Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Posted by Laurel Garver on Wednesday, November 04, 2015 10 comments
Monday night I wrote the words "The End" on a manuscript I have been working on steadily for roughly three years. I should be ecstatic, right?

Instead I'm scratching my head about why it took me so freaking long when other people can draft an entire book in a matter of weeks.

Photo credit: deegolden from morguefile.com
My process is such, however, that my "first draft" is more like a NaNo participant's fourth draft. It's not a mess or full of holes. Though I'm an organic (aka "pantser") rather than planner type, I don't draft fast and sloppy. I meticulously research and interview experts as I draft rather than run amok with some half-baked ideas that don't bear out in reality. I revise as I draft, doing big structural changes to earlier chapters when I find I've written myself into a corner. I also do some editing as I draft because I can't seem to not tinker. And because I let my critique group look at a few chapters at a time, and some of them nitpick more than look at structural issues.

From what I can tell, this latter issue is the linchpin of my process problem. I don't stay consistently motivated generating material only for myself. I have a terrible weakness in wanting feedback while I draft. I really don't know how to break myself of it or if I should.  I see a lot of benefit in others with some emotional distance telling me, "hey, your story took a wrong turn at chapter 4" while I'm only on chapter 7, because I don't have to throw out and redo from scratch as much material.

I'm also not sure if I should abandon my method of "draft-ivizing" as some call it, because many other organic/pantser writers I know also stop when a plot problem appears, go back and fix what needs to be fixed, and only then continue moving forward. Steven James's Story Trumps Structure (one of the only books I've read that works with rather than tries to change pantser process) makes clear that pantsers' creativity doesn't work in a linear manner. If it did, we'd be plotters.

This particular story went places I'd never imagined, especially for what is ostensibly a sequel with mostly existing characters. Because a venue change brought to light new things about them. And some of the plot ideas that excited me most required a lot of research, research that opened up some pretty interesting horizons. I now have a lot more knowledge about HIPAA and hip fractures, personality disorders and protocols for EMTs, military re-enactment and draft policies, aphasia and vericella zoster, anti-vax trends and 60s fashion, chemical properties of artists' oils and French idioms, weasel hunting and Pennsylvania driving laws. It's a weird list, I know. I'm not sure what the NSA would make of my Googling habits.

I suspect one of these days, I'll end up writing historical fiction, because I really grooved on all the research. Writing what you know is boring. Writing what you want to know is where it's at. Learning and discovery fuel my creativity. But I suspect I would have just as much fun with my research if I were doing it more methodically, during set periods, instead of chasing down facts as needed.

I know how you readers come to me expecting tips, but we're all learners here, folks. The best I can give you is some of my lessons learned and questions I'm grappling with that I hope will enable me to be progressively more productive with future projects.

  • Be willing to let go of preconceived ideas about existing characters. Otherwise, they rebel.
  • Be willing to live with ambiguity and notes to yourself so that you can do batches of research at one time rather than constantly stop to look things up.
  • Be willing to change your process if it isn't getting you where you want to be
  • Consider whether your desire to tinker with a scene is helping your imagination open more or if it's just holding back your forward motion.
  • Consider when you seek feedback. Would other eyes sooner help or hurt your forward motion? Perhaps there are other ways to gain accountability and encouragement besides critiques on an incomplete project. 

What parts of your writing process do you want to change? 

10 comments:

  1. These are all great tips, I'm a slow writer, too, basically a panster after an initial brought plotting that is completely flexible as the story goes along. Sometimes I envy the ones who knock out a book a year, but one can't be who one isn't. So I just jog along at my own pace. I think, though, if your process is working for you, you should just go along with it. It will change of its own accord as you go along.

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    1. Thanks for the encouragement, Elizabeth. I have in the past six months or so gotten a better handle on what my time sucks and distractions are, so I hope in time that I can eventually finish books in less than 3 years. Gotta have a goal, right?

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  2. Hi Laurel - Oh joy - a fellow pantser! While I don't think we're all that rare a breed, many of us slink past outliners and plotters in the hallowed halls of writerdom.

    Like Elizabeth, I do what works for me. With my last manuscript, I got tied in knots trying to figure out how to get the story from my head to the page (what bits I had of it). After over-analyzing, I finally did what I should have done at the start: pray. The answer was so simple: follow your normal process.

    We spend way too much time worrying about the HOW of writing a story instead of focusing on allowing it to flow naturally from us. Be encouraged: As you refine your research methods and stay in your groove, you're writing will speed up. The Moses Conspiracy took eight long years to write. The Scent of Fear took almost two, but Out of The Mist was finished in a year.

    God bless,
    Susan :)

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    1. It's funny that my creative process isn't more regulated, but my analytical side gets such a hard workout being a scholarly journal editor by day, that with fiction, I want to play and have fun. Thanks for the encouragement to keep this whole process in prayerly perspective and not get bogged down trying to find a perfect process. Good to hear also that you found writing did eventually get faster with practice.

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  3. Everyone has their own style for drafting and revising. Typically, I write short manuscripts (30K) since I write for children, so I finish within a few months, but then I spend a very long time revising, whereas other writer friends of mine can get their novels into better shape in a shorter amount of time.

    If I could change anything, I'd like to be able to do what you do and have my first draft be a little more solid, instead of the very messy draft that it is. But I generally try to just get words written in the document, which leads to quite a few errors.

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    1. I suspect the grass is greener on the other side of the fence with these process issues. You'd get frustrated with stopping and revising before you had a whole arc written (my process) and I'd get discouraged and want to chuck a super rough draft in which nothing has been massaged and feels really good yet. I think each writer has a natural drift that has to be worked with, and that will lead to the process we end up using, despite what we admire in others.

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  4. Congrats on finishing the manuscript! What a great accomplishment. :) I think our writing styles are similar. It takes me a while to get through projects, even small ones sometimes. I am not good at letting things go without some "fixing" in the process, and I have come to accept it as part of my process and how I work. Thanks for the great tips!

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    1. I can sometimes use "I'm a slow writer" as an excuse to dawdle or simply not put in the hours. I think part of my issue is developing a routine that can work well with my natural cycles of energy. But indeed too much sentence level tinkering can eat up precious time if you haven't actually decided which scenes will stay or go. It definitely slowed my progress with my first novel, that in first draft was 102K, and when published was 67K. Many, many scenes I'd slaved over had to be cut!

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  5. Ha! I love the rebelling characters point. So true. CONGRATS on finishing! Nah, don't compare yourself to others, especially if your drafting method works well for you. Like, I wouldn't ever want to do NaNo and draft that fast (sloppily, IMO). To each his or her own!!

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    1. Rebellious characters can be extra surprising when you'd spent a previous book with them. But people I know in real life for decades can still surprise me, so naturally characters want to be the same way! :-)

      The cult of NaNo has a lot of persuasive peer pressure, but I think drafting that fast would likely be stressful, not fun. And putting out a good product is more important to me than how fast I did it.

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