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).|
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.
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?
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.