Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Another boring writerly post

I was asked a question by fellow blogger and writer Reading the Signs in the comments of the last little chunk of first draft fun from the current novel.

She wrote: "I would be interested to know how you eventually decided what the subject and focus for your novel should be. Did you just plunge in and see where it led or did you have a sense of what you wanted to do before you started?"

I don't claim to be an expert on writing, but I thought discussing my process might be beneficial to myself and to some of my readers.

It's different all the time, of course. That's the first thing that comes to mind. And varies wildly depending on what I am writing. A blog post is usually a spur-of-the-moment affair, going from initial idea to published post in 20 minutes or so. Since I don't really edit anything that appears here at The Moon Topples, the time is spent mostly writing, with a quick read back (usually) just to make sure that I am making as much sense as I hoped.

For short fiction pieces, I tend to have an idea of what the story is about before I begin writing. I don't know much about my characters yet, and I do not have the entire plot when I sit down to write it. Instead, I have my initial idea: the conclusion or an arc or even a single moment that inspired the piece in the first place, and I feel my way into it somewhat slowly, allowing the characters to tell me how they will get to the thing that I had planned.

I used more or less the same process during NaNoWriMo. At the beginning of the month, I had only the notion that it might be interesting to explore a man struggling with a list of New Year's resolutions. What his resolutions were, how he would fare in his quest, even how long a span of time I might cover were all details that came later. I had a man and his resolutions (and I think the notion that he had broken several of them by a few hours after midnight).

This made the writing more difficult than it might have been otherwise. I hit a lot of blind alleys, wrote an awful lot of redundant or bad prose. Due to the nature of NaNo, I soon became focused primarily on the word count. I seem to recall that I spent time each day trying to work my mind up to what might happen next, which was always a total mystery to me. Once I had decided, I would write what I could about that subject. This was not a very pleasant experience for me, although I suspect that was due to the work I was creating rather than the process.

For the current novel, elements of the story have been in place since I was about nineteen. I had the protagonist and some of his problems in my head when I decided to write. I had eight or nine major plot points left over from the draft I attempted in college. While I knew I had to hit each of these notes eventually, I tried not to plot out too much how I would get from one to the next, or what might happen in between or as a result of the abuse I planned to heap upon my character. This has left me free to explore some aspects of the character that I might not have thought of while creating an outline. I have discovered many new elements of the character by doing it this way, as well as stumbling into some entirely different storylines and characters that I had not initially known would play a part.

I fully intend to outline the thing completely, but not until I have more or less improvised an initial draft. I think outlining is a great tool for writers, but I worry that I might use it as a checklist, and lose some of the creative flow in the process. So I want to use it prior to second draft in order to make sure I have hit upon all of the things I had intended to write about, to double check that the elements of the story are all present.

So the shorter answer to the question seems to be that I mostly improvise within the constraints of an idea or plot points.

I'd be curious—for you Blogreaders who also write—to hear about your processes as well. Knock out down in the comments or just let me know if you've done something similar on your blog...

2300 words since making my pledge. I'm a little behind, but still have a lot of the day left to catch up.


Unknown said...

I think the writing process of a novel, or a piece of prose/poetry must be as individual to the writer as the finished piece.
Writing courses tell you to plot everything to avoid writers block. If I did that I would be 'blocked' at every turn.
Experience gives a type of formula that can be leant on in later work - chapter length, ebb and flow, placement of the peaks and troughs and the build-up to the run for the finish. Between that my characters self-develop as I go along - clever bunch!

Liz Dwyer said...

The writing process really varies for me as well. I find that I am most often struck by certain questions/situations and then think about the characters as a result. I think about what kind of people would do the things I think of. That often gets me going on a scene.

Often when I really get in the groove, I feel like I go into a trance and I'm just typing/writing and I can see the scenes, see the characters, hear their voices, feel their breath. And then it just comes. I have to be able to see it so I always have to close my eyes and see the scene I want to write. If I can't see it in my mind, I can't write it. Does that sound odd?

Outlines do help me, one is proving immensely helpful in my current novel I'm working on, but only as a guide. If I get too tied to it, I realize I'm not listening to the character's voices and I'm being driven by my own selfishness/ego.

Reading the Signs said...

It's so interesting to hear about other people's process. I think, with minx, that this must be as individual as the finished work itself. There two seem, though, to be roughly two schools of thought: one which insists that everything should be plotted from the outset, and the other which trusts to the organic unfolding of a story as the work progresses. I am of the second kind, but have recently considered that it may be interesting to try and work in a way I have never done before and actually plan something out beforehand. This came after talking to someone who teaches film (and the writing of scripts). He always encourages people to have a "storyboard", but then to be prepared to let it go if the story itself seems to want that. Jeanette Winterson has said that her novels usually begin out of one image she has, which she begins to "unpack". This is how I have written my short stories, and the bit of novel I once worked on. The problem might be, I guess, that when you come to a difficult patch, whether due to your own circumstances or the work itself, you have nothing on the outside to support you. With a rough sketch in place, you can still go back to the "painting by numbers" process and know that you are getting the words down, which is the sine qua non of the novel-writing process.

I am interested to know if anyone has worked with the novel-writing software that is around now.

So you've begun, Mr. Moon - great. I have, after your kind comments at mine, slightly adjusted my target - due to circumstances beyond my control.

Anonymous said...

Great Blog! Interesting insight into your writing process and positive inspiration for me as a budding writer. Keep it up :)

For blogging I tend to write as it comes into my head, then I fix the spelling and grammar errors but I often use it as a sandbox for trying out new words I come across (susurrous was the most interesting sounding word I have come across so far).

For my writing, it tends to come in phases. Sometimes I'll be writing night and day then weeks and sometimes months will go by and I haven't written a jot. Someone, whom I can't remember, once told me you have to set aside at least one hour per day for writing and you must write - about anything and everything - that keeps up the momentum.

I currently have two main 'novels to be' on the go, one is 12,000 words and the other 104,000 words. I also have a bunch of half-started ideas around 2000 words each that are waiting for that moment when I get back into the 'fold'.

Anyway, you are welcome to visit me at my blog: http://theitmanagersjournal.blogspot.com where I mostly talk about my experiences managing IT.


Wanderlust Scarlett said...

Whahuh? There are methods and processes? When did THIS happen?

Well thank heavens you've clarified it because I was getting nowhere very quickly, and regularly, and now maybe I can actually get something done.

Or... to save time, I could come up with another fabulous excuse not to finish the decades long work on the proverbial unfinished magnum opus that mocks me from that shelf in my bedroom... the masterpiece in waiting. What a novel idea.




Lee said...

Do what works.

(Now why can I be concise here but not in my fiction?)

Unknown said...

Oh Lee's comment made me laugh so I think I'll stick with it.

Jon M said...

Hi Maht,
I just wandered over from Caroline Smailes' page, love the site! I write for pleasure and dream of being published but for what it's worth, I've found that a curious notion is a starting point for me a 'what if?' type approach. Trouble is, that gets followed with a 'then what?'
I tried fleshing out the main characters until I had them in huge detail and that worked too. I plotted the story arc and emotional arc of the thing on a huge long roll of wallpaper and then went and worked in another room, that helped!
Pop over and see us some time!

Nikki Neurotic said...

I've attempted writing in the past, but I never really planned anything which always led to me abandoning the project as I just wouldn't know what to do with the story anymore.

The Moon Topples said...

Minx: I agree with your sage advice both here and in the post you've done which covers similar ground (but better, and with more style).

Liz: Sounds like you've got a good grasp on when to use your outline and when to let it go. I've felt the writing trance as well, but don't know if I am visualising so vividly or not when I write.

Signs: Haven't played with the novel-writing software. It was a huge leap for me just to stop writing in graphics applications, but now I find Word to be just fine. It also has the advantage of being fairly well universal, so when it comes to electronic submissions, I needen't worry that the document will not translate.

As to storyboarding, a shot-by-shot breakdown is helpful when making a film because there will be dozens of people working all the time, and you need to cut down on the amount of set-up time required (which takes much longer than getting the actual shot, usually). Storyboards are also typically used by the director rather than the screenwriter. As a creative tool to help you with your plotting, however, anything that works for you is a good thing.

Jason: Welcome, and thanks for sharing some of your process. I'll by by to check you out soon.

Scarlett: I honestly cannot tell which one of us you are making fun of, which in my book is a wonderful thing. Thanks!

Lee: Beautifully put.

Jon: I used the entire wall of my dining room for notes when writing in college. Similar to your wallpaper, I suppose. And I may be doing something similar again very soon. Thanks for stopping by. Hope to see you again.

SilverN: Yes, improvising without any plot points or plan can be a frustrating task. My NaNo piece is at least a small proof that it can be done, but I certainly would never try that again.

Anonymous said...

Love reading all these comments, especially at 5 in the morning when I suddenly think I must get up and write something down. (Which I have done - just taking a break now!) All these jottings and bits of a lifetime and from across the world will probably never become that big masterpiece but hey, it's all good fun and a challenge. Blogging is excellent for just writing down your immediate'inspiration' for whatever that's worth. I do find it helpful as it forces me to keep at it!