Hannah Moskowitz on Organization

Ladies and gents, I’d like to present the first guest post on Young and Writerly. The honor goes to Hannah Moskowitz, young adult and middle grade fiction writer of books like Break, Zombie Tag, Invincible Summer, blogger extraordinaire and college student. Yes, she really does all of this! Which is why I asked her to share how she deals with organizing and planning a story.

If people from my real life knew that I’m writing a guest post on organization, they would laugh themselves to death. I’m about as far from organized as you can get. But when it comes to writing, it’s a different story.

I have processes for planning and organizing—a lot of them. And I’m not sure which work and which are just ritual and superstition, but I do think that’s an important part of the process. A lot of the harder parts of writing can be solved simply by getting yourself in the right head space. There was some famous writer, I can’t remember who, who could only write when he had a basket of rotting apples under his desk. That’s pretty excessive, I think, but if it helps you get it done, then it works.

I will never start writing an idea on the day I get it. Waiting is probably second nature to a lot of people, but I have to force it. When I’m very exciting about it, I want to do it right away. I think I inherit that from my mother, who once bought a new car the same day she decided she needed one.

So I have to stave off that urge every time. I spend a few days in a document, NOT the book’s, where I just dump all my ideas. I write them out as a stream of consciousness to keep momentum up…here are two excerpts from my NaNo document.

“So there are three triplets. Mom muchanusens all over one of them because he’s one who doesn’t feel pain and he’s agreeable. He dies. It’s tragic, but nobody really notices because people are dying all over the place (though the plague is really ending around this time). Then mom dies or something? Don’t worry about that right now.”

“the ghosts do not want her there. She isn’t sick. Meanwhile, she’s…is she trying to find a cure? They want to harvest the ghost’s blood for antibodies or whatever. They’re probably teaming up with a nurse to do this, but can they trust her?? she’s probably going to have to die.”

If I keep going on like that for long enough, I eventually come to realizations that make me write “OHHHH” or “yesssss” across the document, and that’s when I know I’ve hit something good. And it makes the whole plotting process worth it.

And by structuring it as a brain-dump, it makes it less daunting for me. I don’t have to make a pretty graph of how the characters relate to each other; if I try that sort of thing, I get paranoid that I’m doing something wrong, that I’ll somehow mess the graph up. This way, I can change stuff as I go and follow my own thought process when I have to go back (as I always do) and figure out how the hell I came up with this plot point that is obviously not going to end up working.

Before I’m allowed to start writing, I need to have the beginning, the ending, and a few major events along the way mapped out. I need to have an order for these things, and I need to know the climax. And I need a very, very good grasp on my characters’ relationships to each other, even if I don’t know the characters themselves yet. Their individual personalities tend to develop from those relationships.

If I haven’t nailed all of that down, and I’m feeling stuck, I usually go into my music files and make a playlist. A lot of writers do this, and it sounds really silly and stupid, but it helps me nail down the tone of the story, as well as the plot progression. If I look at my playlist and go, wow, this is a lot of weepy songs in a row in the third act, I know I need to go look at my plot and figure out where my action went, and if there’s any place I can throw in some hard rock.

A balanced playlist puts me on the road for a balanced story. And I can listen to the playlist while I’m plotting to get into the zone. I started doing playlists when I wrote INVINCIBLE SUMMER, and it was absolutely crucial for that book. I made the entire playlist before I started, and it acted exactly as an outline for me. I could refer to the list and go “ohhh, this song is next, that’s for the part when X happens.” So useful. I listen to it while I’m writing, when I’m not watching TV (shhh).

Once I’ve nailed down a few events and some character motivations, I’m ready to go. My first drafts are usually very, very short—just the bare bones of the story. I like to get the first drafts down very quickly, so I don’t lose interest, and then I can go back and add the details and clarify motivations and layer the characters and all that.

So even though my planning is pretty highly ritualized, I make sure to keep some stuff loose. It keeps me interested and engaged while I’m writing. I still haven’t figured out if the mom dies.