Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Writing My Way Out of the Maze by Jess Riley

Hi! So, this posting cycle’s topic is pretty timely for me: “Lost in the Cornfield Maze.” I actually feel like my work-in-progress has me somewhere in the middle of the hedge maze in The Shining and Jack’s on the loose, but on with the story.

Last summer I was laid off. It turned out to be temporary, but I immediately strapped myself into my office chair, rolled up my sleeves, and prepared to write my way out of dying in a Dickensian debtor’s prison.
So I wrote. And I wrote. By August, I had nearly a hundred pages of fairly decent material cobbled together. But at that point, three things happened: 1) I was offered three freelance editing jobs that I’d be crazy to pass up; 2) I was offered my old job back; and 3) the novel I’d worked on for more than a decade and released in July had sold barely enough copies to pay for my publicist.

So I stopped working on my novel, at least for the ten-month grant writing season ahead of me. I shelved those hundred pages. I needed a break from thinking about any of it, and I needed to focus on things that actually paid my bills and kept me out of that Dickensian debtor's prison. But over the last few months, I didn't forget about the story—I squirreled away ideas and notes as they came to me, anticipating the month of July when I could dust off my project and finish it.

This July arrived. And when I looked at my manuscript, I got a headache. What was I thinking, writing science fiction? Or featuring four—maybe more!—point-of-view characters? With myriad connections? And interwoven past lives? And a multi-state setting in the year 2060?!

I re-read the whole thing and was surprised that I liked it better than I remembered. But I knew I was lost. I needed to storyboard this beast—color-code characters, including their back stories (and past lives!) and physical appearances and motivations. I needed to outline whose chapter came next, and what would happen in it. I needed to remember what season it was, for crying out loud. There were so many loose ends and bits of incomprehensible nonsense it was like a knitting factory had exploded inside that horrible new Scarlett Johansson movie.

The big picture was overwhelming. So I lost most of July to procrastination. Reading. Gardening. Planning a kitchen and bath reno. Having fun with friends and family. You know, what most people would call living. It was fantastic.

But in the back of my head, I knew I needed to at least finish a decent chunk of the novel, plus a synopsis, if only so I can send it to my agent and see if this sucker has legs. It’s the hardest and strangest and most exciting thing I've ever written. I could have walked away, but it's speaking to me again, and I'm too curious to see what happens next.

So I am butt-in-chair. It’s the only way. I tell myself, Just two pages a day. Bit by bit. Finish your outline and map things visually near your desk. And write your way out of the damn maze.

PS: Do any of you use Scrivener? I have it, but I felt like I needed to storyboard the tutorial and then pour myself a huge glass of wine and play Plants vs. Zombies until my brain stopped buzzing.

Jess Riley is the author of Driving Sideways, All the Lonely People, and Mandatory Release. She is currently remodeling her kitchen, bathroom, and novel-in-progress all at once because she loves a challenge.


  1. Oh, procrastination, I know her well. First, let me say how impressed I am that you can properly use the word Dickensian (I used it in my second book and my copy editor at Berkley had a field day with it!). As for Scrivener, no. I plot/outline the old fashioned way--in pen and paper notebook. Best of luck with the new book, Jess!

  2. Oh I know those kind of corn mazes! It's called life, ha. Butt in chair is the only way, but oh sometimes hard to stay there. Good luck on your latest!

  3. Maria, I laughed out loud at your Dickensian comment. Isn't that a fun word?!

    Thanks for the comment, Dana! (And the luck!) Yes, the chair is all. :)

  4. Argh... Blogger was giving me a fit this morning. It must know I have its days numbered! Anyway... fantastic post, Jess! I love hearing how you just knew you'd come back to it, and how not even "real life" deterred you!

  5. I use Scrivener...but I feel like I'm using a microwave to heat water....so much there! But I stick to what I know, and it works for me.

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