My Approach to the Writing Process: How Does Joyce Work Her Magic?

This is the fourth in a six-week blog tour series for the Northwest Independent Writer’s Association. NIWA serves Pacific Northwest writers working to achieve professional standards in independent writing, publishing, and marketing.

One of the first things I would say about my writing process is that it is never static. Not only does each book evolve its own process, but as I mature as a writer, I modify what I do each time I sit down to write a book. But…the nature of a book and the interaction of its characters can change things up each time. Even the simple choice of point of view and how many point of view characters there are in a book can affect a book’s process.

I generally start in January by laying out a publishing plan for the year. I try to write several essays and short stories a year, and at least two books. I know from past experience that I can write a rough draft of around 95,000 words in 6-8 weeks, let it rest for a month, revise over 2-4 weeks, then send out to readers before doing final revisions. I can turn out a good finished book in 5-6 months. But…because things change, this publishing plan is not set in stone.

Take for example, the current work in progress, a near-future agripunk thriller trilogy titled The Ruby Project: Origins, Ascendant, and Realizations. The first noodlings on Ruby started in the spring of 2019 when a right-to-repair article about farmers struggling with John Deere’s limitations on computerized farm equipment repair got me reading about agtech. Before long, I had a Firefox bookmark folder set up with links from my agtech reading as reference for an as-yet undetermined book (this part is common to every book I write these days—earlier versions were on Evernote but I don’t do that now).

Then in November, a friend started taking pitches for the new press he and his wife were launching. I had 24 hours to come up with a story. I brainstormed and the following pieces came into focus—a catchy tagline (Robotic agriculture doesn’t eliminate the BS), a quirky heroine (a middle-aged former rodeo queen now rancher seeking funding to finance the development of groundbreaking agriculture bots that reduce the impact of climate change on grain crops), the complications of an ex-husband, an adult son who wants them to get back together, a competitor, and a mushy concept for what her specific challenges could be (sabotage of technology and funding). That was the genesis of The Ruby Project (now The Ruby Project: Origins), originally a standalone book with potential sequels but nothing in mind just yet.

By January I had embarked on the planning process, though I’d been scribbling notes to myself ever since I pitched Ruby. Over the past few books I’ve developed a process that incorporates the use of Scrivener’s note card/outlining function, journaling notes, an easel with a continuous roll of paper, and creating a detailed scene matrix. I start with simple brainstorming as part of my world and character building process. Often that just involves sitting around staring at the wall and scribbling notes both on laptop and on paper. For some reason, character development really, REALLY wants to reveal itself to me just before bedtime, probably because I’m mulling aspects of world and character throughout the course of my day and at that point I’m ready to dump it on paper.

At some point, all the paper notes get organized and consolidated in Scrivener, and I print them out for offline reference if needed. Then I pull out the easel for plot brainstorming. I’ll go through several 3-6 foot lengths outlining specific plot and subplot points. When that is done, I create a scene matrix by hand using spreadsheet-type cell structures to pinpoint where every major character is in each scene (even if off-scene, that’s noted), who’s point of view it is if there’s multiple characters, and brief notes on the scene. I’ve found this matrix to be extremely useful when writing a complicated work, and boy can it save time in a rewrite.

However, for Ruby: Origins, I ended up writing from a ten-page synopsis. Which was fine as far as it went. Some books just don’t take to the scene matrix treatment, either because they are single point of view books or because as I write I discover that there’s more than one book lurking in that plot. That happened with my previous two books, Choices of Honor and Judgment of Honor. Choices was supposed to be part of a trilogy and the series ending. It wasn’t. I couldn’t get a plot matrix to work for it past the first third of the book, but I was able to do a scene outline. By the time I hit 60,000 words, I realized what the issue was. I could not resolve all the plot points in a single book.

Judgment was that book, and it was quite well-behaved with the plot matrix.

For Ruby: Origins, the issue was that I was pitching this book based on three completed chapters and a synopsis. Rather than do both matrix and synopsis, I wrote the synopsis. It went fairly well, but…I soon discovered that the ex-husband Gabe, as written, was an absolute jerkface with a notion of getting back together with Ruby. Now Ruby as a ranch woman would absolutely laugh in Gabe’s face because he had been so much of an ass to her. But. What if Gabe’s behavior that led to their divorce was because he was concealing a huge secret and he wanted to protect Ruby and their son Brandon? Furthermore, what if Ruby is also hiding a huge secret about her own past? What if Brandon’s motive to get them back together goes beyond a desire to see his family made whole and is an attempt to get himself out of trouble? Oooh. Yeah. Now we’re cooking, folks. And I had a possible breakout book on my hands that might actually attract the attention of a bigger publisher if the first one wasn’t interested. I designed Ruby: Origins in my thoughts as a possible submission project, and signed up for World Fantasy Con with a notion that I might just be able to pitch it there.

Once I started following these lines of inquiry—while writing the book, mind you—the trilogy fell into place. At the same time, COVID-19 started ramping up, and I realized that perhaps things in publishing might be a little dicey. More thoughts, and then I came to the conclusion that:

a.) After the last series I had sworn that I was never, EVER going to plan a series by the seat of my pants again,

b.) since Ruby had evolved into a trilogy before I even got the first book finished, perhaps I should plan out the series so that revisions for Ruby: Origins cover everything I need for the series without trying to fight with continuity, 

c.) perhaps this is the time I try rapid releasing a self-published series, especially since I can plan series pacing appropriately, and

d.) given current circumstances, who knows what traditional publishing is going to look like in the next couple of years, so why not?

After all, I’ve never written a complete series before releasing it. It seems like this is a good year to give it a try.

So we shall see how this goes. But the evolution of Ruby from idea to trilogy is fairly typical of how I go about developing a story from an idea. There are always surprises…and at some point, the story takes on a life of its own and starts writing itself.

That’s when the fun really begins, and the magic starts to sparkle.

*** *** ***

Other posts in this series by Joyce Reynolds-Ward (note: each website owner will post at some point during the week listed).

March 29-April 4thOrganizing Your Plot

April 5-11—Self-editing, grammar, and beta readers

April 12-18—Genre and cross-genre

April 19-25—This post: My Approach to the writing process

April 26-May 2—Reading to Impact your writing

May 3-9—Advice for new writers

Joyce Reynolds-Ward

Joyce Reynolds-Ward is a speculative fiction writer from Enterprise, Oregon. Her short stories include appearances in Well…It’s Your Cow, Children of a Different Sky, Allegory, River, and Fantasy Scroll Magazine. Her agripunk thriller trilogy, The Ruby Project: Origins, The Ruby Project: Ascendant, The Ruby Project: Realization, are due for release in November, 2020. Her books include Shadow Harvest, Choices of Honor, Judgment of Honor, and Klone’s Stronghold. Joyce has edited two anthologies, Pulling Up Stakes (2018), and Whimsical Beasts (2019). Besides writing, Joyce enjoys reading, quilting, horses, and hiking, and is a member of Soroptimist International of Wallowa County.

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