Tools For The Writing Process by Johanna Harness

25 May

I love it when writers talk about their writing processes. Listening to authors describe how they take a glimmer of an idea and shape it into something irresistible and engaging? Oh yeah. I could listen all day.

Twice now I’ve had the pleasure of hearing Terri Farley discuss clustering as a means for taking scattered thoughts and pulling them into something coherent and ordered.  She uncovers details that echo far into the soul and she builds on those.  Until I heard Farley describe her process, clustering was just another form of outlining for me.  Afterward, clustering became a piece of magic I use myself.

Last summer at Willamette Writers Conference, I heard Eric Witchey give a talk called “Levers, Ratchets, and Buttons” wherein he discussed preparing the reader for story revelations.  This workshop changed the way I looked at plot twists.  Specifically, for a plot twist to be effective, the reader has to be set up for it.  The twist should feel right because the writer has included the foundation, the clues, that lead up to the revelation.

Without the proper groundwork, a reader says, “Wait. What just happened there?”

With the proper set-up, the reader says, “WOW!”

I also admit to being transfixed by J.K. Rowling’s chart, prepared for writing Harry Potter and The Order of The Pheonix:

Click for larger image

I brought these influences with me when I arrived for Theresa Meyers’ workshop, “Plotting for Success.” I had so many ideas bouncing around in my head that, to write this blog post, I had to go back to my notes to separate out what Meyers actually said and the way I filtered her words through my own experience and practice.  For instance: 

Theresa Meyers

All the while, hearing Meyers talk about the fact that we can track anything using plotting boards, I kept seeing J.K. Rowling’s chart. And then I thought, “what if I use one of those columns to look for ratchets and buttons?” I mentally substituted Snyder’s beats for steps on the hero’s journey. I kept visualizing clusters extending out from every square on my chart. I saw my own story through many lenses at the same time.

A friend asked me later, “Will you use Theresa’s process?”

I wasn’t sure how to get my mind around the question. It was like someone asking me if I planned to borrow Theresa’s car or her toothbrush or something. Um, no. I can’t use Theresa’s process. What she does, the magic she creates–it’s all hers. She shares her process and she inspires us, but we still have to write using our own.

Did I pick up some new tools to integrate into my own process? Oh yeah. All this week I’ve been filtering ideas differently and trying new things. When I go to my next workshop, Meyers’ ideas will be there with the rest, quietly influencing everything I hear.


Posted by on May 25, 2011 in plotting, workshops, writing


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20 responses to “Tools For The Writing Process by Johanna Harness

  1. Liz Fredericks

    May 25, 2011 at 7:00 AM

    Johanna, you made me snort coffee when I read about using another author’s process is like using their toothbrush. Perfect! I agree with you about integrating layers of all that we learn to sync with our creative style. Sometimes, as a newbie, I have to force myself not to adopt immediately some new technique. Otherwise, a person could spend a lot of good writing time in constantly redefining their preparation approach.

    • johannaharness

      May 25, 2011 at 8:29 AM

      Layers–yes! Your thoughts about constant preparing are right on the mark too. The only way to know if a technique works is through the writing.

  2. Janis McCurry

    May 25, 2011 at 7:05 AM

    I’m so grateful we have the resources to find our way. Thanks for putting resources into perspective.

    • johannaharness

      May 25, 2011 at 8:30 AM

      Yes and we have so many great resources available to us. Isn’t it wonderful? 🙂

  3. Clarissa Southwick

    May 25, 2011 at 7:44 AM

    What a wonderful way of explaining something all authors experience. Each writer must have his own process, derived from their individual thought processes and life experiences. Theresa showed me some new tools and for that I’m very grateful.

  4. Peggy Staggs

    May 25, 2011 at 8:23 AM

    I love going to workshops. I always take something away. I’ve used this method before and it really works.The more tools you gather to use on the job the better. You can always keep your favorites and leave the rest in the box.

    • johannaharness

      May 25, 2011 at 8:35 AM

      So true, Peggy. I’ve also noticed that I sometimes discard tools too easily. I’ll try something and think it doesn’t work for me. Then another author will offer a new twist and suddenly it’s the best technique I’ve ever used.

  5. Meredith Conner

    May 25, 2011 at 8:39 AM

    I so enjoyed Theresa Meyers! Great ideas and fun personality. I brought home all the bits and pieces that made sense and work for me – thanks for sharing Johanna!

    • johannaharness

      May 25, 2011 at 8:43 AM

      Agreed. She was wonderful. I also appreciated the fact that she kept telling people to use what worked for them and leave the rest. 🙂

  6. Mary Vine

    May 25, 2011 at 5:20 PM

    Yep. I appreciated what Theresa had to say because I am ready to start a new manuscript and I want to use a few of her ideas. Depends what I need at the time of a conference seems like. Thanks.

    • johannaharness

      May 27, 2011 at 5:37 AM

      Yes–and sometimes I find I need something I didn’t know I needed. 🙂

  7. Carley Ash

    May 25, 2011 at 7:08 PM

    That was a great workshop. I bought a white board on the way home from the conference and am ready to plot, but I too will customize the process to my own. Thanks Johanna.

    • johannaharness

      May 27, 2011 at 5:37 AM

      Office supply stores love me. I never have enough sticky notes, index cards, and colorful pens.

  8. lynn mapp

    May 25, 2011 at 7:41 PM

    Johanna, it’s true. We have to think about what works for us. I like your spin on it.

  9. Terri Farley

    May 26, 2011 at 5:29 PM

    I’m honored to be included & really impressed that you’ve sorted out and explained our process of listening & gleaning & adapting.

    • johannaharness

      May 27, 2011 at 5:39 AM

      Terri! I’m giddy to see your comment here. Your talks on clustering continue to inspire me.

  10. Eric Witchey

    July 21, 2011 at 9:34 AM


    A friend pointed me to this blog entry. Normally, I ignore blogs. However, I thought I’d pop in and make a comment. COOL!!! Nothing makes me happier than seeing a writer turn my seminars into their own techniques. The mix is always personal, and it changes from project to project. The writers who try and use seminar-taught technique as a cookbook end up frustrated. The ones who figure out their own path to mixing techniques are often suprised and happy with the results.

    Best of luck and skill to you.

    Eric Witchey

    • johannaharness

      September 13, 2011 at 11:41 AM

      Thanks for stopping by to comment! It’s so good to see you here.


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