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Writing process – I finally figured out why people want to know about it

Upping my game this past year or so involved creating associations I never braved before. And most of them had some sort of “interview” component that included wanting to know about my writing process. Y’know, so people can get to know you as a writer.

writing-process-vault-door

As an introvert, someone asking me questions about what I’m doing behind the scenes and worse, why, is reason enough to barricade myself behind a 2-foot think vault door and never open my blinds again. However, part of the magical mess that is me means I’m a massive collection of opposites. So I also believe that if I ever want to truly excel at anything, I must routinely force myself outside my comfort zone to be tempered by that fire. I guess that makes me an extroverted introvert? Anyway, end result, I did the interviews.

Questions about my writing process initially always gets my back up. I hear the word “process” or even worse “system” (*shudder*) and I subconsciously lose my shit. Those words make me want to rant “It’s art you fucking cretin, not a corporate take-over plan and if you don’t understand the difference, I can’t explain it to you, because we’re not speaking the same language!” Ew, I died a little inside just thinking about it.

Art imitates life

writing process in action

At my outside job, I’ve also spent the past year or so on a massive project I totally love that continues testing the limits of all my coaching, writing and communication skills. To get everyone on the same page, I had to start at the beginning. That means, writing process documentation, because there was none since it was a brand new thing.

Along with documenting better approaches, this also involved documenting a whole whack of things people already did that worked. No one ever had time to examine or break these things down into the elements of why they work and should continue doing them. Despite that I didn’t think I needed to spell-out the common sense bits at first, it became clear that common sense is decidedly uncommon, so this became important.

The reason I mention is because it‘s been a great reminder to me about why other things, like our writing processes, need to be documented for the benefit of others.

Common sense arises from experience and when we don’t have any, it’s hard to know if what we’re doing is right. We need validation. And then it slapped me upside the head that this is why the writing process question comes up so often. Forgive me, I’m sometimes slow. Thinking about it that way changed my whole brain space.

It reminded me about how many awesome books I read from established authors back in the day while I worked to figure out how they did it. They took the time to write these things down for those coming behind them and I know for a fact I wouldn’t know half of what I know now if not for them. I’m big on mindfulness in general, so paying it forward about writing is congruent to me.

So, let’s talk about some writing process stuff!

Process… process… process… I don’t know, man. I wouldn’t call it an actual writing process, that sounds awfully like I plan how it happens which I often don’t. Mostly, I ride the wave. How about I just tell you what goes on up here in my noodle?

Pre-writing process alphabet soup…

I have more than one story rolling around in my head on any given day. Honestly, it’s a mess in there. Some are more formed than others. Ever seen a string of Christmas lights taken down and left in a twisted knot? This tangle lives in the back of my brain, all coloured light and twinkly riotous sparks, while I go through life. It’s alphabet soup and at the same time all connected together. Despite that I could never tell you one from another, there are, in fact, themes and connections and plot threads. I know them, but I can’t articulate them. I even know there’s value there, because I can just catch their tiny firefly fleeting brilliance even if I don’t yet know what to call them.

Writing Process - tangle of christmas lightsIt’s not even possible to describe what any of those things are while at the same time? I have a sense of what each of them will become in their entirety if allowed to blossom. At some point, one of those thoughts overshadows all the rest and I know that’ll be my next story. I won’t know what it’s about yet or even where it will go. But I’ll feel the weight of it, so know it has substance.

How can I know that’s the next one in the middle of that mess? At least in my head, my thoughts zip from one thing to another constantly on any regular day. Poke a little here, think out a sentence there, flip over to something else and chew on that for a while. I’ll know it’s the next one, if it’s the one I keep going back to over and over. I won’t even be able to describe it, but it sparks up higher than the others and keeps catching my attention to the point I walk around with it in the front of my brain. Still not able to describe it, talk it out or know where it’s going, but it’s there, occupying space in front of my eyes. It becomes the film I see everything else through during the time it lives.

I can’t look at it too closely or try to write it until it’s ready or it never comes out right. I’ve scared them away doing that, so I don’t stare. My subconscious is a lot smarter than my conscious brain, so I leave it to its own devices, laying the groundwork in the background, connecting, weaving, figuring out the motivation and everything else. Any point I consciously attempt to get in the way of that? I ruin it.

Trying to write a story before it’s ready ends up in my writing 20 or 30 different drafts of the first few chapters and none of them work. It ends up a waste of time, so I don’t do it anymore. If I happen to accidentally grab something that’s only half-baked – and this usually happens when I’m being too rational and apply logic to what I think I see going on there or think I know what’s required – when it’s not working is the sign it wasn’t ready. I used to try and tough them out, but after years of writing, I’m humbled enough to know I’m not smart enough to bend those half-formed ideas to my conscious will. I have enough sense to move onto something else that has more form.

But when something is ready to write? An alarm goes off and then I bang out a first draft.

Mid-creation writing process… still not much of a plan here

I know other people track word counts, but I don’t much except for a few check-ins to see where I’m at. Since I do all the prelim work in my head, once I start writing, it’s a marathon. There’s no needing to push myself to hit word counts. I most often start telling myself the story. I write it for me, so I know what’s going on. There’s no finesse in it, it’s very cut-and-dried, starts out in point form and evolves into sentences by the time I get to the end. This is what becomes my outline.

I’ll write it beginning to end in one sitting, talking it out, adding in all the whys, where they came from, what the conflict is and all the rest, so I know who all the players are and what all their motivations are and what the problem is. It might end up a page or two. Then I check it for holes, make small adjustments if I need to and then set that aside and go back to the beginning. And then write it again out of my head, but this time building in more detail. By this time, because I have the whole outline in my head, I’m all-in. After the first page, I usually naturally switch from “and then he did this, and then this guy does that” to narrator mode and I’m off without pause.

Writing full steam ahead

When I’m in full-on create mode, I listen to music. Loud music, preferably heavy metal. It’s not even the theme music of the story or anything so lofty as I’ve heard other writers talk about. It’s white noise to block out the world. I have 4 kids, so when the headphones go on, it’s closing the office door.

If I had to pick it apart? Psychologically speaking, I’ll be honest and say it’s because I’m hiding behind that wall of noise so no one can see what I’m doing. In that hidden place is where secrets and truth are revealed and you can’t let people see that in the raw. That’s too scary, dude. When you hear people tell you, “write with the door closed”? That’s what it means to me. Hiding in the shadows, leaking out secrets. Squinting with one eye open as you half-look at the things that make you squirm and cry and be horrified by, more so for knowing they came out of your own head, so you know they were already in there. Speaking the unspoken. Hunched in desperate, cloistered confession over those things you’d never let another human look at in broad daylight.

I really am a maniac when I’m in that mode. Nothing stops me. I take a notebook everywhere. I’ll write every second I have and won’t lose the thread of what I’m doing. I hear characters having conversations around me and take dictation. See the locations they act upon in film form around me while I watch what’s happening and chronicle it. I live for the evening or early morning when I have uninterrupted hours to go at it without pause. I wish it was always that way, because that right there is the thing that makes me live.

It doesn’t always work like this, though.

Other times? When something’s been brewing in the background, I’ll know I need more input. I won’t know why, but I’m probably missing details or something I need for building blocks. In those cases, I start researching led by instinct. I wrote a trilogy about 15 years ago that I spent an entire year doing research for. I couldn’t write it until I was done looking up everything my subconscious needed, I suppose. And then same thing – once done absorbing what I needed, I sat down and wrote it all out.

Inspiration and writing process

Blood Runner is my record for speed so far and it started out that way, driven by a nagging need for research. First draft start to finish took 10 weeks, 6-8 hours a day or more. I wrote it at the library. A lot of it came out longhand and the rest not even on my own computer, but on a library computer in my email account. I don’t know why, but the library seemed to be the place of inspiration and I couldn’t do it on my own equipment.

writing process - inspirationWhy did I find writing there inspirational? Look, I stopped trying to figure out what goes into the inspiration a long time ago. For that story, all the research books were there, I was reading them at a table and then put one down and picked up a pen and started writing. It was the first long creative piece I wrote for myself and not as a ghostwriter in a long while, so maybe I needed to feel scholarly? I was surrounded by the history? Maybe it was all the words? No idea, dude. It was how it had to happen, I was feeling it, and it worked.

I think you can attempt to create circumstances that are inspirational or force circumstances of inspiration and it doesn’t work the same. Maybe it’s my commercial background, but I’ve said it before – I can find inspiration sitting on a crowded subway car. In my opinion, I think the only thing that gets in the way of our inspiration is ourselves. We’re stressed, we’re distracted, we can’t focus on a single task, because we’re too tired, in a bad mood, we’re writing shopping lists and running over work schedules in our heads, we think inspiration needs to be one way and aren’t open to other ways… I’m just as guilty of it as anyone else, but I usually recognise when I’m doing it and knock it off. All that distraction blocks our ability to recognise inspirational circumstances.

Because that’s what it’s about. We shouldn’t be “looking for inspiration”. Instead, we should recognise circumstances of inspirational energy and use what’s available.

There’s inspiration all around us, flowing around us and through us, and it’s our job, as writers, to be more in-tune with that than your regular, average schmo. That’s my theory, anyway. It’s more productive to be sensitive to circumstances of inspiration and use them. They’re varied and changeable and I think the trick to consistent productivity is to be adaptable to what’s available. To be open to it, and then harness those changing circumstances to our purposes. “You can’t always get what you want, but sometimes, you get what you need”, right?

Maybe it’s because I’m a Druid, but being sensitive to the energy around me is where I find inspiration. I go by energy and ride that, not feel inspiration is dependent upon location or situation.

After the first draft – writing process editing

Once I get the first draft out, I’ll put it aside and work on other things – freelance, editing, content writing, another big story, whatever. It’s important to get away from it. And I might even put it away for a very long time. I have complete novels boxed up in hard copy on my shelf that go back more than twenty years. What I’ve accumulated in the middle of doing things for other people.

I always thought of it as being a good little squirrel and storing up my nuts for winter. For that day when I finally stopped being at the beck and call of others. Those are my raw heart and soul on paper. Only lately have I started to work on these things, which is fabulous. About bloody time. But I’ll be the first to admit, they definitely need editing to turn them into a marketable product. I had my fun getting the stories out – that’s the payoff for me. I only write things to amuse myself. The rest? Is about making a living.

writing process - editingThe advantage of putting stories away for a long time is, I can go at editing with fresh eyes. I’ve done my share of editing, so practiced in carving off the garbage, but when it comes to my own? I’m brutal. I’m probably harder on myself than anyone else and don’t let myself off the hook. I won’t let it go until I figure it out, either. Too stubborn. It means I refuse to leave the work alone until I’ve sufficiently beaten them into submission. That means, they’re not getting anywhere fast. But then again, I also stacked-up enough first draft manuscripts to keep me editing until I’m 110. At least, I won’t be bored. And I’m okay with that.

Editing is all expansion and contraction. For parts that don’t work, I often write stream of consciousness to fix it. Just let it all come out to get the one good sentence I need and then take out the rest. Sometimes, it takes pages to get that sentence. But I have to do it to get that one line, because it’ll be imperfect without it.

I also know when it’s done. I won’t always know why, but I assume it’s because I removed all the sour notes and my brain loses interest. It’s no fun when there’s no challenge left, I guess. Like I said, I don’t try to analyse it, it’s just how it goes and it seems to work.

Writing process – editing by degrees

I wrote some articles on here about targeted editing and so you know, I didn’t make that stuff up. I use that method for my own work. It’s tough to see the little things with lots of big things in the way, so I find it easier to break it down. I’ve heard other writers say they write one or two complete rewrites and they’re done. I honestly don’t know how they do that. No way I can focus on so many elements at once. I find it easier to do it by areas of focus – dialogue, tense, typos, active language, etc..

Focusing on only one or two composition components prevents missing things that get obscured by the story. Especially when I get lost in the story, because I’ll skip over them. I also often read pages from the bottom up looking for specific elements. It helps me pick them out, again, without my brain filling in what I think is there. As my vision gets worse, I find this method works well for me and helps me catch more mistakes. It’s not fast, but it does the job. Clearly, this isn’t everyone’s preferred method, but you do what works for you, right?

Once I’ve take a few editing passes through a manuscript, I put it away again. It takes distance to see clearly, so again, once I’ve been re-immersed during editing, I know it’s a good idea to step away. After a break, I often see so many things that I missed when stopped looking at it.

writing process - practicing for a concert that never happensWhat do I do on an editing break? Keep writing! I don’t know, what do other writers do? I often write poetry if I have time, actually. It was my first love. Since I always have multiple pieces on the go, there’s never a shortage of something to keep me occupied. And the variety is good for my brain. The more kinds of writing I do definitely makes me a better writer. I mean really, we all learn something and get better with everything we write and I feel like the variety helps strengthen my skills.

It’s been over 40 years now since I wrote my first story and I still don’t feel like I’m good enough. Every day is practice for a concert that will never happen.

I write things outside my comfort zone simply for the way it’ll benefit my novel writing. No experience is wasted, I think the more we have, the more we can draw from and have in our writing process arsenal. You never know when you might need to bust out a technique that’ll be the exactly right thing to do while you’re breaking a manuscript writing rule, eh? Hey, it’s not wrong if it works!

So that’s my writing process!

Now you know all my dirty writing process secrets. Still love me? I guess time will tell. Chime in below in the comments if any of this helped you out or if you want to share anything about your writing process. 🙂

JD

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