Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Demystifying Writing

One of the greatest mysteries I've struggled with as a writer is the mystery of my own darned writing process. How do snatches of conversation, fleeting glimpses of characters, and vague themes find their way to the page? How do the pages stack up? Panic: How on earth did I manage to write and publish an entire book? Is it even possible to do it again?

When I romanticize the writing process, thinking of it as something mystical and beyond me, I end up shuffling around the house, nursing endless cups of coffee, wondering things: When will these characters come to life? When will my random ideas cohere? Am are writing two different books -- or three? Or one? Are my plot problems even fixable? Will the solutions come to me in a dream, or if I walk around the block, or if I take another shower?

Then I wonder, at the end of the day, why the pages are not stacking up. And at the end of the day I'm paralyzed by self-doubt. Having Not Written.

As I am now deep in the writing of my second novel, staring down the barrel of a deadline, I've come to realize something. The only way I get any real writing done is when I stop being mystified by it. I have to understand my most productive work habits and take advantage of them. Mostly, I have to sit down at the desk and just get the work done. Instead of wondering how it's all going to happen, I have to make it happen.

I used to agonize over whether to bang out a whole draft and then revise (at the risk of scrapping hundreds of pages or entire characters), or whether I should outline carefully and write more slowly, revising as I go. I've come to accept that I'm neither a panster nor a plotter. I'm something in between: a puzzler.

My novel-in-progress. (Yep, that's Sponge Bob's eye).
Being a puzzler is like having a handful of puzzle pieces when I begin a project. Unfortunately they're not always the most useful pieces. I might have some sky pieces that don't quite fit, and part of a frame, and one corner, and somebody's eye. But the pieces intrigue me. I write a little, think, fix, brainstorm, write more. Before I know it, I have more pieces to move around: more sky, another corner, the second eye, and whoa, a dog.

And so I've found a middle ground in my writing process, where I draft in bursts of up to thirty pages (over several days). Then I go back and take stock, get information I need, brainstorm more, solve problems, and push the manuscript forward into another thirty-page burst.

Instead of sprinting to the end, I look more carefully at what I have after each writing burst. I go more deeply into scenes. I look for underutilized characters, overlooked objects that could become clues or plot twists. Does a character say "no" when someone asks him an important question or extends an invitation? If I make him say "yes" instead, might that propel me into the next thirty pages? Have I made things too easy for my characters? How can they work harder to get what they want? I also try to check in with my characters' emotions. Are they having any? Will their emotional responses propel the plot forward? Oh look, there's another piece of the puzzle, snapping together. Nice.

It's a tedious process at times. I am a fast writer at heart, and I know I'm capable of banging out up to twenty pages in a day. I want to bang out twenty pages in a day. But when I write recklessly, those pages may not all serve the story, and I may eventually hit a dead end. The slower, puzzling process -- which seems to work better for my plot-intensive mysteries -- means I may only have four or five pages at the end of a day. Yet they are better quality pages, and they set me up for more to come.

I recently reread one of my favorite books on writing craft, and I think it's particularly useful for puzzler-types. This slender but wise book is by Ron Carlson, a favorite writer of mine, and it's called Ron Carlson Writes a Story. It walks you through how he wrote one of his acclaimed short stories ("The Governor's Ball") -- what was going through his mind, how he thought through plot problems, how he dealt with uncertainty. It's also about he avoids distractions and "stays in the room." Reading this guide is like looking over his shoulder as he writes, and it makes me feel less alone in the process.

If you are working on a writing project or planning one, I highly recommend it.

What's your creative process like? Do you have a metaphor or image that explains your process? (Construction? Running? Cooking?) 

Do you have writing or other creative goals in 2013? How will you meet those goals?

Diana Renn grew up in Seattle and now lives outside of Boston with her husband and young son. TOKYO HEIST (Viking/Penguin, published June 2012) is her first novel, and she is hard at work on the next one, which is also a YA mystery.


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  2. "Instead of wondering how it's all going to happen, I have to make it happen."

    YES, YES, and YES. I'm struggling with my work-in-progress right now, and the longer I stay away from it, the harder it is to return, since I've built up the process so much in my head as a mystical thing. Hopefully today I can sit down and just get back to it.

    1. Amazing, isn't it, how we can set up our own psychological hurdles? Keep going, stay in it, you can do it!


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