I was going to do something on short story writing, but I’m putting that off. For those not wanting to wait two Tuesdays, I suggest surfing over to James Lincoln Warren’s wonderful weblog The Scribbler. He has a rather controversial post regarding Hemingway’s infamous six word short story:
I love it. Jim hates it. But again, for that discussion, head over to The Scribbler.
What I’m going to waste your time with today is process stuff. Namely mine, cuz, you know, it’s my Tuesday. Most of you familiar with my long dead blog INK SLINGER remember the great novel race between David J. Montgomery and myself – Who could finish their opus first?
Well, Monty kicked my ass. Like a one-legged sharecropper in a skillet full of kittens.
Anyway, Monty won. I lost. Big. I never even made it halfway through mine. In fact, 2006 marked the fourth – yes, FOURTH – freaking year that I had been "working on a novel." I can’t believe I’m admitting this public. But yes, I’m a poseur.
It gets worse, because… does rewriting the same 50 pages over and over count as working on a novel? I say no. It counts as being a freaking loser, being afraid of failure AND of success, and being a complete confidence-lacking dweeb. If you tell people you’re working on a novel, but keep writing the same pages over and over, you’re a liar.
So, I quit. Around August of this year I looked at all my scribblings, realized it was all junk, and said that’s it – I’m out. I’m a screenwriter, not a novelist. I can craft a short story now and then, because the form is similar to screenwriting, but I cannot and will not ever write a novel.
The timing was perfect. I was buried in a TV pilot and had no time for the frivolity of prose. But by the end of October my pilot work was done and there I sat, wondering what to tackle next. Another pilot? A feature? A short story? A novel?
Did I just use the N word? What the hell was "novel" doing still floating around my skull? I’d exorcised those demons. But there it was, still hammering at the back of my brain like a Hindu with a waffle iron.
Anyway, I decided, instead of going at it again, I’d look back over the past four years and try and learn why I was unable to do it. And once I started this self-examination, I quickly realized the two fatal errors I’d made. And both were a result of nothing more than a lack of confidence in myself – I had never done it, so I didn’t believe I could, and therefore was doing a couple of really stupid things….
The first one was that I was writing in other people’s voices (see Alex’s post on style). At the height of my production on those lame 50 pages, I was reading voraciously. And unbeknownst to me, I was writing like whatever author I was reading. Or I should say, trying to write like them. Some days I was trying to be Ridley Pearson or Lee Child, or Michael Connelly. Other days it was James Lee Burke – boy, are those some hilarious pages to read now.
I lacked such confidence in my own prose voice that I wasn’t even trying. I was copying. And the worst part was, I wasn’t even aware of it. Or maybe I was, and thought it was a good idea? God, I hope not.
The second fatal error I was making was in the actual process. Not only was I writing in others’ voices, but I was going about it, working at it, like other writers work – as opposed to working like Guyot does.
I’m a screenwriter. My process is (generally): I get an idea. I flush out the idea – we call it "Breaking the story." Once I break the story, I outline the story. Maybe not a full blown scene by scene outline, but I give myself a road map – so I know where the hell I’m going. I have to know where I’m going in order to, not just to get there, but so I can take detours if need be. Then once I have my map or outline, only then do I sit down and begin writing the actual story.
note for comments discussion: what is your process and have you ever screwed it up?
With my novel, I wasn’t working the way I work. I was trying to be Connelly or Burke, and just "let the characters take me where they want to go." What a load of crap. I applaud and admire those of you who can sit down without an outline or even a map of sorts and start writing.
No, that’s not right. I admired those of you who can do that AND FINISH. Anyone can start writing. Only a chosen few can actually finish… something good.
So, cut to just after Thanksgiving. I’d had this little revelation and was excited about the idea of – "What if I tried to write a novel the way I know how to write? And in my own voice?"
And the winner of this year’s IT’S SO OBVIOUS YOU IMBECILIC NINNY Award goes to… Paul Guyot!
Thank you, thank you. *sniff* I’d like to thank the Academy…
Anyway, I decide to try and do an outline for my novel idea. And guess what? I can’t. Because there’s no story! It’s a beginning, not a story. A 50-page opening with a cool character. But by now, I’m juiced. I want this; the hunger is back. So I go to my trusty story file – we all have them: that little folder on your computer where you drop any and every idea (or germ of an idea) for a story, hoping it’ll be just what you need one day.
I found my very first novel idea. The one I had abandoned early on because…It wasn’t commercial enough, wasn’t unique enough. I did what I’ve been preaching to aspiring writers never to do – try and write to the marketplace.
So I take my original idea and begin outlining. Seriously, just to see how far I can get before it falls apart. And guess what? Yep, I finish the freaking outline. Only seven pages. But damn, if I don’t have a beginning, middle and end. And characters I like!
I go through the entire Christmas holiday with this beautiful outline sitting on my desktop and don’t write a word. Because I’m scared to death. Mostly to fail again. But then I have one of those conversations – you know, where someone you respect tells you exactly what you’d tell them, but could never tell yourself? And I decide to do it. And my mindset is perfect – because I am not writing the thing to get published. Chances are it will never be read, let alone published. I’m doing it because I want to write this story with these characters.
I’m writing it for me. To just do it. I’m a freaking Nike ad. And I’m loving it. I started this first of the year, more or less. And I’ve seriously detoured from the outline twice already – something I could not have done waiting for the characters to start the car and head off on their own journey. I can always get back on the road whenever I need to, because now I have the freaking map!
While I won’t tell you how far along I am – I think looking at word counts can seriously F-up a writer – I will say that I’ve written more pages than ever before (yes, I passed 50), but more importantly, I’m enjoying it. I am loving writing this thing. And it may suck. It may be complete trash.
But it’ll be my trash. Written my way and in my own voice.
Today we start a new biweekly tag known as IF I PICKED CHARACTERS’ WATCHES.
Barry Eisler‘s John Rain would wear the Jaeger-LeCoulture Reverso Quantième Perpétuel in 18k rose gold.
Great post Paul,
Sometimes the truth hurts, and sometimes it’s a sledgehammer to the nose. I’ve fallen into each and every one of those pits myself. I’ve done the 50 page re-write thing more times than I want to admit, and I’m still trying to write for the market place. Thanks for reminding me to have fun.
Congrats on the new start. I can’t wait to read it someday.
Loved reading about your process and the excitement about the pure enjoyment of getting to this stage with it. It’s a great reminder, which I seem to need on a weekly basis at least, to enjoy the part I love.
WRT my own process and where I get stuck: letting the work sit once I get through a first draft. Or any subsequent draft. I seem to be driven to keep going, and thus get no distance from the story. In 2006 and on ’til now I have finally forced myself to set things aside and move on with new projects before doing final edits on the old ones.
It all boils down to me feeling like I’m in a race to publication, and that if I don’t hurry it won’t happen. Well… duh … when I hurry it DOESN’T happen, so I need to focus on that wisdom from yesterday and focus on making each book the best it can be, even if that means giving all of them time to simmer and age before I shoot them off to NYC.
Congratulations on the Ninny – in the end, far more useful than an Edgar, because as I like to remind myself – “Writing isn’t that hard. STARTING is hard.”
I am thrilled to hear you’re writing a novel with commitment, this time. It’s funny to hear that you were mimicking other authors’ styles because I’ve read you and I think your style is completely unique and riveting, but – but being ready is a very personal, internal clock. And let’s get real – it’s scary to go from writing for a living to writing on complete spec for a medium that doesn’t necessarily do anything like paying the rent.
Process – it should come as no surprise that mine is the same as yours – idea, break the story, write long outline from which I may well deviate once I’ve started writing.
This time, though, the story seems to be breaking me.
“So, I quit. Around August of this year I looked at all my scribblings, realized it was all junk, and said that’s it – I’m out. I’m a screenwriter, not a novelist. I can craft a short story now and then, because the form is similar to screenwriting, but I cannot and will not ever write a novel.”
To which I responded: Bullshit.
My process: Just write. Have a title, a premise, a character and how I hope to end. Then start exploring. Sometimes it goes well. Sometimes it doesn’t. If I get stuck, I have a file on my computer where I go and talk to myself about the book, discussing what’s wrong. And you know what? Sometimes it works. I don’t know why. But I’ll be saying:
Well, I’ve got too many characters and I don’t know what to do with them, especially, you know, Greg.
Why don’t you kill him.
But I like him.
So do the readers. You’ll freak them out. Besides, think about it, you’re going to make a hero out of this guy? He’s a psycho.
Now that I’m thinking about it I should add that I wrote THE HARROWING while I was on a studio assignment. I would force myself to do one or two hours a night after working on the script. Several months later, after we turned in the script, I realized I had a whole rough draft of a novel.
Well, then I HAD to get serious, right? But I swear I don’t even remember writing that much, and suddenly I was too far along not to finish.
It was a very non-threatening way to work.
Alex,That’s why THE HARROWING is so good…
My four reasons for not writing come from Elizabeth Hay’s “A Student of Weather.” They are: Interruptions. Timidity. Bad Temper. Loss of nerve.
You’ve nailed number four.
And oh my, I can relate to that “writing in other voices” comment. I went on a Larry McMurtry reading binge and for the next week every character was tipping his cowboy hat and saying “Boy, howdy.”
Guyot,It’s so heartening to know that you lose your nerve, too.
Isn’t that perverse?
Process: I’m one of those “organic” authors. That’s a fancy name for not knowing where I’m going . . . so I just write and write for story. Now that I’ve written five manuscripts in the series (yes, two were such crap they’ll never get published), I usually have a general theme I want to explore.
Eventually I find the plot and then go back and edit the hell out of my drafts.
At least that’s how I write the Sasha series.
For some reason, I know much more about the new series. I know the crime, whodunit, how and why. Of course, I’m still struggling with committing to writing the darn thing.
I think I’m scared.
Before I wrote my Guyot-beating novel, I had the opposite problem he did. I kept telling myself, “You can’t write a novel until you have an outline” but I couldn’t write a freakin’ outline to save my life.
So for something like a couple of years I kicked around the same idea, wrote a passage here and there, fumbled around with a beginning, but didn’t get serious about it because I couldn’t write a freakin’ outline!
Finally, I told myself: to hell with the outline. Just write the damn book. So I started, with only a vague idea of where it was all heading, and wrote it.
Here’s the most important thing I learned: Even if what you write isn’t very good, at least you’ve written it. When you come to the end, you’ll have a novel. Hopefully it will be good and people will read it. But even if they don’t, you’ll still have accomplished something significant. It’s better to write a crappy novel than not write a great one.
And, for the record, the pages Guyot has on his current novel kick ass — and if he doesn’t finish it, I’m going to kick his ass. I want to read that book!
p.s. The watch feature is fabu.
I try not to think about my writing process because the introspection invariably leads me into the realms of doubt and fear.
I’m resigned to follow the example of the person who said, “Writing is easy. I simply stare at the blank piece of paper until beads of blood form on my forehead.”
Putting down one word, and then another, seems to be the only method that works for me.
I wish it were otherwise….
That’s what I love about writing – everyone is different.
pari or Phil could never work like I do, nor I like them, but we all manage to get the job done.
Or at least they do, I’ll let you know in a couple of months.
For Paul, I’m going to pop my head out, sort of like one of the moles in Whack-a-Mole. Murderati is among the blogs I read regularly, but I’ve been trying not to get drawn into commentville. The imaginary sign over my desk reads: “No one actually needs to know your opinion on anything.” Then again, if I lived by those words, I guess I’d have to find a new line of work.
What’s the line from Dead, Again? Something about knowing if you’re a smoker or a nonsmoker? Process works like that. You have to figure out what your style is. Mine is: mornings, tortoise-like, working from a scenario of sorts but with lots of room for surprises, aiming for a minimum of 1,000 words a day, allowing them to be really rotten words throughout the first draft. Really, the first draft is barely written; it’s more of a blueprint. I think I average 1,500 words a day and I manage to finish the first draft by June. That allows time for two more drafts and a polish by Oct. 1, my deadline. My editor’s notes lead me to draft #5. That’s my process.
Also, exercise. Check out Naked Authors for Jacqueline Winspear’s thoughts on this, but I need lots of exercise.
Once, I tried to change my process. I thought I should work on each chapter until it was “perfect” and that I would go faster that way. By mid-February, six weeks into the year, I was a month behind where I should have been. (That was TO THE POWER OF THREE, if anyone cares.)
In 2005, I was writing NO GOOD DEEDS and I had to deviate from my own process because I kept failing to get the characters to a point where they could, credibly, show up for the climax. I knew that everyone had to end up in Delaware. Three characters were already there, so I just needed to get three more over there, and two of them could take the same car. So I would get almost to the end and the characters would sort of stand there and say: “But there’s no plausible reason we should go to Delaware.”
So I would plunge back into the draft, with only 80 percent of the book done, and get back to where it was time to go to Delaware and the characters would say: “But there’s no plausible reason we should go to Delaware.”
Somewhere on draft 3 or 4, I made a few small changes, created some scenes that hadn’t existed, and the characters said: “Thank you. Delaware here we come.”
So two stories of process. One where deviation almost ruined me, and one where I had to deviate in order to solve the problem.
I’ve often said: “You can put the brownies into the oven at 500 degrees and that doesn’t mean they’ll come out faster and better.” But you can follow a recipe slavishly and still need to tweak it — a little extra liquid in the cream sauce, say, if it’s too thick.
Long story short: Knowing your process also means knowing when you have to change your process. There’s no one way, even when you’ve always done it one way.
“So, I quit. Around August of this year I looked at all my scribblings, realized it was all junk, and said that’s it – I’m out. I’m a screenwriter, not a novelist. I can craft a short story now and then, because the form is similar to screenwriting, but I cannot and will not ever write a novel.”
To which I responded: “Well done.”
I know I’m in the minority here, but if you want to quit, then you quit. No harm done, and you can’t be a loser if you quit before you lose. If you’re finding it difficult, if you’re writing crap, then why in the name of Almighty Cliff would you put both yourself and us through it? The libraries and bookshops of this world are stuffed with mediocre writing and I honestly think it’s in everyone’s best interests to actively dissuade those who waver. We might lose something great, but for the most part we’ll gain those hours back that we would have spent reading derivative swill. I’m with O’Connor on the whole stifling writers thing. I’d drown ’em like kittens in a sack if I could.
Now that’s what I would’ve posted had you stopped there, G.
But then you said:
“I’m doing it because I want to write this story with these characters.”
And there’s the rub. I reckon, you’re writing it for yourself, you’re not holding back or hemming in because of what you think’ll sell or be profitable, that’s the only way to go. That way, even if it ends up being incorrigible dreck to everyone else, you’ll still like it. You’ll still manage to write a novel about something you actually care about. And believe me, we’ll all know if you don’t care.
But you know all this. You’ve got a process and it works for you, that’s great. As it turns out, I’m now on my – what is it now? – fifth book (yeah, I’m cranking ‘em out) and I’ve only just come close to a process, which goes like this:
Chapter-by-chapter outline. First draft, vaguely following outline, but not beating myself up if I digress. Then a retro-outline based on a first draft to solidify all that plot-character stuff. Repeat and rinse. I keep going like that, I get to whittle it down to what the story needs to be, hopefully. And we’re talking full drafts, too, which can be time-consuming, but it eliminates a lot of typos and throws up some clunky stuff every time. Yes, I’ve screwed it up. No, it’s not for everyone. But I find I waste less time than if I was working to an “organic” plan.
Anyway, you don’t need me waving pom-poms in your general direction, but based on your prose output so far, I’d say you’re more than able to wipe the floor with most novelists. So suck it up, Big G, because you’re going to be one of the few that I’m actively encouraging.
Yeah, where’s yer Happy Hat?
Am the only one here who’s now trying to imagine Ray Banks in a cheerleader outfit?
Okay, back to my students’ manuscripts.
I’ve often find myself wishing (hoping…begging) that some writers would quit. Especially back when I was reading my students’ papers. 🙂
Jesus, Paul. The IT’S SO OBVIOUS YOU IMBECILIC NINNY Award is the only award every writer is required to win before they can write anything worth reading. Uh, obviously. I myself, in spite of my sublime genius, have won that award at least three times.
(1) I come up with a hook, aka “What makes this story different from all others?” The hook can come from any number of places–research (did you know that the number one cause of death in the Grand Canyon among tourists is heat stroke? and that the number two cause is falling to death? And that number three is drowning?), revelation (have you ever noticed that “Macbeth” has a perfect plot arc for a murder mystery?), inspiration (what if “Kidnapped” had taken place a hundred years later, and in San Francisco?), circumstance (how can I make an arson unusual and interesting?), and so on.
(2) I flesh out the universe that contains the hook–i.e., define the circumstances in which the hook is credible. A story about a serial baby killer required the invention of a small police force in the California high desert with limited resources. My 18th century detective had to be a Roman Catholic. My L.A. detective agency had to be as multi-racial as STAR TREK.
(3) I choose the necessary plot points required by the story for it to be told. This is similar to outlining, but not exactly the same thing. I use the six-point system: exposition, conflict, development, climax, denouement, resolution.
(4) I write between plot points, that is, I start at one plot point and write until I reach another plot point. At this point, my writing is generally pretty basic, although as a word-lover it is impossible for me to resist the witty comment (two I’m unreasonably proud of are “To me, a Sicilian Defense is the Fifth Amendment”, and “The only thing lonelier than an empty church is a crowded whorehouse”) or the apt metaphor.
(5) I flush everything not required to tell the story.
(6) I refine the prose until the cadence is right and the thing flows, because in early incarnations there are phrases that clunk like an ancient Diesel.
(7) I submit the MS and hold my breath.
The watch feature is a definite indication of incipient mental derangement.
Look, I don’t know anything about this writing the first 50 pages over and over again stuff, but my process most definitely involves writing a number of individual pages 50 times until I get them right. The multiple draft concept ain’t for me—when I’m done, I wanna be done, forget leaving the hard editing work for later. So I tweak and fiddle and rewrite and overhaul as I go so as to avoid having to do another goddamn thing to the monster until my editor’s taken a pass at it. Makes writing on a deadline a bitch—and writing without one a timeless nightmare.
But hey, as you’ve just figured out, while hearing how others do it may be incredibly fascinating—and it is—it’s got nothing to do with how YOU’RE hardwired to do it. I tell my students to find their own individual comfort zone where process is concerned and stick with it, regardless of whatever the hell the James Patterson method is.
Now, if you don’t mind, this is Tuesday, and I’ve got to get back to the business of making what I wrote last Friday even better than it read on Sunday…
Great post, Paul, and great comments. Now let’s talk sex.
Kidding. Process? As so many others have noted, it’s different for everyone. Everyone else’s process, like everyone else’s voice, is an example that can help you discover your own.
My stories usually start with a “what if” question. If it grabs me, I start relentlessly asking who, what, where, when, why, and how. The story lies in the answers.
Rain Fall started with just an image: two men following another man down a street in Tokyo, where I was living at the time. But then the questions: who are the two men? Why are they following the other guy? The answers that came to me: they’re assassins. They’re going to kill him. That felt right, but… why are they going to kill him? Who hired them? How did they get started in the business? What did the target do to become a target?
Those question and answer sessions got the story and the character going. When I felt strongly about a scene, I would write it; other times, I would ask more questions and sketch a rough outline. A series of articles in Forbes magazine about suspicious deaths in Japan made me wonder, “What if there really were a “natural causes” specialist working in Japan… who would he be? What would motivate him? Where would he have come from? What would his life be like? How would he communicate with clients?” All of which helped me flesh out the character.
Eventually, Rain ran into the daughter of one of his targets, and I realized I’d found the heart of the story: “What if a cloistered, cut-off, loner of an assassin came to care about someone enough that he would be motivated to risk breaching his own wall of security, emotional and physical? What would cause that? What would he do? What would be going on inside him?”
That’s how it works for me. An idea, a scene, a premise, then lots of open-ended questions, then iteration between writing and the outline. Some of it is purposeful; some of it is messy. But that’s just an example — empirically, my process can work, but it doesn’t follow that it will work for everyone.
Here are four self defense principles, as I understand it articulated by Bruce Lee:
1. Research your own experience2. Absorb what is useful3. Reject what is useless4. Add what is specifically your own
They work for writers, too.
He wrote those talking cat mysteries, right?
I note without comment that Barry was silent on the issue of the watch.
“Note without comment”–pretty sly, JLW.
And guyot, since you’re such a Bruce Lee fan, look for Justin Lin’s upcoming dark comedy, “Finishing the Game,” about the making of Lee’s last movie after his untimely death. Sounds like a great satire of Hollywood movie-making. Can’t wait to see it.
BTW, great post as always.
Is Justin Lin the guy who did BETTER LUCK TOMORROW?
I thought that was a terrific film.
If it’s not him, then who the heck is Justin Lin and why is he messing with Bruce?
This is good to hear.
I’m in the middle of a week away from home, working on plot. I just spent the last hour wandering in the snow after understanding there’s no possible ending to my story. So I’m still in a daze.
Plus I ordered lunch by pointing randomly at the menu in a bistro because I don’t know French, and I think I just ate some unpardonable part of a lamb.
I have no insights at all today, about writing or anything else. All is lost and I’ve had too much caffeine. But I like hearing that you found a foothold.
My God – I’m having the exact day that Keith is – except without the snow and the lamb.
Yes, Justin Lin did BLT, Tokyo Drift, and some other films. The new movie sounds like a combination of The Player, Bamboozled, and Baadasssss.
Now that’s the Guyot attitude and confidence I’ve been waiting for! Please advise where your first book signing will be…
After reading such generous advice from so many of our incredibly gifted writers and friends – far be it for me to offer my pithy routine or experiences…so I won’t.
But I will say (thought I’d shut up and go away, huh?) – writing (for me) is like cooking a great pasta sauce. The basic ingredients remain the same – but it’s the herbs that distinguish it – and make it your own. Not much different from ‘voice’ or ‘style’ (which Alex posted about the other day). So, Guyot? I know you’re a hell of a cook – so get out that special combo of herbs only you can mix – taste that sauce and smile knowing you’ve done it again. And then set out the table and invite us all over to savor every bite. I’ll even do the dishes.
Elaine, you just made Keith throw up.
“Am the only one here who’s now trying to imagine Ray Banks in a cheerleader outfit?”
Certainly not, Laura. I do that every day whilst putting on my French maid’s outfit.
As for process, I outlined a novel not so long ago and it sucked (more than usual, that is), so I’ve reverted to my first love: winging it. When I write that first draft, I give myself permission to do what I like, go where I want, pursue interesting ideas and characters, and not worry about trivia like ending up with skinless two-headed characters and a euphonium that breaks wind. Subsequent drafts are all about adding skin, removing extraneous heads and teaching that euphonium some manners.
Whatever works, though. Go for it.
Poor Keith – it wasn’t the sauce, it was the vinegar he mistook for the wine. We need to teach him how to read Italian labels.
And furthermore – your opinions, Laura – are usually pretty damned interesting. I like Barry’s too…but then…I like a lot of things about Barry.
Great post… and great comments. My own process is probably something like Gar’s, only I endlessly tweak and edit the entire time I’m writing a novel (which is roughly four to six months). Like Gar said: when I’m done, I want to be done. But I’ll revise endlessly along the way.
And winging it really seems to be the way I work best. That, and not being afraid to kill or cut something short if it bores me. It was very liberating when I learned I could do that. When I started out, I thought every novel had to have basic parts, like a car, or something. But if your novel wants to just have tires, a steering wheel, a trunk, and a dead hooker in the trunk… so be it. That’s your novel. Don’t worry about the friggin’ carburetor. Maybe your car is so bad-ass, it doesn’t even need a carburetor.
Okay, I’m lying. Every novel, to me, has to have one essential part: voice. If the voice is humming along, I think you can pretty much do anything you want.
Now it’s time to get back to imagining Ray Banks in a blue and yellow skirt. Mmmmmm.
The watch? How could I forget?
I will only say… Paul is barking up the right tree there. But you’ll have to read the next book to find out…
The comments here are awesome! What a great discussion!
I’ve thought a lot about my process. While I tend to stick to the notion that I’m a pantser, if I really look at myself, everything I’ve written had a different process.
I get restless if I’m not changing or growing, I guess.
And Paul … good luck! I’m tackling the Big N for the first time, too!
After I come up with the idea, I do it the way you do…like a script. I outline the story in beats (scenes for those of you outside the TV biz) and then I write…though I feel more freedom to deviate from an outline than I would, say, from an episodic beat sheet. I call my outlines “living outlines,” since I am constantly revising them as I go along to match the changes I am making in the manuscript. So I end up finishing the outline about a week or two before I finish writing the book.
My process — A good deal of reserach in an area central to the story, which has not completely gelled yet. Unfinished with the research, I leap into the story, page one. I write the first page, scene, chapter one. Out of that chapter two comes forth, then chapter three. Once I have the first 3 chapters, I give thought to where things are headed, but not too much. I write on to one hundred pages. If I make one hundred, I know it will become a novel, that I am well on my way. I usually work in two or three scenes within a 20 page chapter. Every chapter comes out of what has come before. I am comfortable with multiple point of view third person. I no longer write the entire book from beginning to end as I did when younger and less experienced but now write in a parobola fashion, like ocean waves, back to page one, rewriting up to where I have completed several times over before getting to the completed last page. I work without a net, and if I must draw up an outline for an editor, I usually do it after the fact, after the book’s completed, unless I have intentionally created only 3 chapters with outline for a proposal, but outlines slow me down so I usually avoid them. I never know when a character will surprise me, a twist might come…do not know where I am going until I write where I go…do not know what I think until I see what I say. This works for me and has for more than two decades and forty titles. Rewriting is writing; this is where the real work begins, and rewriting a complete novel say three times non-stop is a great exercise, that is without a break in between. Finally, the way to get it done is to set goals, set a schedule, and celebrate every scene you accomplish to your pleasure and standard. And by all means have fun with it.
I’m an organic writer, like Pari explained above. But I love to hear about other’s processes. It’s fascinating to me, and there’s always the element of “maybe I should be doing it their way.”
But G has hit the nail on the head. You must do what works for you. But the interesting transition is when you stop doing it solely for you, and start doing it because you have agreed to do it for a publisher.
I usually have one or two scenes that I build a book around,. very visual, pivotal moments. Now I have to string those scenes together into some understandable format that my editor can fathom. That’s where I get tricked up — being an organic, let what happens happen writer in a proposal and synopsis world. I’m learning.
Just keep writing the damn thing, G. It’ll come.
I’m going to follow Barry’s suggestion and talk about sex.
I’ve come to believe the words-on-paper part, the part that was tripping Guyot up because he was trying on other writers’ voices and other publishers’ ideas, is like sex. If you think about it too much, you’re in trouble. You lose the thread, you fall out of the moment, you start existing in your head instead of in your skin. “Oh, my god. Look at all those saggy bits,” you think. And, ”Crap, this is loud. What if somebody hears?” Instead of plugging into the Universal Current, you’re wondering, “Am I doing this right?”
Story doesn’t come from your head. It comes from somewhere outside of you, like a lover, and you need to grasp it and wrestle with it and let it overwhelm you. Some writers plan the seduction well in advance–plane tickets and reservations and travel guides and gifts of lingerie. Some writers show up at the door with a bunch of flowers and a bottle of wine. For some writers, it’s up against the wall outside the club, not knowing where Story’s home is, let alone how to get there.
Whatever works for you.
But ultimately, you have to get out of your head and into the place where you’re touching, and being touched. Afterwards, yeah, you clean up, you pull the quilt back onto the bed, you tuck and zip and stuff and straighten. Detail work. It’s actually fun, at that point.
Because you’ve already made Story.
Does anyone else feel like a cigarette?
I’ve decided that just about any premise for a novel will seem ludicrous if one sets it aside for any amount of time. I picture Melville returning to the manuscript of Moby Dick and asking himself, “What was I thinking?” Once engaged in that imaginary world of your work, best to remain in it as much as possible, I think.
In other words, the next time you really want to set it down, must set it down, keep writing that really f**d up novel. Let it be as bad as it’s going to be. This is why God made revision.
I’m among the non-outliners. So what? You outline, good — if that’s working for you. If it’s not, give freefall a try. It’s terrifying. Wonderfully terrifying.
Jan had it right calling novel writing via freefall terrifying. It’s scary as hell. But it’s also the most fun you can have doing what we do. So you write yourself into a dead-end every now and then. Not a fatal condition. Figuring out how to fix stuff when you’ve broken the living hell out of it, man, that’s one of life’s greatest highs for me.
“How the heck did I do that? Wow, am I a smart sumbitch, or what!”
Seat-of-the-pants isn’t always the most efficient approach to writing an airtight novel, I suppose, but it’s for sure the least predictable. And therein lies the kick.
I’m sorry to break into such a prolific thread, but I was wondering if you could help me. We met four years ago in the Judging Amy writers’ offices. I was helping Karen create the Jesuit character, if you remember it ended in diaster. Anyway I would like your advice on something and this seemed like the best way to get intouch with you. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I look forward to hearing from you.