My Writing Process
In my first blog post on writing, I gave some practical and inspirational tips for writers. In this blog post, I will discuss the writing process, or more specifically, my writing process. As I mentioned before, I enjoyed reading Stephen King’s On Writing. His process was so different from mine but I took a lot away from reading about his writing process and it made me reflect on my own process. I see the writing process as the intersection between creativity and productivity, the place where your inspiration bares fruit and a work of literary art is created. If you feel that you will live the life of a writer or even have a career as a writer, then you will need to have your own writing process, one that allows you to successfully complete a writing project, whether it be a short story or a poem or a novel or whatever. Every great writer has a process and you should too. So let’s get started.
When it comes to writing fiction, I mostly write what is referred to as literary fiction, or more specifically, fiction that focuses on its characters rather than its plot. Unlike genre fiction, where there can be a well-defined blue print for story structure, literary fiction only has the precedence of past literary works whose stories / narrative structures are as unique as their characters. Since I began writing short stories, novels, and comic strips over 20 years ago, I’ve discovered what exactly my writing process is and I’ve been able to replicate it. I am able to visualize a story that I want a character to explore and then complete my project the way I imagined it to be. For those of you who may be new writers, or writers that are interested in reflecting on your own process (like me), I’ll describe how my two novels about Simon Burchwood came about and how I completed them. Hopefully, as it did for me when I read Stephen King’s On Writing, this blog post will help you understand your own writing process and where your creativity and productivity intersect to create literary art.
First things first, these are the tools I use for writing a novel: Microsoft Word, a USB flash drive (before these, floppy disks. Ha ha!), an off-site storage location for backup files, a Steno pad, and a pencil. I use Microsoft Word as my word processor because really, there is not a better or more widely used word processor than Word. There are other alternatives that are free (Open Office, etc.) but, in the end, you will be exporting or saving as a Word compatible file most of the time anyway. One of my distributors uses Word as a source file for creating ePub’s and PDF’s and they have revealed bugs with these other word processors saving as Word files (wonky formatting and all). So, just use Microsoft Word! Done. Next. There are several computers in my life i.e. a desktop, a laptop, my cell phone, my cell phone lapdock, etc. So rather than say I use one of these exclusively to write on (because I don’t), I keep the draft copy of my novel in Microsoft Word format on a USB flash drive and I carry this USB flash drive wherever I go. When I’m ready to write, I use whichever computer / technology thingy is available, plugin my USB flash drive, and I write, saving my draft to my USB flash drive. When I’m done with my writing session, I save a copy of my Microsoft Word file to an off-site location as a backup. Initially, I used a private folder at the host where my web site is stored but I eventually used my storage space on Amazon Cloud Drive. It was much more convenient and FREE! Why would I backup my draft to an off-site storage location? Believe it or not, during the course of writing my last novel, the laptop I was using to type on at the time died while I had the USB flash drive attached to it. The laptop’s death fried the file on my USB drive as well. Good thing I had a backup copy stored on the Amazon Cloud Drive. I only lost a few paragraphs of work. Lastly, the Steno pad and pencil. Why in the hell would I have a pad of paper and a pencil when I have all of this wonderful technology at hand? Simple. When it comes to keeping my "breadcrumbs" (more on this later) and jotting down notes, I prefer to do these things the old fashion way: on paper. Don’t ask me why. I just do.
When I first had the idea for The Meteoric Rise of Simon Burchwood, the basis for the novel came fully-formed to my mind. I knew exactly where I wanted it to begin and where I wanted it to end with most of the major components in between. I knew the type of character I wanted Simon to be and all the other major characters I wanted him to interact with. But when it came to preparing myself to write the novel, I didn’t want to write an outline to structure the story in advance. I had no interest in following a blueprint to get Simon from point A to point Z and this is where literary fiction can be quite different than genre fiction. I knew I wanted Simon to fly from Austin, Texas to Montgomery, Alabama then to New York City, New York. I knew who Simon would meet along the way and interact with but I wanted to have the flexibility to explore these situations and scenarios, and an opportunity to see how they would play out and develop, to improvise if you will. To be honest, I was surprised that some of the scenes didn’t play out the way I’d hoped initially and, in most cases, were better than I hoped after giving my characters the freedom to interact naturally. To allow this to happen, instead of writing an outline beforehand, I wrote an “outline” after I finished each chapter, or as I call them, I wrote down my breadcrumbs for the story. These “breadcrumbs” showed me how my novel was developing, helped me keep track of my progress, and allowed me to get back to where I started: my inspiration and what I was trying to accomplish in the first place. If I ever wondered in the course of my writing if I was on track, then I had my breadcrumbs to tell me. This is where my Steno pad came in handy. I wrote my breadcrumbs in my Steno pad as well as the themes I was exploring, certain character traits for the main characters, narrative strategies I wanted to utilize, phrases and sayings that were unique to each character (particularly Simon), and other important notes to refer to as I wrote the first draft. My Steno pad was my bible / lifesaver / security blanket.
The two most important writing tips for me that I wrote about in my blog post On Writing: Part One are 1) Find the time of day most productive for you to write. And 2) Create a schedule to make that time available for you to write. By the time I was ready to write The Meteoric Rise of Simon Burchwood, I already knew the best time for me to write was in the morning, especially while drinking coffee. So I adjusted my work schedule slightly to accommodate this writing schedule. I got to work each morning an hour early so I could write in private. The office was always empty from 7:00am to 8:00am and I usually could belt out around 2,000 words in that time. I quickly made a routine in the morning that worked for me. This routine included making strong coffee and taking about 4 to 6 cups of it with me to the office, listening to the same album (Coldplay's "A Rush of Blood to the Head") every morning while sitting in traffic to get me in the right mindset, and making a beeline to my desk so I could begin typing immediately. As I wrote, I kept editing to an absolute minimum, reading back after writing about four or five sentences, and only making corrections to typographical errors that stuck out like a sore thumb. Rather than worry about typos and such (which would be corrected later in the final draft by me or an editor), I worried about things like the tone and cadence of Simon’s narrative voice, keeping in mind key points and notes I had in my Steno pad, allowing Simon to explore scenes and interact with the other characters loosely while aiming for his destination, literally and metaphorically. I knew if I got bogged down in the mechanics of what I was writing (fixing typos, rereading too much, overanalyzing my work, etc.) that I would clobber any rhythm I got from the good night’s sleep and the caffeine buzz I enjoyed on the way to the office thinking about Simon’s next encounter. With this routine, I was able to write the first draft in a little over six weeks, around 80,000 words.
With my next novel The Spectacular Simon Burchwood, my writing routine changed slightly because of an abrupt change in my life. My marriage of 10 years disintegrated and I went through a separation and divorce that took another two and a half years after my marriage dissolved. After my divorce was finalized, my weeks were then scheduled according to our child custody agreement. Each week was broken up into days when I had my children and days I did not have them so getting to work an hour early every single morning was out of the question. There were mornings where I could get up extremely early if I didn’t have them and write uninterrupted before leaving for work or I would get to work 30 to 45 minutes before I had to start working and write some more. This was offset by mornings where I had my children and couldn’t get any writing done at all. If there were mornings when I had my children and I felt inspired, then I would use my Steno pad to jot down notes for the next morning when I didn’t have my children and could write again alone. I also discovered during this time that I occasionally found inspiration to write late in the evenings, sometimes after watching a movie or reading something that inspired me, and I would write a paltry 500 to 600 words before getting tired. I found this to be an interesting change although it didn’t account for much productivity but it was a nice change in my routine nonetheless (With the exception of my early 20s, I never did any writing in the evenings, ever, until this past spring. Weird.). Instead of taking six weeks to write the first draft, it took me six months this time around. In addition to the longer length of time to write the first draft, I also encountered a severe case of writer’s block that ate up one month of this six-month period. After I got through the writer’s block, I attributed it more to fatigue and depression than a lack of inspiration or motivation. Like the “Meteoric” novel, I already had the story for the “Spectacular” novel fully-formed in my mind so it wasn’t for lack of things to write about. At the end of the six-month period, I had written about 70,000 words, my target amount. It was a longer road than my previous novel but I was able to complete it anyway, sticking to my writing process, even with a bad case of writer’s block and the changes in my life brought about by my divorce.
To me, the most difficult part about writing a novel is completing the first draft, getting it to a state where the subsequent revisions are effortless (Or as effortless as can be. Editing can be a chore but, to me, it is geared more toward "writing mechanics" than inspirational pounding at the keyboard), because I have at least a great foundation to work with. With such a long written work, you can easily get lost or off track of what you were initially trying to accomplish. With the proper writing tools, a writing schedule conducive to great output during creative peaks, and a method for keeping track of your progress, I’m certain you too can complete a novel the way you imagined it to be. I know you can do it. Don’t aspire to be a writer; be a writer!
“But how did you decide on what verb tense to use?” you may ask. “How did you decide to write in first-person or third-person?” Great questions! “How did you decide on what font to use in your manuscript?” Ummm, well, hmmm. These are all great questions and I only touched on them slightly in this blog post. There are certainly many choices to make initially before starting the writing process and these choices can affect your writing process. I’ve read many accounts of authors changing verb tense or narrative modes deep into their first drafts. It certainly has happened to me but for the most part, if you make thoughtful decisions before you start then it shouldn’t be an issue (strong emphasis on shouldn’t). I’ll discuss these choices in my next blog post on writing. Until then, go write!