Thursday, December 03, 2009

The Writer's Process

Not too long ago a client was going through some revisions with her editor and called me for a pep talk. She was confident that she could get the revisions done and even felt good about how she planned to do them. What upset her was that the editor had to point out these things in the first place. She really felt it was all so obvious, something she should have seen before even sending in the material, and she was feeling a little down on herself about the entire thing.

What I told her, and what I’m going to tell you now, is that these revisions and working with her editor this way, as well as working with me and her critique partners, was simply a part of her writing process. It was how she worked to create the books she wrote and to make them the best they could be. I also told her that I’ve rarely met an author who was happy with her writing process.

Some of you plot, write, and work out the entire book in your head before even putting word to page. You struggle at the beginning because you feel like you do nothing but stare at a computer screen for weeks and nothing comes out. You panic and yet, once you finally have that story established, it flows from your fingers, nearly perfect the minute the words hit the screen.

Some of you carefully create outlines for each chapter and work up studies of each character. You practically write the book in outline form before you even start writing the book, and it’s not uncommon for your outline to be one hundred or so pages. The days to your deadline slowly tick away and you worry that you’ll never meet it because you haven’t actually written the book. However, once it is time to start writing you already have the details planned, the plot is cohesive and the characters are well drawn.

Some of you simply sit down and start to write. The words flow, the characters do their own thing and in a few short weeks or months you’ve got a book. That is, until you reread the book. That’s when you decide that everything you’ve written is crap and now you spend twice as long going over each word, each sentence, and each chapter and revising and editing it into shape.

And then I’m sure there’s a myriad of other writing processes that I haven’t even touched on yet, ways in which you all create or are forced to create, but which, at some point or another, frustrate you.

The truth is that there is no perfect way to write a book. Nearly every author I talk with looks at a critique partner or friend and wishes she could write like that. Someone else always makes it look easy, especially when they manage to tackle what we most struggle with. Writing is creative, writing a book is a creative process, and when it comes to creativity there is no perfect answer to how it should be done.

There’s no doubt we can always seek to improve ourselves and the way we do things, and while I would urge you to do that, I would also urge you to embrace your process, the highs and the lows. No one writes a book with ease, no one writes a blog with ease. We all struggle at certain moments, but sometimes those struggles are exactly what bring us our best ideas.

Jessica

39 comments:

Richard L. Mabry, MD said...

Jessica,
You have addressed a classic attribute of the writer: the recurring crisis of faith. I know I'm not the only one to suffer from the "why can't I write like him/her?" malady, with frequent relapses despite reassurances like yours. Your words may not be a cure-all antidote, but they'll take away the pain for a while. And for that, thank you.

Mark Terry said...

Oh snap! Nailed it in one!

Here's what I hate about my writing process. I call it the Eureka Moment Syndrome, but Erica Orloff who I believe has the same syndrome, calls it the Bright Shiny Idea Syndrome.

That is, somewhere toward the beginning of the second act in my novels, when the going gets really tough, I have a Eureka! moment. That Eureka moment says: This is a much better idea for a novel, stop working on this loser of a story and start working on this one instead.

Which is identical to Erica's BSIS, because there's a Bright Shiny Idea over there just calling for her to drop her work and work on.

And at least knowing that this is happening can sometimes keep me on the straight and narrow, lest my WIP chase me out of the house with a 7-iron, I jump into my car and promptly drive into a fire hydrant, then a tree. Better to just stick with the date I came with, so to speak.

Lydia Sharp said...

Excellent post!

Rebecca L Sutton said...

So true. We all suffer through the process in some way. Even though some stages were painful I'm extremely grateful for each step in my year and half long journey that has improved my story.

Thank you for sharing this sort of thing because I think one of the things that gets us through the rough patches and doubt is knowing we aren't alone.

Donna Lea Simpson said...

I'm of the 'words start to flow' method and I rarely look back once I've begun, which can be a blessing and a curse.

I write quickly and with tunnel vision, but there always comes a point, about two-thirds the way through a book, when I'm convinced it's all crap, I'm a crap writer, and everything I've ever written is crap. And the scary part is, I'm serious! It's like a ledge, and I need to be talked down from it! Luckily I have someone close who can talk me through it, because I've wound up in tears, stopped dead in my typing-tracks.

I don't understand, given my body of work - extensive and well-received - why I still face that moment. But it's a good point, Jessica, and one I never thought of before... maybe it's just part of my process. Maybe it makes me pause, reflect, and take a good hard look at what I'm doing before the race to the finish.

I'll try to embrace it... yeah, right!

Now, once I'm done the first time through, the fun begins. I actually like the rewrite-edit process. My first draft is a sketch, and the rewrite is the painting: gorgeous colors, lots of detail.

Great post... I had a lightbulb moment!!

Anonymous said...

Great post. Thank you.

Steph Damore said...

Thanks for this. I too can relate to wishing I could write like my best writer friend. She whips out 8,000 words a weekend while I trudge along with 1,500 words a day. I think my desire to write faster comes from knowing how long the publishing process takes, and I want to do everything in my power to speed things up.

magolla said...

Beautifully said, Jessica!

Heidi Willis said...

Fantastic post, Jessica! I so identify with this!

I know I'm falling into the trap when my editor sends notes and I look at them and think, "Is this all? Why doesn't she want me to overhaul the entire ending? Or change a character? Why isn't she saying this is all crap and I need to start over??"

Mark - you hit my other problem directly on the head! So many great ideas that are great for 50 - 100 pages... then when they get hard, another idea pops into my head. It's good to know I'm not alone!

Sheila Connolly said...

We're all too close to the trees to see the forest--that's why we need a fresh, outside eye to look at our book and tell us what isn't working.

You didn't mention what a joy it is to find an editor who understands what you're trying to say and can help you make the story better, without making you feel stupid.

Edie Ramer said...

Great, great post. I'm going through this right now. Only experience keeps me going, knowing that I'll look back and think, Hey, maybe it's not crap. And blogs like this one help me, too. So thanks!

Kristen said...

This is an awesome article, thank you!

Diane T said...

Thanks, Jessica, for your timely reminder that we all write our stories in our own way, as painful or awkward as the process may seem at times, and that's what makes them our stories.

Catherine Gayle said...

Thanks for sharing this today, Jessica. I'm dealing with my "everything I wrote through this entire WIP is crap" phase at the moment. And yes, I go through it every time. I've tried writing in other ways, and they just don't work at all for me, so I suppose I have to keep going with what does work--even though it means putting myself through this misery. I just keep reminding myself that in a couple of months, once I've reworked the entire thing a few times, it'll actually be pretty decent. I just have to get through this initial phase of doubt.

Kristan said...

My only response to this post is a HUGE smile. Unfortunately I can't post that in the comments section, at least not in any way that does it justice.

Thanks, Jessica. :)

DL Hammons said...

Okay . . . I have to call you out on this one.

I also told her that I’ve rarely met an author who was happy with her writing process.

There are a few of us guys out here, and we struggle also.

:)

Kate Douglas said...

So true, Jessica. I've always been the type to sit down and start writing and I'd always end up with a book--except I've had to alter my process with my new series with stories that are close to 120k in length as compared to 80k. Now I find that I have to plot the stories out to a certain extent, just to keep track of details and multiple plot threads. It's not any easier to write them, just different, but it has given me a new appreciation for the plotters who set everything up in advance.

I think we all have those moments of self-doubt. Isn't that every bit as much a part of the process?

Lea Ann McCombs said...

Great explanations for the differing ways writers work. It's nice to be reminded that no one way is the best way. We all work differently and hopefully, we're all evolving in our writing skills to keep what works and toss what doesn't.

Melanie Avila said...

Thank you for this post. I've touched on this a couple times on my blog recently because my writing process seems so different from that of my writing friends.

Anonymous said...

After many years of writing, I've learned there isn't one or right way to get to the finish line. There isn't a formula for how hard or easy it should be; how many drafts or how much revision you need to do; or how many editors comments you should take. Sometimes you'll hit a homerun and a first draft will need no work at all; sometimes you'll rewrite and rewrite. Show a piece to 10 people (or editors) and they'll like or hate 10 different things.

Paul Greci said...

Thanks, Jessica.

Even within an individual writer there are many writing processes. And they evolve over time.

Rebecca Knight said...

This is fascinating to hear everyone comment about their processes. I never thought about the different struggles we all face, and it's encouraging to hear I'm not alone in the "this is crap" phase ;).

Much love to the writers, and thanks for believing in us, Jessica!

Sierra Godfrey said...

I think one of the reasons writers go through this is because writing is particularly vulnerable to criticism. I know this from years of technical writer. Once you put something out there, be it to a critique group, on bookshelves, or in an instruction manual, you've opened the floodgates to feedback, whether you want it or not.

There are times after a writing group meeting that I come away convinced that I've not only written crap, but also gotten every single element of story telling wrong. When I submit chapters to my group, I always hope that I've finally done it this time, I've met all the points that I think they'll hit me on. It never happens--they always have more to say.

Writing, I think, is one of the toughest arts for hearing criticism, because most of us are filled with self-loathing at any given point in the process!

Donna Gambale said...

Thank you! Everyone does things differently, but it's so hard for writers not to get down on themselves for things not being perfect, even if they've done their best. My process - I keep a flexible outline, but my first draft comes out slowly because I write each word/sentence three times in my mind before I type it out. At least it's a pretty clean draft!

Anonymous said...

Timely post, but I think i took something from it a bit differently than the others.

Right now I feel like the editor I'm working with is getting really frustrated with me cause she keeps pointing out things that I *know* better or things that I should be knowing better. I'm not getting down about it. Everything she's pointed out needs to be fixed and shouldn't have been there in the first place. I make sure I stay positive when I respond back--but it doesn't stop those feelings of being afraid she's ready to drop the whole project.

but, it seems this is normal for the 'I know better than that' mistake to be pointed out?

Sheila Deeth said...

Thanks for your very encouraging advice.

Voidwalker said...

I found it very difficult to hear critique of my sample chapters, but I know it is a necessary and VERY helpful need in order to fine tune it.

Anonymous said...

Write. Sell. Repeat...Write. Sell. Repeat...

Editing is just part of the process. They're paying you, for God's sake. Make the frickin' changes!

Such whiners. And probably winers, too.

emilymurdoch said...

Sierra Godfrey wrote:

"Writing, I think, is one of the toughest arts for hearing criticism, because most of us are filled with self-loathing at any given point in the process!"

So true. The flip side is perfectionism and that urge to get it so right there'll be nothing to change. Of course, getting it right the first time around, and without outside intervention, is about as impossible as perfection itself.

In my own experience, the writing process can be like pouring gasoline on the twin fires of self-loathing and perfectionism. There's a fine line between using these two elements to better ones writing, or being swallowed up by the flames.

Inside a writer's head:

I suck! I rock! I'm illiterate! I'm brilliant! This is perfect! This is a mess! I've got skills! I'm a hack! (and on and on.)

It's our own version of the angel and devil on our shoulders.

Great post!

Madeline said...

An excellent - and much needed, for me anyway - reminder. Thanks, Jessica!

Jess Haines said...

Well said. Love your posts, Jessica, you're always an inspiration!

The Daring Novelist said...

I adjust my process to the work itself. I've had stories just pop out. I've had things I had to plan.

I think the key, though, is finding the fire in the process. It may be joy, or passion, or fear. It may be self-loathing, even. Whatever keeps you GOING. (As opposed to those things that stop you.)

Of course, we change and grow, so that fire may come from a different place later on. Just keep adjusting.

Anonymous said...

Jessica,
In previous blog posts, you've written about the influx of unpublishable manuscripts that agents have been receiving. Well, this has been niggling at my mind and then today I was reading a blog about query letters. As November is finished, a bunch of writers have just completed NANOWRIMO. The blogger was advising against the typical process of write the novel (50,000 words) in Nov. (sound similar to anything you've been seeing?), edit in Dec, submit in Jan. UGH. People actually do that? I have seen the Nano boards--it's all about how to pad your story so you can get your word count. I don't know how agents are ever going to see my work if people are submitting all those awful half-baked/highly padded stories to agents in Jan. But! Note to self, do not submit in January.

Anonymous said...

50K words is a novel? I'd call that a novella.

Jemi Fraser said...

I always feel better after reading your posts, Jessica. Thanks :)

Mira said...

This is a wonderful post, Jessica. Very encouraging.

Gave me lots of food for thought.

Thanks! :)

Donna Hole said...

Yes, writers blues.

I recently wrote a short story I finally thought was VERY good on the first draft. I did some minor editing but all in all felt excellent about it, so shared it with some friends at work.

Oh the minor errors they discovered without even knowing the basics of writing. And I thought: boy, how stupid was I not to see that on the first re-read.

It's funny how the little stuff just gets past us authors; mostly, I'm sure, because we know the story so well we fill in the blanks without even thinking about it.

Thanks for pointing this out to us, and I hope your Author is back on her creative norm. Very thoughtful of you Jessica.

..........dhole

G. Jackson said...

Great post, Jessica. Thanks for opening the conversation about this. Your writing process archetypes are dead on - on a side note, it's pretty funny to get those three types in a room with drafts and hear them go at it!

I find forcing myself out of my comfort zone helps improve my process. I may be haphazard process number three, but drawing in a little bit more discipline of other process types helps me improve my own. For that reason, I love to talk with other writers and hear how they work, and try to adopt some methods that might work for me. So far, it's been a positive experience. Writing is, after all, a craft. There's always room for improvement.

On a side note - I was talking with a colleague the other day about personality typology and writing styles. It would be interesting if certain personality types (Meyer's Briggs, for example) map to certain writing processes. If you've ever seen literature or research on that, I'd love to know.

Thanks!

Alyssa said...

Boy, am I thrilled to have stumbled across this when I did. You described how I write to a T (the first description, in case you're curious). In fact I was a little unnerved. Now that I'm over it, I'mg going back to write!