My friend Dave Freer started this week talking about process and it seems like an excellent lead to follow.
We writers hang a lot meaning and thought on the process. This would seem particularly strange since each of us seems to have a completely different process which he swears by, and different touchstones he believes essential for the work to turn out “right.”
Of course, in actual fact it is not strange at all. After all, like most primitive cultures, we are at the mercy of dimly-understood forces (in this case editorial and distribution) who make decisions we can’t predict with results we often have trouble rationalizing. If fretting and obsessing about process helps calm our anxieties and keeps us from sacrificing goats to the word processor, so much the better – if for no other reason because most of us live in jurisdictions that take exception to animal sacrifice and because animal blood does terrible things to the flooring of your average suburban home.
So – that said – what is my process? Ah…. in what respect?
Each of us, after all, also has a different thing we call process. In fact, while going through workshops, way back in the stone age when I was unpublished (it was hard to be published in the stone age. All that endless chipping away at stone. And a short story could break your back just lugging around) I was often baffled by the phrase “Trust the process” because I was fairly sure I didn’t have one. (Unless bitching, moaning, and coming downstairs to dramatically announce to my husband that I was done with writing forever at least once per story could count as a process.) Part of this was because I knew very few writers with whom I could discuss how writing happened and therefore I tended to assume that what I did to create fiction was not a process but simply how things were done. Like insular people who’ve never been away from their place of birth, I assumed there were two ways of doing things, my way and the profoundly wrong way.
I’ve since met many writers and come across as many “processes” as there are authors. I can rarely tell from the finished product how an author writes (though I can usually tell on “feel” whether they get “character first” or “plot first.” This is not a value judgement. There are excellent authors in each camp.)
Process being such a multi-splendored thing, I could spend hours describing mine, and would probably no more enlighten you – as Dave Freer put it – than observing shark mating habits will improve your sex life. So, for today, I will confine myself to stating some vague, off the cuff commandments on writing in general. (There are ten. I could thunder a little, if it made you feel better. I refuse, however, to engrave stone tablets. Fresh out of chisel.)
Next week I’ll take on the eternal question, which in writing circles passes for chicken vs. egg – Plotter vs. Pantser – and in two weeks, if my attention spa should last that long, we’ll take on matters of speed in writing. This week, however, you’ll have to content yourself with commandments. Feel free to obey them, laugh at them or burn them in ritual sacrifice to your word processor.
1 – Though Shalt Not Put Thy Faith in Magical Objects.
I think we all heard the story, probably apocryphal, of the writer whose writing was brilliant so long as his desk lamp was turned on while he wrote. As proof of the magic in the object, the lightbulb didn’t go out. Ever. He grew more and more confident in his magic lamp with its magic lightbulb. (No, we have no word on whether he rubbed it. Stop being prurient!) Until he and his wife were involved in an acrimonious divorce when the soon-to-be-ex-Mrs.-Writer told him she changed that lightbulb every two weeks or so to make sure it didn’t die while he was writing. Said – possibly non existent – writer allegedly didn’t write again for years.
2 – Thou Shalt Not Put Thy Faith In Anyone’s Opinion of How You Should Work.
No, I really don’t care if the anyone is your best friend, a bestseller who wrote a book on how to do this, or your agent who has a special formula for writing extraordinary books or all of the above rolled into one shining vision of perfection. Look into my eyes, and believe this if you never believe anything else you hear about how to write: chances are someone else is as completely wrong about how you should write as they would be wrong if they told you what your sexual orientation should be or what would work for you in bed. It is not something someone outside your head is qualified to know. I used sexual orientation for a reason. Like how you write it is composed of myriad impulses, pushes, pulls, moral directives and genetic predispositions, most of which operate at a level you will never be conscious of, even if you try to be. Heck, if you think about it the reason WHY we write is just as mysterious. We all know people as sane or insane as we are who feel absolutely no compulsion to serve the fickle divinities of story. Am I saying you shouldn’t listen to other people’s advice? No. I’m saying you shouldn’t put your FAITH in it. By all means, try waking up early and writing for two hours before breakfast just like that bestselling buddy told you to. It might work for you. But don’t bend yourself out of shape trying to make it work for you. You came into the world with a unique set of sensory/expressive tools and ultimately what will work for you will be a combination of parts of what works for other people and things that don’t work for anyone else. (And before you ask, yes, here speaks sad experience. I spent at least ten years changing my writing habits every time someone told me I was doing it wrong. In the end I learned a lot from it, but most of what I learned was the sentence after “2″.)
3 – One Man’s Bubblegum is Another Man’s Roast.
Okay, go ahead, say “ew” and get it out of your system. Now moving on from that gross image – what I mean is, never believe someone’s opinion of what your chosen genre/subgenre/approach is and what “true literature” should be. I have read any number of how-to books halfway through, then set them down not to pick them up again because the author – who made good points up to then – suddenly informed me that if I wrote science fiction/horror/mystery/fantasy or simply “commercial” fiction, then he wasn’t talking to me, because what I did was NOT art but formulaic dreck. Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but no one is entitled to his own facts. “Literature” might be definable and it might be all that (let’s leave aside the fact that it’s rarely defined the same by the author’s generation and the next ones.) I’ve read literary works – few – universally regarded as such that are indeed a cut above most other writing (Jorge Luis Borges comes to mind.) But I’ve read “genre” fiction that evokes the same awe (Terry Pratchett comes to mind) and which certainly required as strong a combination of inspiration and craft. So next time someone tells you “you shouldn’t be writing that drek, write literature instead” look them straight in the eye and tell them to go roast their own bubble gum. The blank look that follows should be enough for a laugh and you can run away before they recover their wits.
4 – Thou Shalt Not Know It All.
Any writer who came up through a writers’ group – a surprising number comes up in isolation, but I came up with a writers’ group who all started at more or less the same level – knows at least one know-it-all. (Actually, they should be so lucky. They probably know five or six.) The know-it-all is the person who doesn’t need my two injunctions above. They would never trust anyone else about their process because their process is perfect, duh. And they would never read a writing book because they know how to write and every one of their words is sacred. The Earth and the Sky shall pass away before they deviate one iota from their writing habits.
After posting the two rules above I needed to post this one. Be aware that most know-it-alls are unpublished and will remain so. The exceptions are geniuses which are as rare among writers as among any other human population. I said not to trust anyone wholesale and not to devalue your work wholesale. However, I did not say to not learn and to remain clasping your ossified little habits to your breast. Writing is a craft. No one would expect to walk into a basket weaving workshop and be a master basket weaver just because he’s used baskets all his life. Expecting to be a perfect writer because you read is just as insane. If you’re starting out, be aware you have to learn techniques for how to do things better. And if you’re experienced, you’ll have to learn techniques for how to do things better. My favorite writers experiment and change until the very end. I’d bet everyone’s favorite writers do.
5 – Practice Makes Perfect
Only writing will help you discover what works for you and what doesn’t. In the abstract loads of things work for me that I cannot in fact do. (Like get up at four in the morning to write. Should work, but I end up typing on the cat, petting the keyboard and trying to pour coffee into my eye.) This is because I don’t write with my rational brain, but with the lint between my toes or something. Meaning, I can’t control it. (For instance, I’ll be in the middle of a novel and another will ambush me in an alley, and I’ll have to stop and outline it before I write anything else. You think I’d choose to do that? But it works.) So write, write a lot.
6 – Do Not Write for the Drawer
Am I saying that everything you write should be publishable? No. I wrote eight novels before one got accepted (three of THOSE have sold since then, but that doesn’t matter.) Am I saying that you should inflict your beginner attempts, full of thumb marks and blotches on professional editors and agents? Forbid the thought. Those people suffer enough as is. What I’m saying, though, is that in your mind you should be aiming to write for publication. What do I mean by this? Well, during a particularly dark year – I think 93, which goes to show you it’s always darkest before dawn, since I started selling shorts in 94 – I “gave up.” Giving up, for me, doesn’t involve actually not writing, since writing is a compulsion. So I decided I was just going to write “for me.” And then I found I couldn’t. Not after the first two weeks or so. If you can, more power to you, and maybe you should just do that, as then you can’t fail. My issue is that in writing only for me I lacked the discipline of trying to get the story to someone outside my head. Sadly, I found the end result of this didn’t do a thing for me either – despite the fact that I am arguably inside my head. (The gentleman at the back should refrain from comments about being out of one’s mind.)
7- Always look up the ladder.
When picking whom to listen to (though never to believe wholesale) about your process/work, always look up the ladder of success to where you’d like to be. In other words, if you are a bestseller stop twisting yourself into pretzels wondering why that reviewer from Middle School Digest hated your last novel. (Of course, if you are a bestseller and reading this, you’re already breaking that rule. Unless you’re doing it for comic relief.) In this, remember success is relative. I have friends who are not as published as I am but whom I acknowledge as experts on plotting or character or even language. I listen to them on that, if not on the rest.
8 – Thou Wilt Remember The Work On Display
The best learning tools are not how-to-write books, but the fiction works themselves. Remember that we know what works. It’s on display on bookstore shelves. Get them. Read them. Analyze them. Besides, you started in this because you like reading, right?
9 – Thou Shalt Seek Out Other Writers.
And if you’re wondering why you should, since you can’t trust them when they tell you what your process should be, see me after class to discuss snark and when not to use it.
Seriously – seek out other writers because as different as we are from each other and as much as we drive each other absolutely nuts (admittedly a short distance and well paved road for most of us) chances are you have more in common with other writers than with non-writers. There are exceptions to this, but by and large when you want to cry into your beer or rejoice in your success, your writer-buddy is more likely to get it than anyone else. Everyone gets “my novel tanked, I’m out of work.” Ditto everyone gets “My novel just went big, I’m rolling in dough.” Monetary failure and success happen in other professions as well. However, the sheer joy of “I finally finished that chapter that hasn’t moved for a week” can only be grasped by a fellow sufferer. Through thick, thin, hell and high water, it is your writer friends who will hold you together.
10 – Write. Submit. Repeat.