“Even in the most successful writing career, there are natural cycles, ebbs and flows of creativity and energy. Prioritizing mental health and joy in writing itself is what makes my practice not just sustainable, but actively sustaining.” –Amy Gentry
Amy Gentry is the bestselling author of the thrillers Good as Gone, Last Woman Standing, and Bad Habits, as well as a book of music criticism, Tori Amos’s Boys for Pele, for Bloomsbury Press’s 33 1/3 series. Her reviews and essays have appeared in the Chicago Tribune, the Paris Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, Salon.com, Texas Monthly, Austin Chronicle, The Best Food Writing of 2014, and many other outlets. She holds a PhD in English and is a teacher and book coach in Austin, Texas.
On Wednesday, November 15th, Amy Gentry is teaching a class for the WLT called “Plotting Your Novel in Three Acts.” By the end of the class, you’ll have a better understanding of story structure, learn to strengthen the relationships between story beats, and harness the infinite flexibility of 3-act structure to plot your novel.
Here’s what Amy had to share with us:
Scribe: Tell us a little bit about yourself. What do you write? How did you come to writing?
Amy Gentry: I write all kinds of things! So far, I’ve published three novels of psychological suspense and one book of music criticism. I frequently incorporate comedy and satire into my fiction, and I also write essays and criticism.
I started writing when I was 8 or 9. I was lucky enough to have a wonderful fourth-grade teacher who passed out photos from nature magazines the first week and taught us to write non-rhyming, “free verse” poems about them. My poem, about a polar bear slogging through icy water, wound up expressing my own sorrow and loneliness after our recent cross-country move. That alchemy of feeling—the way you can set out to describe one thing, and pour emotions you didn’t even know you had into it—affected me so much that I began writing poetry all the time and showing them to my teacher. With his encouragement and support, I decided I wanted to be an “author” when I grew up.
Later, at UT, I wrote a novel as my undergraduate thesis. After graduation, I embarked on a second novel and waited tables to support myself. But I burned out quickly and wound up going to grad school instead. After graduating with a PhD in English, I left academia and came back to writing. Thirty years after deciding to be a writer, I got my first publishing deal.
Scribe: In your own work, how do you approach overcoming the challenges that come with writing, be it writer’s block or craft or business-related challenges?
AG: Writing is a skill, but first and foremost it’s a practice. I think for those of us who love it, the biggest challenge is to create the conditions under which writing flourishes. Time, space, energy, and money enough for all three are required. To get those things, you generally have to either hold down a full-time job, or find creative ways to get around having a full-time job—which often becomes a full-time job in itself. Add in family pressures and life events, and the writing always seems to come last. It’s very easy to get discouraged.
As my practice has evolved, I have shifted away from goal-oriented thinking as much as possible, and toward understanding writing as part of an ecosystem in my life that I have to keep in balance. It is unreasonable to expect a bumper crop of words if there hasn’t been rain for two months, you know? Even in the most successful writing career, there are natural cycles, ebbs and flows of creativity and energy. Prioritizing mental health and joy in writing itself is what makes my practice not just sustainable, but actively sustaining. That’s what keeps me doing it during good times and bad, and ultimately, what makes us better at writing is practice. Whatever keeps me happy in my writing right now—not last year, not last week, but now—that’s what I do.
Scribe: Has there been a moment of epiphany in terms of your work, when you thought, “This is it! Now I know what I’m doing?” How long id that feeling last?
AG: Many, many times. You’re working on a revision, butting your head against a wall, trying to solve the problem, and then suddenly it’s like a secret passageway opens up that you’ve never seen before, despite staring at the wall for weeks or months. There’s no more satisfying feeling than figuring out a difficult problem.
But of course, a novel isn’t one problem, it’s several thousand problems, all operating on different scales. Solving one will often create or reveal a cascade of others. So, after celebrating, you go back and start picking through it again. It’s fine that the feeling doesn’t last. It’s like water-skiing, you can’t sit there thinking “oh wow, I’m really doing it!!” for very long before you fall off your skis.
The best feeling of all is when you’re cruising along in drafting phase, as if the whole thing has been in your head, waiting to come out. (I have learned that taking a few notes on a scene right before I write it really helps with this.) When you’re “in the pocket” like that, problems are a joy to solve, you barely even have to think about it. Like being able to improvise a song straight through, from start to finish, because you know the chords so well you can riff. It’s even better than “I know what I’m doing!” because it feels like the writing knows for you. Those are the days when I look down after an hour and I’ve written thousands of words. It’s more like surfing than waterskiing. (Full disclosure: I have never successfully done either.)
These days, rather than pushing those moments for 12 hours or more, I try to call it quits before I crash. And I anticipate a “regression to the mean”—aka, a down day or two afterward. Knowing the ebb and flow and becoming ok with it is a big part of being happy with your work.
Scribe: What piece of advice do you find yourself giving to writers again and again?
AG: I’m a compulsive advice-giver. It’s why I coach, teach, and now write a newsletter with an actual advice column in it. It’s kind of a problem, actually.
So, my biggest-picture advice is to find the joy in writing. Spend time observing what gives you the most pleasure and ease in writing—times in the day or week when you produce the most, places or music that feels write—and try to set up your life so that those conditions recur as regularly as possible. It’s an ongoing process that requires constant calibration.
But my immediately actionable advice is to find, join, or make a writing group. There’s just nothing as sustaining as weekly support from a group of other writers. Set aside the time, follow up with people from classes you take, and start being vulnerable with people about your work (and generous about theirs). It makes all the difference.
Therapy doesn’t hurt, either. 😉
Scribe: What is one thing that people will take away from this class?
AG: I want people to walk away knowing that plot is just another tool of writing, as teachable as any other, and that it’s there to help. It’s there to help you get to the next chapter; it’s there to get you through the saggy middle; it’s there to help you overcome the final obstacle to finishing, just as your protagonist has to overcome their final obstacle. Plot is like candy to readers, they love it. But it can be more than that for a writer. It can be a lifeline, a progress bar, a road map, a trouble-shooter, a reassurance that you will get to the end of this project and it will make sense. It’s incredibly useful to have that formula to fall back on when inspiration fails you, as it inevitably will during a long project. The 3-act structure is the most basic iteration of that formula, but like any basic formula (a2 + b2 = c2, anyone??) it’s both easy to learn, and infinitely flexible.
Click here to learn more about Amy Gentry’s upcoming class.