Creative Writing Tools — the “Scene Summary” by Jill Archer

Happy Friday everyone! Casey here! I have a special guest today – Jill Archer. Jill’s debut novel - Dark Light of Day is coming this October from Ace/Roc. Stay tuned, because at the end of the post, Jill is having a giveaway.

Jill, thank you so much for being our guest today. Take it away!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Casey Wyatt graciously invited me to guest blog today. I was thrilled. Since I started following this blog, I’ve enjoyed reading all of the posts from the Scribes. My debut novel, Dark Light of Day, is coming out September 25, 2012. I figured it would be fun to dig out my very first notes on Chapter 1 and talk about how I draft a scene. What a hoot! Before writing this blog post, I hadn’t looked at my initial Chapter 1 notes in years.

Getting Started

Writers are fond of asking one another “Are you a Plotter or a Pantser?” I’m mostly a plotter, but I always allow myself to go off-script. I usually start with a blurb, a rough synopsis, and brief chapter descriptions. I also like to name my chapters. By naming them, I’m able to see each chapter’s purpose in the overall story. The chapter names act as story guideposts. So much so, in fact, that my editor finally advised me to get rid of them. (She thought, particularly in later chapters of Dark Light of Day, that my chapter names foreshadowed too much. I agreed and decided to delete them rather than trying to come up with vaguer names. But the drafting practice continued with book #2. I named all of my chapters before writing them — and then deleted the names just prior to turning the manuscript in.)

First Drafts

I like a very tight first draft. Bracketed sections like [insert fight scene here] or [add description later] or [what is librarian's name?] or [research obscure legal remedies for theft] worry me. I can’t leave stuff like that unanswered, even in a first draft. I go back and edit, of course, but I try to write a first draft that is as polished as it possibly can be. And that takes a fair amount of prep work.

Instead of spending a huge months-long chunk of time researching, world building, and generally prepping before writing, I’ve found the most efficient way to prep is to write a “scene summary” before each scene. A scene summary gets the creative juices flowing, highlights areas that need to be fleshed out, and allows me to gather all of the info I need in order to write the scene ahead of time. That way, when it comes time to actually write the scene, the words flow faster and I don’t stumble over the holes I might have otherwise left in the manuscript as bracketed sections.

The Scene Summary

My scene summary details basic information like the five W’s (who, what, when, where, and why) and the five senses, as well as things like weather, what the characters are wearing, time elapsed from the last scene to this one (helps with transitions), visual motifs, mood and tone, and the information I need the reader to get out of the scene. All of my settings and minor characters are built and created immediately prior to when I need them through the scene summary. Necessary research is done then too. Is it overkill? Maybe. Is it a crutch? Definitely. I’ve found the further I get into a manuscript, the less I need to rely on my scene summaries. First, I’m walking with my crutch, then I’m strolling along at a decent clip, then — by the end — I’m sprinting.

Here’s part of my scene summary for Dark Light of Day Chapter 1:

Who – noon, on her way to the aster’s garden. It’s a winter storm. Then her and peter.

What – she wants to tell peter about the letter, st. lucifer’s and her mother.

Where – first, immediately outside the aster’s garden gate, then inside the garden

When – at night.

Weather – COLD, frigid.

Motifs/Mood – gardens, plants, flowers, growing things but all dormant. DORMANCY.

Visuals – dark, black, silver, white, dark blue, crystal, clean, crisp

Sight – dark, stars, clear, night, snow, white, silver, street lamps (globes?), icy sidewalk, fur lined hood, steamy breath

 Sound – crunch on ice and snow, breath

 Feel – cold, wind on face, burning in lungs

And here’s how the beginning of this scene turned out:

Chapter 1

      The wind whipping across my face made it feel as if I’d just scrubbed with camphor and bits of glass. My eyes watered and my nose ran. I sniffled and kept walking, my boots crunching over the ice and snow. Stars winked high above me like baby’s breath thrown into an inky sea, but the main light came from small umber streetlights tucked into the stone wall beside me. The Aster’s front gate was just thirty yards ahead. I tried not to think about how cold the walk home would be if they refused to let me in. Inside my pocket, I squeezed my letter, forever wrinkling it. I knew some people framed theirs. I didn’t care. I planned to burn mine.

The wall I’d been walking along ended and a massive iron gate rose up in its place. To its side was a call box. Giving the letter one final vicious squeeze, I withdrew my hand, opened the box, and turned the crank. It stuck at first and I had to wrench it free from a brittle crust of snow and ice. Finally I heard a pop and some clicking. But no one answered. I stood for another half minute or so, blowing breath into my cupped hands to warm my now frigid mouth and nose. I turned the crank again. It was too late for dinner and too early for bed. Someone would answer. After a while, Mrs. Aster did.

“Hello?” squawked the box.

“Evening, Mrs. Aster,” I said, trying to keep my voice pleasant. “It’s Nouiomo Onyx.”

A moment of silence passed as I tucked a strand of hair back into my hood. The frost on my mitten brushed my cheek. The spot burned as if someone had just nicked me with a metal rake.

“Good evening, Noon.”

“Is Peter home?”

“I haven’t seen him since dinner.” This may or may not have been true. The Aster’s house was as big as a castle and I knew Peter spent most of his time studying either in his room or in the family library.

“I need to talk to him about something,” I said, still managing to keep the impatience out of my voice. “Would you let him know I’m here?”

“Can’t it wait until tomorrow?”

“No. I’m leaving tomorrow. That’s what I want to talk to him about.”

There was a long pause before she answered again.

“Noon, I have two hundred poinsettias, five holly trees, and a dozen live mistletoe sprigs in the house. You can’t come in. I’m sorry.”

I fought for calm and swallowed the lump in my throat. What had I expected? It was Yuletide and the Asters were Angels, for Luck’s sake.

“Can you tell him to come out?”

Another long pause and then, “He’s studying.”

I sighed. The lump was gone, replaced with resignation. I had lived next to Peter for twenty-one years, my whole life. And I could count on one hand the number of times this gate had opened for me. I cleared my throat, wanting my voice to sound stronger than I felt.

“Tell him I stopped by then, would you?”

“Of course. Good night, Noon.” The squawking stopped and then the static and the box went completely silent.

I turned and started crunching my way back, stepping carefully, and clutching my hood beneath my chin to keep the wind from my ears. I was so focused on how cold and miserable I was that it took me a while to notice the warmth spreading from the pocket of my cape. Just as I started to smell burning wool—disgusting!—warm turned to seriously hot and I glanced down to see that I had set my cape on fire. Brilliant. I hadn’t inadvertently set anything on fire since puberty. I waved a flat hand over the flames and quickly smothered the fire. I looked around to see if anyone was watching. Someone was.

Luckily, it was Peter.

He was leaning against the stone wall I had just walked along. The same stone wall that ran for miles along the Lemiscus, a lane as old as the Apocalypse which separated our families’ estates. The Asters had a wall running along their side. On ours? Nothing. My father, Karanos Onyx, was one of the most powerful Maegesters in the country. We didn’t need walls to keep our privacy.

Peter’s hood was down, his cloak unbuttoned, and his hands bare—obviously he’d rushed to meet me. In the deep twilight, his white blond hair was the color of snow and ash, nearly the opposite of my midnight colored tresses. He pushed off the wall with his shoulder, his lanky frame ambling over to my shivering one, and put his arm around me. His smile was friendly but his frost blue eyes were disapproving. He’d seen the fire.

“Shall we?” he said, motioning toward a small wooden door that was half-hidden in the wall.

“Is it safe?”

“As safe as it always is. I cast the spell just before opening the door.”

Huddled together we stepped through the doorway. Peter closed the door behind us and I stared ahead, remembering the first time I had stepped through that door. I’d been five and it was the first time I’d ever stepped foot in a garden. I’d been so in awe, so overwhelmed, by the life growing within these walls. The dark, destructive waning magic I tried so desperately to keep hidden deep inside of me had pulsed in response to the rich magentas, bright clarets, and cheerful fuchsias of the blooms and buds. Within seconds of my entry, I had killed three hydrangeas, two hostas, and a mulberry tree. Instantly, they’d become black silhouettes against the garden’s remaining ruddy colors.

It was the single most horrifying day of my life. And the most hopeful. Because a moment later Peter had cast a protective spell over the surviving plants so that I could walk among them—green, growing, living plants. I dared not touch anything now, but at least I could look.

The place would have been magical even without a spell. Yew topiaries shaped as Mephistopheles, Beelzebub, and Alecto warred alongside Gabriel, Michael, and Mary. They were all dormant now, the yews buried under an inch of fresh snow, but I could feel their presence. Alive and well, they waited for spring to resume their fight. Behind the wall, shielded by hedgerows and distant cypress trees, the snowflakes felt less like bits of glass and more like cold confetti. Peter and I sat down on a small cement bench, which was nestled back nicely in a cut-out niche of the hedgerow. He spread one side of his cloak around me and cast a spell of warmth over us. My shivering subsided.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

He’d seen the fire so I couldn’t very well say, “Nothing.” But I’d burned the letter so I couldn’t just shove it at him in way of explanation either.

“I’ve been accepted to St. Lucifer’s Law School.”

(Btw, you’ll notice I opened with a reference to the weather. It’s a huge “don’t.” I’ve got all sorts of thoughts on how and when to break the rules, but this post is long enough! :-D)

Writers, I’d love to hear how you prepare to write your first drafts. Are you a plotter or a pantser? What kind of prep do you do before you begin? Do you write detailed outlines? Or are you a fan of the “fast first draft”? (For an excellent article praising the fast first draft method, see Amy Raby’s post: https://amyraby.wordpress.com/2012/08/28/fast-drafting-writing-at-full-gallop/). Whatever your method, the most important thing is that it works for you!

I’m giving away one Ace/Roc 2012 Science Fiction and Fantasy Sampler today. (U.S. only due to mailing costs. The sampler has the first few chapters of new work from various Ace/Roc authors, including me. The neat thing is the samplers were printed before I took out my chapter names. So, if you’re interested, you can see what my chapter names were for the first three chapters of Dark Light of Day.)

Click here for the giveaway.

Thank you, 7 Scribes, for hosting me today!

Bio: Jill lives in rural Maryland with her two children and husband, who is a recreational pilot. She blogs about books, movies, interesting people, writing and various weekend adventures.

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24 thoughts on “Creative Writing Tools — the “Scene Summary” by Jill Archer”

    1. Hi Casey– I’m excited to be here! Thanks so much for having me. Path to publication, huh? That’s a broad question and you know how wordy I like to be ;-) so I’ll share some stats. Other writers are sometimes interested in how long it takes to get published, so here’s how long it took to bring DLOD to market:

      • 18 months to write it
      • 22 days for it to generate an offer of representation
      • 10 months to generate an offer to buy
      • 17 months from offer to publication

  1. Hi Jill, Welcome! The book sounds great! As a reformed pantser, I usually write a couple of chapters off the cuff before I sit down and make a rough timeline. I spend time on a character grid showing GMC, inciting incident, fatal flaw and worst fear–information that helps me to know my character and understand where the story needs to go to get them to their big dark moment where they have to overcome that fear and fatal flaw to find their HEA. Then I figure out the basic story structure by filling in what and where the major turning points take place. Other than that, I let the story develop organically. I research as I go, which sometimes slows me down, but it also gives me breaks so that I can let the story percolate here and there. Interestingly, I find that my process changes with each new book. Hopefully, at some point, I’ll find the method that works best and stick with it. Thanks for sharing your scene summary idea. It looks like an effective way to work out the basic details before diving in.

    1. Hi PJ– Your method sounds great. I’m guessing my process will also change as I write more novels and gain more experience. That’s why I like reading about other authors’ methods. You can always learn something new! Have a great weekend!

  2. Oh boy. I love the idea of naming the chapters to remind/inspire what’s in it. What a shortcut to searching for where that piece of information is that needs to change 5 chapters ago. And the scene summary sounds like something I might be able to use. I’m a first draft perfectionist too. It’s a curse. I’m trying to overcome it but it’s so hard to change your habits. Great post. I think these are suggestions I can really use.
    Thanks
    Kathye

  3. Hi Kathye– You wouldn’t believe how many times I’ve used my chapter list to remind me of things in the story! I wouldn’t worry too much about being a first draft perfectionist, unless it is truly preventing you from finishing. Just try to get your scene or chapter to a point where you’re happy with it at that point in time and then move on. That’s what I do, although I do have to lecture myself every now and then that there is an editing stage!! :-)

  4. Jill,
    You and I have a lot in common when it comes to drafting. I do a ton of prewriting before I begin. I have GMC nailed, and I know where my characters went to kindergarten. :) I think every author writes in the way that suits them best, and there’s no “right way.” Thanks for another great “lesson,” scribes!

  5. Hi, Jill. Your scene summary sounds like a neat tool.

    I am pretty much a pantser. I have about a page, typically, of notes/scenes about the book, the characters, the beginning, ending, high points of plot. Generally, I prepare by “running” the scene in my head — it’s like watching a film or something. Then I write things down.

    When I did Nano the first time, in 2010, I had a page of note — I deviated fairly quickly from the particulars of the plot, to the point where I read them and cringe (“oh, no, I was going to do t*that*.). I would typically plan a couple of scenes ahead and make notes for the next day before I would write the current day’s words.

    Of course, as I don’t do a lot of planning, I end up with a lot of editing. That’s I guess, the price of admission. I can’t really plan out, as I don’t *know* what’s going on until I write it. The characters reveal themselves to me as I write.

    1. Hi Margaret– I tried NaNo once. As you might guess, it made me freeze up completely. But it’s fantastic and probably lots of fun for fast first draft writers. From what I hear, I wouldn’t worry one bit if you strayed from your notes during NaNo. I think the goal there is word count. Lots of it and as fast as you can! :-D As far as editing… I still had plenty of editing to do for DLOD and I did an amazing amount of pre-writing. Some writers say their books are really written in the editing stage. Thanks for sharing your process. Good luck and best wishes!

  6. Hi Brinda– Glad it was helpful. Your Under the Sea Giveaway Hop sounds fun. Mermaids are definitely big right now! Thanks for dropping by. Have a great Friday night!

    I’m heading out to drop my daughter at gymnastics and visit a friend. Will check back later to see if there are any more comments. I’ve really enjoyed hanging out with the Scribes! :-D

  7. HI! What a fabulous cover! I’m sold – I must read this book and I didn’t look at anything beyond “Armageddon is over, the demons won”. Wonderful imagery with the fireball in the girls hand etc. Well done! The 25th, huh?

    1. Thanks J Monkeys! I thought the cover was pretty neat too. :-) In fact, it inspired me to buy some Atomic Fireball candies to give away at my signings! (Forget about Altoids, Atomic Fireballs are the best red hot cinnamon candies there are!) Have a great Saturday!

    1. Hi Mary, thanks for the compliment about the teaser! As to opening with a reference to the weather, we could probably do a whole post on “rules” — what they are, whether you should break them, and if so when. (Have one of the Scribes posted about that yet?) Everyone will likely have their own theories. My thoughts are that you should try to know your audience’s expectations. When you’re trying to sell your book, agents and editors are your first audience. (Beta readers aren’t your audience; they help you tweak your work so that you can reach your audience better). Agents and editors have read so many openings that they’ve become jaded about some of them.

      To be honest, when I wrote my opening for Dark Light of Day, I didn’t know that weather openings handicapped you as a writer. And by the time I found out, I’d already interested one agent so I didn’t change it. More importantly, I had a reason for opening with a reference to the weather. Setting the mood was part of it. But I also wanted to start setting up, on a subconscious level, the difference between two of the main types of magic in my book: waning and waxing. Waning magic is dark and deadly; waxing magic is light and life giving. The relationship between waning and waxing magic is similar to the relationship between yin and yang… and between the seasons winter and summer. My main character’s greatest wish is to change her magic so that she can have waxing magic. She wants the power to heal and grow things. She has hidden her waning magic — kept it dormant — all her life because she hates it. So opening the book with a scene set in a winter garden full of dormant plants seemed like the right thing to do.

      The last thing I’ll add is that voice and a powerful description can help a writer overcome the handicap of starting their book with a reference to the weather. Consider the wonderful weather opening discussed in this post: http://nailyournovel.wordpress.com/2012/08/26/never-begin-your-story-with-weather-a-writing-taboo-examined/.

      Sorry for such a long response. But it was a great question! :-D

  8. Luck of the Last Commenter! Mary Roya was the name I pulled for the Ace/Roc SF/F sampler. Mary, please e-mail your street address to archer at jillarcher dot com and I’ll send the sampler to you! Thanks again to 7 Scribes and to everyone who commented. Have a great Sunday!

    1. Jill, thank you so much. I am so excited. I have sent you the requested information. And thank you for answering my question and the link. It is very helpful for me.

  9. Thanks so much for sharing your drafting style. I’m a pantser turned plotter. I embrace a crappy first draft. Otherwise, I’d go bonkers and lose my flow (research can really throw me off during the first draft). I love the idea of the adding in all the senses plus the Ws.

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