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Posts Tagged ‘writing process’

I mean this literally and figuratively.

In the literal sense, I’ll be heading off to a writing retreat this weekend. Some friends and I will be staying in a house deep in the woods of northeastern NY. The house used to be a hotel and the woods are (I’m told) dark and deep. It all sounds very atmospheric. I think there’s an equally likely possibility that we’ll:

a. have a great time and get lots of writing done

or

b. be devoured by sinister forces that dwell beneath moss and stone, never to be heard from again.

Wish us luck!

In the figurative sense, I’ve definitely wandered out of reality and down a winding path with an unknown end. I call this journey Miranda’s First Draft Adventure in which I temporarily disconnect from reality. When I’m feeling my way through a new project for the first time, I tend to go invisible. Or, maybe a better way to put it is that the real world becomes invisible to me.

It might look like I’m cooking dinner or having coffee with a friend or folding laundry, but I’m not. I’m actually working out the way this character might react in a particular situation or considering how to fix a plot hole. I’m not really in a classroom in Queens queuing up the afternoon’s lecture but on a damaged shuttle in another galaxy, trying to imagine how my protagonist will react when he finds out his best friend is a lying liar.

The “here but not here” part of working on a first draft has many advantages. It means I’m always working on my novel, even when I’m doing something else. It means I wake up at 3am with The Solution to a problem or have flashes of deep character insight while waiting for the G train. It makes the book better and is, frankly, an integral part of how I work. It also has disadvantages. I neglect my friends and family. I get scatterbrained at work. I can’t concentrate on other important things in my life. I drift away from the here and now.

This process, though? It appears to be involuntary. I don’t know another way to write a first draft. So, if you’re looking for me, that’s where I’ll be. In the Woods. Literally and figuratively.

See you on the other side.

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It’s bright but cold in Brooklyn this morning.  Outside my window denuded branches reach for the faded sky, a few shriveled leaves still clinging to the branches.  It’s a sight that should slip a chill under my skin, but I’m trundled up tight in a sweatshirt and cradling a hot mug of tea – impenetrable and warm.

It’s cozy inside the apartment, and for the first time in weeks I don’t feel an impending sense of doom about my class prep (we’ve got exams next week, so no new lectures to write!  Joy!).

I plan to put on another pot of water to boil, hunt and gather some ridiculously high calorie pastries from the bakery next door (oh, Ladybird Bakery, how I love/hate you!), and settle down to write.

Revisions on my novel ABSENT are lumbering along in fits and starts.  Though, for the last two weeks I have managed to squeeze in a couple hundred words each morning before departing for work.  So progress has been steadier than I imagined possible when the semester first started.  I’m happy, too, with how the changes are coming along.  The novel is getting both darker and (I hope) funnier.  The characters are starting to feel real, their reactions and responses authentic.  I’m happy with it.

So some writing time this morning.  Then, around noon, England faces Spain in a soccer friendly — a hard-to-turned-down opportunity to watch such different football styles clash.  Later I’ll make some French Onion Soup and fill the house with the irresistible aroma of butter and onions and thyme.

I can’t imagine a better way to spend a Saturday.

How is your day shaping up?

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I’m getting ready to begin outlining a new novel, so I’ve been thinking a lot lately about where ideas come from and how we develop them into something rich and compelling.

Everyone has a different process, and everyone’s process changes as they learn and mature as writers.  I know when I first began writing, I’d get hit with an idea (“oooh, shiny!”) and immediately start writing with absolutely no thought to plot, conflict, change, character arcs, or really anything else.  I’d just roll with it.

For some authors (so-called “pantsers” who write by the seat of their pants without an outline), this process works great (Stephen King is reportedly a pantser).  But as I learned more about writing, I began to feel paralyzed by all the things I now knew I needed to make happen in any given story.  To shake free of this deer-in-the-headlights feeling, I had to start doing more planning and now I’ve become something of a plotter (outlining in advance).  Maybe when I gain greater confidence, I’ll shift back towards pantsing again.  Who knows?  Developing and writing a novel is a pretty fluid thing, and whether we’re pantsers or plotters, our ideas and writing typically evolve and morph as we go.

None of this really answers the question, though, of where we start.  You’ve got an idea.  Maybe it’s a particularly vivid image, or a character’s voice yammering in your head, or some thoughts about a great adventure, or a setting you’re just aching to flesh into a whole world.  Whatever it is, you have to take that idea and blow it up like a big balloon, filling it with air and making it buoyant and whole.

Where does that first big breath come from?

Do you start with your protagonist, developing them from a few scratched ideas on a bar napkin into an ambulatory, reach-out-and-touch you creation, or do you start with plot, with the events that will sweep that character up and change their life forever?

So far, in my writing, no matter what my kernel of an idea is, I tend to start with character, then world, then plot.  It’s hard for me, at least at this point in my career, to devise a twisty, compelling plot if I don’t have a handle on the person it’ll most effect and the setting in which it’ll take place.  So I spend a lot of time working on that character.  What’s his/her backstory, how did they get where they are and what advantages and handicaps has that given them?  What about their family, their friends, their lovers?  How have they supported, undermined, or betrayed them?  What does the character look like and how do they think?  What are their quirks and tics?

Often the answers to at least some of these questions are tied pretty intimately to setting.  The world we live in and the culture we’re a part of have a huge impact on how we think and act.  Maybe it’s the anthropologist in me, but I pretty much can’t create real-seeming characters if I don’t have at least a partial handle on the world they inhabit.

All that work, and still I’m only poised at the gate, fingers hanging above the keyboard, waiting to type sentence one.  Like a champagne bottle corked and ready to blow, I’ve got this whole character (and usually a grip on several secondary characters) and world-building just bursting to get out of my head and swan dive into an adventure.  Only then do I plunge into the plot.  Or maybe I just start writing and use a “pantser” method to find the plot.

Maybe, though, I’ve got it totally backwards.  Maybe my process is leaving me hamstrung and playing catch up, putting my characters through their paces in a story that’s limp and unstructured.

I’d love to hear from all of you.  Where do you start?  When you sit down to write that first sentence, how much planning have you done and what kind of planning have you done?  Do you start with characters, with world, or with plot?  And how does that choice effect the way the rest of your process (and your novel) unfolds?

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