I want to start this off by saying that everyone (EVERYONE) should read Wonderbook by Jeff VanderMeer. It’s kind of about fantasy/sci-fi writing, but also it isn’t and I’m using it right now as basically a bible for writing a contemporary mystery .
I also want to start this off by saying that you can go back and read my masked/unmasked scene, but I’m not going to talk about that at all because it is in the pile of shit phase (I’ll talk about that in a second).
It’s fortuitous that Alex decided to do our first craft post on process because I am in the process of finishing a book right now and reading Wonderbook all the way through it. I was re-reading the first chapter of Wonderbook and the first chapter discusses imagination and inspiration and where ideas come from. And the thing is that all of my ideas start in different ways and come from different places. Sometimes they’re a what if or I get an image of a scene or, in the case of my masked/unmasked post (okay, I’m talking about it) I wanted to write about werewolves.
So usually what happens for me is that I get an idea and a setting and some characters and write like 20k words of shit (that’s the pile of shit phase). And most of that stuff doesn’t end up existing and it’s kind of just trying to get around things and figure out a plot and who the fuck these people even are.
Maggie Stiefvater speaks a lot about mood (it’s all on her website and tumblr) and I think that once I push past the pile of shit phase the next step for me is to figure out mood. Though I like to say aesthetic more because I spend most of my time on Tumblr and I think it probably encompasses a little bit more than mood.
I like to collage and make playlists for every story. To your left, you’ll see that I made a photoset (because I am vain) for the piece that I’m finishing. It’s a little more organized than my collages, which tend to be giant pieces of paper that I end up putting on my wall and pasting pictures too and making notes on. But it’s this sort of thing that I refer to when I take my story out of the pile of shit phase and make it something readable and possibly less shitty. It’s got some important elements of the story, but also conveys what I want the aesthetic of my story to be.
I use the playlists and collages (Pinterest can be very helpful) as my inspiration for the rest of the book. I go back to them, spend time with them and then write as much as I can and try to put everything together into one whole draft.
It’s not until after I do all that (and have something that’s nearly complete) that I write an outline. The outline ends up just being a map of things I move around. Sometimes my outlines are pretty and color coded, other times they’re just lists that I made in the back of my planner.
Then I scrap* most of what I’ve written, occasionally refer to my outline (but mostly focus on the collages and the playlists) and rewrite the whole thing. I know that sounds crazy, but this makes things better (for me). Usually, I move into Scrivener at this point, but I don’t always use Scrivener. Just when I have things that need to be really organized.
And it’s writing and writing and researching and editing until I have something that feels finished. In the project I’m working on right now I’ve written a few drafts and now I’m on the one latest one, after scrapping the last ones. I’m almost done and not planning on changing anything major from now until it’s ready to go.
Figuring out when something is done is probably a completely different post because at this point I’ve just made a decision that I’m going to finish it. I’m going to edit it. And then it’s done.
*Don’t throw anything out! When I say scrap, I mean put that thing in a folder you’re not going to touch, but keep the shitty stuff. Don’t listen to anyone who says they throw anything out. You might go back and realize that you wrote the most inspired four pages in your original draft that fit perfectly in a different part of the book.
Alex here, and I have to say, I thought my choice of Process as this week’s topic was also a fortuitous one, though for different reasons.
(Can the intended effects of one’s own actions be considered fortuitous? Anyway…)
While I am also in the process of finishing a novel, this topic felt like a good one because, at this week’s level of creative output, it sounded easy.
Process: everyone has one, and I’ve spent the last few years getting to know mine… intimately. Describing it should be a snap. And yet…
Process, for me, is both singular and it isn’t. Ideas, words, and stories seem to manifest in similar ways, but recording and tweaking them into the right form—that’s a process that’s going to change every time.
For instance, with the first book I ever attempted—I outlined that thing maniacally on a thick brick of index cards, convinced I was setting myself up for success. I wrote maybe half of it, a good 200 pages, and then put it in a drawer, as they say. I knew what I wanted to happen—and a bit of the why—but I hadn’t learned all the edges of my characters and they had weak heart.
The second book I tried, I finished. I started with an intriguing first line (For your information, you’re dead.) and then pantsed my way through a story with tim-traveling robots and mutated rabies and love letters. It was an entire “pile of shit phase” novel-length thing that essentially needed rewriting (as our Bravest Sara does. I do not know that I am so brave. Or so compelled. One must be so compelled). That is also in a drawer to rest—though I’m considering a short story form when I revisit it—while I work on my third and currently-in-progress novel.
This current work I have both pantsed my way through a pile of shit phase, similar to Sara’s 20k, and then took a step back*, outlined the biggest plot points only, and let my imagination stampede between them.
Each of these attempts, however different, have at least couple commonalities.
One, much of the impetus for these stories—plus the short stories I’ve written bar one—have seeded from a thought that germinated as an epiphany, which then grew into a character’s emotional arc. I didn’t know the character, necessarily, but I knew where they started and where they ended. Almost always, this is where I find story.
B, each main character I’ve written has been defined and discovered by their strong first- or second-person point of view voice, so that the “pile of shit” phase is also a phase of discovery. (I have yet to successfully manage a strong third-person POV. A goal of mine.)
And three, each idea has had to ferment a considerable amount in my mind before finding any sense on the page.
The only exclusion to this three-pronged birthing process (though maybe not, depending on how much it makes any sense), was last week’s Masked/Unmasked short story: Tito’s Fancy Dress.
I had a prompt, vague at best, and a whole mess of thoughts on it, so, for perhaps the second time in my life, I was compelled to make for myself a very not-so-fancy mind map, below.
This revealed and clarified the spiderweb of indexical meaning I’ve long held in regards to masks, and it helped me discover the sort of thematic, epiphanic contradiction of how the metaphorical (and sometimes literal) masks we wear can simultaneously reveal and hide our true selves. (Ask me about it sometime; identity theories are my jam!) This contradiction was the story I would tell. (I’m not convinced I did, but this is unedited first-draft sort of stuff you’re seeing.)
With this story, as with the others, once I had a character arc, a moment of clarity for them to move toward, I had a character. As for plot points, no outline needed, because—beautiful thing about short stories—you can pretty much see the whole thing at once.
I didn’t have so much the time to ferment, deadline and all, so I sat and I wrote until I was done.
Finishing stories, as Sara writes, could be a post unto itself, but, ideally, once any character has experienced their epiphany and acted upon it in a powerfully meaningful way, the story can end.
I’ll let you know how that goes this time ‘round.
*This step back also entailed the careful curation of a mood-centric playlist (or soundtrack) as if this story were in fact a John Hughes movie. Love or hate John Hughes (Sara), the guy knew tunes.
Megan jumping in!
So who the hell is John Hughes?
Now to the heart of the matter — and I say heart because writing processes take just that.
Quite like Alex, for me the writing process varies depending on the story. Some are fancy princesses requiring an outline complete with tiara, evening gowns, and dashing princes. Others are pirates, forcing your darlin’s off the plank and into the deep ocean (You can only watch and wave goodbye). And still others are silent walls, content to remain quiet while you work endlessly on your ideas and drafts before throwing them into the scrap pile — at which point you WILL hear a heartfelt snicker from said wall.
The point is that it really, truly depends. But I can tell you the commonalities among all of these types.
The first thing is what I have always referred to as “the spark.” It’s just a feeling, an image or mood or atmosphere. Something that gets that ink in your blood flowing and just makes you have to write. So you start, holding on to that spark for dear life in the hope it will ignite a fire.
And it all goes beautifully in the beginning. And then you get deeper into the story.
And you realize it wasn’t so perfect after all.
Enter phase two: a journal. Or Word document. Or some other place where you can jam all of your jumbled thoughts without worrying about making it look pretty. I try to keep one journal for each WIP so that I can open it and enter the fantabulous (albeit messy) world I am trying to create.
Here’s the one I’m using for my current YA novel. My cat apparently wanted in the photo, too. This is a rarity, people. He generally hates having his photo taken, but apparently his vanity won out. Or he’s planning on slaying me in my sleep. You never know.
My journals have absolutely no structure and make no sense most of the time. But they really help flesh out characters, find my plot, and brainstorm — especially when I get to that pesky middle!
Even with all of these charts, outlines, scratches, patches, and writing mashes, I still find that my story really comes out in revision.
Yes, revision. Unlike many other writers, I’ve found my story really begins to breathe when I write anywhere from twenty to one hundred pages and then go back and revise them. Then I write some new material and revise THAT. Rinse, repeat. Revise. All the while I will listen to Epic Radio on Pandora (if the endless commercials don’t drive me bonkers) or something similarly dramatic. But this is the process that helps me the most. Because — as Sara and Alex so adroitly point out — the first phase (and, indeed, oftentimes the second and third as well) is the shit phase.
But, as Hagrid says, better out than in.
By the way, all throughout this process I will talk to my characters in my head when people are speaking to me, imagine I’m in one of my settings while I’m walking around, and will daydream about potential endings while I watch movies or drive or do pretty much anything. The result is that I run into more walls than necessary, forget much of what is said to me, and have a perpetually dreamy look on my face at all times.
Yep, that one.
And all during this process I am reading, reading, reading. And while I’m reading I’m analyzing. Because it truly does make me a better writer.
Or at least we all like to think so.
So to sum up: my process is messy. Very messy. Like an army of three-year-olds got their hands on tubes of paint, chocolate, and pasta sauce in a white room messy. But so far it works.
Maybe. Hopefully. We’ll see.
Hey, did you know a polar bear’s fur isn’t white? It’s transparent. Just saying.
Until next time, my fellow marauders. Keep writing, and keep dreaming.