Burning Question: What’s your writing process?
I’ve been teaching writing for a couple of decades now, and in preparing for various lectures, classes, and courses over the years, I’ve read a great many “How to Write” self-help books. Here’s what I’ve found: Any writer who tells you “You Must Do What I Do to Be Successful!” is pretty much wasting your time…unless, that is, it turns out that your process resembles theirs. See, there are these two extreme–and often warring–camps: the Intuitives and the Obsessives. An Intuitive does NOT want to know anything about the story he’s about to write. Methods and formulas for defining the structure, or for casting characters scare the bejeezus out of him. He has a vague idea of what he’ll write about and he’s going to go with that, trust that it’ll sustain him, and just write and write until it pulls into focus. If you make an intuitive chart characters or block scenes, he will either hate writing the story or else stop writing altogether.
And in the other corner, weighing in at 100 pages or more, is the Obsessive. The obsessive analyzes everything. Sifts and outlines and describes, scene by scene, what will happen; and only once this process has been completed, will she start writing the thing (usually a book, because this process lends itself more to the structure of novels than to short stories). Frederick Forsythe famously is said to have spent 18 months researching and outlining The Day of the Jackal and three months writing it. With more than 100 pages of outline, all he had left to do was connect the very detailed dots. If you asked such a person just to trust that she would find her story by writing it, she would go mad, because she would not know how to begin.
Now, most of us, I think, are somewhere in the middle of these extremes. My own process resembles more that of Scottish author Val McDermaid, who has said she writes about 50 pages on the basis of having a “sense” of a story, but then she must stop and build an armature to establish that what she’s working on does meet the requirements of a viable story. Only after that can she write the rest of the book. That makes perfect sense to me; but then so does writing multiple outlines at different stages of a work in progress, because the shape has changed as I’ve written. To borrow from the great Samuel Delany, the process of writing down what I see in my mind has altered the vision, changed, refined and reshaped it. The vague “and then this will happen” in the outline has become a very specific car wreck where someone I hadn’t imagined before has been flung from the vehicle and survived. All of a sudden I have a new subplot. That’s what happens.
And that’s about as much as I want to say about process here. If your process is leading you to write finished stories or finished novels, then you would seem to have found a general process that works for you. If, on the other hand, you stall in the middle of everything, finish nothing, quit and walk away in frustration, then you likely need to re-examine your process. There is no “one size fits all” to this, and anyone who tells you otherwise is wrong. This, like so much else in crafting fiction, refers back to knowing yourself well and not lying to yourself about what you know.
Gregory Frost is the author of 7 novels, including the Shadowbridge duology, and who knows how many short stories. He only writes when inspired but makes it a point to be inspired at 9 a.m. every morning. The coffee infusion helps.