Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Writing Processes

I've got another writing topic from questions asked on Facebook, this time about processes. It's hard to do much of a how-to on process because it's such an individual thing. The only "right" way to do it is the way that allows you to produce a book. There are some situations where one method might be preferable, but if that's not a way that works for you, it's not going to help. I suspect that most writers fall between any extremes, and I know that my process adjusts with each book, sometimes due to the nature of what I'm writing and sometimes due to what's going on in my life. If what you're doing isn't working for you as well as you'd like, it's worth a try to change some part of your process until things click. I'll touch on some of the major process categories, and even if it doesn't change the way you do things, you'll at least have a better idea of what writers mean when they talk about their processes.

Pantser vs. Plotter
The "pantser" or "seat of the pants" writer doesn't outline or plot a book in advance, but rather just starts writing based on an idea fragment, a character, a scene or a bit of dialogue and then figures out what the story's about as it's written. A plotter plans the plot and outlines the novel in advance, often doing in-depth character development, figuring out stages of the hero's journey, etc.

I generally say that I'm the worst of both worlds -- I can't really start a book until I've done a lot of pre-writing work about the characters and have a solid plot outline, but then I don't know what the book is actually about until I've written a draft, and then I do extensive rewriting. But it varies by book or series.

Writers can go to war over these two, with each side claiming superiority. The pantsers often claim to be "organic" writers whose process is pure creativity, while plotters claim to be more efficient. I think the truth is that pantsers may do more plotting than they realize, but it's in their heads instead of on paper. The plotters do their "pantsing" before they start writing. The same things happen. The difference is in how and when they're done. Once you get to the point where you can sell a book on proposal, you'll have to be able to plot at least a little bit because you'll need to be able to write a synopsis before you've written the book.

Linear vs. Non-linear
A linear writer writes scenes in sequence. A non-linear writer writes scenes as they come to mind, and then arranges and links them. I think non-linear writers are more likely to be pantsers who are writing what comes to them and who later realize something needs to happen earlier to set it up. Even if you're very linear, writing out of sequence can be a good way to break a block. If you don't know what happens next but you do know something that happens later, write the scene you do know and then work backward to figure out what needs to happen to get there.

Polish as You Go vs. the Ugly Draft
Some writers revise and polish as they go, making sure what they've written is good before moving on to the next scene, while others just get something written, no matter how ugly, and then go back and revise and polish. Which method works best depends on your other processes. If you're a pantser and non-linear, you're wasting time to polish as you go because there may be a lot of rewriting to do, and there's no point in making the words perfect until the story is right. A detailed plotter who's storyboarded the whole book may be able to polish along the way so that the end of the first draft results in a finished book.

I generally recommend that new writers do the ugly draft and get to the end of the story before revising because it's very easy to get so caught up in making chapters one and two perfect that you never get on to the rest of the book -- and in most early books, you'll probably end up cutting the first two chapters anyway because that's where new writers tend to throw in a lot of set up and infodump that doesn't need to be there. My personal guideline is that I'll go back and fix things that affect the story moving forward -- if something needs to happen to move the story in a different direction or to set up something critical -- but I don't go back and fix the words until the first draft is done. On the other hand, reviewing the previous day's work is a good way to ease into a writing session, and if you spot something obvious then, like an overused pet word, typos or dialogue that could be better, there's no harm in fixing it.

There are a lot of other individual things that go into process, like writing in silence vs. writing with music, working alone vs. working in a coffee shop, writing in short bursts vs. marathon sessions, etc., but that comes down to finding something that works for you and that fits your circumstances. When you get stuck or feel blocked or just have the don't wannas, try shaking things up by working in a different way.

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