Susan here. Today on Ask-A-Wench, we’re talking about writing process—or what we Word Wenches understand as a loose interpretation of process. None of us are exacting in how we go about thinking up stories and writing novels (and Wenches agree that a precise process doesn’t particularly mesh with a creative process in storytelling, although they can complement and support each other).
As we often do in our AAW posts, we’ve chosen a reader question, this time from Constance, who asked how we go about preparing, working on, and/or finishing a book. How are ideas turned into plots, and how do we go about getting that book done? Do we rely on outlines, storyboards, cocktail napkins, what helps us? (Thanks, Constance!) And we've included photos of some of the places where we write (with or without a real process)!
Pat says —
My process is that I have no process. <G> Really, after 70 books and over 30 years, I couldn’t possibly do the same thing over and over. The Muse matures or goes nuts or gets finicky, and I just follow whatever makes her happy. Crystal Magic, my current series, came about because I wanted to play with my magical historical Malcolms in a contemporary setting. I had a lot of notes in a Word document about a town filled with eccentrics, plus a scene in my head about a woman driving through the night not having any idea who she was or where she was going. I sat down and started writing a plot arc combining the two. A very clever arc it was, too, if only the Muse had stuck with it. But no, she started throwing in ghostly gardeners and crystal wands, and then I realized I had a town full of Malcolms on my hands. And a town like this demands a series simply because there is no explaining it in one book. Other times, I have written series because I wrote a book with so many interesting characters that I had to follow up to learn more about them.
In the process of writing a book, I’ll make notes on paper and in computer documents—I often have several windows of notes open as I write. I’ll scribble chapters by hand or go into a frenzy at the laptop while sitting in the garden. I’m currently frozen in place because I needed to see the area I designated for my eccentric town. I simply couldn’t get another word down until I sat there in the pine forest looking into a canyon and imagining a crystal cave—or whatever comes of it. Because I still haven’t decided what happens there and won’t until I’m back in the manuscript, trying to visualize the characters in that setting. So—process is what we make of it. I try to make it fun!
Mary Jo here:
Process. It's such an organized word. I have trouble relating to it. My stories can start with a plot idea, in which case I look for characters who will maximize the power of that idea. Or more often they start with a character, almost always because I like tossing a group if guys together in circumstances where they are challenged so they bond and grow together. Often a random remark about a guy later becomes a key part of his personality when it's time to write his story. But a logical process it's not.
How wispy ideas become stories is very vague. It's rather like wandering around in the dark and bumping into things and seeing how they fit with the bits I've already collected. I keep gnawing away (mixing metaphors here!) until a story takes shape. Once I can write a short synopsis that explains the characters, the setting, and the general plot line, I'm ready to write. It's rather a jumble, but it seems to work.
As to where I write–that one is easy. At my desktop. I don't much like laptops and don't work well on them, and very few places are as comfortable to write in as my desk, where I've applied my long ago industrial design training to creating a workspace that it the right height, with the right trackball, the split keyboard, and a really good work chair to wiggle around on because I'm not good at sitting still.
But sometimes there are problems even with my carefully designed workspace!
My process is constantly changing. I used to make story collages, with pictures evoking characters, locations, possible scenes, etc. I don't do them now, though I might come back to it. I usually have a vague idea of the direction of a plot, and a couple of major scenes but I don't like to plot ahead. Plotting in detail makes me feel as though I already know the story and writing it then feels deadly boring. Or else I'll find myself trying to follow the plot, rather than making the story work. It takes me a while to really get to know my characters and I need to be open to them surprising me and taking the story in a different direction. Occasionally those moments can lead me into a dead end, but more often it makes the story better and more interesting.
Before writing I usually note down what needs to happen in a scene — often on the back of an envelope. The thing that most often works for me is to wake up (or drift off to sleep) with a scene rolling in my head like a movie. And then I have to write them down before they fade from mind. The scenes that come to me that way are inevitably strong ones, and will sometimes spark a book idea.
Where do I work? In bed, at my desk, in my local library or if I'm lucky, in a friend's garden.
I’m another Wench whose writing process is very flexible if not downright disorganised. My books begin in lots of different ways, sometimes springing from a setting, or a plot idea, a character idea or even an object. The spark for
The Phantom Tree, for example, came from a portrait I’d seen that was allegedly of Anne Boleyn but I started to wonder if it was actually someone else, and how it might have come to be misidentified, and who that person might really be and what their story was… From that starting point a story will weave together different ideas and background research, often without conscious thought. However, I am aware of my mind working away on these things all the time, which feel like a magical process. Sometimes it comes up with stuff that works, sometimes not. I have to try the pieces to see how they fit together. My favourite part of the process is when I know that there is something missing from a story and I just leave the idea to brew away whilst I write something else and then the solution pops into my mind and I think how obvious it was and why hadn’t I thought of it before… The answer, I think, is that ideas need time to develop and grow whilst I am writing. This is one of the reasons why I’m not good as writing outlines beforehand.
I tend to re-write the beginning of a book several times because that makes me feel as though I am giving it a firm foundation. So many times I’ve heard people give advice that you shouldn’t do this and should just push on and get the words down but I think you just have to find the path that works. There is no right or wrong way. So with the book I am currently writing, for instance, I wrote the first twenty five thousand words, then the end because I knew what I was aiming at, and now I’m back in the middle, connecting the two. That’s the process for this book but each story is different and I never know when I start how it is going to develop. I like that because it feels exciting although sometimes it is frustrating not to be better planned. I never used to plan out plot diagrams or have story boards but now that I’m writing dual or triple time books I have been known to have two columns on a piece of paper with the scenes listed to make sure that the two chronologies work together. That’s as planned as it gets!
I write at my desk in the study with the dogs curled up next to me and a view of the garden from my window. I’m lucky to have something so pretty to look out on when I need to pause and let the ideas brew!
Some authors do meticulous plotting with index cards describing each scene that they then tack to corkboard and move around, endlessly refining the flow until it’s perfect. I am NOT one of them. I’ve always been a pantser. I usually have a very good idea of the first few scenes . . . I think of this as the Magpie Effect: I see a shiny little bauble—that first cool beginning—and immediately bring it back to the writing nest. Alas, the shine soon wears off and I’m left thinking, why did I ever think this was a good idea? I usually do have a vague idea of what’s going to happen in the end. But then there’s that vast, amorphous middle . . . which leaves me making it up as I go along. There are days when I push back from my computer after 8 hours of writing and say, “Hmmm, that’s interesting. I didn’t know they were going to do THAT!” Not an ideal way to work, but that’s how my brain is wired.
I’ve been experimenting with forcing myself to be more disciplined but it is, as they say, a work in progress. Last summer, I got all excited after reading a craft book on how to use screenwriting techniques to plot out the story and points of drama. I made up this elaborate chart, got out a fresh notebook to draw up the three acts, and slot in the required scenes . . . and then looked at the blank page with utter terror! But I forced myself to do a partial structure and then sat down to write. And what came out was utter drivel. It felt flabby and uninteresting, a sort-of write by the numbers exercise. I ended up chucking the pages and going back to just starting with “once upon a time” and seeing where the characters wanted to go.
The one thing I have found interesting is trying to make myself break away from the computer occasionally and write with paper and pencil, as I’ve read that the brain works slightly differently when using different physical muscles, and that can fire different synapses in the neural pathways. I found it helpful, so in summer I take a notebook to the beach, as I like the sound of the water washing against the shore, and spend an hour or two writing. I also find plot twists or problems in the story often unknot themselves when I take a walk and am thinking about something else. I often take my golf bag and go walk a few holes at the end of a day. Watching the sunlight on the grasses and water, and the activities of the birds and foxes is really enjoyable (don’t ask about where the golf ball is going!) It’s amazing how many times the "ah-
ha moment” of how to solve a problem scene comes when I’m not consciously thinking about the book.
How do I get into a story?
I dream my way into it. Sometimes literally in bed in the early hours of the morning when I avoid getting up. I'm good at lying there and letting my half-awake mind do the work.
Or I walk in the woods and around the house and through the grocery story variously worrying the dog because I don’t seem to be paying attention, bumping into the larger pieces of furniture, and buying yet another dozen-pack of eggs when I have two in the fridge. I'm not there among the artichokes and bottles of milk. I'm in 1803 France, getting shot at. Never a dull moment.
After I’ve gone back to the dreams for weeks I sit down and start writing what I've seen. By that time I mostly know what’s happening and the story hangs together and makes sense. I always have great fun in these stories in my head. I hope I manage to get that enjoyment down in electrons.
Susan here –
In a recent interview, author Margaret Atwood was asked about her writing ritual. "Procrastination," she said. "That's my ritual." Now there’s an approach I can wholeheartedly embrace. Creative ideas need time and energy to develop, and a book needs consistent effort if it’s ever going to be completed. And as I writer I have to be both creatively flexible and a little bit organized to get through it. Ideas need space to grow, and procrastination can be an amazing tool to give ideas time to simmer.
My books emerge from various sources—a sense of a character, an intriguing historical situation, a setting that begs for a story. At first, I’ll work very fast, brainstorm pages of notes, do some research, write some rough chapters, a summary, snippets of scenes. It comes in quickly and often out of order, and I just try to capture it. That first chapter might end up a third or fourth chapter, or fit better later in the story (this can be tricky if a publisher wants an excerpt early on!). Then the real work starts, the deeper research, finding plot and figuring out character and motivation, keeping track of it all, and getting (and keeping) the seat in the chair.
I’ve charted some stories, inspired to organize myself, and while it’s fun at first, it doesn’t last for me. My natural process is messy—like painting on big canvases when I was in art school—and my drafts are dreadfully messy too, but I know where everything is. And when it’s time to knuckle down, the part of me that trained in grad school to take copious notes and be exacting about detail (in tandem with the mess on the desk) steps in to help clean up the draft and get 'er done.
Do I take notes on cocktail napkins? Yup–I recently jotted ideas on a napkin during lunch with Mary Jo. With every book, I keep a notebook to capture ideas, bits of research, revelations about character, motivation, plot. This also makes it a lot easier to find stuff.
Deeper into the book, I track back, clean it all up (takes time and sharpens my book focus), and then I can usually blow through the last third of the book at lightning pace. I'm more the hare than the tortoise, zooming along at first, then I zigzag, procrastinate . . . but when I sense that the story is ready (or the deadline is looming), I could win awards for speed, accuracy, and for pulling all-nighters.
What are your thoughts on process in any craft or task you regularly do? Are you a pantser, a plotter, a hare, a tortoise?
Special thanks to Constance for the question, who wins a book for inspiring the Wenches! (Contact me for details.)