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Question of the Month: Work in Progress

By Posted on 24 2 m read 1.1K views

How’s your progress going? Are you outlining? Winging it? Do you set mini goals for yourself? I’d like to hear how you’re approaching your work in progress.

As UP FROM THE BLUE continues to have a life of its own (that’s the cover of the Dutch version that was just released in May), I am busy with the next book.

I’m taking a different approach this time. I’m outlining and focusing on the plot, working out all the knots that are easier to spot when the action is condensed. I’m doing this to avoid the kinds of trouble I had editing the last book so that I don’t have to unstring it once I have scenes and sentences I love.

This is where I am in the process. That mess to the right is research.

The voice for this book is starting to pipe into my head with real clarity, and this character wants badly to begin narrating the story. But I’m not allowing that just yet. I’m determined to nail the twists and turns of this plot before I let myself  loose to do what I love the most: dive deep into the human heart, find the language to describe what I find there, and discover the many surprises that, despite all my planning, won’t reveal themselves until my characters lead me to them.

So I’m here in my office (the awesome quilt is from my mom) and working away. Can’t wait to hear how your projects are going!


In other news, I had a great time at the Backspace Conference on a panel with my editor and my agent, where we discussed literary fiction and the chemistry required to work well as a team. UP FROM THE BLUE had nice reviews in both The Daily Mail and The Sun (the two biggest-selling papers in the UK), as well as the Dutch magazine, Libelle. And closer to home, thank you book bloggers StacyknowsBookBelle, Her LucidityMikel K at the Open Salon, and Betsy’s Book Club for reviewing my book—cool sites worth checking out! Finally, not to leave out my kids: They just finished their final exams, played a killer talent show (guitar and keys on Dream Theater’s Dance of Eternity), and are now enjoying a much-needed summer break.

Ooh, one last thing: If anyone is looking to redesign their websites, I can’t recommend Shatterboxx enough! I asked them to simplify my site and make it match the colors of my book and make it easy for newcomers to find their way. Check out their page and you’ll see how varied and uncluttered and truly artistic their ideas are. (They also have a design blog!) And if you’re interested in what you see, tell Jamie and Nicole I sent you so they treat you extra nice!

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What do you think?

  • Colin Matthew
    June 6, 2011

    How are things going? Good, I guess. Working on the second draft on my novel currently. With the second draft I’m focusing on fixing the plot holes and continuity issues that I noticed when I read through the first draft. I’m strengthen the themes and story lines so they have more of an impact. The third draft is when I feel it will all start to come together. But until then…

    I’m also working on a short piece to submit to an anthology of sorts.

    • Susan Henderson
      June 6, 2011

      I’m fixing plot holes, too. Just doing it before there’s even a draft. Love hearing about your process. It’s funny, when people announce they have a story or a book published, I’m always more curious about the long life it had incubating and getting molded and remolded.

      • Colin Matthew
        June 8, 2011

        I’ve only been thinking about this story for the past four years… Maybe longer…

        • Susan Henderson
          June 8, 2011

          That means it’s an important one if it’s been gnawing at you for so long.

  • billie hinton
    June 6, 2011

    I absolutely LOVE your red chair and gorgeous quilt. I see equally gorgeous stories being born there. 🙂

    And I love too that you are trying a completely different process this time around to build on what you learned from the previous novel process.

    Right now I’m working on the first draft of the second magical pony school book. I “outlined” in that I wrote down about 5 sentences that tell what happens in the book. Clearly it is a very overall story arc – no details although I do have several things (a heron, a 3-day descent of the goddess metaphor, and a Celtic myth) that will weave in and I have some notes on those as well.

    One thing I’m doing differently this time is writing the basic question for each chapter on a peel-away white board my writing group partner gave me – it’s pretty and I wanted to stick it on the wall as soon as I opened it to see how cool it looked – and once it was there I thought, well, heck, now I need to write something on it. It helps me to write a one-liner about the next chapter in line.

    Of course in the midst of all this (just coming out of writing weekend with D. here on November Hill) my brain starts cooking a new book. For that, which does tend to happen a lot to me, I have a black Moleskine that I write down ideas in. Usually if I write just a few sentences I can capture it enough to get back to later on.

    Often about the middle of the first draft I’ll get muddled. Where am I in this story? Where am I trying to go? And when I get that way I stop and make a few notes to re-organize my brain. That’s as close as I come to outlining, but if I ever feel the need to get more intricate with it, I won’t hesitate. IMO, we all need to do the things that work for us – it’s finding out what they are and being willing to change them when necessary that is the key.

    Your writing space photo makes me want to sit right down and start the new book!! There is something about that red chair that just sings.

    • Susan Henderson
      June 6, 2011

      That’s a lot of interesting threads you’re weaving together. I do something similar, and the first tries are usually clunky. I might steal your idea about having a guiding question for each chapter. Brilliant. And I’ll trade you the red chair for that field and horse! Talk about a good writing space!

  • Lee
    June 6, 2011

    Reworked and finally finished the outline last week, and now I’m writing as fast as possible to get the story out, then the game of dress-up begins.

    • Susan Henderson
      June 6, 2011

      Playing dress-up is my favorite part!

  • Amy Wallen
    June 6, 2011

    Somewhere along the way, life took over. And my novel became a back burner project which I have never let happen before. But where to fit it back into that 24-hour day that no matter how hard I try will not become a 38-hour day? I had to do something to make myself feel like I was still committed, still a write-every-day writer. So, I started something that one of my students actually said he’d had to do. I started A Sentence A Day. No matter what, I’m writing every day. I’ve never been a less than page a day person. Now I’m a sentence a day, or more, if the sentence goes beyond the period, but at least I’m doing something for me, and not just to pay my bills.

    As far as organization, this summer at my Skidmore writer-in-residence program, I’m hoping to dive in for a month on all the pages I have written on this novel over the last couple of years. I hope then, to know how the story wants to weave itself. And, like you Susan, I will let the character who is the most outspoken be the narrator. For now, it’s still crawling onto the page.

    Pie: Veggie Persian with Fresh Market seasonal vegetables in a lavosh crust. And a Beef Bourguignon in a cottage cheese crust. TWO Four-Cherry Pies, only I forgot to add the fourth kind of cherry, so it’s a Three-cherry, Four-Cherry Pie. Cherries this year–sweeter than kisses from a puppy. Cherry Season is too short.

    • Susan Henderson
      June 6, 2011

      That’s a great idea! It just gets your mind out of the sense of being stuck. And if one of those sentences opens the floodgates, then hurray!

      I have no doubt you’re going to find your groove at Skidmore. Very excited to see which novel (or play) pushes forward. I know you have a few brewing.

      And just FYI if you ever send me a cherry pie (and feel free to do it!), the cottage cheese crust will kill me.

  • Jessica Keener
    June 6, 2011

    Hi, Sue.
    I’m with Billie–in love with your red chair and your mom’s stunning quilt. What beautiful talismans, what a beautiful place to work. Even your bulletin looks neat and purposeful.

    I am returning to a manuscript that I put away for a year. To prepare, I spent last weekend on an intense clean up spree, weeding bookshelves and tossing paper stacks. I threw out a chair that I never liked.

    My manuscript is teed up on a small wicker table, along with eight folders of notes, outlines, file cards, research, plus some audio tapes. I’m a little scared/anxious, full of tension that’s been building for months–thinking about the story in the shower, on a walk, in the car–anywhere these past few months.

    Will I get it right this time?

    I do best when I set up a daily schedule for myself–a goal–and an end date to finish the draft. For additions/new stuff, I like to break things down to a daily word count so it feels do-able. Otherwise, I’ll make time goals (hours/day) And I’ll do my novel writing first before my paying freelance work. I’ve got new material to add, but much of what I’ll be doing now is revising, which is the stage that I love most.

    Congratulations on your debut’s continued success–a novel with a life of its own is a writer’s dream come true!

    • Susan Henderson
      June 6, 2011

      It’s funny–I’m a naturally chaotic thinker, so I overcompensate with the bulletin board and force my thoughts into order.

      I love hearing your process of returning to something old, having it call you back and say, hey, there’s something here! And I know the process of digging out old notes and research. Sometimes you find such good, raw heart when you dig, and sometimes with the distance, it’s easier to weed out all the ways you got off track the first time around. I’m excited to hear how it goes. It’s kind of like wandering back in time and discovering an old self.

  • Amy Sue Nathan
    June 6, 2011

    I’m working on what I hope is a final round of revisions of my novel for my agent. These changes are the ones that make me say “Why didn’t I think of this before?” In a way I guess things come in their own time and I couldn’t have made these changes, in this way, before now. I have to believe that, don’t I? 🙂

    • Susan Henderson
      June 6, 2011

      Ooh, that’s wonderful and bold: Why didn’t I think of this before? I love the confidence in that statement! Tell us when you get the green light from your agent, okay?

  • Keith Cronin
    June 7, 2011

    I’ll admit: I’m jealous when you say the voice of the book is coming to you with such clarity. That’s what’s holding me back. Like you, I’ve decided to do things differently for the next book, and I’ve brainstormed (probably my favorite part of the process) and plotted, and built what I think is a viable structure for the book. This is my first time trying that; for previous books I’d plot it out until the climactic conflict, and then let my characters show me how to resolve it. I like this new approach from a logical standpoint, because as you observed it’s a great way to prevent last-minute gotchas and holes/flaws in the plot. But what’s holding me back is that damned voice. I haven’t found it – which to me is an indication that I need to get to know my main character better.

    But I got a much-needed jolt of literary caffeine last week at the Backspace Conference. Between being surrounded by so many smart and talented writers (such as that stunning woman who wrote that “Up from the Blue” book), and Donald Maass’s mind-expanding workshop on writing “breakout” fiction, I’m ready to tackle this thing with a new sense of… of… I don’t know, that stuff that helps a guy finish a book. I’ll let you know if it works!

    • Susan Henderson
      June 7, 2011

      The voice comes when it comes. I think it’s great that you’ve got the structure in place. I would read books or watch movies with strong voices in them just to kind of zing that area of your brain (Dorothy Allison, Hunter Thompson, Flannery O’Connor, Zora Neale Hurston, Chuck P., Garrison K…) and then let your subconscious chew on it and mold it until it’s time.

  • Aurelio O'Brien
    June 7, 2011

    Wow! Your office is posher than I last saw it! The quilt is very cozy.

    My WIP sits neglected in my computer. We are in the midst of “home improvement” mode. I spent almost 7 years neglecting my home as I wrote GENeration eXtraTERrestrial so now the shoe is on the other foot.

    It feels good to do physical labor rather than sitting in front of a computer all day–I’m enjoying the change.

    We had a great time with Roy Kesey during his LA visit, BTW. Wish you could have joined us.

    • Susan Henderson
      June 7, 2011

      Great point about the need for balance and physical labor. Reminds me of Jessica’s comment about the cleaning spree, which I also find important to my process of beginning a new project.

      I wouldn’t think of your WIP sitting neglected, but you taking the time to recognize the work and the achievement of finishing GENeX, giving your mind and body the space to heal, and respecting that incubation period for the new project.

      Can’t even tell you how much I’d have liked to have joined you and Chuck and Kesey in LA!

  • Patry Francis
    June 9, 2011

    You are a wise woman. I succumbed to the eager voice of my narrator a little too quickly. Now I need to return to my version of the red chair, and the planning board. But with our summer internet free, I expect to make a lot of progress!

    • Susan Henderson
      June 10, 2011

      I’m just so glad that you’re writing a new one. And thanks for joining me on my Internet-Free Summer Break. I think I’ll make it official in about a week. Kind of similar to how I diet… right before I start, I try to eat a whole banana cream pie.

  • Billy Bones
    June 12, 2011

    Right now Mr. Lincoln is at the line editing phase of two WIPs and looking at a rewrite on a third. Line editing is his least favorite part of the process. He’s not a merciless person at heart, but that’s what it takes. Oh those poor little sentences, quivering in fear each time he starts his computer!

    • Susan Henderson
      June 12, 2011

      Line-editing’s my favorite. I never want it to end. And I’m terribly merciless. I love to cut and cut and cut! I line up all my chapters and characters and make them beg for their lives and give me reasons I should let them live, and then I often kill them anyway.

      I’m pretty sure this makes you a nicer person than me! 🙂

  • Jim Nichols
    June 13, 2011

    Glad to see you’re hard at work on the next one! Me, I’m working on story #10 for a new collection. I THINK I have 9 done, need one more or possibly 2 to have a book’s worth…

Susan Henderson