The Writing Process
Today's post is a little bit different than my usual posts. I wanted to take a minute and talk about the other side of reading, and the other part of my blog, which is writing. I was working on a project of mine last night, and it got me thinking about the writing process. At author events and in interviews, writers get asked all the time whether they're a plotter or a panster or what their writing process is. As I was scrolling through this project, the fourth manuscript I've worked on in the three years since I started writing the book, and I was marveling at how different this writing experience was from every single other book I've written. And then I realized, I don't seem to ever do it the same way twice. Of course, I've picked up some habits and tricks over the year that I incorporate each time, and my goals are always the same, but I find it fascinating how I get to the end. It's also lead me to stop asking really general questions about process. If there's a specific aspect or technique that can add to the understand of the book or help others, I'll ask, but no two people write the same, so it's hard to take a ton of useful stuff away from their comments.
Honestly, as boring and mundane as it sounds, I think the best advice that's come out of any process questions posed to authors is read a ton. When I first started, I was twelveish and before I could start writing, I was obsessed with knowing everything about how people write books and what the methodology was. The truth, though, is that if you've been reading dedicatedly through your whole life, you already know how to write a book. You inherently know the form. You know the structure, even if you don't know it at the front of your brain. It's a second nature. Reading also teaches you the flow of sentences. How they're punctuated. How to drum up subtle emotions and vivid pictures with the same twenty-six letters. Reading won't make you a perfect writer from day one, but it will give you all the hurried tools. Spending time with your own work and developing your unique point of view and voice is key, and having a foundation will help you improve faster if you read critically.
I've always been a huge reader, but I was obsessed with doing it the "right" way. I started one project that I plotted with mood boards and fashion images and character questionnaires. None of those things are the wrong thing to do, but I'd read about it online and thought I had to do that to write a book. I never finished that first one.
The first project I ever finished, I started when I was thirteen. I knew the idea of the story I wanted to tell. But I had no clue what the ending was. I figured I'd write my way there. The ending changed a ton of times, and, by the time I finished the draft, the ending had gone completely away from what I first assumed it would be. It also meant that it would take a lot of revision to fit the beginning of the story to the ending and make it feel cohesive again. It's taken years and many critique partners and mentors to get the story to where it is today. After maybe five extremely intense revisions, I'm making the final tweaks. It's a book I've almost thrown away more than a million times. It's a book that made me swear I'd never write a book without an outline again. I outlined the book over and over and rewrote and reconnected and patchworked it back together until it truly made sense. Before this experience, I always looked at authors in shock when they said that their books started as totally different stories, but now I understand.
That book went from a total mess to a story I'm really proud of. I was lucky I always had readers and mentors who were super supportive and saw what its potential was before I could. They're suggestions and motivation are the reason I've finally finished it. It was writing that book that taught me how to write books. I refined my voice. I learned about structures and characters. It taught me more than any craft website ever did. I'm not saying you shouldn't read websites or books- they're great resources at the right time- what I'm saying is that you shouldn't let the idea of doing it "right" get in the way of just jumping in.
So my second book was a complete pushback to everything I thought I did "wrong" with the first book. I'd submitted the first book to pitch wars, and their number 1 piece of advice is to write something new while I waited. It was August, and I didn't have anything better to do. I told myself that I wanted to write the book in a month before I went back to school. Ideas for the story had been swirling as I worked on more revisions for the first project. I had a conflict and the idea of characters. I wasn't going to start writing, though, until I had a chapter by chapter outline.
After a couple days of sketching it out, I had a complete roadmap (and, in a way, a literal roadmap because a road trip was a major element of the book). Every day, I sat down and worked off my outline, checking off each chapter as I went. It was the cleanest first draft I'd ever written and a complete departure from the first book. Beyond not being able to get satisfied with my opening, the book stayed in the same form all the way through, just improving each scene here or there.
I honestly think it worked so well because the book was very structured. It's the most action forward, plot heavy book I'd ever written which made it easy to say they'll be here and they'll do this thing. Having the detailed outline made it so much easier to just sit down and write every day. It didn't feel like a huge commitment. It just felt like adding the magic to make the plans I'd laid out come to life. I figured I'd never go back.
My third complete manuscript is my most recently finished. I thought I'd just follow the same path I'd used before. It'd be so easy. I had a plan. And I had learned a lot from my first two experiences. This time, my major goal was to not move forward till I had a firm beginning, because that was my biggest problem with my last book. Luckily, the first scene I wrote, before I was even 100% sold on the idea, was the perfect beginning. Once I had that, I started working off my outline, but there were holes in it. This book was much more quiet and emotional. More about two individuals and their relationships to life than a grand adventure. It was hard to set bounds of exactly how the scenes would play out, and, often, I'd come up with something when writing that would derail my outline but take the story to a more interesting place. I drafted it fast, something I knew I preferred doing from the last project. I revised it a couple times through with critique notes to solidify the story and close up a couple gaps I'd left myself. It was a weird mix of pantsing and plotting, but it made me realize that all I need to see a project to the end and find the "right story" for it is an intense connection to its goal.
I'd been in a weird writing funk since finishing that last project. I'd been querying a while and in a mental slump with life. I had a concept for what I wanted to do next, but I had no clue how to get there. A couple scenes kept floating around my head, bugging me. I wanted to refuse to write them until I had a serious chapter by chapter outline. Until it got to that point in the story. I was terrified of going back to that point where I had to piece together a story like a surgeon.
But then I realized I'd stopped writing, which was the worst thing I could do. I was back in that rut where I was waiting for inspiration to sing down from the clouds. Sure, everyone has their flashes of brilliance, but they never happen for me unless I'm actively doing something about my situation. So I told myself to shut up and I just wrote the scenes. They came from all over the book. They were scenes that I didn't see coming, and they made me fall in love with the story. Every time I've almost shelved it, I've gone back to the first scene I wrote when I got the idea. I realized all the other scattered scenes were like tent poles. I couldn't get them out of my head for a reason. As I sat down and forced myself to do my least favorite thing in the world (write a synopsis), it became clear that those scenes were the turning points that moved the story along. Trusting my gut and letting the story happen got me to where I wanted to start.
In the last few days, I've read that first scene over and over again, pulling out the little pieces and secrets that I was setting up for myself. It was like it had clues to what the other scenes the story needed were. At the end of the session, I checked my word count, and I had 20,000 words already in a document I didn't even really think of myself in the "drafting" stage for yet. It was kinda thrilling to think that the bits and pieces I've added over the last month come together to amount to a third of a draft. The project, and the story I'm telling, is making me remember why I love writing, why I'm happier when I'm writing, and why I have to write. Even if I don't know quite what I'm doing yet.
I know this was a super long post, but I thought that maybe some of you could relate. Writing process is ever evolving. You don't have to do every book the same way. You don't have to have special rituals, though it's great if you do. All you have to do is write and keep your eyes open both to the world around you and to yourself.
Links of Interest:
Let's Call It a Doomsday: Here
Tweet Cute Review: Here
Changing Tastes: Here
Into YA with Ronni Davis: Here