The Process

The writing process, writing advice, and updates on your work in progress

The Process

Postby Serzen » 09 Feb 2010, 21:49

Feeling pleased with myself, I wrote another thousand words or so today and nailed them. Even caught some of the stupid simple mistakes like passive voice before I could commit them to paper. Huzzah. So, thought I, before I commit those fresh words to bits, why don't I write about how I write, and see if I am, in fact, the strangest bird of all.

I write everything out in longhand, print, with a 0.5mm mechanical pencil in a composition book; I keep a retractable eraser at my side. I only write during my downtime at work, and only in (relative) quiet. I do not use outlines, I do not use character notes or guides, I do not write myself reminders. If I can't remember it, I shouldn't have written it. I prefer Coca-Cola, but juice or a sports drink will do.

When I'm convinced that my first draft (the handwritten copy) is at least halfway complete, then and only then do I allow myself to begin typing, but I never type too close to my current stopping point, unless that stopping point is the one that say "The End." I prefer to type the first draft single spaced in OpenOffice and work during the hours before or after work, or on my day off. When typing I have a music player running in the background, punk rock (Black Flag and Bad Religion are faves) is best but I'll take grunge (Soundgarden is reuniting!) or death metal. Beside the computer I keep a cup of coffee and a glass of bourbon or wine. When the first draft is done I save with with filename 1.0.

I open version 1.0 is MS Word and convert to double space, as it makes editing easier. I run through my edits, finding mostly typos, fixing tense issues, problems of verb-subject agreement, glaring obvious things. Save that as 1.1. Then I begin the re-work and revise, incrementing the version number as it seems fit. Did I add a whole new scene? move one to another place? fix that really glaring problem of XXXXXX? Okay, it's at 1.2.

I print out 1.3 and read it, making changes on the page. If I've done my job right it will look like someone sacrificed a small mammal over my manuscript. Make more changes. Be eligible to print again at version 1.7. Repeat. Begin hassling people to read my MSS at version 2.0.

I find it works for me. Because I write everything out by hand I find a lot of mistakes right off the bat when I'm typing. It's frequently a case of "op, that comma doesn't belong" or "that's a clear abuse of the word 'that', get it out of here". Which leaves me to consider issues of tempo, structure, style, voice, the things that define what I'm writing.

Is it neurotic enough? Am I the only OCD author on the block? If it helps, the 0.5mm pencil that I use is from England and has traveled with me up and down the eastern seaboard probably 10 or 15 times, been to Seattle, Detroit, Canada (just Ontario province) and a lot of places in between in the 12+ years I've had it.

~Serzen
Il en est des livres comme du feu de nos foyers; on va prendre ce feu chez son voisin, on l’allume chez soi, on le communique à d’autres, et il appartient à tous. --Voltaire
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Re: The Process

Postby christi » 09 Feb 2010, 21:57

When I first started my story, I was completely consumed by it. I have a stack now of writing tablets covered with mechanical pencil scrawl because I carried one to work to write during breaks and lunch and between duties on the job. I drove my family crazy when I'd go with them somewhere then just sit on a bench and write in my tablet while they played/shopped/walked. So... no. I've been as OCD as you, only now my story is in the final manuscript stage (except for the constant going back and nitpicking over things until a manuscript is requested.)
Would you sign my story for a Klondike bar?

http://christigoddard.blogspot.com/
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Re: The Process

Postby Ermo » 10 Feb 2010, 12:22

Wow. That's quite a process. I could never write out my stuff long hand because I can't read my own writing half the time. It'd only frustrate me. I like to read mine out loud when I do revisions. Not sure, but I feel like I catch more that way.
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Re: The Process

Postby writeitsideways » 10 Feb 2010, 13:48

That's quite interesting.

I could never write a first draft by hand. In fact, I can't even stand note-taking by hand, though I do keep a notebook in case I need to jot down things quickly. My typing is so strong, and my handwriting is so poor, it's not worth it.

I'm developing a kind of ritual too, though not as specific as yours. I get up earlier than everyone else in the house, make myself a very large cup of coffee, and write for 1.5 to 2.5 hours in complete silence. I can't seem to write fiction during the afternoon or evening, maybe because I get too distracted.

I say, whatever works for you--whatever helps you be most productive--do it.
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Re: The Process

Postby E McD » 10 Feb 2010, 16:53

Wow. And from that diatribe I would gather that you are loyal, methodical, serious, and (dare I say it) a tad bit frightening, but the death metal and the sacrificial mammal served as supporting evidence for that last one.

Now let me preface what I'm about to say with the fact that I am green, man. Super, super new at all this serious writing business. So, when I make this comparison it is only in method NOT skill. I am more Vonnegut in nature, which is to say that I obsess over every single page as I write. I don't move until I am content with that which is behind me, although I must say it is a slow and grueling process on my end. I just cannot move forward with blatant issues on the page. Maybe I'm OCD, too. Except you probably finish in a much more timely manner.

And there is NO way I could ever NOT write down ideas as I go... you can forget about that.

Best wishes! I'm the frick to your frack.
-Emily McDaniel
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Re: The Process

Postby Serzen » 10 Feb 2010, 19:15

E McD wrote:Wow. And from that diatribe I would gather that you are loyal, methodical, serious, and (dare I say it) a tad bit frightening, but the death metal and the sacrificial mammal served as supporting evidence for that last one.

Now let me preface what I'm about to say with the fact that I am green, man. Super, super new at all this serious writing business. So, when I make this comparison it is only in method NOT skill. I am more Vonnegut in nature, which is to say that I obsess over every single page as I write. I don't move until I am content with that which is behind me, although I must say it is a slow and grueling process on my end. I just cannot move forward with blatant issues on the page. Maybe I'm OCD, too. Except you probably finish in a much more timely manner.


In what passes for free time I study Classical (circa late 19th, early 20th Century) French fencing, savate and la canne, so plenty of places to work my frustration out. Repetitive, grueling workouts keep my mind focused on perfection of form and technique. It's probably better that way.

I agree with an obsession to getting each thing right and making sure that each piece fits where it belongs, but I also subscribe to the theory of "get the idea down, get the words on the page, don't stall a good thing while it's moving, you can edit it later." I may need to clarify my comment about "I do not write myself reminders": I don't use notes to progress the story, but I do write myself notes about what needs to happen on future inspections of the work. I keep an envelope in the back of the composition book with comments like "find better name for XXX" or "pg 33 is dumb, fix it; stupid YYY doesn't fit with the QQQ".

I just hate to break the flow once it's started. I admire the people who are able to keep going, keep looking at the page and considering every element of it before moving on, but I'm frequently concerned that if I don't keep moving while I have the opportunity that Brilliant Idea will be utterly gone before I can return to it. Do I know that the Idea still has to be *somewhere*? sure. But just in case, I plunge on and try not to lose sight of it.
Il en est des livres comme du feu de nos foyers; on va prendre ce feu chez son voisin, on l’allume chez soi, on le communique à d’autres, et il appartient à tous. --Voltaire
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Re: The Process

Postby E McD » 11 Feb 2010, 06:39

Serzen,
I'm actually really glad we're having this conversation! I have been stuck in a loop of continuous re-writes with the beginning of my story for about the last 6 months - just not able to get it exactly the way I want it. How do you let it go and keep going, realizing that things will have to change to make the front match up with the back? In my mind, I want it all straight. It is driving me crazy and makes me want to throw my laptop at the wall sometimes.

I really love this story I'm working on. The ideas have been formulating in my mind for the last 18 months. I've filled notebooks upon notebooks with ideas, computer space upon computer space with drafts of the first six chapters. I have the whole damn thing outlined, but I keep stalling out with these first six chapters.

Any advice? (And don't let it have a sword in it - that ain't happenin'... I'm more of a Deadhead, hippie chic.)

Namaste, Emily
-Emily McDaniel
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Re: The Process

Postby r louis scott » 11 Feb 2010, 08:58

Emily, I think some of the hardest writing I've had to do was when I knew exactly how it was supposed to happen. It just seemed more like work to get it all down on paper. I keep one document in each WIP folder called the Sandbox. It's a place to see what characters might do in situations that aren't directly related to the work at hand. At the minimum, it provides a place to use as a springboard for ideas. Sometimes getting a little distance between yourself and what you have to do can help.

As far as my process, it is kind of like yours but I see myself as more of a farmer plowing with a team of oxen. It makes for very slow progress but I think that the rows are straight.
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Re: The Process

Postby Serzen » 11 Feb 2010, 10:59

Emily,

Your questions are going to be hard to answer, or, rather, your questions not so much...The advice will be hard to give.

How do I let it go and keep working, realizing that things will have to change to make the front and the back match up? I write the next sentence, the next paragraph, the next scene. I had a point early on in BROKEN MIRROR where I realized that I had all of the important details laid out in my mind in one nice straight line. I knew what would happen and on exactly which day it would happen (the narrative unfolds over the course of two weeks). I just didn't know how to connect the dots. How to compel the "action" (such as it is) from one place to another. It was taunting me, kicking me in the teeth, keeping me up at night. Finally, I told myself that it didn't matter HOW the next scene was arrived at, just to get there and write it. I'm going to be taking it out of the notebook and typing it later, right? So just put in some bloody filler already and get on with it.

There are a couple of places where the original sorta looks like this: "John Doe experienced a pivotal moment in his life. Later he ordered up a pizza and watched a movie on TV. He went to work the next day and was bored out of his skull. While he was at the grocery store he saw someone he knew, they agreed to meet later. John did a few more things, went to bed. After work John went out for drinks with the person from the grocery store. Another important thing happened to John Doe that further alters his view of How Things Are." Then, just to be sure I don't slavishly type all that in one night while I'm getting into the bourbon a little extra (hooray for Christmas!) and/or exhausted from work, I make a note on my envelope in the back. "Clean up what John was doing between Point C and Point D."

Now, all that said, I've really been wrestling this past week with bringing the first and second half of the book together. The voice is the same in both halves, but the tone is very different. The longer I wrote the book, the more I was able to get inside what was going on. I became much more apt at putting things down in the bleak, stark manner necessary for the subject I'm dealing with. Now I need to combine the two halves, which is difficult because there are two options open for me: either re-cast the whole first half in the same tone or, more likely, carefully re-cast certain parts of it so that there exists a bridge between the two tones, allowing the reader to begin with one state of mind and end with another.

So my advice (hey, look, we might be getting on to something useful finally!) will be as follows. But I warn you that it's the same advice I give to fencing students, so beware. Think about fencing writing whether you're on the strip at your desk or off it away from it. Don't only be a writer when you're writing, be one at all times. Mowing the lawn is a dull chore, it's mindless work. I love to do it because (A) no one can talk to me while I'm doing it and (B) I can think about whatever I want as long as I keep the mower in a straight line. The description of a character who turned out to be much more meaningful than I could have planned came to me while mowing the lawn. It was just a description, just a way to provide some filler, but it worked. It fit.

Were I in your shoes, I would take the first six chapters and lay them off to one side, open a new notebook/file and write Chapter 7. When I got to the end of Chapter 7, I would write Chapter 8. When I got about, oh, halfway through with Chapter 8 I would print off the first 7 chapters and read them all in one go. Does Chapter 8 still make sense? If yes, great. If no, think what which part needs work, the first 7 or number 8.

I'd sit down and listen to The Other Ones' The Strange Remain (Yes, I have that album. It's over there next to Sinatra and Armstrong. Underneath Pearl Jam.) and think about what I've written so far and what's coming next. Don't actually write your story right this second; rather, reflect and, if you need to write something, write what you think is wrong and what you expect the final version do. Not how to correct it, because it might not be wrong yet, but what you want the outcome to be.

I think the key phrase to take away from that last sentence is "it might not be wrong yet". Creative works are notoriously fickle. Just because it doesn't seem right to you right now doesn't mean it will be wrong later. It could be your subconscious steering you oh-so-slightly towards a path that will turn out very profitable.

Okay, I've really gone on here. Forgive me. If it makes sense to you, bless you. If it helps you, I'm grateful to have been of service. If it's the ravings of a madman, well, that's always possible, too.

~Serzen
Il en est des livres comme du feu de nos foyers; on va prendre ce feu chez son voisin, on l’allume chez soi, on le communique à d’autres, et il appartient à tous. --Voltaire
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Re: The Process

Postby E McD » 11 Feb 2010, 14:29

"Aww... you guys are the best friends any girl's ever had." -Dorothy Gale

But seriously, thank you. It helps to hear such good advice when I'm struggling. :)
-Emily McDaniel
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Re: The Process

Postby M.A.E. » 12 Feb 2010, 02:48

Serzen,

"If I can't remember it, then it isn't worth writing." This belief is one of the most important elements of my writer's-creed. Until now, I've never heard, or read of anyone else who thinks the same. All through childhood, college, and beyond I've heard many people preach about the importance of writing everything down. "If you have a good idea write it down immediately! You don't want to forget it." I feel the opposite; if you have what you think might be a good idea, then you should try to forget about it. If you can't help but think of it again, it may be worth looking into. If you can't get it out of your head, the scenes start becoming vivid images, and you start mumbling dialogue while staring off in some arbitrary direction--by all means start writing immediately!

I also don't think you're crazy for writing long-hand either. When I first began to write I didn't own a computer at all. Other times, when I'd forgotten to carry a notebook, I'd resort to napkins, brochures, menus, bubblegum wrappers, and once, while I was a cashier, I wrote out most of a novella on the pink ends of excess register-tape. Sometimes while developing a story the details would pour out so uncontrollably, and so frequently, that I had to use whatever I had at my disposal. It happened so often that I started to prefer hand-writing over typing, and now I wont do it any other way. Developing this preference has lead me to keep a pocket-sized moleskine notebook on me at all times now, to avoid stuffing my pockets with trash everywhere I go.

The one thing I will disagree with, although we all have our own methods, has to do with outlining. I don't see how anyone can sit down and write a coherent work to completion without ever writing some form of an outline. I'll often start writing without one, but it's only a matter of time before an outline becomes necessary to ensure that I know where I am going with the story. In most cases an outline will help me with more than just organizing the plot; it gives me the information I need to write in a voice that anticipates what's to come. This is especially true for character development. If I know that Susan will be visiting her dying aunt in the next chapter, her demeanor in the preceding chapter should reflect the emotion she may be feeling prior to that visit. If I know Eric will die in chapter 23, I can foreshadow that event in preceding chapters. I would be interested to know how you include these sorts of devices without an outline.

This was a very interesting post. I always enjoy reading, or hearing, about the methods of other writers. We are all so different, and yet we are all drawn to this same medium to express our creative thoughts, and share our experiences with the world. I think it's wonderful. Thank you for sharing this.


All the best,
M.E.
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Re: The Process

Postby Serzen » 12 Feb 2010, 07:01

M E,

If you haven't yet read Vonnegut's HOCUS POCUS you owe it to yourself.

As to the lack of an outline... *shrug* It's never hindered me yet. I've been blessed/cursed with a remarkably keen memory so that might be part of it. But, really, what it comes down to for me is knowing where things are going. The current piece, BROKEN MIRROR, unfolds over the course of two weeks, it has to for it to be what it is. The narrative begins on the evening of Day 0. On Day 1, I KNOW that Jamie leaves for a trip. On Day 14 Jamie is scheduled to be home from that trip. Everything else must happen in between those days.

As I mentioned above, I don't feel the least bit concerned about using filler material, it's what helps me keep the points moving forward. I finished telling the story that BROKEN MIRROR needs to tell 2 1/2 weeks ago. Since then I've written another 28 pages of text. None of it changes the story, but all of it makes up for those bits of fill. Just last night I turned a one paragraph transition into 2+ pages; it doesn't change the plot at all, but it does inform the reader a little more about the circumstances of the plot.

Once I've told the story that needs to be told, that is, once I've developed all the major elements and fleshed them out to their shining greatest, I find it easy work to connect them later. It's getting those vital pieces done that matters.

Might not be helpful right now, a lot of strange things going on to provide distraction.

~Serzen
Il en est des livres comme du feu de nos foyers; on va prendre ce feu chez son voisin, on l’allume chez soi, on le communique à d’autres, et il appartient à tous. --Voltaire
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Re: The Process

Postby M.A.E. » 12 Feb 2010, 13:29

Serzen,

I haven't read Hocus Pocus, but I've now added it to my list of things to do per your suggestion. Thank you.

That is a very interesting approach. It's a lot like stream-of-consciousness, but you are consciously aware of the end result. I suppose the systematic approach you described in your original post would aid the process of flushing out those details as well.

You'd mentioned that the story of Broken Mirror takes place over the course of two-weeks. Were you also writing the bulk of that story within two-weeks?

I'm very intrigued. I'd love to read your work sometime. Your method sounds very thorough, and you seem to have a firm grasp on what works best for you. That must be very liberating, enabling you to focus on what's most important--the actual writing.


~M.E.
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Re: The Process

Postby Serzen » 12 Feb 2010, 20:26

M E,

I began putting BROKEN MIRROR onto the page in early April. I'm still putting the thing onto the page. There have been times when I could bang out five pages in two hours (my print in a wide ruled composition book equals roughly 270 words/page) and one point where I didn't even pick the blasted book up for two months. What currently stands as the opening line was actually composed nearly two years ago. After all that, the line might be moved to someplace else anyway.

I never tackle a writing project unless I know how it ends. If I don't know what's going to happen, I can't tell you what occurred to allow it to happen. I'm also very good at discovering "whodunnit" and it's nearly impossible to surprise me when buying me gifts. I have, for better or worse, an innate sense of "what comes next". For my writing, it's wunderbar; for Mrs Serzen at Christmas or birthday time it's a pain right in the bottom.

I do find my process liberating, yes. I don't find, though, that it causes me to focus on the writing itself as much as it causes me to plumb the depths of the topic I'm exploring. I write the things that I write because they say something that needs to be said. They present things in a way that is seldom used. A friend of mine informs me that BROKEN MIRROR is the best treatment of its topic since a work written in 1892. Admittedly, he's a friend. But he's also done post-grad level studies on the very topic and holds his Master's degree from one of the top universities in the field. Whether his statement it true or not, I only bring it up to illustrate the notion that too much of literature has become the same and my goal, in doing what I do, is to try not to be the same.

My process, so convoluted as it is, isn't designed to make my prose better, but to allow me the most time possible to demonstrate my points. Had I written HARRY POTTER, it wouldn't have been a coming-of-age tale that includes the triumph of Good over Evil, it would have been a railing against the fact that people are fscking bigots. Oh, yeah, and by the way, the dorky kid got the girl after all, so take that you Evil schmuck.

Not sure if I'm addressing what you wanted addressed. I hope so. It's been a long couple of days and my focus is wandering. Please feel free to yell, scream and holler if I didn't get to any point you wanted me to touch on.

~Serzen
Il en est des livres comme du feu de nos foyers; on va prendre ce feu chez son voisin, on l’allume chez soi, on le communique à d’autres, et il appartient à tous. --Voltaire
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Re: The Process

Postby NHWriter » 13 Feb 2010, 07:19

If you have a good idea, write it down. :)

The thing is, if I have a good idea and don't write it down, I will forget. If I then try to reconstruct that idea from the tidbits that are left, it will suck. So I either have to write it down or go a different direction. I don't actually forget the big stuff, but the little stuff that gives a story depth and nuance and sends chills up your back? Yeah, I can forget that and do, which is why I write it down.

I used to write by longhand as well. I have two composition books filled with all kinds of stories. None of them are finished. I would get to a point where the story was solid enough I felt comfortable typing them. Eventually, I accepted that I type a billion times faster than I write. With the acquisition of my Eee PC, typing is actually more convenient and easier than writing in a notebook. My Eee PC is smaller and only marginally heavier.

Once I start, I do not revise until it's finished. If I've made a major error that has derailed the story or caused it to get stuck, I'll go back and fix what needs fixing. But I do not go back and polish until it's done. Otherwise I'd spend all my time polishing and never finish the damn story (something that has happened in the past).

I don't write well at home. Too many distractions. I sit at the counter of my favorite diner and on the train during my commute to work (not usually the subway, though, because there's not enough room). This gives me a minimum of two hours of writing every day. My goal is 2000 words. Lately I've been hitting 3000 and 4000 on my commute, which is very satisfying. I was five chapters to the end when I realized a serious mistake and have gone back to fix it. I think I have about 8-10 chapters left before I'm finished. Then revision can begin.
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