I mentioned previously that I write organically (aka pansing, writing into the dark). I don’t write with an outline or with any idea of where I’m going. I’ve tried outlining, planning, making my characters stick to what I want to do, but it always backfires. Catastrophically.
I’m slowly closing in on Draft 2 of my first non-fiction book, Why I Quit School and Got a Life and You Should Too: Finding True Identity Outside Academia. I’m also closing in on Draft 1 (I think) of a new fiction novel, To Hell in a Handbasket. Some lovely folks have commented they’d like to hear more about my writing process and, now that I’m writing again, I’m in a place where I can share some of that.
An editor friend once said that they key to writing was separating the creative act from the editing act. I believe for me this is especially important.
When I begin writing, I am very much in the creative space. I am birthing something completely new. I need to listen to what that process needs to come to fruition. And this is exactly what I do: I listen. I have to tune out any outside influences and any critical inner influences.
And just listen.
Creative writing is much like channeling for me. I listen to what my characters want to say and do. I listen for who wants to speak next. I listen for new scenes or the return of old settings. I write down what comes to me. No questions, no judgements. I follow, I do not lead.
This can be a frustrating and time-consuming process. It tries my patience like none other. But it’s the only way I can do it. The up part is that the more I do it, the more material I get. I practice it like any other skill and I get better. I hear things clearer and quicker.
That gets me so far. That gets me a set of scenes that may or, often not, tie together to form an entire plot line or character arc. I kind of view this as a bunch of beads that I’ll later need to string together to form the necklace of the story. This is when I start to ask questions. I prompt my characters to tell me more.
In other words, I have a conversation with my characters.
“Why did you do that?”
“How did you feel about that?”
“What happened next?”
I wait for them to tell me.
This becomes – for me — what Dean Wesley Smith calls Cycling. I “cycle” back a few pages into my emerging manuscript and start to ask questions about what previously happened. “Okay, here he did this. Why did he do that? Is he going to do something and needs to do this first?” Sometimes, I may cycle back a couple chapters to get the feel or flow of the characters and their actions, then the questions will start. When my characters start to answer, I may have to make some small changes to previously written material, but mostly I’m able to then carry on writing.
Note: what I write next may not be next in the story arc or plot line. What I write next may be something that seems to me to be completely out of order. However, it is what the characters need to say to me next and that’s all that matters. They dictate and I write.
If the initial set of story beads are the main stones of a necklace, the cycling then helps to fill in some gaps with smaller beads. Cycling helps me string the beads together. It helps me get a sense of the story and ask informed questions of my characters that will get answers to fill in the big blanks of the story necklace.
This is what I’m currently doing with To Hell in a Handbasket. The main storyline is there with character arcs. Some places in the story are more detailed than others. There might still be some gaps in the story. Some characters are clearer than others. This is okay. I’m still in the creation phase and just need to ask questions and listen.
When I’m done this creation / birthing phase, I’ll usually let the manuscript sit for a few months (or years) to ensure I can get some perspective on it. I won’t have read the entire thing from back to front at this point. However, life does happen during the creation phase. Sometimes I need to stop for a while, then start the creative phase again. To do this, I might have to cycle back further in the manuscript or somehow immerse myself into the work so I can then ask informed questions of my characters and carry on.
The creation phase will produce Draft 1. To get Draft 2, I invite my editor to enter into my brain and start to identify the gaps in the overall arc of the manuscript. While people like Dean Wesley Smith profess they don’t write drafts, I find it essential for my writing.
I need to separate out the creative process from the editing process and writing drafts is how I do it.
I’m a big picture thinker, so I rely heavily on being able to see the bigger picture. I need to know and be able to see the narrative and character arcs. Often, my Draft 1 will be full of dialogue (ie, talking heads) in fiction or will be full of bullet points in non-fiction just to help me rough out the big picture of the work.
Once I have let Draft 1 (and my brain) rest for a while, I’ll return to it and read it from start to finish and make notes along the way. I will do this the old fashioned analogue way: I’ll print out the manuscript and go through it with a pen. This will often relight the creation and cycling process. Reading the manuscript from start to finish is a kind of cycling because I’m remembering what I wrote and putting me in a frame to ask informed questions. But now I can see the entire picture and ask questions to really help make then entire work more cohesive. This is when I start to ask questions like, “What am I trying to say here?”, “What is going on here?”, and “How is this linking or related to that?”
I think it’s important to note here that we all have our strengths. I’m good at seeing the big picture. Maybe you’re good at details and descriptions. Figure out what you’re good at and do that. That’s where your creative process will shine and flow. When you get into editing, then you can focus on your weakness or enlist some outside help. If you’re having trouble writing, consider actively doing ONLY what you’re comfortable doing. Follow that energy and leave everything else (the criticism, the nagging, the editor, the “I need to do it this way” voice in your head) outside.
This linking or making the work a cohesive whole creates Draft 2 in my process. I might re-order sections. I might re-write sections. It’s all in the name of making the work cohesive and starting to establish its flow. This is where I am with Why I Quit. I’m filling in the gaps and linking everything together.
Does it matter that one manuscript is non-fiction and one is fiction?
Kinda, but not really. For non-fiction, I do more of a ‘brain-dump’ in the creation or Draft 1 phase. For fiction, I am usually presented with scenes or dialogue. For both, I’m listening and writing without judgement. I’m just filling the page. Draft 2 is when the editor is halfway in the door. I won’t let the editor entirely into my brain because I still need to create and listen to what’s going on. I don’t know about yours, but my internal editor won’t listen; they’re very focused on what they know and what they want to do. I need to be able to close the door on my editor when I engage the creator again. The editor helps me to identify gaps; the creator helps me fill them.
Are you a big picture thinker?
Do you revel in the details and sink into descriptions?
Are your first drafts full of talking heads?
How do you write?
Dean Wesley Smith – Writing into the Dark
Becca Syme – Better, Faster Academy, Dear Writer books, and Quitcast. Also on The Creative Penn podcast and The Rebel Author Podcast.
Lauren Sapala – The INFJ Writer
Elizabeth Gilbert – Big Magic
Yvonne is the author of two fiction books, Memoirs of a Reluctant Archaeologist and Waiting for Fate (Book One) and several short stories. You can view her backlist here: http://yvonnekjorlien.com/shop/
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