What the Hell Are You Doing In There? My Writing Process
This week over on Just Book Reading, I’m having a stimulating conversation with Amy that’s all about me. And who wouldn’t like to get together with a friend for the purpose of talking about oneself in a sustained fashion? I’m flattered that she thinks I’m interesting enough to inflict such an interaction on her readers, and (of course!) I’ve been enjoying the conversation.
Like so many people who read and write deeply, Amy asks questions that beg for huge answers. I’m trying not to completely swamp her blog, so I’m doing the Reader’s Digest version of one of my answers in the interview on her blog and a fleshed-in version here. For readers who came here from Just Book Reading, you’ll find the first three paragraphs here are the same as the first three paragraphs there. After that comes all the lunacy I spared the tender readers of that blog. 🙂
In the interview, Amy asks,
1. Let’s start with the writing. Every author has a different approach to the writing process. Can you tell us how you prepare to write and a bit about your process, if there is one? Is it different for each book or do you have a system you try to follow?
To call how I proceed a system would be to over-glorify it. I’m a seat-of-the-pants writer by nature; as I’ve developed my craft, I’ve leaned to do more with planning, but I will never be the sort of writer who outlines before writing and then sticks with the outline. I’ll never be at all efficient.
I generally start a project with a question. These questions aren’t always intended as story fodder; sometimes they’re just mysteries that intrigue me which eventually find their ways into story. The series I’m working on now, The Way of the Gods, began with questions about the nature of godhood: If gods (note the plural) exist, where would they come from? What would be the source of their power? Once I’ve got a question knocking around in my head, I start reading sources that I hope will provide answers. I begin to work on theories. I suppose you might consider this activity worldbuilding, in the sense that I’m working out the rules and frameworks within which my story will play out.
Meanwhile, the things I’m reading and thinking about begin to suggest characters to me. As writers we know that the protagonist of any story is the one who suffers the most at the hands of the story problem; so the characters and the story problem, which may or may not be the same issue as the question that began this mess, evolve simultaneously. Bits of plot and conflict erupt like popcorn thunderstorms in my fevered little head. Finally I reach the point where I’ve got so much half-formed idea in my head, so much sketched-in plot, that I conclude I know what the story is about and where it’s going to end up, and I start thinking about the place to begin. Once I’ve got that, I jump in and start writing.
I am never, ever writing the story I think I am. But I don’t know what the story will turn out to be until I write it, and none of the work I do before I begin typing is wasted. Some of it will wind up on the page; some won’t. But it’s all part of the cloud of possibilities in my imagination.
In some ways this is the most delightful part of the process for me: I just follow the characters through the problem every day, dying to find out what they will do and discover, who they will turn out to be. I’m telling myself the story. Only when I get to the other end, complete this first draft, do I know what story I’m writing.
This is where the craft portion of the process begins. At this point I’ll do plot and character analyses, chart the overall plot as well as character arcs against the models that fit the story types I’m working with. I am likely to wander off and read literary criticism during this phase, because it helps me think. I’ll also take the time to do a better job of fleshing in my world—especially if it’s an alternate-world setting, but even with stories set on present-day Earth, there are details we can choose to bring in or emphasize that make the story work better. This, too, is likely to necessitate more research. I’m a knowledge junkie.
All these exercises help me see where Writer Brain got it right on the first try and where the story could be stronger. I’ll sketch out a very detailed plot plan, down to the beat and scene level, and plug it into a project file in Scrivener (www.literatureandlatte.com). I set up all those chapters and story nodes, those beats and scenes, as individual components in the project file. I use colors to track point-of-view threads and important subplots; I subdivide the whole thing into acts. I’m sure all this activity looks crazy from the outside, but I find it really helpful not only for plot development but for times when I start rearranging on the fly in the middle of the second draft.
Tired yet? We’re not even getting started. At this point I write the second draft in Scrivener. I don’t mean that I plug in stuff I wrote earlier and write glue; I write an entirely new second draft. I find that I write a much better second (or subsequent!) draft if I go back to zero and type new words into the file. Sometimes, when I feel I really nailed a scene on the first draft, I’ll have that file open on another screen for reference. Sometimes I’ll use entire sentences or even paragraphs. But mostly it’s new material—because this time I know what story I’m telling (or so I think) and my Muse, my Writer Brain, won’t turn on, dig in, show up for work, whatever you like to call it, unless he knows he gets to play again. And if I don’t get out of his way and let him re-tell the story, he’ll just phone it in.
I write sequentially again this time. That’s because I know what story I’m telling now, but characters are still developing, and they will continue to surprise me. The farther I go into the draft, the farther away from the plot I’d planned and the scene notes I’ve made I find the story wandering. It’s very common for me to get to a point, during the second half of this draft, where I’m writing all the plot points I’d planned but they mean completely different things than I expected. All of this means I must follow the characters from scene to scene, because the way they’re developing will continue to influence the story.
Everything continues to evolve. I’ll rearrange the order of scenes on the fly, particularly for continuity among points of view or because the way a character is developing changes how a subplot unfolds; I’ll add chapters or scenes I hadn’t planned or remove things that no longer seem important. Frequently I’ll remove plot points I had planned to use to present an idea or piece of information–because Writer Brain has already handled it much more efficiently than I’d planned. I’ll go back into earlier sections when something I figure out in later chapters ripples backwards in the plot. Sometimes, when I’m working with an alternate world, I’ll rearrange timelines because of mechanical issues unique to that world, such as complications in getting from Point A to Point B.
Meanwhile, somewhere in the process of developing this draft, I’ll start slipping my first readers (I have two, because I won the First Reader Lottery) chapters. Sometimes it’s beginning-to-end; sometimes, when I’m writing threads that don’t come together for a long time, I’ll develop and hand off a thread for a sanity check. Notes I get from my first readers may cause further redevelopment. Sometimes a novel in progress looks like the Scarecrow after the Flying Monkeys, and the only place it exists in any recognizable form is inside my head.
Finally I reach the end again. I don’t type THE END or -30- the way we’re supposed to. I’m too neurotic for that. “Works of art are never finished, only abandoned.” That was Warhol, I think. Now I have to go look it up.
(Hah! It was the poet Paul Valéry. All hail Wikiquote…)
People who have written far more novels than I will tell you that it is compulsory at this point to go over the whole mess yet again. To let it sit fallow for at least a month. By the time I get to this point I’ve been over each scene and subplot so many times that I know I’ve gotten the whole thing into the best shape I can achieve alone. So my first readers will review the complete mess, I’ll address whatever notes they give me (they tend to be light at this stage, because the first readers have typically seen big chunks of the novel already)—and then the novel goes to beta readers.
A hundred years ago, in a different lifetime, I worked in both software and advertising. I spent years laboring under the delusion that this beta reading phase was analogous to user testing and focus group research, and every objection from every reader constituted an error on the writer’s part. Later I began to realize that every reader reads a different story, because each reader brings her own past and imagination and baggage to the experience. That all I can really take away from beta reading is a collection of reactions and suggestions, some of which will trigger eureka moments for me and others which I must set aside as peculiar to that particular reader. Knowing which is which is the hard part, and it requires me to work through my own baggage to do it.
With notes from beta readers in hand, I sit down and decide what changes should be made to the novel. Sometimes it’s little stuff: word choices, a sentence that confused people. Sometimes new material, scene length or longer, is required. I’m likely to jump around on the light stuff, because it feels as if I’m knocking stuff off the list; but for big chunks and stuff that will ripple through the plot, I work sequentially again. If there are a lot of changes, I will dig back into the whole thing at the sentence level again to ensure continuity.
Finally the novel is ready for editorial. I’ve had the privilege of working with editors who are friends on both my novels. Brett Shanley, who was the editor for The Shadow of the Sun, used to come over and sit in my kitchen with me, and we’d go over notes and argue about punctuation for a few chapters, and then get together a few days later and do it all again for the next set. When we lost him two years ago, it was a huge blow to me: not only as a friend, but in my creative life. I still work with him sitting on my shoulder, still think about how he would address a problem in the work.
Anna Branscome, who is my editor for the forthcoming The Heart of Darkness, is even more hands-on: she’s already read a draft of about half the novel, and she plans to come in and start working at the sentence level with me during the beta phase. She spends just as much time looking askance at my punctuation hooptydoodle as Brett did, but I am intractable in this regard. Well, mostly intractable. Sometimes they win those arguments. But otherwise I am a very cooperative editorial subject.
I know, from life on both sides of the desk, that every author-editor pairing is different. I’ve had the privilege of some terrific relationships with authors I’ve edited, but I am most grateful for the relationships I’ve had and have with my editors.
After editorial, of course, the book goes to design, to print, to the world. There’s creativity in those jobs, too; but it’s creativity of a different sort. A topic for another day.