The Change-up

I love my job. No, really, I do. But sometimes, it drives me absolutely batsh*t crazy.

You want to know why? Because every time I sit down to write a book, I have a completely different experience. You’d think with thirteen books on the shelves, I’d have this writing thing down to a science. You’d think I’d sit down at the beginning of the project and know exactly how I was going to attack it. That I would have an actual, you know, process. One that’s tried and true, that works consistently every time.

Pardon me while I take a moment to savor the beautiful fantasy.

Of course, it never works that way. Not for me. Every time I sit down to write, it’s a new experience, and tried and true techniques that powered me through the books before fall flat on their face on an alarming basis. Each book is its own unique puzzle, one I have to learn how to solve all over again, as if I’ve never written a book before in my life.

Here’s the one thing all the experience of writing thirteen books (well, I’ve written over thirty, but there are thirteen commercially published ones out in print) has taught me: if my current tried and true method isn’t working, it’s time to chuck it and try something different.

As those of you who follow me on Twitter or Facebook may know, I’ve been struggling a bit getting up to speed on my current work in progress. This book is the first in my new dystopian YA series. I sold the book on proposal, and writing those first couple of chapters and synopsis was easy. My muse was cooperating, I was excited about the project, and though there were some holes in my plot I knew I’d have to fill in when I actually wrote the book, I was confident the answers would come to me as I worked my way through. But here’s the one drawback to selling on proposal: the time between when you write that proposal, getting all excited about the project and brimming with energy and enthusiasm for the New! Shiny! and the time when you actually have sold the book and sit down to write it can be considerable. (I haven’t checked my calendar, but for me with this book, it was probably more than six months, all told.)

Funny how when you sit down to work on a book six months after it was the New! Shiny! love of your life, you often find that you’re lacking the momentum you’d worked up back when you wrote the proposal. And trying to get started again can be like rolling a boulder uphill.

That was the state I found myself in as I buckled down to work on REPLICA. I was still excited about the project, of course, but every scrap of momentum I’d built up was gone, and getting started again was slow going. I diligently tried to apply my normal routine, sitting down every morning to write at my usual time, logging my writing time and word count in my little book. If I didn’t feel like writing, I sat down and forced myself to get something down anyway. Sometimes, I used Write or Die to try to get some production without too much internal editing. Often, when I do these things, I endure some number of painful, slow, frustrating writing days, but then eventually burst my way clear and start writing more freely and easily. But with REPLICA, this didn’t seem to be working.

I kept finding excuses not to write, and when I sat down to work, I was sllloooowww. There was no flow, no losing myself in the words or story. it was painful and arduous work, and every plot problem I tried to work out was fighting back with terrible ferocity, refusing to be solved.

Because this isn’t my first time around the block, I knew that the only way I was going to get this book off the ground was to make some kind of change, but I didn’t know what. I tried a few of my other tricks that sometimes work for me (plotting on index cards often works, as does getting away from the computer and writing by hand for a while), but I was still struggling through quicksand. I looked through my pile of disjointed, very incomplete index cards, and noticed that there were a couple of scenes I was looking forward to writing, if only I could get to them. I felt a momentary urge to just skip ahead to the “good parts,” but my practical mind reminded me that I always write in order. I’d tried before to write scenes out of order, and it never worked, which led me to the obvious conclusion that I can’t do write scenes out of order.

And that was the moment I realized what I had to do. I’ve learned from experience that where writing is concerned, the words “I can’t” don’t apply. What I can and can’t do varies too wildly with the situation. And so, I decided I was going to try again to write a book out of order. What was the worst that could happen? It wouldn’t work? How was that different from the mess I was in at the moment?

So I did it. I sat down and wrote that one scene out of order, having no idea how I was going to get from my current place in the book to that one scene. Then I decided that since I was going all out and trying something different, I’d give writing in Scrivener a try. It had always seemed to me before that it was software more useful to a natural plotter–or to someone who wrote out of order–than to someone like me. But what the heck? I was trying something different, so maybe now was the time to give it another chance.

I started this brave new venture a week ago today, when my draft was at around 15,000 words. Today, I’m at over 30,000 words. The change-up seems to have worked, and I have the whole first half of the novel plotted out scene by scene. I’m really enjoying learning Scrivener, and I can see many ways it’s going to help me in the long run. But it isn’t the new software that helped me make the breakthrough: it was the willingness to try something different.

The moral of the story for writers is, always be willing to try something different if what you’re currently doing isn’t working. There are more different ways to accomplish the writing of a novel than you can possibly imagine. Eventually, you will find the one that works for you for your current project. You’ve just got to be open to change–and you’ve got to be willing to take a risk.

About Dame Jenna

Jenna Black got her BA in physical anthropology from Duke University. She dreamed she’d be the next Jane Goodall, camping in the bush making discoveries about primate behavior. But then she did some research in the field and made this shocking discovery: primates spend about 80% of their time doing exciting things like sleeping and eating. Concluding this discovery was her life’s work in the field of primatology, she moved on to such jobs as grooming dogs and writing technical documentation. She writes urban fantasy for Bantam Dell and young adult urban fantasy for St. Martin’s.


  1. In some ways your post frightens me, and yet, it’s cool at the same time. It frightening to think that it’s possible I won’t find a “method” that works every time. On the other hand, it makes me feel better to know that even at 30 books you still struggle with the same stuff I do. LOL

    By the way, you are ROCKING with the word count:)

  2. You know what, Brenda, it kind of frightens me, too. LOL I’m trying to resign myself to the idea that I might never become the pillar of confidence I once imagined. Misery loves company, right? (But all kidding aside, I really do still love my job.)

  3. I love your post! ^^
    Although I guess it’s kinda scary to see how writing never seems to get easier with each book your post was really inspiring at the end!
    And it actually works for both writers and non- alike.
    This theory applies to the general populace in whatever we do!
    Great to see you working hard to give us readers the perfect book we can all enjoy ;)
    And you left me really, really looking forward to Replica!

  4. I am so glad you are writing something new. I can’t wait to see it finished