Thursday, January 12, 2017

Behind the Scenes - Thoughts on the Writing Process

Hello from 2017! It's been a bit of a hiatus on this blog over the holidays, and I thank you for your patience! Internet issues+new computer adjustments have put me behind on a lot of electronic obligations.

Today we are going to talk about writing, specifically by answering the following question I received today:

Hey Elizabeth!
I've been trying to finish writing at least ONE novel in my LIFETIME, and I'm finding it's hard to get motivated to sit down and write--especially when I get stuck.
I'd love to hear more about your process as a writer. How much of your process is planning, and how much is spontaneous? Do you always know what will happen next? Do you create a story first and then populate it with characters, or vice versa?
Anytime you can respond would be helpful, I'm just looking for some friendly advice and guidance  - Sharayah

Thank you for your question! Although I've written some on these subjects before, I figured it was worth doing again now that I have a properly published novel to my name!

First of all, a word of encouragement! I didn't get my novel published until I was 27 years old, and by a lot of standards, that is fairly young. However, since my personal goal was 25, I am still annoyed by this. (lol.)

Secondly, I would add that I wrote a TON before I got a novel completed. This includes numerous fan fictions (some reaching novel lengths), over a thousand blog posts, various short stories, and perhaps a dozen different novel beginnings. I also have a novel that I wrote twice (yes, two times), each of them hundreds of pages and MANY drafts. This novel will never be published in either of those forms (a common occurrence among authors, btw).

So all that said, be encouraged. You have plenty of time to get that novel done! Now, specifics!

The hardest part of being a writer is sitting down and typing the words.

I will go into more detail about some of your specific questions, but I cannot stress this first piece enough. No matter what your process, the single biggest obstacle for ANY writer is pushing past the initial "open word processor, type sentence."

Writing is, quite possibly, the easiest thing ever to procrastinate on. It is an entirely mental process, so you have to be fully engaged, and it is also extremely public. Even though you are writing in the privacy of your own home, the intent is usually to put those words out to the public, and any worries at all about how good your story is will put a cold freeze on your fingers! Reorganizing the bathroom looks a lot more appealing than risking public derision, right? Or, you know, writing another Facebook status...

(Admission - I am writing this blog post instead of my next novel this morning. However, I have been neglecting the blog and I really wanted to make sure I answered this question, so...)

Anyhow, the first tip to overcoming this is to remind yourself that no one is ever going to see these words unless you let them, and you probably have at least 3 rounds of revisions before that happens.

Award-winning comic book writer and illustrator Ben Hatke once told me of a recommendation he'd gotten to always end his day's work in the middle of a sentence. The benefit there is that you will always have something to immediately do when you open up your project. Personally, I write until I am too tired or know that my writing quality is about to take a dive, but more and more I find myself stopping mid-scene. (Can't resist finishing those sentences though. Slightly OCD there, I think.)

Another suggestion I've gotten and found to be extremely helpful, is to open your laptop and tell yourself that you only have to write for ten minutes. If at the end of ten minutes, you are still facing writer's block, you can close it down. However, if you are on a roll, there is NO STOPPING YOU! And most of the time, after ten minutes, I do find myself heartily engrossed in my project.

One year I made myself write first thing in the morning - before I even got out of bed, if I remember correctly. I got quite a good start on a novel that I hope will be one of my next projects after "The Song of the Fay." I dream of reinstituting that practice, but with a puppy in the house, that's no longer an option, since I have to get up and let him out, and once I get up myself, I need my own food first. However I'm still trying to force myself to get my writing done before anything else in the day.

For "The Mermaid and the Unicorn" I spent a lot of time in coffee shops. If I was going to spend $3 on a hot beverage, I had to 'earn' it with a few thousand words. However, once I stopped being able to drive or tolerate caffeine, this wasn't an option and I had to really buckle down and force myself to just WORK. (ugh). But it did get me through the first two drafts of the book, so it obviously worked!

How much of your process is planning, and how much is spontaneous?

Ah, the age old debate! Pantser or Plotter! I'm a mix - sorta, although I have become more of a plotter. I do find that my books work MUCH much better with a detailed plot synopsis from the beginning. (M&U's was about 8000 words). This is a huge deterrent to writer's block, because you always know where you are going. I do love the creativity of writing a scene and seeing what happens - BUT I usually find this leads to more doubt later on, and requiring more work in the form of rewrites, as your 'surprises' require changing more later on. (George RR Martin is a Pantser, which is part of why his books take so very long to finish writing).

Diana Gabaldon (Outlander) has an interesting process, where she writes 'scenes', each in their own file. This means that her books are not written chronologically, but 'sewn' together later on. I'm fascinated by this approach. Writing out of order annoys me terribly, but sometimes I have such a vivid image of a scene, that I need to write it down before I forget it. Having a full plot outline makes this a little easier (And less risky!) to do.

At the very least, I think it is important to have your endgame in mind - to know what you are writing towards.

Another tip to utilize - your first draft does not have to be 100k long. My first draft of "The Professor and the Siren" was just 40K at 2/3rds of the intended story. Now I am going back and adding more scenes, side plots, and character development to flesh it out into a novel-length manuscript. But it is relaxing to already have the major scenes and plot arcs written!

There are actually a ton of systems (And even software!) out there for plotting your book. I have tried several, but found that, honestly, I really like creating a list in WORD, and then adding and expanding as necessary.

Do you create a story first and then populate it with characters, or vice versa?

Depends on the story! I am a huge believer in really strong characters - and a good character will usually inspire a good story. Book #3 of "The Song of the Fay" came out of the character of Kate emerging in "The Mermaid and the Unicorn". I became fascinated by her, and she demanded that her story be told properly. So did the titular characters of "The Professor and the Siren", who are also secondary characters in "The Mermaid and the Unicorn."

However, "The Mermaid and the Unicorn" itself came out of a worldbuilding idea that was originally intended for another series for Chesterton Press. I asked to join that team, and to write something set in Europe. Specifically, "Mermaids and Unicorns in Paris." I was then given a side character from that series to develop, who became Daphne, and the requirements for her character directed what the character arc (and thus plot) needed to be for the book.

Mentally recalling my other projects, I'd say that generally the main idea comes first, then I develop who the main character(s) needs to be, which then refines the story perimeters.

One big requirement I have found I have is allowing my stories time to breathe. I did NaNoWriMo twice (won once) and 50,000K in one month is way WAY Too much for me - the end becomes absolute drivel. If I write more than 2K on a single project in a week, in generally is too much. I need to give my story time to stew in my brain. However, 2K a week turns into 100K a year, which is a really great way to write one first draft a year. This schedule changes once you get multiple projects going, of course, but that's not a bad thing. This past year I did the final revisions on "The Mermaid and the Unicorn," while writing half of the 40K of "The Professor and the Siren" while "The Mermaid and the Unicorn" was with Beta readers and editor! I also got 10K done on "The Selkie and the Queen" when I needed a break from "The Professor and the Siren." If I manage to keep that up, that translates to a new published book every two years, which is a really good schedule for a part-time author. (And most authors ARE part time, because very few novelists can actually consider support themselves by writing fulltime until they have at least ten decent-selling books out. And also, having enough creative juice to write fulltime is exhausting! I certainly can't do it!)

Brandon Sanderson, author of the "Mistborn" series, is a famously prolific fantasy writer, and often comes out with multiple books a year. He purposely switches between projects to keep his creative juices fresh, and it is a method which works very well for him.

(I DO recommend doing NaNo at least once, however, because it trains you to become a prolific and driven daily writer, but don't expect that first draft to be worth much!)

Okay, enough blogging! Time to take a break from the computer screen, then follow my own advice and get pounding the keys on the next novel!

For further writing tips, check out my page on Good Writing. If listening is more your style, I have gotten excellent recommendations for the free podcast "Writing Excuses."

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