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OK, first the caveats... This is how I write. Over many years and many books, I've found the best way for me to create a story or novel. Me. No one else. I'm fully aware that there are Other Ways To Write, that successful books can certainly be written those other ways, and that far more successful writers don't work my way. (Huh. Maybe I should look at those ways a little harder, eh?) I'm not advocating my methodology over any other but -- for any beginning writer or a writer struggling with her or his current process -- I would certainly recommend trying it, because it has worked well for me.

It might work for you, too. First, though, let’s look at the parameters. I’m going to break the writing process into two distinct phases: the “Planning” phase and the “Writing” phase.

THE POLAR OPPOSITES OF PLANNING

To write a novel is a loooooooooong task. It’s not unlike building a house, and like house-building, it’s probably best if you have a really good idea of what’s involved, what you need to buy and prepare for, and how much you need to budget for it all.

Therefore, some novelists use the "Plan Everything Out First" technique... or what I personally call "The Straitjacket Approach." Write long biographies of all the characters. Do every last bit of worldbuilding. Plot every scene in advance. Script out the scenes and chapters and make sure the jigsaw puzzle pieces all fit together. Create an intricate, precise, and detailed outline. Then (finally) begin writing, following the recipe you've put together.

This process has the advantage of giving the writer a clear view of the novel from beginning to end. Ideally, you'll never become stuck or blocked because you know exactly what, when, where, why, and how you have to write.

I've tried this strategy. For my novel THE BONES OF GOD, I had every scene planned out on an index card before I started writing... and by the time I got to Chapter Three, I realized that if I wrote the scene I’d planned, I'd be forcing a character to act out of character. I changed the scene. And -- like making the slightest angle change in one of two parallel lines -- my actual novel began to diverge from the planned novel. By the time I hit Chapter Six or Seven, none of the scenes I wrote were on my index cards, so I threw them aside.

But again, if this works for you, wonderful. If it has produced publishable work for you, keep doing it.

Those on the opposite side are the “Just Let It Happen” folk. They just start writing... and let things happen as they will. This can be an incredibly free way to write: set the characters in motion and just follow them. Heck, Ray Bradbury, who I admire a great deal as a writer, says this is exactly what he does: he ‘follows the footprints’ of his characters. But...

I’ve tried that also. My characters wander down dead ends, and they do things without proper foreshadowing, or they’ll run away so fast I can’t find them, or they’ll bring in their friends I don’t know at all, or (worst of all) they’ll just stop dead in their tracks to gaze up at me with plaintive eyes. “What do I do next?” they’ll whine, as if I’m supposed to know... When that happens, I stop writing. I have a few ‘novel starts’ that go for ten or fifty or a hundred pages using this method. None of those drafts have middles or endings, for some strange reason.

Again, if this works for you, wonderful. Go for it. It doesn’t work for me.

THE POLAR OPPOSITES OF WRITING

The polar method of writing I see most often is what I'll call the "Fast Draft" method -- the method that fuels the annual NaNoWriMo fest. In this technique, the idea is to write the first draft as quickly as possible without worrying about the quality of the text produced. Just get it down, because you will go back later and revise things (a statement, by the way, with which I generally agree). Underlying the process is the undisputed fact that a novel is a marathon task, and many would-be writers start a novel but lose steam somewhere in the middle and don't ever finish. By writing quickly and never looking back, by writing an entire 60,000 - 90,000 word draft in a month, the intent is to help the writer reach the ending.

Fine. I understand the philosophy but utterly loath the process (and yes, I've tried it. Briefly. Very briefly. Just before I screamed in total frustration.) To me, the quality of writing is what a novel is all about, and I can't stand having truly dreadful and sketchy prose lingering behind me while I race to the finish. And I have to wonder... if you can't muster the passion for your work to spend nine months to two years before getting to those grand two words "The End,” then perhaps you really shouldn't be writing that novel.

Again: if it works for you, wonderful. If it has produced publishable work for you, by all means keep doing it.

Then there’s the “James Joyce” school. Joyce reputedly once wrote in a journal that he had a very good day writing: he wrote two words. Mind you, Joyce apparently wasn’t being facetious with that comment... In the Joyce method, you agonize over every single word choice. You try endless combinations to produce exactly the right effect, to use exactly the right metaphor. Each sentence is a battle, each paragraph a war: the writer vs. the language.

I find that language always wins those battles... And I’ve read Joyce.

The Joyce method might produce a great book, but for me the issue is that I change my mind from day to day. I can read a sentence I wrote yesterday and think it’s great, but an hour later I think it’s garbage, and an hour later it’s OK but trite, and the next morning it’s just fine, and...

You can spend your entire life editing and making changes. At some point you have to say “This is the best I can do at the moment” and move on, or you’re going to be writing the same book your whole life.

Again: if this works for you... Yeah. You know.

THE MIDDLE COURSE, SORT OF...

I don't write any of those ways. On the “Planning” side, I tend to have a strong idea of the opening scenes, and a good idea of where I intend the book to end, even if I’m not completely certain of all the events that will happen in the middle. (This is why I have a tough time writing proposals...) I have explored the characters a bit. I’ve done a fair amount (but by no means all) of the worldbuilding. I definitely have maps (it’s a character flaw). I do research prior to beginning a project, but I also continue doing research as I write, and often that research impacts the novel and changes what I'm doing as I'm doing it. So I lean somewhat to the “more” planning side than to the “less.”

But I do leave room for the characters to surprise me... and they sometimes do exactly that. I’ve had to go back and add foreshadowing because, damn it, things had to happen that I absolutely didn’t anticipate. I also, probably as a result of not having planned everything, always seem to hit a spot in the middle of every book where I despair of ever finishing...

All this means that sometimes, yes, the novel ends in a different place than I initially envisioned. Sometimes I find a better way through the landscape of the novel. I'm fine with that, as long as that finish is true to the characters and is a satisfactory ending to the novel.

On the “Writing” side: I write relatively slowly but steadily. I’m right in the middle of the spectrum, neither “Fast Draft” nor “James Joyce.“ To me, writing has to be a habit, something I do every single day -- not just on weekends, not just when the Muse strikes me. Every day. Without fail. If I write every day, I don't have to produce massive amounts of words to make significant progress. I tend to average 500 - 1,000 words a day -- that means that sometimes I do 2,500 words while other days I'll be in minus figures because I'm ripping stuff out that doesn't work for me (getting rid of awful prose is also ‘writing’), or because I’m back in the planning phase trying to figure out what I need to do next.

Do the math: Average 500 words a day, and you can write a fairly thick novel every year...

I write "two steps forward and one step back." I'm constantly re-reading prior scenes and revising them, sometimes to insert necessary pieces of foreshadowing for a scene I'm writing two chapters further on, sometimes just to fix phrasing or description. I always re-read what I wrote the day before the next day, editing and revising as I read -- this helps me work up momentum so when I reach the blank part of the screen I can keep going.

This means that when I finally hit "The End" for the first time, the draft I've just finished isn't really a first draft. It's a piebald file comprised of paragraphs that are first, second, third, fourth, or even fifth drafts. But it's a fairly readable draft. I'm generally happy with most of it. Yes, I then go back to the beginning and polish and revise from beginning to end... but that's generally not that long a process, since the really rough parts have already been smoothed out.

This process has several good qualities, to my mind: I'm generally pleased with the draft produced (and so are my first readers). I don't feel constrained by the straitjacket of my outline, nor do I have to look at a draft that's mostly garbage and unadorned twigs of plot and character and will require more months of revision than it took to write it in the first place.

I've managed to sell nearly every novel I've written this way. That tells me, more than anything, that this process works for me.

Not that the process is perfect. Remember the despair in the middle of every novel? Here’s another truth: just because you've written and published one novel doesn't mean that the next one will be successful. In fact, it doesn't matter if you've just sold your tenth novel; there will still be doubt in your mind that you can perform that feat again -- because every novel is different and will demand some new approach from you.

What I try to do is keep my mind open to synchronicity and metaphor and strange connections. I read books -- non-fiction, usually -- that seem somewhat parallel to my work-in-progress. I listen to people talking. I browse the net. I re-read what I've written. I make Denise read it and ask her "what do you think happens next?" I force myself to keep writing even when I know that I won't be keeping much of what I write.

And, every time so far, there will come The Moment when the novel breaks loose once more. Something I read will spark a new idea, or someone will say something and I'll realize that it has a bearing on my characters, or... well, I never quite know what it will be. But The Moment always comes, and things move forward, and I can finish.

And, in a nutshell, that's my process. It works for me.

It might even work for you. If it does, you're welcome to it...

 

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Stephen Leigh

S.L. Farrell

Matthew Farrell

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