My Painfully Slow Progress

I am plotting out my book in great detail, scene by scene by scene, a method I’ve only really used for work-for-hire novels (because I had to, under the contract), but I guess for my own stuff it could be helpful, too. I don’t have to stick to it exactly when I’m writing… But as I go I do feel the shapes coming clearer, the people. This is the whole point, huh? Well, don’t say you told me so.

It is taking an exceptionally long time, I’m afraid. Some days it feels like I’m making no progress, but I have to be. Right, right?

As I work through the scenes I keep getting flashes of Robert McKee. He said a scene has to turn, so if you start in one direction, you can’t continue on in the same direction and end just as you were. The emotional values of your characters are energized either positive (+) or negative (-), so if you start your scene at a high point (+), don’t keep going + + + + and end on +—what’s the point of the scene then? Start + and end -. Or start – and end +. You could even start + reach a moment of – and return again to +. That’s my memory of it anyway. I realize I’m garbling the explanation, and I could look it up online but I don’t feel like it. I just sometimes, as I’m working through scenes, have these little symbols hovering over my page. I’m all + -. Or – + -. Or + + + + + + + – + – + – – – – +, but no that’s just crazy.

I’m sure I’ve talked before of that weekend I was forced to spent three days at Mr. McKee’s infamous Story Seminar. I was sent by the job I had at the time—as an assistant editor for a comic-book company; they sent about a dozen editors so we could be better with plots… this was the summer of no flashbacks (seriously; flashbacks were banned). By the third day, I was so burned out, the hard seats of the lecture hall just killing my back, that I had to stretch out on the floor where I couldn’t even see Mr. McKee (and I may have even, for a few minutes or so, napped? the people who paid their own money must have been horrified). It took me years to be able to watch Casablanca again.

But I guess that story seminar made its way into my subconscious, hearing him bark out his directives, hearing him attack people whose cell phones went off… his methods have seeped into me, as if from a dream. I think it’s just actually really helpful, as a writer, to hear people talk about writing. The mechanics. The pieces. Their methods, even if they’re not yours. Then you reinterpret them in your own mangled way, as I did this + / – thing, and make it your own. Hey, today, by the way, I woke feeling (-) for just a second but then felt (+) for many hours and now, though I have to go to work (-), I do have this outline to come home to tonight (+) and the stories I’m working on for my collection (+++) and I know I can’t accomplish everything I want to this summer—I am slow slow slow (- – -)—I will still try.


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9 responses to “My Painfully Slow Progress”

  1. Nova, I just finished commenting to you on my blog about how helpful it is to read other writers writing about writing. And here you are, writing about how helpful it is to hear writers talk about writing.

    I’ve been to many different types of conferences and seminars in my life, but only one about writing. I’ve never attended a writing workshop. I don’t do writerly things (except writing, of course). This post has me reconsidering.

    I’m wondering, though… in fiction writing, does planning your book scene by scene enhance your creativity or stifle it? I’ve always imagined the fiction writer being something of an oracle, smoke swirling in the background and perhaps a fairy or two whispering in her ear as she, trance-like, writes. So you’re ruining my concept of fiction writing as transcendental and putting it on the same plane with nonfiction writing.


  2. Hi, Eve, that’s exactly why I don’t usually outline what I consider my real writing (my novels and stories for adults). I am afraid to ruin that process. But look at where I am with that… not exactly anywhere of substance since those novels were never published.

    When I wrote books on assignment, I was forced to outline and I found that it works best when I make the outlining process a bit trance-like, imagining the story unfold as I piece it together. I’m sure my outlines tend to ramble (sometimes whole scenes come through).

    I never outline short stories.

    So I’m of two minds about it… I have to outline now — an outline is due for the book I’m writing July 15. But I happen to know that if I didn’t have to write this outline, I wouldn’t do it at all and I’d just finish the first draft straight to the end.

    You could say I am making the best of this and having fun with my outline. For now it feels alive and good. Hope that lasts.


  3. Oh dear. Things are supposed to happen in scenes? They can’t just be static? I knew I shouldn’t try to write prose. (I exaggerate – some things happen and sometimes there is even change but my goodness, not often.)


  4. This seems to be the morning for blogs about scene construction! (Earlier read this post: and then a few posts off that.)

    Glad I happened onto your +/- discussion, because I’ve just realized that the scene I’m working on starts off too neutrally (what’s the symbol for that?). I ought to start off a little more + because the character is going to end up -. A little epiphany! Thanks!

    I’ll be interested in hearing how your outlining adventure goes. I find outlining SOOO difficult, and I used to pooh-pooh the concept as only for fomulaic writers…but….I don’t think that’s quite true. So far, I’ve been unable to think through a whole novel from beginning to end before I start writing. I get only so far and then bump up against a wall…I have to write what I’ve got, to know what comes next!

    Molly Gloss said something about that at her last local reading. She used the headights-in-the-fog metaphor to describe her process.


  5. i totally agree about incorporating ideas you hear…sometimes you don’t even realize you’ve taken something in so completely until you find yourself utilizing it.
    and on the flip side, i love how Francine Prose talks about ‘rules’ in her book ‘Reading Like a Writer..’ she has that whole chapter where she talks about reading Chekov and realizing every rule she has made for her class he has broken at some point. which isn’t to say rules are pointless…i prefer guidelines, and then if our instincts tell us the guidelines must be tossed for a moment, to trust our instincts.


  6. I really like McKee’s book Story, and i follow some of his advice – in fact, he is one of the few I trust, because when it works, it works so. damn. well. With my novel in progress I wasn’t able to order it scene by scene by scene, so I first figured out what had to happen in each “act,” and then would plan out 2-3 chapters at a time. I’m ready to start act 2 now, and I have a clear idea of what needs to happen, which is comforting in a way…


  7. Wow. This entry was so incredibly helpful, love it. I want to look back at all the chapters in all my WIPs now…
    Thanks for this post.


  8. Glad it was helpful to people! I’d recommend Robert McKee’s book Story, too. Does this mean I’m a McKee convert if I find myself using his methods (more than one) all the time? He has groupies. I swear I’m not one.


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