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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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