Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson here, blogging today about what, for lack of a better word, I’ll call the milestone I aim for when I sit down to begin my day’s work. I gather I’m a bit of an oddball. Most writers I know set a daily goal of a certain minimum number of words. A few go by page count. Some devote a set period of time to writing each day.
I aim to complete a scene during each writing session.
When I outline—which, granted, I tend to do after I’ve roughed out that section of the book—I break chapters into scenes. Usually, but not always, there are three scenes to a chapter. In some of my historical novels, which have shorter chapters, each scene is a chapter. Scenes vary in length. They are moved around in the text when I revise, sometimes more than once. Each scene is presented in a single point of view and, generally, it takes place using only one setting. When my characters move to another time and/or place or the pov character changes, that signals the start of a new scene.
In each scene, something is accomplished: the plot is advanced, a character is developed, or an important clue is planted. Sometimes a scene tells a mini-story within the story. Step by step, scene by scene, I advance toward the end of the tale, but there is an added bonus. At the end of each writing session, I have a real sense of accomplishment. I have completed something—a whole scene—rather than just reaching an arbitrary word or page count. That is a very satisfying feeling, one I can enjoy even when I know that the entire novel will not be finished for many months to come.
Oddly enough, this sense of completion comes through even when a scene ends with a cliffhanger.
I usually finish a writing session by making a few notes about what happens next. On rare occasions, I am inspired to go on and write a second scene, but I find I am more creative when I take a break before going forward, especially if the next scene involves a shift in point of view from one character to another.
Not every day’s writing goes as smoothly as I’d like. Some scenes just don’t work. Others feel incomplete even when they take the action and the characters where I think I want them to go. That’s okay. Everything will undergo several revisions anyway. What’s important is to keep moving forward, at least one new scene a day, until the proverbial lightbulb goes on and I know what to do to make earlier scenes better. At that point, I usually go all the way back to the beginning and work my way forward again to the place where I stopped. If all goes well, I am psyched up to continue on, armed with fresh ideas about where the story is headed.
This past week, I’ve been revising the three chapters I’ll include in my proposal for a new cozy mystery series. I revise by hand on a printout, then make further changes when I type them in. The first day, I got through all of Chapter One. On day two, barely a word escaped unchanged and I was back to one scene at a time. Here’s what a typical hand-revised page looks like:
So, that’s how I organize my writing sessions. For me, setting a time limit on how long I spend at the keyboard would be counter-productive. Setting a minimum word or page count goal might work, so long as I didn’t let myself fall into the trap of stopping when I hit the minimum. I can’t imagine that would be very satisfying. I’d also end up having to go back and find my place in the scene before going on again, something I’d rather not do until I’m ready to revise. Would trying to write the rough draft of an entire novel in a single month work for me? I doubt it. That doesn’t seem to leave any room for inspired revisions.
Would writing scene by scene work for you? The only way to find out is to give it a try. Every writer has to experiment at first to find what best suits him or her.
Do you have techniques or a writing routine you’d like to share? If so, I hope you’ll leave a comment below. One of the best things about the writing community is that we can learn from each other.
Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett is the author of over fifty books written under several names. She won the Agatha Award in 2008 for best mystery nonfiction for How to Write Killer Historical Mysteries and was an Agatha Award finalist in 2014 in the best mystery short story category for “The Blessing Witch.” Currently she writes the contemporary Liss MacCrimmon Mysteries (The Scottie Barked at Midnight) as Kaitlyn and the historical Mistress Jaffrey Mysteries (Murder in the Merchant’s Hall) as Kathy. The latter series is a spin-off from her earlier “Face Down” series and is set in Elizabethan England. Her websites are www.KaitlynDunnett.com and www.KathyLynnEmerson.com