Sunday, June 12, 2011

On Writing

I don't usually have rough first drafts of my books, not because everything comes out perfectly the first time. In fact, the complete opposite is true. I am someone who is constantly rewriting. I barely get a sentence out and I feel the urge to tweak it. There always seems to be a better way to phrase something, a more exact noun, a stronger verb. I'm not sure my writing is all the better for this obsessiveness--sometimes I'm just spinning my wheels. And it takes away from the joy of writing. Too much worry, not enough creativity.

Dean Wesley Smith wrote a terrific article on the benefits of writing quickly. He disputes the long held notion that slow writing equals quality and vice versa. I read his thoughts on the subject and it wasn't just a light bulb moment--for me it was a sunrise moment.

Ironically, I just finished writing a sequel to my book, Celia and the Fairies, where I'd unknowingly tested his theory (this was before I'd read his article). I'd been struggling with writing the manuscript so I decided to just write the thing already. Enough with the over-thinking it. I deliberately chose to write fast and furiously and not look back. I was comfortable doing this because I knew the manuscript would be fairly short by book standards. Knowing I might be making a mess of 120 pages was less scary than possibly screwing up 300 plus.

Once I turned off the analytical part of my brain, the creative side kicked into high gear and the pages flew. I had no idea if the story was any good, but after awhile I didn't care because I was almost giddy with the ease of it. When I was done, I gave it some time before I read it from start to finish. My biggest worry was that most of it would be complete rubbish, but you know what? Only about 10% of it needed work, and even that wasn't truly appalling. Just not there yet. And easily fixed, which isn't always the case.

This was a revelation for me. I'm a plodder, worrier, constant-tweaker. But knowing I don't have to be and that there are actual advantages to writing quickly, empowered me. (Thanks Dean Wesley Smith!) I can't imagine I'll ever be one of those writers who cranks out six books a year, but now I give myself permission to throw words out there and trust it will all work out. It may not, of course, but at least I'll have fun along the way.

I'm working on a novel now and it's humming along. When I'm not sure about a detail, I leave a blank and figure I'll fill it in later (I believe I first read about doing this in Stephen King's book On Writing--a really terrific book that every writer should read). So if a character says something about visiting their grandfather in another state and I haven't quite worked out which state that would be, I leave space. Doing this saves me an incredible amount of time. In the past, every time I stopped to research a minor detail I pulled myself out of the story, making it hard for me to get back into it.

So thanks, Stephen King! Of course I didn't need permission from Steve to leave blanks in my work-in-progress, but knowing the master does something a certain way is validating.

Every writer has their own methodology. Some need to work out the plot in advance. So far that's not been something I enjoy doing. Outlining fiction turns it into drudgery for me. I can imagine sitting down to write and thinking, okay, today I'll write the chapter where he finds out she lied about Tuesday night when she said she went to book club... Bleah, where's the fun in that? I don't want to know ahead of time. I want to experience the story along with the character. I want to find out where she was Tuesday along with him and feel what he feels. Writing fiction (for me) is largely about discovery.

That's not to say I don't have any control over the events in my books. Sometimes I'll write myself into a corner or stall out completely. When that happens I often thumb through The Writer's Journey by Christopher Vogler, a book that discusses the underlying mythic structure of stories. I don't necessarily follow the story structure as detailed in the book--I use the book as a way to brainstorm possible plot points. Something about reading how others have done it gives me ideas. Usually one idea will feel right and I'll be off and running again.

No two writing days are ever alike. Every book has its own unique challenges, joys, and frustrations. By necessity I'm always evolving as a writer. The only thing I know for sure is that I don't know anything for sure. Next month I may be writing a blog post on the joys of outlining. I don't think I will, but you never know.




Ruth Harris said...

Fabulous post, Karen! Only 10% needed work? You're an inspiration (I'm the plodding write-rewrite- edit-cut repeat type).

How much of the story/plot do you know in advance? Or do you just wing it & find out what happens as you go along?

Karen McQuestion said...

Ruth, since your books are New York Times bestsellers, I'd say your method is working for you. :)

As for how much I know in advance,it varies. I usually have a foggy notion of how things are going to go, but nothing specific. And I'm often surprised along the way. I tend to have happy/hopeful endings so that's pretty much a given.

Ellen Fisher said...

Great post. My method is to sit down and write in a rush, then go back and look it over and edit, then sit down and write some more. I edit constantly (though not while I'm writing, because that makes me crazy). As a consequence, I never really have a "first draft" either-- it's pretty shiny and polished by the time I'm done writing it. But I'll still go back and edit it several times when I'm done, too.

Also, I don't outline in advance, so sometimes I have to go back and edit and write stuff in as plot developments come to me. It's kind of a messy way to write, but it works for me-- and that's really what matters!

Karen McQuestion said...

I agree, Ellen, whatever works! I find it funny when people ask how many times I revise a book before it's complete because I have absolutely no idea. It seems like a continuous process to me.

David Ebright (aka JaxPop) said...

Hi, Karen. I'm at the midpoint of my 3rd book & this is the first time I've tried outlining & it seems to be a positive thing. I did my research & collected my notes for a couple of months before putting down a single word.

My 2nd book took a wild turn & created the idea for the 3rd - so that resulted in a major re-write of Reckless. Guess my cigar-chomping muse gave me a 2 for 1 deal in that case.

I do "edit" the last chapter before resuming work on a MS as sort of a warm up to get into the flow of the story.

Nice post. Enjoy your Sunday.

PV Lundqvist said...

I'm a big fan of Dean's as well! What I particularly like about his advice is how it shows there are different approaches to writing success.

So many times, fixating on perfection kills productivity. Such a stress avoidance thing.

Christopher Wills said...

I write fast as well which I learnt doing nanowrimo - 50,000 words in 30 days. Like you I assumed a lot of it would need a lot of work but it is amazing how when you force yourself to write quickly a lot of it is very good writing - it probably depends on your ability and experience. I have done nanowrimo free writing with no plot, only a genre and a direction, and I have done it with a fairly well plotted story and both turned out well. So I'm firmly in the write fast camp; otherwise how are you ever going to finish a novel....?

Karen McQuestion said...

Hey David (aka JaxPop), interesting how one idea led to another. A gift from your muse!

PV Lundqvist, Dean is a very wise man. And so are you, based on this sentence: "So many times, fixating on perfection kills productivity." I wish I had written that. :)

Christopher Wills--good point about ability and experience. I'm not sure I could have done this ten years ago when my writing skills weren't as strong. All my practice pages (which I didn't think of practice pages as the time) have paid off.

Elisa said...

I really enjoyed this, Karen. (I LOVE talking about the process!) I've often said that revision can be the sandbox of writing, but it can also be the mudpit where you get stuck. In that case, you've reminded me to make mudpies!

(I'm going to get crackin' on my manuscript now... today's objective: have fun!)


Ava Jae said...

Wow! 10%, that's amazing!

I usually plotted my WIPs until my last one which I completely pantsed. I was initially scared about getting stuck, but once I let that fear go I found it refreshing and exciting. The discovery was so much fun!

I think I'll be pantsing more novels in the future. It's intimidating, not knowing exactly what the future holds, but definitely worth the experience. :)

Great post!

Karen McQuestion said...

Elisa, I love talking about the process too. Next time we see each other in person we'll have a lot to discuss. By the way, congrats on hitting #18 on Kindle with FAKING IT. :) Every day it gets higher and higher...

Ava Jae, it may have been closer to 15%--it's hard to say for sure. But it wasn't nearly as bad as I feared it would be.

Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I'm glad you liked the post.

dark_opus said...

I think a writer has to find their favored methodology, get comfortable with its rhythms and flows, and then experiment on occasion to avoid being trapped in a rut. It's empowering to learn what works for other writers (and what doesn't). It can make experimenting an intriguing act of discovery versus a worrisome probe of some troubling unknown.

Thanks for sharing your journey and experiences with everyone, Karen.

Anonymous said...


Your post brought a smile to my face. My first drafts are always written at break neck speed. I always leave blank spaces and fill them in later. I look at it as building the structure of a house. I can always go back and tweak it but the structure remains solid. However, I always outline. It makes the process move forward for me. Plus I have a terrible memory so having notes about what is supposed to happens helps me. Great post as usual and I, and my daughter, are looking foward to your sequel.

Sean McCartney
The Treasure Hunters Club

Karen McQuestion said...

dark opus (great name, by the way), thanks for adding your thoughts on the subject.

Sean, I like the "structure of a house" analogy." Well put!

kathie shoop said...

Hi Karen,
I'm a panster although I know my characters, and some high and low points...but how I'm getting to each point, is usually a mess at first, for me. I write fast and rough and it makes for too many to count rewrites! It sounds like even your messy drafts are pretty concise...I envy that. Thanks for the inspirational post. I liking talking craft!

Pale Rambler said...

Great POV on the process. I used to do the "write a little/edit a lot/write a little more/edit a whole lot more" until I was miserable and would give up. Although this first novel has taken over a year to draft, I tend to write quickly when I am able to sit down and write.
However, I am a sucker for outlining. Not that I follow it. I just like to have it to keep me grounded in the basic story. But now that I've discovered Scrivener, even the outline might go the way of the Dodo.
Keep up the great work!

Bill B said...

So much good information ... both in your post and in the comments. Now I know that I'm a -- well, not really a panster or a plotter, I guess a "planster". And that's OK ツ! I know a beta version of Scrivener has been available for Windows, and if you participated in NaNoWriMo and had your 50k words validated you could get a 50%-off coupon for when the product is released. Frankly, a lower-tech method works for me (not quite the 1946 Olympia typewriter one bestselling author uses, tho). Hey, go ahead and make your next post on the joys of outlining!

Jon Olson said...

Glad to learn there's another constant rewriter. For me, it's like building with bricks. Each one has to set just right before you can put the next one up, or something like that.

Jon Olson
The Petoskey Stone

sewa mobil said...

Nice article, thanks for the information.

Karen McQuestion said...

Pale Rambler--"I used to do the "write a little/edit a lot/write a little more/edit a whole lot more" until I was miserable..."--me too! Why do we do that to ourselves? It's counter productive.

Bill, I've been hearing about Scrivener for ages, but I'm not sure if it would be for me. I think I need my big mess to percolate in my head for it all to come together. And now you have me wondering which author uses a 1946 Olympia typewriter?

Tim McGregor said...

Great post, Karen. It's good to give yourself permission to let fly and sweep up later.

I intentionally use placeholders because of the research pitfall. I stop to look up one tiny detail and whoops, two hours later I'm chasing ridiculous details that have no little bearing on the detail at hand. And I've wasted a writing session.

I save my research for downtime in front of the TV or some other non-writing session time.

jaclement said...

Interesting post...I find it fascinating how many different ways of writing there are. For me, I can spend rare oddments of spare time thinking about the world in which my books are set (it's a fantasy / magic realism series) and about the characters' backstories; but if I try to plan the plot it simply doesn't work.

Partly this is because for me the plot has to arise naturally out of the characters' actions, rather than acting like a puppetmaster and making them follow a specific plot; but also because it doesn't matter whether I plan or not, as sometimes my characters simply WON'T play!

Has anyone else had that experience, where suddenly a character dies who was supposed to make it to the end, or someone who was supposed to die unexpectedly doesn't and ends up being instrumental to the plot going somewhere completely other than where you thought it was going?

My characters do that to me moderately often. It means that writing never gets predictable, though - and Karen, I write for the rush of finding out what happens next too.

Hopefully it comes through in the text, but as an author you can never really tell...

Karen McQuestion said...

kathie shoop,thanks for sharing your process. I like talking about craft as well.

Jon Olson, what are you doing here?Shouldn't you be working on your next novel? :)

sewa mobil--you are welcome!

Tim McGregor, I hear you about chasing ridiculous details and wasting a whole writing session. I've done it way too many times.

jaclement, I know exactly what you mean. Sometimes my plots take unexpected turns. In my novel, A Scattered Life, I originally thought the mother-in-law, Audrey, would be a minor character, but her role grew as the story evolved. I never saw it coming.

Christina said...

Christina - - Of course poetry and even poetic prose are different than writing novels, but I've always written exceedingly quickly when inspired, leaving blanks when I know the rhythm needs a word or two but I don't know what they are yet! Also finding out what you're creating as you go along is a sign of true creativity, and keeps the work fresh.

Karen McQuestion said...

Christina--keeping the work fresh is what it's all about for me. If the writer is bored with the writing, it shows through to the reader...