I have this weird habit of tracking patterns in my head. When I worked on my Master’s degree in Cultural Geography, I suddenly realized I was a social scientist at heart, watching people do their thing and examining why they did it. How they shape their environment and how their environment shapes them—their habits, their beliefs, their cultural norms, etc. It should have come as no surprise to me that I would follow market trends in publishing as I discussed a couple of months ago (HERE), or that I would examine my writing process (and those of others) so closely. Why people write the way they do, their methods, their tics and preferences, their successes or failures. Could I have luck employing their process, too?
After a lot of thought and plenty of practice, the most profound thing I’ve discovered in all of these examinations about process is that each book requires a new set of “rules”. Process is transient. It’s fluid. It begs to be made relevant after each new start.
For my first couple of novels (historical fiction biographies), I worked with a detailed outline and character maps and filled in the flesh, heart, and soul of the book from there. For the short story I wrote for a WWI anthology, I had three major concepts in mind—a mother’s grief, revenge born of pain, and a character with dual citizenship who grappled with belonging nowhere—and I pantsed the entire plot from this premise.
For my third novel, I worked with a well-known set of characters and the canon associated with their story. I had to create new plot threads, breathe new life into these characters. A retelling, if you will. The character maps didn’t help me one bit here until I had already written a full first draft. I needed to understand why the original author created the characters the way he did in the first place, then deconstruct them, and give them an entirely new dimension through their backstory.
My latest that’s releasing this fall, is in an epistolary format with a framing story. A new style, still!
With each book, there were pieces of my process that didn’t change, regardless of the structure. I had to discover who my characters were by exploring their backstory. I needed to know where the story began—that inciting incident—and how it would resolve itself, as well as the stakes driving my character to change. I needed a pitch, a feel for the themes I would explore, a general idea of how these pieces would fit into a three act structure, at least loosely.
But the process I used to write each of these works changed. I think this is the reason why:
Each book baby has different needs. I can’t help but compare a manuscript to a child. The metaphor works on so many levels. For example, I have two kids. They come from the same household with the same parents, and the same set of rules and expectations. Yet they are different people completely, with different internal lives and, therefore, different needs. I try to treat them fairly, but fair does not equal SAME. Each of your manuscripts will have different characters. plotlines, structures. Different needs. This will undoubtedly affect your writing process. This is not only okay, it’s GOOD. It means you’re probably doing something right. It means you’re growing. If this isn’t the case, perhaps you’re writing books that are too formulaic in nature.
Don’t mistake order for boxing yourself in. On the flip side to all of this “go with the flo” talk, it’s important to understand that it doesn’t mean you should discard WRITING TOOLS. Backstory prompts, character arc maps, outlines, visual plot charts, three or five act structure charts, storyboards, note card outlines, etc. These tools exist to help you make sense of you protagonist and supporting cast, therefore the story’s structure, and then, therefore, the themes and big truths. There are no rules about which of these you should use always, or, when you should use them. Sometimes it’s before you begin drafting, sometimes after the first draft (which I like to call the discovery draft). We all work differently. (As an aside, I will say that most client books I’ve worked on that were pantsed entirely tend to need a lot more editing. I think this comes from the misbelief that tools hinder progress and therefore their process. To which I say bullocks. The trick is to know WHEN to use them and which you truly need for each manuscript. As I said above, some writers should use them before they begin writing, others should after their discovery draft.)
Relax into the fluidity of your process. As I mentioned above, it’s important to understand how much of your writing process comes from practice, but also, how much of it comes from the needs of each book. Rigidity gets you absolutely nowhere in your fiction or in the business of publishing. Unfortunately, this knowledge (often learned in a painful way) tends to come about after you’ve written several books.
In short, create order in your writing life to maintain a steadily increasing word count, and body of work, but listen to your instincts carefully. Shoe-horning yourself into a specific process just because it worked before may be the worst thing you can do for New Book. Maybe it needs something unique, something you’ve never tried before. Above all, be kind to yourself. Chastising your “meandering” or “lack of progress” or “disarray” doesn’t help. It cuts you off at the knees. We aren’t robots, after all. Moving in new directions–exploring–is what living the life of the creative is all about.
Is there a ritual or part of your writing process that remains a constant? What, have you noticed, changes with each new work?