One Scene at a Time

writer-at-work-a2Kaitlyn 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.

27149da424ac1bf38cbedb0617ea0814_251x320x1In 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:

proposalpage (384x500)

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 and


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19 Responses to One Scene at a Time

  1. Heidi Wilson says:

    Kathy, this post is so useful to us wannabes! I work by scenes too, though it can easily take me a week to complete one. Here’s a bit of your post I’d like to hear more about:

    “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.”

    That sounds as if it would take days or weeks to do, every time. What kind of “making better” are we talking about here?

    Many thanks for your good advice.

    • Heidi, This could be the basis of another entire blog, but the short answer is, yes, sometimes it does take a while to get back to the point where I stopped. As I do my raw writing and ideas occur to me, I stick post-it notes in the previously written pages, putting off going back as long as possible. But eventually the need to change something significant just gets too strong to resist. I have to fix it, and by fixing it, I will have made it necessary to make other changes for continuity and to make sure I don’t lose any information the reader needs to have early on. What triggers this revision isn’t always the same thing. Sometimes it’s the realization that I started the book at the wrong point. Sometimes I realize that a character needs to be introduced earlier and I need to go back and put him or her into the story before I write him or her into later scenes. With the proposal I’ve been working on, it was a combination of both. I had started Chapter One with a police detective coming to my sleuth’s house to tell her that a woman she’d only met a few days earlier was the victim of a suspected homicide. I realized I needed to show that earlier meeting of victim and sleuth, and have something click between them in that scene if my sleuth was going to care enough about the victim to get involved in solving her murder. So, I added that scene (and another short one with a cat) and it was immediately obvious that I had to rethink several other things, too. With my historical series, I’m about halfway through the third book, as yet untitled. I’m still struggling with the best place to start and if I go with my current feeling about what will work best, Chapter Three will become Chapter One and I’ll have to find somewhere else to work in some very necessary information presently contained in the two chapters I’ll be deleting. Hope that helps.

      • Kait Carson says:

        Hi Kathy, interesting what you say about chapter 3. I often find (even when I fight it) that the third chapter is my real starting point. The first two chapters often seem to be written for my personal benefit in getting the story off the ground. Kudos to my critique partners and editors for holding my feet to the fire.

      • Heidi Wilson says:

        It’s a huge help, and this string of comments is wonderful. You started a great conversation here.

      • Thanks, Heidi. Always great when a blog works out that way.

  2. Kate,
    Thanks for sharing that — I find no matter what a writer’s process is, it helps me think of an refine my own. I’m with you on the word count. In my case, I can easily sit down and write thousands of words in a session, because my process is to get everything down then revise, revise, revise. Like you, I start a session with one scene in mind and complete it. But if it leads to ideas for a different scene, either one I’ve done already or one I hadn’t even thought of, I try to get some of that down. If it’s a completed one, I spend time revising. If it’s a new one, sometimes I’ll outline or rough it out before stopping for the night. It’s a lot of one step up, one step back for me. Theoretically, book eventually emerges.

    • Hi, Maureen,
      Oddly enough, my scenes tend to end up being roughly the same length, between 1000 and 1500 words. At the least, I need to get up and stretch after writing that much. Sometimes, when I’m on a roll, I do keep going, but I’ve learned the hard way that trying to do too much can backfire on me. I’d never be able to wait till the last minute and race a deadline, locking myself in book jail as I know many writers do to finish a book. I have to leave myself lots of time, not only between writing sessions, but also between finishing one draft and revising it. How did I learning that “the hard way?” Many years ago, in order to get a three-book contract, I agreed to write the first book, a 100,000 word historical romance, in three months. I made my deadline, but I had a severe stress headache the entire time I was writing! These days I plan way ahead and make sure I start work on a book at least 9 months to a year before it’s due. I know not everyone can do that, given how fast publishers want books in a series these days, but for me it’s a necessity.

  3. MCWriTers says:

    Great post, Kathy! I’ll admit I do have a page count goal — especially when I’m under a deadline. (Makes me feel SO good to exceed my goal! Not so great when … but that happens, too.) Inside that page goal, I tend to write in chapters — since some of my chapters are very short (1-4 pages) and some very long (20+ pages) this keeps me focused, and also tells me that maybe I need to expand in a few places, and break in a few others. Depending on where I am in the manuscript, I’ll go back and edit and change earlier pages … but I also begin my writing session editing the pages I wrote the day before. Gets me in the swing … Since today is the beginning of the Christmas tree buying season — hope you and Sandy sell many!

    • Thanks, for both the good wishes and the input. I keep thinking I ought to edit the previous day’s pages at the beginning of a session, but the few times I’ve started by doing that, I’ve ended up losing my most creative time and energy to revising. What can I say? I really get into revising. But then I’m running on fumes by the time I get to the new writing. On the other hand, I often think of ways to tweak the last session’s work during the down time between sessions. When that happens, I haul out the printout (I keep the day’s work and all my notes for a book in a three ring binder) and make the changes in ink. I usually type those changes into the e-file after I finish roughing out the next new scene.

  4. Barb Ross says:

    Hi Kathy/Kaitlyn–

    That’s exactly what my revised scenes look like. Like you, I revise on paper, which I often think is stupid as I am doggedly inputting the changes, but somehow working on paper on a large tabletop “opens up” my mind in a way working on a relatively small screen does not.

    With first drafts, my bete noire, I do have a page count goal, but it is usually 1250 or 1500 words which is also more or less my scene length, so it often works out that I am writing in scenes.

    I try not to go backward and revise, just keep marching forward, but like you, sometimes I have to go back and fix something major.

    • Hi, Barb,
      I figure that extra step of putting changes into the e-file is just an extra revision, which is all to the good. I usually do the hand revision in the morning and put those changes into the computer in the afternoon or early evening, and it sometimes ends up as a second writing session with tweaking a word here and a sentence there and sometimes cutting out a chunk that I added the first time around. There is no end to it!!!!

  5. Looking forward to a new series!

    • Thanks, Kathleen. As I was telling my family on Thanksgiving, even if it sells right away, it’s going to be two or three years before anything makes it into print, but it’s nice to know there are folks out there ready to read it.

  6. Amber Foxx says:

    I work through my scenes in a similar manner after the initial burst of seat-of-the pants inspiration that gets them written in the first place. After I’ve cleaned the book up enough to find it worth serious attention, I print it out and color-code rather than hand-revise. I mark the character’s goal for each scene in green, the conflict in hot pink, the setback or what Jack Bickham calls “the disaster” in blue. I use bright orange on what needs major revision and red on what should be cut, and write question marks in the color code for each scene element if it’s lacking–for example, lack of conflict is a big pink “?”. I mark the section with up arrows if I need to increase the pace or tension and down arrows if I need to slow it down and show more. In addition to the color codes, I have one-letter and two-letter abbreviations for plot elements, subplots, and themes, and if any scene doesn’t get marked with one or more of those abbreviations it’s usually an indication I need to cut it. The reason I do it this way is for flow. I’m an obsessive reviser if I don’t do something to stop myself. If I’m touching my keyboard I can get lost in polishing word choice and sentence structure in a scene I’ll end up cutting. This process of only coding and not writing makes me focus exclusively on structure. Act 1, Act 2, Act 3 and scene-by-scene structure. It’s where the pantser turns plotter.

    • Hi, Amber,
      Thanks for sharing. I especially like your take on flow. One of the reasons I go back to the beginning when I revise and then keep going forward as far as possible is to keep a sense of continuity. I find, too, that if I don’t work on the story at least a little each day, it’s far too easy for me to lose track of where I was headed.

  7. Kait Carson says:

    Thank you for the insight into your process. I am a one scene/one chapter writer. My chapters go from 1500 to 2500 but rarely contain more than one scene. I admire writers who can include more, and wish I could. I think it all has to do with voice. My voice is breezy and quick. Writers with more serious voices need longer chapters. I love learning how other writers work. Thank you for sharing.

  8. Bruce Coffin says:

    Great post, Kathy! That is exactly what I shoot for each day. Sometimes the scene doesn’t quite get finished, or I may not like the ending, in which case I’ll move on to another scene or simply call it a day. When it comes to that feeling of accomplishment, I find writing scenes far better than simple word count.

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