scene 30-page outline and re-read it six times, and see what changes need to be made much easier than I can in a 300-page novel. I tend to lose sight of the story threads at about page 100, so I need a shorter way to do things. As Kevin Anderson (who’s only written over 80 best-selling books) said at a conference: "If you don’t use an outline, then your first draft becomes your outline."

David Baldacci says he spent years not finishing any stories, but just learning the craft of writing. Even J.K. Rowling, after writing two books, when she got the fabulous idea for Harry Potter, invested two years in plotting all seven books in the series. Yes, plotting ahead works. (And, yes, even then you can’t figure everything out in advance and you’ll learn some things as you write--as Rowling did when she had to take months with one of her books because of a major plot flaw).

There are seat-of-the-pants writers (perhaps you're one of them : ) who don't want to be restricted by an outline or preplanning--but I’ve heard several famous authors report lately about the ulcers and other illnesses they attributed directly to their seat-of-the-pants approach to writing. I’d rather figure it out ahead of time, have my road map. Then I can still detour if the muse so dictates, but I can also stay headed in the right direction. And I’m free to write, having all sorts of creativity and flexibility for what to put in each scene.

I love plotting! I love writing! I love sharing!
(Now if I just loved marketing, I’d have the perfect writer’s life!)

Thanks for listening. : )


  1. Heather,
    That's lots to digest. What great advice! I can see I'm not starting basic enough. I need to put a step in between my verbal/mental blocking and my detailed outline so that I identify all the threads. Lots to think about here. Hmmm. I wish I had a few more years to learn this craft.

  2. Heather,
    wow! thank you for the great information...I am sorely tempted to take a stab at fiction again...I loved the analogy of the pots. your system of plotting with your critique group is very intriguing.


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