Several times over the last month-ish, I’ve been told or heard some variant of: “If you want to do X, you need to [do it this way that I’m not].”
I call bullshit.
I don’t write longhand on top of a refrigerator, write with a fountain pen using an oil lamp for illumination, or other variations on the extreme no-computer end of things, but those are valid processes for those writers.
As is wherever you happen to fall on the plotter vs. pantser spectrum of pre-writing organization.
Every writing process has flaws. Every. Single. One.
Many of us have had the outline where the book takes a sudden hard turn into unexpected territory. I’ve heard the writer whose shorts I love but whose novels always seemed flat to me say that she makes her characters adhere to the outline.
Many of us who write without an outline have had the book proceed neatly into no-story land, never to return. Or veer off onto story B, leaving us with half of story A and half of story B.
I was told over the weekend that I needed to decide in advance how long a story would be, then write that.
I’m sure that does work for some people, but I generally only have a vague sense of how long something will be when I start. Basically, I know how complex the idea I have is, and I write it to what I think is the natural length. Sometimes, it winds up being several orders of magnitude more complex, sometimes less complex.
I underwrite the first draft (I think overwriting is more common). In part, that’s because I have open questions that I haven’t resolved yet, so don’t have those details to fill in during the first draft until toward the end of the draft.
Karen Joy Fowler on Her Process
I went to the Maui Writer’s Conference in 2007, and went to this lecture by Karen (who was one of my Clarion instructors in 2002). I bought the CD for the lecture also, so I’ve transcribed the first few minutes for you.
If you haven’t heard of Karen Joy Fowler, she’s a New York Times bestselling author, and most famous for her book The Jane Austen Book Club. She recently won the PEN/Faulkner award for her most recent book, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. My personal favorite of her books, though, is Wit’s End.
The page one that I start with, when I’m first beginning to start writing the novel, is rarely the page one that I have when the novel is finished.
I think that you come to conferences like this, and you hear a lot of writers talk, and you hear a lot of writers explain their own methods, and how they create the books that they create. It sounds often like things that you should be doing.
You’re told to outline, you’re told to not outline…that’s probably the major one.
What I have come to believe, after several years of taking classes, and several years of teaching classes, is that your own working method is your own working method. In fact, I don’t think that you can alter it greatly. Or I worry if you try to alter it greatly. I think that we all start this enterprise because we love to write. Because there’s something about the process of writing that is actually fun for us, and something that at least has parts that we very much look forward to doing. And if you make your method something more efficient, something more reasonable, something smarter—what I worry is that what you edit out of the process is the thing that you loved. So that you’ll be working in a much more streamlined, much more reasonable way, but you won’t be having fun with it any more.
I’m going to talk to you about my working method, therefore. In no way is this meant to suggest that this should be your working method. In point of fact, my working method is a very silly, an inefficient, and stupid one, but it is mine. And I do have fun doing it.
So, I am not a writer who outlines. I am not a writer often who knows much about the book I’m going to write when I start writing the book. The whole process of writing the book is a process of making decisions, and hopefully finding different things that will surprise me as the writer—as well as the reader of the book.
This means that the first draft is kind of an intensely painful one step forward, two steps back sort of process for a long, long time until decisions are made. I probably spend half the time I spend on a book writing the first fifty pages as I am just feeling my way into the book, making the decisions that seem best, then questioning those decisions, and going back and making other decisions, getting to know my characters.
So, just as you often have a working title for a book, I have a working first page. When I am first starting, I do not know where the book is going to go. All I want is a page I can proceed from. Something that, for me, has enough energy, and enough pleasure in it as a writer that I want to write the next page.
I spend a lot of time rewriting—experimenting—with writing the first page. Trying it one way, trying it another way.
When I have actually finished the book, and I know how it ends, is the only time that I confidently know what the first page should be, because you always want to finish the same story that you started.
Here’s My Process
I’m a pantser. I don’t just write without an outline, I write out of order, too.
For books, I write in order until I get stuck. If I have a part later in the novel that’s clearer, I’ll write that because it gives me something to work toward. If not, then I look at the decisions I’ve made recently, because I’ve possibly worked my way into a corner.
If that doesn’t unstick the writing, then I ask myself three things I’d like to have in the book. Maybe I want a big set piece wedding that goes horribly wrong. I keep a running list of these things in the front of my working document. The first section will have a list of those things where I have an order to them. Like: I know they’re going to do A before B. Then I keep a second list for unordered items. Like: I want someone to order a frou-frou coffee drink with whipped cream at the worst possible time.
At any point during the book, I can use an unordered item if it makes sense. (Sometimes I’ll use one even if it doesn’t. Writing should be fun.)
When my writing unsticks, I generally go back to the main working narrative, continuing forward.
One book I did write almost completely out of order, and it’s fascinating to see what sections I completely managed to skip over. (It doesn’t help that I have this sinking feeling that I’m missing one of the notebooks for that book, either.) But it’s largely a first draft that, save for a few gaps, is a mostly complete first draft I wrote when I was having a really horrible few months and needed to write something.
So I mostly organize my book as I write it, and I write mostly in order except when it helps to do it otherwise.