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Marginal Notes

Process and Product

Lately, I’ve seen quite a few beginning writers coming on the Writer Unboxed Facebook page to worry about their process. Are they outlining enough? Should they be using a looser outline? What sort of software is available to help them keep everything organized? How do you do this? Am I doing it right? These are understandable questions when you’refirst starting out. And the WU community usually comes up with pretty good advice, generally of the “Do what works for you” variety. But I’d like to take it one step further – don’t even think about your process.

Your readers certainly won’t. They’ll be paying attention to your story and your characters, and you should do the same. Granted, when you’re just beginning, you might want to experiment with various processes to find which one feels most comfortable to you. But you should never worry that you’re not doing it right. There is no right.

As an editor, I’ve worked with writers who have used techniques across the entire spectrum. Some started with a particularly clear scene, or character, or even a title, and let their stories grow naturally, learning what came next as they wrote it on the page. Others have written up not just outlines, but spreadsheets of character attributions and plot points. Either technique can produce widespread success. J. K. Rowling developed elaborate outlines of each of the Harry Potter novels, and is now richer than the queen. Rex Stout reportedly wrote a single draft of all the Nero Wolfe novels. Last I checked, every one of them is still in print.

Then there’s Noel “Hot Lead” Loomis. Hot Lead didn’t get his nickname for the shoot-em-up westerns he wrote back in the fifties, though he did write the books on which “Have Gun, Will Travel” and “Bonanza” were based. He got the name because he wrote his first drafts directly on a linotype machine. For those of you who have never even seen a typewriter, a linotype consists of a keyboard backed by a sizable mass of clunking, thunking machinery, including a tray full of type molds – individual letters, cast in steel – and a pot of melted lead. As you type, the machine slaps the type molds into a line of text, injects molten lead to lock the line together, and drops the finished line into a page form. When you’ve finished a page, the form can go straight to the printing press. So the only way for Hot Lead to revise his first draft involved a blowtorch. That’s writing without a net.

The only time to ever pay attention to your process is when it breaks down – when it gets in the way of a satisfying finished draft. I’ve seen this happen with clients, and with a variety of processes. One writer was so obsessed with defining his characters – he had developed complex character schematics, with different symbols for different types of emotional development – that he didn’t give them a chance to breathe. I’ve had one or two clients who started with a clear scene or character in mind, then followed them right into the woods where, after 200 pages or so, the story got lost altogether.

So if your process isn’t letting you complete a book that works, then you might want to consider a new approach. It’s true that there is no right way to write, but you want a process that works for you. I’d recommend against drastic changes, since you still need to write in a way you find comfortable.

But if you can’t figure out how your book ends, or if you have a story that feels more like a collection of short unconnected vignettes than a coherent plot, then you might want to impose a little discipline. Choose the character who intrigues you the most -- writers usually lose track of their stories because they’re distracted by too many lovable characters. Then focus on the conflict in his or her life and weed away the rest. An outline, even a rough one, is a good weeding tool.

If your characters just aren’t coming to life despite the spreadsheets of their personalities you’ve created, then try simply getting to know them better. Sit down and write a scene from their point of view with no advance planning. Just think of Hot Lead, sit down, and do it. It could be a scene from your novel, it could be a scene from a key moment in their background, it could just be a scene from their everyday lives. The point is to get to know your characters as people rather than schematics.

Most of the problems I see as an editor have nothing to do with the writing process – problems with the process are fairly rare. So as long as your process leads you to a story you like and characters you know and love, then don’t worry. You’re doing it right.