Piecemeal Manifesto – Entry 3 – My Writing Process: Prewriting
When I decided to start writing seriously, I emailed a lot of writers asking them about their process to find out what worked and didn’t work for them. At the time I thought I was trying to learn as much about the craft as possible, but author-extraordinare Doug Clegg saw it differently. In an email back to me he explained how he writes, then said, and I’m paraphrasing here, “What it really sounds like though is that you’re looking for a magic pill that will help you write better. It doesn’t exist. The trick is to find out what works for you, and do that. Only working and writing will help you discover your own process.”
And he was right. I was looking for a magic pill, some glowing tablet that real writers are given in a secret ceremony that when ingested made writing easier. But it doesn’t exist. (Or if it does, and I’m lying about its existence, I’m sure as hell not telling you about it, peon. Plus, they’d kill me if I told, duh.) The more I thought about it, the more I realized Clegg was right–the way to figuring out your writing process is to discover it yourself. There are a lot of strategies and tips out there (thankfully), but you have to find what works for you, or more accurately, find strategies that interest you–lately, Steve Pressfield’s Clothesline Method and Randy Ingerman’s Snowflake Method have been helpful– then modify them to fit your writing needs.
So what is my writing process like? It’s messy. It’s time consuming. And it’s ever-changing. Mostly though, it’s a lot of prewriting. And by a lot of prewriting, I mean A LOT of prewriting.
Just a minute ago I went poking around my WATER TOWER 5 folder and counted over 200 files. 60% of those are chapter files–each being a different draft of a chapter as I went through seven revisions. Another 5% of those files are the query letter drafts I wrote during my agent search. And the other 35%? Those 70 files–please don’t check my math here–are all notes and outline files.
And here’s a screenshot of the file for the novel I’m working on now.
(I deleted the file called “People I Want to Frame for Murder” because I worried it might be used against me in court someday.
Now, no one knows it ever existed. [Author wipes brow].)
So you don’t have to count, that’s 17 files, none of which are actual chapters. Hidden in those three folders is another 15 files. (For you non-math-heads, that’s 32 files.) The oldest of the files dates back to November 22nd of last year because as every respectable book on writing tell you, it’s best to start a new novel on the date a president was assassinated.
What’s in those files, and the 70 or so WT5 files, is notes. Lots and lots of notes. In the beginning I open a Word document and start what I call riffing. I type an idea and then follow the thread down, building off of it, seeing where it leads, asking a lot of questions and sometimes answering them, hoping to come across something that interests me. This can go on for a long time, lots of questioning and requestioning, finding lots of dead ends and dumb, discardable ideas. But eventually, if I stick with it long enough, I end up with something that I can work with. How long do I do this? Until I have a viable idea I’m interested in writing. Once I have that, I do a lot more riffing. In fact, some of those files run 10K words long.
Here’s a screenshot of one of the first plot riffs I wrote for LUCKY TOWN, my trunk novel. Looking at this now, I’m shocked by how none of this ended up in the final draft twelve drafts later. In fact, this whole storyline was abandoned and simplified into the YA novel it ended up as. I’m not even sure what most of this riff means now, but it helped me get to my finishing point.
I do this sort of riffing for a long time, opening new files when I get a character idea and storing them away, or a new file when I have a scene idea, twist idea, etc. Eventually, and this takes me a while, I’ll have a semi-coherent plot worked out and characters, and can do an outline. After that, I can start writing, but even then, the story changes. I wish I was one of those writers who had the idea clearly in his or her head at the start and that’s what it ends up as, but I’m not. Or maybe those people don’t exist. If they do though, I hate them.
I do know there are some writers just sit down and start drafting without an outline. They follow the Stephen King “writers are archeologists” belief, discovering the story and plot as they write. But that doesn’t work for me. I get stuck and mostly want to give up. I also don’t like to backtrack. I want to see the first draft through until the end, see what I have, then revise…or in my case usually, overhaul. It takes a lot of time, is probably not very efficient, but it works for me. And that’s what matters.
So when will I get to actually start drafting my next novel? Soon, I hope. I won’t push it though. I have a good grasp on my characters, the overall mystery and solution, and a bunch of scenes, but I’m struggling to get the outline finished. I think mystery novels call for detailed outlines–the hiding of clues, red herrings, etc.–calls for advanced planning. The good news is I like this stage. It’s the creative part of the process for me. The actual drafting though? Ugh. But I’ll save that griping for my next Piecemeal Manifesto entry.
So my question to you: If you’re a writer, what prewriting process, if any, have you found that works for you?
TL; DR: The best writing process is the one that works best for you.