Discovering My Writing Process

typewriterAfter all these years, I’ve finally figured out my writing process. It goes something like this:

  • Get a bit of inspiration.
  • Write until it begins to take shape as a story.
  • Sit on it a bit, read it, and then start over.
  • Discover that I need to do some research.
  • Push the story as far as I can.
  • Figure out that I need to leave out about half of it.
  • Start from the new place and push it to the end.
  • Show it to someone else and get some comments.
  • Realize from the comments – though not necessarily from the specific flaws pointed out by my reader – what the story is actually about.
  • Rip it up and start over.
  • Read something relevant and figure out how to work that in.
  • And on and on and on in that vein, though not always quite in that order.

I am not a linear thinker. If necessary, I can force myself into a semblance of linear thinking to get a chore done, but I don’t like it. I find it painful, because when I do things that way, it always feels like I’m leaving out something important.

It’s not just that I find it hard to make an outline. It’s that if I have an outline, I look at each item and think of five different ways to do the next step (in addition to whatever is actually set out as the next step). It’s better if I just make a list of things that I know must be included somewhere, and keep adding to it.

This is more than being a pantser, though I’m that, too. Sometimes the thing that’s really driving the story is under the surface somewhere, so it takes me awhile to figure it out. In fact, sometimes I surprise myself when I do figure it out.

When faced with a deadline, I can finish something. Most of the time it’s a serviceable piece, and sometimes it’s even a good one, but it’s rarely what I really wanted to create. In the same way, I can do taxes, pay bills, and otherwise handle daily living.

And, in fact, I’m good at cutting to the chase and seeing what absolutely has to be done when there’s a firm deadline and too much to do. That’s possibly the most useful survival skill I’ve developed: I know what to skip or throw out when there’s not time to do everything.

My skill at cutting to the chase when I have to and at doing journalism quickly (because you have to do journalism quickly) gave me the illusion that I was a fast writer who could just crank things out. I even did it at Clarion West, cranking out my story a week (and selling most of them eventually), though I did that on very little sleep and no exercise. I loved it, but sleep and exercise are too important in my life to live that way for very long.

But to write what I really want to write, to pull the story or thesis out of the depths of my mind, I need to write and talk and read and rewrite and share and rewrite and rip up until it all comes together the way I want it to.

It’s not just fiction. Right now I’m tearing out my hair over the self defense book. I know what I want to say, but I keep changing how I want to say it. And I keep finding new information and new insights that deepen some sections and change the way I want to say it.

I could write it very quickly if I stuck with the outline I created some time back, but at this point, that simpler version is no longer the book I want to write.

I wish I’d understood this a long time ago. Please note that I’m not asking for advice. I like the way my mind works. I enjoy finding all those odd connections that come from the random thinking process. In fact, the reason I’m driven to write is that the process allows me to figure out what I really think, what’s really important, what I really want to say.

I wrote most of this piece very quickly. It needed some tweaking, but it still came together faster than most of my blog posts. That’s probably because the core of it was a lifetime in the thinking.



Discovering My Writing Process — 13 Comments

  1. Hurray for process! I’m a process nerd, I *love* to hear what works for other people because it gives me more things to try when words turn to treacle. For me, frequently, what’s missing is to sit back and write something that happens off-screen so I can hint at it later; which stops the book from being so strongly focused on one character alone.

    that simpler version is no longer the book I want to write.

    That sums up my relationship with outlines: my nonfiction outlines grow as my understanding of the topic grows; but if I try to outline fiction; all I CAN write at that point comes from a point of not knowing the characters and the setting at all, so how could it reflect the characters’ story?

    It might be a little different with short stories because those I can – theoretically – hold in my head, so I’d work through it and then write the results down before I flesh them out, but in reality that never happens.

    • One of the things I love about writing short stories is that I can keep the whole story in my head while I’m working on it. And if I just get down something close to what’s going on in the first draft, I have things to work with later. With novels, I have to go back and read the whole thing again if I take more than a few days off while working on it.

      Writing a basic news story was always quick for me, because I could keep it all my head and I internalized the basic structure, so that once I understood the subject, it fell into place. But it doesn’t work like that for me in nonfiction when the subject isn’t straightforward. And most of the subjects that interest me aren’t.

  2. My process is to write a very raw, incomplete, out of order, and UGLY draft fairly quickly. It’s a skeleton, nothing more. Then I have to let it stew a bit, do the research I know is missing etc. etc. Second draft is a wee bit cleaner and has some internal organs and muscle in a few spots. That version goes to beta readers. While they rip the contents to shreds I’m letting the story simmer on the back burner, not actively thinking about it, just letting all the spices and flavors mingle. The 3rd draft is pretty nearly complete. But then my editor gets her fingers into it and finds ways for me to add hair color, eyebrows, make up and clothing.

    Six years down the road I’ll think up something spectacular that would make the story even better. But by then it’s too late and the book has been published.

    Haven’t done enough short fiction to have a process for that.

    • That doesn’t sound too different from my process, except I know you’re more productive than I am! So you’ve clearly figured out ways to speed this up. I need to see if I can do that. I’m trying these days to work on more than one thing at a time, so I can do the basics on one while letting another one stew and doing revisions on a third. We’ll see how that goes.

  3. Do you find that you work well after you’ve drafted and can revise? I’ve been a pantser, too, but I need to plot the next two books in my series in order to make things work out, and it’s killing me. Sigh.

    • Sometimes I find revising feels more like working from an outline and becomes just as painful. I’m struggling with the revision of something right now, and I suspect it’s because I feel stuck to the order of things as written. Hmm. That might give me a new way to look at it.

      Can you try just making a list of the things that must happen in the next two books and refer to it while you’re writing so that you don’t leave those things out? I mean, instead of working the plot out in detail. Or is it too complicated for that?

      • Unfortunately, it’s too complicated. And I know the general things that have to happen, but I have to figure out how. At least have a plan in mind that I can adjust as I go. It’s like a mystery where you have to figure out the clues and all that in advance. I’m there.

  4. I have found it helpful to have two quite separate documents. One is the Real True Novel, over in Word. The other is over on Internet Typewriter, the place where all the notes, links, cut scenes and wild ruminations go. This means the things that have no place yet in the Real Doc don’t get lost, and if I cut something from the novel I can put it where I can find it again.
    What I loathe is when the process changes on me. Somehow at this moment I can’t just plunge in and gallop for the finish line. I have to wander around, picking at it. Do not like! But I can’t seem to get out of it — I am becoming like you!

    • And here I’ve been so jealous of the way you were plowing through book after book! I hope you get back on track soon. I think I’m back on track on the self defense book, but the current novel is in sadder shape.

  5. My process is extremely messy, and has gotten messier over the years. It didn’t help that I discovered that I was a visual writer, and began actually seeing my crap prose, around age 55, and didn’t begin to understand narrative voice until my sixties.

    I am a living example of “never do anything the way I do”.