Over the last week, I’ve been exploring writing processes and outlines with some of my writer friends, and today I’ve got the final writer weighing in. Bethany Hegedus is the author of two middle-grade books, Truth With a Capital T and Between Us Baxters, both from Bank Street Books, and her next book, Grandfather Gandhi is coming from Atheneum Books soon. She’s also the editor of Hunger Mountain, the Vermont College of Fine Arts journal.
Before Bethany starts, don’t forget to check out all the arguments in this online To Outline or Not to Outline debate, with P.J. Hoover, Donna Bowman Bratton, Nikki Loftin, Jessica Lee Anderson and myself.
And now, here’s Bethany’s take on the subject. Take it away…
How do you start a new book?
New novel ideas come quite often—especially during the time where I have just finished one and it is in the process of being shopped around by my agent. When there is that void, when I am not writing consistently, I see possible stories everywhere. In the newspaper. In the way the wind blows on a hot day. From my own set of circumstances. (When I first moved to Texas, I began a manuscript tentatively titled Creation Creek about a little girl who moves from Georgia to Texas and who rides with the truck driver in the big rig while her Daddy, who is agoraphobic, has strapped himself to the Lazy-Boy inside the double wide, and has decided this is the safest way for him to get from point A to point B. I am not agoraphobic but moving from New York to Texas, half made me want to hide like the Dad and half want to go explore and make new friends, like my main character Fancy.) I don’t write the ideas down but the ones that stick, or the ones that I decide to pursue have some emotional connection for me right then and there. I have a sister story, an idea that hasn’t left me for about six years, it’s a story I feel I will right one day but not yet … how I take this emotional temperature gauging I don’t know, but thus far, it has served me well.
Do you outline or write more by the seat of your pants?
I used to write by the seat of my pants—more plunger than plotter. A friend turned me on to a fabulous craft book, The Weekend Novelist by James Ray, and he takes the writer on a series of exercises to develop their work in progress key scene by key scene. The idea of key scenes appealed to my structure oriented brain, but I still write organically, following the character as closely as I can, and then when I run into a wall, I look back to see where I have been. Perhaps this is backward, but it reminds me of explorers who set out into the wilderness and instead of following someone else’s map, charted the territory they had covered after they had been there. It takes a lot of backward and forward movement and, though it may not always be time effective, I think it helps me create layers as I write and not go with first thoughts.
There is an article coming out in the fall issue of Hunger Mountain, a literary journal where I edit the Young Adult and Children’s content, called “Writing with Both Sides of the Brain” by Kelly Barson that may interest you. Your question, Sam, about outling or writing from the seat of one’s pants, made me think of this essay. What Kelly does that is really interesting is show how writers need both the analytical and the creative sides of the brain and how to get them to work together. In reading her essay, I had so many ah-ha moments in terms of how my process works currently and how my process has been changing. It also made me realize that the right and left sides of an artist’s brain need not be at war with one another. They may not create in perfect harmony—we may lean toward one side more than the other—but to do what we do, we must create a partnership between the more analytical side and the side that can come up with wholly new imagery and subtext.
Did your process evolve, and/or how did you come up with your process?
I am glad my process keeps changing, though the part of me that wants to get it “right” — whatever “right” is — wishes my writing process would stay static or that I had stumbled upon someone else’s process that could be prescribed to all artists across the board. Eureka! Like new math—we all must approach writing this way!
Writing a novel is a lot of trial and error. It is engaging with action and plot but at the same time investigating the internal reactions and sometimes unconscious decisions that lead characters to make certain choices. It is a lot like life—messy, never fully finished, and always a work in progress.
What is great in sharing about process and talking about it with other writers is that we see the universal connections and struggles we have in common and we are also exposed to new tools and new ways of thinking that we wouldn’t have come up with on our own. There is nothing I love more than process talk!
I totally agree with you there, Bethany! Thanks for all the insight.
What are your best outlining tips?