Tuesday, July 12, 2011

practice makes...well, persistence, for one thing. and probably improvement.

my second loaf of homemade bread, better than the first
I used to be a sandwich artist.  Back when the bread had a u-shaped notch in it and there were no cucumbers or spinach or avocados or even a choice of cheeses.  So when I first started, everything was a mystery--slicing tomatoes was clumsy and a bit dangerous, cutting a pan of bread took me an hour (and six bandages).  But as with most learned skills, practice made perfect--or at least, practice made pretty good and pretty efficient and pretty predictable. 

Writing is...a little different.  My hands could learn the best way to pick up the precise amount of lettuce to spread on a footlong sub for a perfect sandwich, but there isn't a formula for writing a novel, or even for getting a first draft written.  Writers talk about being "plotters or pantsers", they talk about outlining, they talk about fast-drafting and taking it slow.  They write out of order or they write only after six years of intensive research and planning.  They write on napkins, or post-its, or in longhand with a sparkly gel pen.  They write a first draft that sounds like the author talking to himself about what the book will eventually be.  They write crappy first drafts, comforting themselves that they can fix all in revisions, or they write with great care, hoping to not waste their time writing unnecessary words in their first drafts that will later be cut.

And however they do it, a writer gets a novel written.  It might be brilliant.  And the next time they do it--same process, same everything--it might not work at all.  In fact, the only thing that might work for that next book is to do things in a completely opposite way.  It's anything but predictable.

From here on I have to get personal.  I can't pretend that I can tell anyone how to write a book or what the best writer's process is because the truth is?  I don't even know what my own process is.  It changes with every book I write.  And while it can sometimes be scary and frustrating because...um...aren't I getting any better at this by now????...it can also be exciting and gratifying because...um...I get so bored with jobs that are the same all the time!  That pan of bread that took me a an hour and six bandages to cut later took me five minutes with my eyes closed.  But it also took all the joy and beauty out of my life forever.  (Okay, hyperbole aside, that's not even true.  I love the smell of fresh bread and I also like knives...but my point is repetitive jobs kill my soul.)

So.  Let me tell you about my processes for some of the books I've written.  My first novel took me six years to write.  (Actually, I'm really fuzzy about dates because I gave birth to two children in that period of my life and probably didn't sleep for more than three consecutive hours at any point, but yeah, it was like six years from start to finish.  Ish.)  The novel was a book for adults about a woman who is learning to paint but finds herself only able to paint pictures of public restrooms.  Stop judging.  I only pitched it like that once or twice.

Anyway, for that book, I knew my character.  I spent, oh, fifty-some pages getting to know her.  I had an idea of what might happen in the book, but I'd get to that later.  Every day, I revised everything I had written up until that part, and then I'd go on and write another page or two.  It was sort of like I was writing by the seat of my pants, and that was exciting, but the whole time I knew exactly where it was leading.  I knew the climax of the book, and I knew how it would end.  I can't actually remember how much it changed from that original vision, and I can't bring myself to read it to find out, but really, it doesn't matter.  Having the ending in mind was what allowed me to pull through the book to the end.  And finishing that draft was the miracle moment--the accomplishment that assured me that I could write an actual book, the accomplishment that still reassures me every time I sit down to write--I can end this!  Except.  It was messy and unwieldy.  Was there a plot? Maybe, if you squint.

My second book, about a boy who steals his history teacher's car, was like...I planned that book out within an inch of its life.  I had a notebook filled with plot diagrams, and I knew every scene and how it would lead to the climax and then what would happen afterward.  I wrote the first draft in less than a month, and the pace was like a race car flying along.  Writing a book has never felt easier. So I was like, OH OKAY! From now on when I write a book I need to know everything that happens, and it will be so much easier and better!  Except.  Later I realized that the book was so thin...it felt like I could still see the little plot diagram there beneath the surface.  Also I hated the simplicity of its themes and how...direct it was.  Back to the drawing board, process-wise.

I wrote another book.  This one, at that time called The Dharma Bum Business, but now known as KISS THE MORNING STAR!  Yay, happy little book!  I took about nine months to first draft this, and it was a wonderful and frustrating experience.  I knew I wanted a strong plot structure, but I also knew I wanted layers and depth and emotional connections and complex themes and gray areas and also there was this little problem with my characters who absolutely wouldn't do anything I intended them to do and did absolutely everything they could to surprise me on the page so that I scrambled to align the ending I envisioned to their journey.  I ended up writing three very different endings for the book--vastly different from each other--so different I can't even imagine how I got from one ending to the other without hopelessly unraveling the whole story.  And then I changed the point of view.  I've cut so many scenes and added so many others from the first draft...I've changed the geographical path of Anna and Kat's road trip by about a thousand miles.  It wasn't easy, but it was totally worth it...and it taught me a million lessons about writing that I hope I'll be able to remember for every other book I write.

I've written two more complete first drafts and two more partial works-in-progress since then, and I have to say, my process has changed--I still spend some time plotting and scribbling notes and noodling about with character voices and researching before beginning a draft, but I have less of a focus on what exactly happens and more of a focus on the emotional journey of my characters, the stakes and the conflicts they face, and what parts of their struggles are universal and will resonate with readers.  I've started writing a pitch before I get too far in, to sort of sell the idea to myself, and to focus on the concept--what I'm trying to say.  I write some parts fast and some parts agonizingly slow.  I write a lot of so-called "unnecessary" words--words and scenes and whole chapters I will hack from the manuscript at a later date--and while it may seem inefficient (and I hope to get better at figuring out where my story really begins, for example), for me, I think writing those words really is important, even if it's not necessary for anyone to ever read them.  I'm getting a tiny bit better at figuring out which of the words in my book are those words, too.  A tiny bit. 

I can't predict the exact process that will help me arrive at a perfect sandwich first draft, but I'm getting better at figuring out the things I need to know before I start and the things I'll figure out as I go...the questions I should ask before I begin and the questions that will keep me moving on to the next scene...the times I should write fast and sloppy, trusting revision to fix it later, and the times I should go back and fine-tune some of what I've already written in order to make it feel worth it to go on...the times when I should follow my characters into unexpected places and the times I need to wrestle them back onto the plot diagram.

And I hope that, even though I can't write a first draft with my eyes closed yet (or indeed, without needing multiple bandages, but that's just because I'm a klutz), I am improving.

How about you?  Do you first draft with the same process, or is it messy and evolving, too?  Do you plot or go by the seat of the pants?  Do you need to know the ending or do you let the events unfold?  What questions do you need to know the answer to before you begin? 


cat_hellisen said...

I have no idea how I write. Mostly, I just start with a character and write until I get stuck, then I try throw ideas at the wall until something looks like it might work, and then I carry on. Not the most effective method, but so far the only one I have any kind of handle on.

For some reason I have to do MANY revisions. ;)

Susanne Winnacker said...

I need to know the ending before I start writing. I always write a synopsis before I start a book. I've once tried it without one but it didn't work out. And my first drafts are far from perfect...

Cherry Blossom said...

I have the basic core idea in my head. But only the basic. The rest has to develop over time while the novel comes out. Sometimes i write like a whirlwind of words, other days i have to pull them out of my mind like barbed fly-hooks stuck in bushes. But i have yet to finish my first draft, so who knows if i'm doing it right or not? I sure hope i get somewhere someday...

Elissa J. Hoole said...

cat, you do seem to have a very intuitive method--I would argue that you are able to trust your subconscious a lot more than many writers!

susanne, I will say that I write so much more confidently when I know where I'm headed--the whole process is easier and feels saner, too!

Cherry, the barbed hooks! aughhhh I hate it when it's like the barbed hooks. I think sometimes if I try to force too many details into the synopsis, my story doesn't develop organically enough, like you said, developing over time. Keep at it, and you'll finish!! :)

Kristan said...

"Except. It was messy and unwieldy. Was there a plot? Maybe, if you squint."

Hah. Sounds exactly like my first book.

"I'm getting better at figuring out the things I need to know before I start and the things I'll figure out as I go...the questions I should ask before I begin and the questions that will keep me moving on to the next scene...the times I should write fast and sloppy, trusting revision to fix it later, and the times I should go back and fine-tune some of what I've already written in order to make it feel worth it to go on...the times when I should follow my characters into unexpected places and the times I need to wrestle them back onto the plot diagram."


linda said...

Wow. I LOVE this post. Thank you so much for sharing! I'm fascinated by other writers' processes. This is such an insightful post, and perfect for me since I'm trying to figure out my own process. :)