You hear a lot about “process.”
What is process? I would say it is a combination of work habits and strategies that a writer uses in order to write. It’s little things and big things. Where and when we write, what we write with, whether we plow through a fast first draft in one bold spurt, or whether we shuffle timidly back and forth, revising as we go. Process is a big part of a writer’s identity, and it’s rooted in our psychology as human beings. To me, process is the way I, the writer, meet the it, the writing. Sometimes it’s like slow-dancing, sensuous and fine; other times like alligator-wrassling, all splashing and teeth and fear of death. Still other times it’s like two gunslingers facing each other down, motionless and tense and ready to draw their pistols.
Perhaps in the future I may settle down into one snug process and use it again and again, confident in its effectiveness. But now, I am still very much in the process of finding my process! Or rather, creating my process. It’s a large part of the “work” of writing. It’s all about keeping my story moving forward, keeping my faith that I’ll figure things out, and if I get stuck, prying myself unstuck.
Writing doesn’t come easily to me. Let me clarify what I mean by that. I love to write, and I have a fair amount of confidence in my skill with prose. I think I can write a nice sentence, and a nice paragraph, and a nice chapter, etc. And, I’m proud of my imagination, too. I love the ideas that come to me, and I love nurturing them along and spinning them into outlines and synopses. So on the one hand I love coming up with ideas. On the other hand, I love playing with language.
It seems like those two components should be all I need to write along in a dreamy, blissful fugue, spinning stories off my fingertips left and right. Right?
I am also afflicted with perfectionism. Sometimes I feel like Perfectionism should have its own entry in the DSM -- it feels like a diagnosable psychological disorder to me! I get so very stuck sometimes. I become aware that a sentence or chapter is not rolling along as well as ever it possibly could, and that awareness sort of rears up and blocks out everything else. I become distressed and distracted by the imperfections to the extent I have to sort them out before I move forward with the story. This is one way to write a book, and I think it will always be a part of my process; it’s who I am, and one thing I’ve learned in my struggles so far is you have to work with the brain you have -- and not waste time wishing you had a better one! But that doesn’t mean you let your hang-ups defeat you.
You devise strategies. You build up a sack of tricks for keeping yourself working, for keeping the story moving forward, for getting through that first exploratory draft, which is for many people one of the hardest things they will ever do -- and one of the proudest moments, too.
When I typed “the end” at the end of the first real draft of Blackbringer, I thought I was prepared. I’d known the ending for a while and I knew I was closing in on it, but when I typed those two little words and saw them there, I was suddenly flooded with emotion. Tears came to my eyes. It was a whooshing rush of a feeling, and I’m sure I probably flushed and got blotchy too. I was truly overwhelmed. I had done something that my whole life I had wanted to do. It was hard and it was so worth it.
So what are my tricks?
(I hope you’re not expecting anything magical when I say “tricks” -- it’s not magic, just more of that damned hard work!)
The "Working Doc"
This one has become an integral part of my process; it’s so much a part of my writing it seems like a given to me, and I have to remind myself I had to actually figure it out. All it means is that when I’m writing I have two documents open side by side on my laptop. One is the “real manuscript.” It usually starts with the words “Chapter One,” and I almost never leap into it feet first.
No. For me, because of my issues with perfectionism, trying to start writing beneath the words “Chapter One” is like taking an oath, “May lightning strike me if every single work I set down is not perfect.” It’s just too intimidating!! It’s like a too-beautiful, too-expensive journal. You know those? The ones with hand-tooled leather covers and creamy, gold-tipped pages? The ones that scream, “For brilliant thoughts only!” I could never write freely in such a journal. I could never loosen up enough to experiment or explore.
So I have another document next to my “real manuscript” and it’s usually titled something un-precious like “Working Doc 1.” Getting started each day, I type the date in my current working doc, and I might give my word count and goal for the day, and I have a brief chat with myself. Here is an actual example:
“June 16 -- Frick. My mental illness around this book progresses. Please, Laini, please start getting some work done. Please, today: some new writing. The problem? Too many choices, too many different things that could happen. Got to just make some choices and GO.”
“June 24 -- I am hesitantly excited that I came up with another “breakthrough” last night. Of course, I need to go over it all again. Where was I?”
And then I schloop out all my thoughts about where I am in the story and what needs to happen next and what’s holding it up, or perhaps what I’m really excited about writing. I find my place. Depending on how I’m doing and if I feel like I know where I’m headed, it might just be a very brief hello to myself; or it might be a long, many-page outline reevaluating the flow of the story.
And then I start the scene there, usually, in that free, safe working doc, where there is no judgment and I don’t imagine my characters rolling their eyes at my feeble efforts. And what often happens is this: I get into a flow. The scene starts to unfold, my fear of the real manuscript document evaporates, and I cut and paste what I’ve written and continue for the rest of the day like that, the worst of my anxiety having been dealt with.
It sounds kind of silly to me when I explain it, but I am unabashed. I’m learning to make my brain do what I want it to, and that’s good.
Say you've got a scene that you love; it took you a long time to write, and the language is beautiful and some great things happen in it. Yay, right? Sure, but say you know deep down it isn't right. It's got to go to make way for something that will make things happen in the story the way you really need them to. But you just can't cut that scene. It's too good.
That's just one scenario that explains the fact that I have multiple (as in multiple multiple) versions of every manuscript. I could never delete that scene. But you know what I could do? I could cut and paste it as an "outtake" into a working doc so it's not lost; or I could "save as" and start a new "version" of my manuscript and delete it from that one, knowing it's still safe and sound elsewhere. Then I know that if I want to, I can restore it. It makes it easier to let go, because it's not really letting go.
What usually happens is that the new version progresses and I lose my attachment to that scene that I was holding onto so tight.
See what trickery I have to resort to? Whatever works! This example of just a single scene, that's an "underxaggeration" (I just made that word up. Can you tell?) My multiple versions are like a bunch of weird clones with slightly different personalities. Like I said, I change my mind a lot, and this is a way I can change my mind without any feeling of risk. What does this look like in practice? Here's what it looks like in my computer folder (don't mock me):
Silksinger draft 1
Silksinger draft 1a
Silksinger draft 2
Silksinger draft 2a
Silksinger draft 2b
Silksinger draft 3
Silksinger draft 3a . . . etcetera, etcetera. . .
Oh, and these are not finished drafts; most of these are only about 60 pages long -- that was the place I kept getting stuck on this book and deciding to change everything. So these are a lot of alternate beginnings. I'm not saying this is healthy, or the best way to go about things, just that it helps ME. And in this case, I really believe I had to endure all this mind-changing, because as the book is now, there are pieces from every version, like they were ingredients I had to cull from months of brainstorming to weave together into just the right thing. Yes, it made my head hurt, but it was worth it.
When I am stuck, freewriting is almost always the answer. Actually, I would say it is always the answer. I don’t know why I resist it sometimes. It always works. It’s like this: you’re going through a labyrinth and you get lost. If you just stop and stand there, you’ll stay lost forever and ever. You’ll die lost. But if you dart this way and then that way and then that way, etcetera, chances are that eventually you’ll find your way.
It’s really like that. You’ve got to explore, and freewriting is the way to do it. I should say when I use the term "freewriting" I don't think I mean what you might mean by it. I don't mean true freewriting, where you put down anything that comes to your mind just to get your hand moving. I mean a kind of directed freewriting, where your starting point is the scene at hand, and you take what you know and go, letting things happen and not being attached to the outcome as the way things have to be in your story. It's just a way of getting at possibilities.
Say your character is stuck at a certain point in the story. What do you do? What I do -- after I quit whining about it -- is I give myself some space in my working doc (or a new one with some title like “temp scene”) and I start freewriting. I make something happen, fully aware it might be the wrong thing. It doesn’t matter. It’s only my working doc. After I finish that freewrite, I may be certain it is awful, perhaps even the very worst thing I or anyone in history has ever written. I may not even read it again. I may just immediately start again freewriting the same scene and take it in a different direction this time.
You might tell yourself you're going to freewrite three different versions of the scene in a row. When illustrators are starting on a drawing, they draw multiple simple "thumbnails" trying to get the best composition; this is like that.
And here’s the thing that’s cool. Almost always, some idea will materialize from nowhere -- the magic that happens between your fingertips and the keyboard -- and you’ll figure out what to do. One of the "thumbnails" will stir you. You’ll get a snick. You might read that freewrite and find that it’s actually got some pretty decent writing in it you can use. Or you might choose not to read it, but just to take that idea as the seed of what happens next, and start yet again, with a little more care and intention next time.
Try it. I swear by it, even when I hate doing it.
Telling Myself the Story (again and again)
I like complex plots with lots characters, and I like storylines that converge and fit together just so, and things that unfold to reveal layers of secrets. I like dense, chewy books with lots of stuff happening in them! And so my plots often get away from me. Here’s what it feels like: it feels like I am braiding hair and the braid has more strands than I have fingers to hold them. I keep dropping them. I’d wager that anyone who has ever waited tables has had anxiety dreams about it, in which you are working but you have too many tables, or an endless coffee counter, and you just can’t do it all. It feels like that. I start to feel like I’m just plain not smart enough or capable enough to pull off what I’m trying to do.
What I do when this happens is I hop on over to my dear working doc and I tell myself the story in the simplest terms I can, trying to weave everything together into a synopsis. Doing this serves several purposes.
1.) It reminds me what I’m trying to do, and what things are most important to me in the story.
2.) It might show me new things that hadn’t occurred to me yet. It might make me slap my forehead and say, “I can’t believe I only just now realized that this is what my story is about! Why didn’t I see it before?”
3.) It helps me see where the plotting is getting too convoluted. It makes me work at simplifying things to make them as elegant and inevitable as possible. Elegant and inevitable are what I’m shooting for with plot, no matter how complex it is. Though we writers know that at any point, literally anything could happen, I want the reader to feel that the story is flowing naturally; I don’t want them to ever feel me deciding what should happen next. Telling and retelling myself the story (in writing) is the way I refine my plots.
I don't just do this once. I do it over and over until I "get it."
Reminding Myself What I Love
Sometimes in the middle of a book or story, I lose sight of what first excited me about it. Because I have been IN it so long, I can’t remember why I thought a certain idea was cool, or I find myself drifting away from what I initially loved, or any manner of hazardous thing. Occasionally I have found it helpful to make a list about all the things that I love most about my idea and my story. I have such a list for Silksinger and sometimes I have to look at it and I immediately feel a spark -- there are so many cool, exciting things I have put into this book, or am going to put into this book. I can’t help but get a little excited.
It's crucial to develop work habits -- good work habits. I've heard many writers speak of the "B.I.C." (butt-in-chair) principle. I loved how Candie Moonshower said that she "sits on her muse." Yep. That's about the story with my muse, too -- no graceful maiden with fiery eyes. Just my own tush, planted on my bench, whether I "feel like it" or not. I love the Picasso quote, "I don't know what inspiration is, but when it comes, I hope it finds me working." Writers cannot wait for inspiration. We must roll up our sleeves, just like bakers and mechanics, and go to it.
So sitting down to the work is the start, but there's more. SARK talked about developing a "habit of completion" and this is a VERY important habit! For me, there's no feeling like finishing something! Getting through a first draft! Typing "the end" at the end! It's the embodiment of the satisfaction of crossing items off a list once you've accomplished them. Completion a habit well worth the agony of developing. And I think, like any habit, it gets easier. It gets, you know, habitual. The more things you finish, the more you know you can do it -- and not only can but will. I'm hoping that this grows continually easier throughout my writing life, that my habits will imprint themselves deeper and deeper. But I do know that where I am NOW is a massive improvement over where I was several years ago when I finally decided I'd better write that novel I wanted to write.
Like many other writers I know, I find it easier to start things than finish them. That's a massive understatement. It's SO much easier to start than finish! That's why so many writers have twelve or thirteen unfinished books that they're "working on." When a project gets hard, the "hard" feeling often translated as "boring." We get bored with our own work, and we need the freshness and excitement of a new idea, so we start a new story. BAD writer! BAD! Stop it. You'll never finish anything that way.
When something gets hard, and gets boring, don't go to something new to get reinspired. It's within your power to reinspire yourself on your current project. One of the ways I might do this is that listed right above: by listing all the things I love about the idea. And I brainstorm, coming up with ways to get excited about it again. Chances are, it's just the place you're stuck that's making your feel bored, and once you get through it -- in some exciting way you haven't thought of yet -- it'll be dazzling all over again. Work through it. Work.
*A note on “coolness.” It’s not a great technical term or anything, but I find that what I am shooting for in my writing can often best be summed up by the word “cool.” When I’m brainstorming ideas and plot, I’m searching for the “coolest” possible way to fit the elements together, or introduce a character, or unfold a scene, or whatever is the task at hand. I don’t mean "cool" in the “Fonzie” cool-cat way, but in the way you say “cool” when you’re looking through a microscope at a dragonfly wing, or standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon, or when you see a really amazing illustration or find out that houseflies are 10 million times more sensitive to food taste than humans, and you think: "Cool." That feeling. That’s what I want when I’m reading, and it’s what I want when I’m writing. When I get it right the snick comes, and something else -- the desire to high-five myself. When I feel that, it’s a good, good thing.