Friday, February 07, 2014

Book writing: the process

Over the summer, when I first began thinking about writing a book from start to finish, I found the prospect equal parts mystifying and daunting.  (Before, to cheat my way around that, I'd decided to write a series of essays for a book collection - ah!  I only have to think in 5K word chunks, I don't have to hold 80K words in my head!  And then I realized that wouldn't work, and that I'd have to Start Over.)   Before I could really dive into it, I decided I needed some handholding from the experts.  So I read a number of books about writing books to find a template process that I could build out and embellish with the quirks of nuances of how I like to write, dream, create, and polish.

So if you've ever wondered what it takes to write a book ... here's what I've discovered so far.  (And bear in mind that I'm not in the clear yet!  But I thought it would be fun to get these thoughts down on paper.  At the very least, I can revisit in a year or two and think, "Silly bear!  That's only the tip of the iceberg!"  Track the evolving process, because sometimes when you get to the end, you forget where you traveled along the way, you know?)

Definition of a draft.  Over the summer, when I asked my creative writing instructor for suggestions on the revision process, he replied (and imagine this said with repeated palm slaps to table, for emphasis): Every time I revise, I make myself work through a FULL draft.  A full draft means you've landed the plane.  You've got some sort of start, a muddy middle, and you've tried out an ending.  Now, you may not like your ending.  There may be stuff in the middle that you absolutely hate.  It's your best guess - at the time - of what the story should look like.  It might be crap.  But at least you can say, now THAT, that is NOT what I wanted.  Let me try this instead.

Or, to paraphrase Stephen Koch, 26 versions of 1 page is not 26 drafts, it's a really rough page.

Which was helpful.  I've wanted to write this type of story for 20 years now, and began seeing a good chunk of the specific topic 8 years ago, so every couple years I'd write 100 or 200 pages of notes - fragments and pretty sentences, essay pieces, longhanded stream-of-consciousness pages where I try to make sense of everything, character sketches, pieces of dialogue - and then I'd get stuck and put it away for a couple years.  But I didn't have much of a clue what the book was about, because I hadn't tried shaping it into an actual narrative.  I had a series of vignettes, but not a story.

I spent the fall chipping away at a complete draft now, and as tough and ugly as it was, I feel like I can finally feel the contours of the story.  100s and 100s of pages gave me some insights and a lot of fabulous details.  A complete draft is laying down an infrastructure on which to build a house.  Later, I might decide that I want 3 bedrooms instead of 2, and the kitchen and dining room need to be swapped, and that, oh hey, we no longer want a basement or the two skylights or the wraparound porch ... but I'll be inching closer to the house I want.  Before, I felt like I was working on one of those American pioneer-town shanties: I've got three walls here ... and a stack of logs there ... and I'm not quite sure where the hearth is going to go ... oh, but I know that I want a stack of patchwork quilts in this corner and ooh whee, lemme go cut up a bunch of fabrics to make one!  It'll be log cabin and blue and red and ... uh ... what's this house supposed to look like again?  I give up, I'm gonna let it sit for a couple years while my subconscious figures it out!  Haha.

Types of drafts.  There's two phases to writing.  There's creating and there's editing.  Some people love writing --- I love revising.  Which means it's tempting for me to write 100 new words and then go back and polish the last 300 ... which means I mix the two phases together.  Many authors alternate two types of drafts; each type focuses specifically on one phase.  Start with a really fast, really messy 1st draft (a 'down and dirty' writing phase), followed by a long and nuanced 2nd draft (a big revision phase).  In one, you're using speed to work holistically.  Writing towards the big picture.  In the other, gosh, you're in the weeds and you just LOVE testing out three different kinds of aphid killers to figure out which is going to work on this one corner of your garden.  (There's a third phase - polishing.  It's where you're sprucing sentences, not killing off useless characters.  I used to think revision was sprucing sentences, which is why I was so mystified: but how/when/where do you figure out the big picture stuff???)

They also recommend breathing time between drafts, so that you can get some perspective on your work.  Which is why I pushed hard to finish a 1st draft in December, and am taking a short story class now.  Try something new.  Let the book breathe.  I'll pick it up again mid-March.  See what I've got.  Evaluate the beast in its entirety: what is it saying?  Is it saying what I want it to say?  After 3 months away, what feels extraneous and what feels underdeveloped?

With shorter pieces, at least, I've found that it generally takes me 3 drafts to get some sense of what the story is about, another 2 drafts to get all the pieces excavated + present in some form + hopefully in something of the correct place/shape, and a final 2 drafts to get things polished.  A couple months between drafts is enough time to see the work in new light, but not so much time that I've forgotten everything!  On the other hand, maybe things work differently for a book, I don't know.  That's what sucks about figuring out your personal writing process for a book - you can really only find out by experimenting on book-length projects.  On the other hand, I still love writing more than just about anything else in the world.  Takes a strange kind of masochist to want this, but if that's you, there's no use in running from the truth!  May as well embrace it and work with it.

Writer's block.  OMG, the bane of existence for all creative folk, no?  And totally fear-inducing.  We live for the days the words flow, we dread the days when writing feels like plucking words out of our brain with a pair of blunt tweezers.

There's a lot of controversy about this one.  That it happens is a given.  But everybody has a different opinion for dealing with it.  And again, two camps.  People who don't force the creative process and work when inspired.  And people who think that half the work is showing up to the page, day in and day out, the ones who have a writing schedule and keep at it, even when they're blocked.  Which might sound torturous, but I'm in the second camp. 

Often I'm blocked because 1) I don't know something, 2) I fear something, 3) I doubt myself (which is a variant on #2).  And in my life I've found that it's best for me to face those kinds of situations head on, lean into the discomfort, get as intimate and specific with the fear and unknown as possible ... because that also tells me how to get through it.  So if I'm blocked because I don't know where to go next - I don't know the character or the story well enough - I use writing exercises to explore that problem.  Sometimes it means freewriting prompts (As protagonist: I tend to present the illusion that ...; As antagonist: I am least proud of this characteristic ...") ... or else I throw my characters into a new situation to see how they react.  Maybe I don't use any of the words I've written, but the exercise helps me understand them better, which helps me see how to move forward.

Actually, what I'm discovering could probably fill a book.  (Haha, and you wonder why there are so many "how to write!" books out there.  I bet it's all of us writers, procrastinating on our novels and writing this kind of stuff instead.  I bet we're all reminding ourselves what works for us.)

So maybe I'll just stop there.  (For now?  We'll see.)  More thoughts to come, especially as I pick the book up again for Round 2, come spring.  In the meantime, I find myself pleasantly surprised by how much I'm enjoying my short fiction class!  Maybe there's another book in there :-).  Heh - that's the danger of embarking on this process!  You begin conceiving of projects in book-length terms ...

And for a little life update: Portland's been blanketed in 4 inches of snow, which means the city is effectively shut down.  Which is a bit amusing to me, as 4 inches in Boston was just another winter day ...  My brother, who is in town visiting, said that he began to fear for his nose and left ear while crossing the Morrison Bridge yesterday (after waiting in vain for a bus for an hour, he and some other folks decided to walk instead).  He thought it'd be ironic to develop frostbite in Portland, of all places, after having lived through long, cold winters in New York and Beijing ... but luckily, all extremities are still present and with feeling, so we're cooped up inside but feeling cozy and glad to have one another for company!  Hope you're all well!


Roobeedoo said...

This is fascinating!
I have never tried to write anything longer that a short story. Watching my husband working on his book has brought it home to me how different a process it is - the planning, the re-writing - phoof! I love your house analogy - those log cabin quilts are worth dreaming about:)

bindu said...

Interesting that 4 inches of snow is too much to shut down the town some places. In Canada, it is not annoying at all. This winter we saw wind chills below 30 celsius. That, is really cold.

Minnado said...

I loved reading this post and your analgies of house building and gardening are fab. I meet so many people who say they think they could write a book but no one actually does! I think we non-writers under estimate he sheer graft involved. I am intrigued to follow your progress on this journey and of course, to finally discover the story you are writing! Enjoy the short story writing xxx

Alessa said...

Oh my, this is already months ago and has been waiting in an open tab in my browser for a comment all this time! ;) Anyway. I'm glad you're getting along so well. It's fascinating reading about your writing. I'd love to know what kind of story it is, if you're willing to tell at some point. And I'm heck-of-a-lot impressed that you've decided to start over and do a whole book instead of a collection of essays! :)