How do you write?

by Pari

In addition to having wonderful writers at Murderati, we also have several who are superb writing teachers.

I am not one of them.
This isn’t false humility; it’s a simple fact. I have never spent much time analyzing my writing process. As a matter of fact, I have a really difficult time even trying to. I read our Murderati members’ —  and others’ — fabulous posts on building climaxes, structures, big concepts and, each time, I think I’m finally ready to jump in and learn how to write! Over the years, I’ve enthusiastically signed up for several classes and  . . . after about the second or third one, I’m back where I started: utterly befuddled.

I just don’t approach my writing in an analytical way though I admire the hell out of people who do.

But last week one of the psychiatrists at work approached me about collaborating on an article about creativity and storytelling from the therapist’s and the writer’s perspective.  And for some reason, I actually liked the possibility of looking at my own process.

Right now, I don’t have much of a framework upon which to hang any concepts. However, I do know:

  1. I start most of my stories with a broad theme (or a name) that intrigues me:
  • ·         The chile pepper industry in NM and the conflicts between big ag and small farmers
  • ·         A first-hand experience of divorce based on a book I read about “Rebuilding”
  • ·         An overweight Midwestern farmer’s wife who uses small magic without realizing it
  • ·         A woman named Guadalupe Nakamura

No questions. No conflicts to drive the story forward or give it much shape. Just interesting ideas to explore.

  1. Voice is the most important thing to me.  So I spend a lot of time getting to know my character(s). I go in as deeply as I can and write. I often talk aloud to hear the character’s cadence and close my eyes to see that person’s world, to smell it and taste it and hear it. I sit at the computer and feel the emotions that tighten my character’s stomach, the ones that make her heart beat faster or her skin tingle.  I let myself experience that full reality as much as possible.

If I’m true to this second step, the authenticity of the character shines through in my writing. However, if I think about audience at this point or whether my new creation will “sell,” both the character and I are in big trouble.

So those are the first two steps in my process . . . I think.  

How about you?
Do you know how you write? Have you thought about it?

14 thoughts on “How do you write?

  1. Barbie

    Ever heard of "psychography"? From Wikipedia, it says, "Automatic writing or psychography is writing which the writer states to be produced from a subconscious, and/or external and/or spiritual source without conscious awareness of the content."

    Here in Brazil, psychography is mainly part of a doctrine, called spiritualism, that believes in communicating with spirits. One of the ways that the spirits would communicate with mediums would be through them writing through the spirit — but not really consciously. Not really sure I'm making myself clear here.

    Anyway, my point is, most of the time I don't think I write — it's more like I psychograph, because it's like my characters are independent of me. Many times, I feel I don't even write stories, that I write characters. They're all so alive, so ready, so complete, I feel they're living (or not? :/) somewhere, in another plane, and I'm merely a vehicle for telling their stories. I see scenes in my head that come through ready, and all I do is sit and write. And I have the hardest time ever "making things up". I've never named a character. I've simply learned their names.

    Telling you, I'm weird. Which is why I'm probably not cut out to be an author, since I don't think I can make up stories 🙁

  2. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Boy…I wish I knew my process better. It's changing all the time. It's "one step forward two steps back," always. I never feel comfortable until I know where the plot is going and where the exciting beats occur. I like to have a good eight or so dramatic scenes in mind before I begin. And I never feel like I know the characters quite well enough.
    While I feel I could be a good teacher if I tried, well, I simply don't want to try. It takes a lot of work to be a really good teacher. More than I can muster.

  3. Web Design Oxford

    I've recently taken up writing as a bit of a profession, can you tell? Well my writing process seems to be very much like yours, I just like jump in but I would like to approach it in a more analytical way. I feel this approach would improve me as a writer; could you link me to some of these workshops?

  4. Pari Noskin

    I bet psychographing is great fun. For me, the first two steps I mentioned are simply the first two. I do a lot more than that and editing is an important part of it for me as well . . . it can be creative and pleasurable, revealing too.

    I've read your posts and think you're far more aware of your process than you give yourself credit for. Perhaps you just haven't spent time trying to wrestle the concepts into any kind of cogent framework to express to others?

    Web Design . . .
    I'd start with some of our own Alexandra Sokoloff's works. She has blogs here with fabulous information and also has at least a few e-books about structure. David Corbett is another 'Rati who teaches frequently. If I were you, I'd start with them; they're both pros and explain the process beautifully!

  5. Stacy McKitrick

    Oh gosh! There's a process to writing?? I haven't written the same way on two books yet (and I'm on my 5th). I might think I've found the best way, but then I don't do it the next time. Yet the stories get written, and I have fun writing them.

    Someone asked me if I used the three act system. I kind of looked at them like they had lost their mind. I have no idea if I do or not. I write the story that needs to be written however it needs to come out. I think if I started thinking about the process, my writing will suffer. Don't want that!!

  6. Lisa Alber

    Over the last few years I've tried to teach myself how to be more analytical in an effort to write cleaner first drafts. As far as I can tell, the analytical path is the plot-point path. Result? More unfinished projects. More self-doubt about my abilities. More writing stress. Less fun. Less feeling creative.

    So now I really do know that I must begin with character rather than plot points. This may make for messier first drafts that take longer to write, but apparently this is the only way I can finish a first draft at all!

    I do a lot of freewriting/brainstorming to come up with the initial story idea and the cast of characters. I do character analyses, which often gives me insight into plot points. After awhile I arrive at a critical mass where I must start writing. This usually occurs when I can see the first scene and when random dialogue snippets appear in my freewrites.

    And plotting? I stop about 50 pages into the first draft–because by then I have a feel for the story–to engage in some plot analysis. I course-correct the first 50 and continue on.

    I guess I do know what my basic process is, don't I? 🙂

  7. Pari Noskin

    How strange. I commented this morning, but must've hit the wrong key or something. Argh.

    I like the idea of psychography. I bet there is all kinds of interesting information to be mined there if you ever wanted to edit and create a story.

    Like you, I've never wanted to put in the energy to figure out my process and to really dedicate myself to teaching writing. I am so glad there are people who do!

    Web designer,
    I'd start with our own Alex Sokoloff and/or David Corbett depending on what you're looking for. Go back into the Murderati archives to see what they've posted in the past. Also, I know that Alex has ebooks on structure and other aspects of writing that you might find helpful.

  8. Sarah W

    I love exploring characters, and sometimes I start with two characters interacting — but it works so much better if I have at least one main goal or mystery in mind (not necessarily completely solved, because I need the rush, too) before I begin.

    It gives the characters something to aim for instead of waltzing around each other for four chapters, waiting for me to get my act together and start the story, already.

    I'm also learning to do just a bit of research beforehand, too, especially if I'm not absolutely sure my characters can do what I want them to do . . . Saves time and sanity.

  9. David Corbett

    Lisa (and Pari):

    That's as good a process as I can think of. Especially if other ways are killing you.

    It's similar to my process, and like Pari I usually start with a theme, a siuation or a problem that won't let me go. Then I do my character and theme work, and that beigns to give me scene and story ideas — very importat: story. Then begin to plot. I plot first because I can get wedded to lines and scenes whether they ultimately belong or not, and I've learned that darlings are much easier to kill before they're born.

    I'd add: There is no single process. One of the most important lessons to learn is to accept how you work and embrace it. Sounds like both of you have.

  10. Lisa Alber

    Hi David,

    Yes, I was killing my joy of writing, all because I thought my process somehow wasn't good enough…Which is to say, that my process wouldn't lead me to write novels that were commercial enough to entice an agent to take me on. Talk about crazy-making!

  11. Kristi Belcamino

    Great post, Pari! I love discussions like this.
    David, I still would like to read a post about your process re: index cards. And Pari's and all the other wonderful Murderati moderators.

  12. KDJames

    All I can tell you about my process is that it's evolving and I'm convinced it will become more difficult and convoluted with each new story I write. I've come to accept that the first however-many pages are just for me and I need to write them to get myself into the story, but they're not going to be part of the finished work. Knowing that going in makes it easier to delete them later, once I find the beginning.

    I agree with David that there is no single process. Do whatever it takes to put words on the page. That said, I enjoy and always learn from discussions like this. People have such different approaches to the craft and you never know when something might resonate and become part of your own process.

    I have a huge amount of respect (and gratitude) for those who can teach this stuff. I don't have that aptitude. Pretty sure I'm destined to be more of a horrible warning than a good example when it comes to the topic of "how to write."

    Good luck with the collaboration! Try not to kill each other.

  13. Darla

    You may not consider yourself a 'teacher,' Pari, but I absolutely love how you get chin-deep into the questions and inner workings of writing.

    I'm a relative newbie to writing novels, only on my third manuscript, but my process is pretty much non-existent. I have a vague idea, then I just start writing and the first draft flows out with lots of characters and, for this current one, the setting is nearly as prominent as the protagonist. I was living in the town and experiencing the characters to the point that, since I don't like conflict, there wasn't any conflict in the story either. Oops. So, now I'm in the process of major revisions, had to create an antagonist, etc. Anyway, on it goes…

    Really enjoyed the comments to this post as well — I'm feeling quite reassured right now! LOL

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