Like a Snowflake: The Writing Process
People ask about my process when they find out I’m a writer. “What does that look like? Do you sit at the computer all day?”
Yes. Some days. But not most.
I think it is a question people ask because they want to know if “writing is for them”, but the truth is, the process is different for every person, and often different between projects. I thought I would talk a little bit about process today, first in general terms and then more specifically.
General Fiction Process
Generally speaking, my fiction process goes like this:
I’ll have a vision, in my mind, of a character in a particular place facing a particular issue. This is the “triggering town” the “abiding image” the core of the story. Typically, I don’t know much about the character yet, other than they are in this particular place and facing this particular issue. I learn more about the character and the actual story through free-writing and drafting.
Sometimes, I’ll jot down what I know (#1) and let the story simmer for a while. Other times, I’ll pick up a pen and start writing. Either way, when I start writing, I do it long-hand, with a Pilot G2 pen and a notebook. At this stage, it is pretty much a free-writing exercise. Just write, write, write, without worrying about grammar, sentence structure, plot, logic, etc. Just let the story run free for a while. This is the stage where the story surprises me. New characters show up, new situations, new joys, new hurts. The characters begin to take on individual characteristics, etc.
I write the first draft long-hand (I believe there is a creative advantage to doing this), and, usually, in pieces. So I may write a middle scene, then jump back and write the opening, then another middle scene, and then the ending. I don’t worry about chronology because that’s what editing is for. I don’t worry about punctuation, yet, or spelling, or finding the perfect sentence. I just write.
After I have a hand-written draft, I take my pages to the computer and make my first typed draft. Here, I put the scenes in order, I correct some things (punctuation I notice, spelling, run-on sentences, character names) but I’m still letting myself run pretty free. I am open to adding long paragraphs of text at this stage. I get into “the grove” and new details pop out, new layers of complexity.
Once I have a typed draft, I will do some basic editing, sitting at the computer: spelling, punctuation, word choice, dialogue choice, etc. I want the story to be easily read, beginning to end, at this point, even if I know there are holes I haven’t yet filled. I’ll usually take two or three passes at this stage trying to root out the basic errors of the manuscript.
I release the story to my readers. (My MFA readers, or my growing group of friends who can give me more than “it’s good” or “it sucks”.) I consider this my “first completed draft” of the story. It is, usually, a whole thing. It has holes and places I’m unsure of, but it isn’t just a fragment.
I wait for responses. I move on to something else. I try to let the story go while the readers have it. I DO think a little about how they are seeing these characters and such, but I don’t tinker with the text during this stage.
When I get comments and line edits back, I briefly scan the comments. (I’m looking for “I really liked this because…” and, the even more important, “but here’s what you need to work on…” I don’t obsess over the comments. Yet. I get a general feel for the high points. I let the big picture things tumble around in my head for a while. I don’t look at the line edits.
I put the story away. A week. Three. A month or two. I put it away until I find myself thinking about it again. I work on other things. I let the subconscious mind kick around the critique and play with the story in the background while I work on other things.
When it’s time, I print the story out, and go through with a pen and make big sweeping changes on the manuscript. I re-read the critiques and then make my pages bleed with red or blue ink. It takes three or four passes. The first, I’m making big changes to the story, based on the feedback. If the readers all hated a character I wanted them to like, he has to change. If they didn’t understand the motive for the girl killing the guy, I have to delve deeper into her psyche. Scenes get moved, characters get deleted, dialogue changes from friendly to hostile. Big, big changes.
I’ll also start to look for themes and motifs to highlight. If I can make a dress blue instead of red because the color blue is symbolic and repetitive, I will. I begin to consider the layers, throw a comment into the dialogue that sheds light on some aspect of the character, change the locations, the significant objects, a character’s hair color. Add words, subtract words, make up words. After ALL of this, I look at the line edits from my readers, to be sure I haven’t missed any obvious errors. I add to, I take away. (Usually in that order.) The size of the manuscript will first grow by 10-15%, then shrink again.
Hundreds of changes in a twenty page story. Hundreds.
Enter the changes into the computer. Print a fresh draft.
Micro editing. Write-tight. Every word matters. Every comma is reconsidered. Every “that” and “just” must be justified. Cut out needless repetition. Weed out passives, when passives aren’t needed. Every word should be the right word. Read it out loud to catch funny phrases. Have the computer read it to me in monotone. Read it again, and again.
Input the changes (again, sometimes in the hundreds)
Print a fresh copy. Send it out. While it’s sent out, ignore it. If the answers are all “no”, go back and do 14 and 15 again and again and again.
I currently have about a dozen stories (and 3/4 of a novel) in one of these stages. So, when I say “I’m writing” that’s what I mean. I’m working the plan. Now, for planning the work…
The Weekly Game Plan
In some of my earlier blog posts, I’ve talked about planning my writing. (Here and here, for example.) Coming up with a weekly plan that fits into my creative rhythm took time, and it’s likely to change over time, but here’s where I stand today:
Monday – While I’m getting breakfast and coffee going, I catch up on social media, read some morning news, and generally WAKE UP. Monday mornings are for blogging. After I get Cami off to work and get the dog fed and walked, I’ll work on 3 to 5 blog posts for the upcoming week. One or two of those will be writing prompts, there will often be a video blog to plan, record, and post, and I’ll throw in some other content, depending on what seems interesting to me, or to other writers. Around noon, I break for lunch. I’ll do an email check and scan through Twitter and Facebook. From one to three I typically have a creative lull, so I use this time to read. (Right now, I’m reading a biography of Capote and some non-fiction books for research for my graduating seminar.) I make notes and jot down ideas, but this is not typically a creative time of day for me. From 3:00 to 6:00 I work on fiction. (See the list above.) If I have more time after dinner, I may do more writing, but that is RARE on a Monday.
Tuesday – Tuesday is a fiction dominant day. The morning routine (wife, dog, breakfast, coffee) is the same, pretty much every day. After that, I work from 8:30 to about 1:00 on fiction writing. (Again, any of the list above.) This week, it is repeating steps 14 and 15 for three stories that I’m planning to include in my thesis. I do have two new stories that are asking to be written, so I’ll try to find some time for them. I tend to work in 50 minute blocks (pomodoros, if you are familiar with the technique) and I’ll throw some social media/email time in there at the end. 1:00 to 3:00 is reading time. This week, I’m reading and critiquing three manuscripts. When I’m done with those, the mid-day reading time will be news items, blogs, and books I’m making my way through. 3:00 to 6:00 will be fiction, again. After dinner, I try to get another hour in, usually of typing edits into the computer or finishing up some loose ends.
Wednesday – See Tuesday. 🙂 The only difference on Wednesday is that Cami’s church choir practices on that night, so I have a little longer time to write before getting dinner going.
Thursday – Open day. Make up day. Shift day. It’s the day where I don’t plan anything, and make up for time I’ve missed. So, if I go to the store on Tuesday to get groceries (which, really only takes me 40 minutes, total) I may shift that time I would have been writing into Thursday. Or, if I end up going to spend a couple hours talking to another writer over coffee on Wednesday, I’ll make up those two hours on Thursday. On rare but extremely fun weeks, everything is going so well and I’m so inspired and creative I’ll write all day Thursday, too, even if I haven’t needed to shift things around the rest of the week.
Friday – See Tuesday and Wednesday, though I try to have my work wrapped up by 5:00 on Friday so Friday night can be dedicated to ABW. Anything But Writing.
Saturday – Saturday until about 1:00 or 2:00 is all about writing, working, planning, studying. I take my Sabbath from (roughly) Saturday late afternoon until Sunday late afternoon. I may read, but usually for pleasure. Watch TV, go out to the beach, whatever, but I’m not thinking about writing.
Sunday – Sunday morning is church and coffee and a book and sometimes the beach. I try not to get back in to “business” mode until Sunday evening. I start thinking about the blog for next week, lining up the writing work I need to do, thinking through the schedule and where things will have to be shifted, etc. Some Sundays, I even get a little head start on the next week. Others, I don’t.
Ok. That’s more than enough. Hopefully it gives some detail to my writer’s life. It took a while to focus in on a method that works for me. If you are still looking to find your creative rhythm and a process that works for you, I’d love to hear from you. We can talk through what you’ve tried, and see if we can come up with some alternative options. One thing I hear that makes me a little bit crazy is when a writer (or prospective writer) dismisses a certain process or a part of a process without even trying it. “Oh, I know that won’t work for me!” Eh. Maybe. But, really, what have you got to lose, other than your self-proclaimed “writer’s block” and your self-imposed “lack of time to write”?