Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Reflections on process

It’s about the building, they’ll tell me. Not about the climax. It’s the journey, not the destination.

And I get that. I really do.

But I get impatient.

Whether going on vacation, reading a story or writing one, I just want to get there.

Take family vacations. Forget the scenery in between home and wherever we’re going. I’d rather go to sleep and wake up there. The time between leaving home and arriving at our destination is time to be lived through, time to occupied, usually with  thoughts of where we’ll be in a few hours – or a few days. Only at our destination am I able to move into that fully-actualized state know as existing “in the moment.”

Or watch me read a novel. The closer I get to the end of the book, the faster I read, oftentimes skimming to found out how it all turns out. The author’s taking too long and I just can’t wait! It’s the rare book, indeed, that can slow me down. Good books I’ll finish and then promptly re-read the last few chapter to pick up the details I missed in my rush to the end.

The same holds true, however, when I write a novel. Since I’m a pantser (meaning I write by the seat of my pants and without a plot in mind), I don’t know how it’s all going to turn out in the end. Heck! That’s why I write the book in the first place – to find out! I know that it will turn out, I just don’t know how.

Like I said, I get impatient. I start with the best of intentions, adding detail and fully-fleshed out scenes. The closer I get to the end, however, the more shortcuts I take. Writing sessions get longer so I can get done faster. I have to know what happens!

As a result I often end up with a rather skimpy section of rising action just before the climax of the book. All the plot details are there, but the flesh of the scenes is not. This, then, is where the bulk of my re-writing happens once that first draft is done and my questions are answered.

In fact, when I finish that first draft, I often feel as if I’ve finished a race. I feel the same exhilaration of being done, the same exhaustion.

Of course, that’s when the real work begins. Editing is where craft kicks in. Rewriting sentences, changing verb tenses to make thoughts flow more smoothly, sometimes even changing a scene’s point of view, are all done after the story’s complete. This is where I add detail and make the character’s motivation clear (why on earth did the hero do THAT?)

Potters have it easy. They can buy clay for their sculptures. They don’t have to go grub in the dirt and find it for themselves. They go to the store, buy their clay, take it home and make beautiful art.

Writers, however, make their clay from scratch. Once that first draft is done, once the mess of creation is done, only then do they have the material needed. Only then can they play around with the words, twist them into new shapes, roll them into solid chapters, spin them into art.

Once I get to this stage, my natural impatience slows. I once again can live in the moment of my novel, crafting the story and character arcs, finding just the right word, giving it a final polish.

And I do take my time here. I use word counters and Wordle to look for my habit words. I read whole sections out loud to check for sentence flow. I do a continuity check and make sure my hero’s hair color didn’t suddenly change in the middle of the story (although I’m really not good at catching things like that). But my process slows and I live not only with the story, but in the story, finding its nuances and enjoying the magic of the world.

Then, when I’ve reached a point of saturation, when to look at it one more time will show me nothing new, then and only then, is the manuscript ready for an editor.

But that’s a different post for a different day.


In your journal, write a reflective piece about your process. No judgements here, simply making note of your own foibles and processes.

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