Tuesday, November 10, 2009

(Reinventing) How I Write

While I'm waiting to hear if my Zoe book will be picked up, I've started work on another book idea I've been kicking around for awhile. Zoe is not entirely written yet (only 50 pgs in, in fact), so it feels kinda weird to start a new project, but I used to write more than one thing at once and if I ever want to make some semblance of a living at this whole writing thing, I need to do more than one thing at a time so.... here I am trying to figure out how to write this new book.

The only constant truth about the way I write is that it is going to change with every project. This is equal parts frustrating and exciting. It's frustrating because I feel like if I had one tried and true method, the whole process would go a lot faster. It's exciting because I discover something new every time.

This is how my writing process has gone for the books I've written/worked on so far.

With I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone, I wrote it in pieces, out of order, completely non-linear until about 2/3rds of the way through when I realized I needed an outline and a sense of direction to finish the first draft. I was in grad school at the time. I wrote what took my attention whenever I was in workshop. I spent a semester honing 2 or 3 chapters. It took three years to write the full first draft. Then there were several revisions that probably add up to a year.

With Ballads of Suburbia, I wrote a crappy first draft in a summer. In less than a summer actually. I wrote linearly. It turned out to be thinly veiled autobiography and after some half-assed revising I knew it was not the book I wanted to write. It had some of the themes and some of the characters, but it was not right. So began four years of pondering. Putting it in the back of my head and letting ideas for it come out in fits and spurts. I wrote the epilogue (which is the first chapter of the book) in my last class of grad school. Conveniently this chapter gave me both the beginning and the end. I knew what I was striving for. There were fictional bits in my crappy earlier version I could pull. It allowed me to write linearly. I didn't make an outline, but I had notes upon notes and knew what was happening. I took my time with the first half of the book. Then after 10 months of dilly-dallying, I took a writing retreat and wrote the second half in a few days. Then I did another draft because it wasn't quite right. I sent it to my agent though things were still bugging me about it. Even though she didn't have a ton of notes, I would still do a major revision again before I let her send to my editor and honestly I still wasn't happy then. There were things about the flow of the plot in that book that honestly bugged me up until a few days before I handed in the revisions to my editor two years after finishing the version I came up with at that writing retreat.

With my Zoe book, it's an idea I've been mulling since 2007 when I had a tiny window of time in between handing in Ballads to my agent and getting IWBYJR revisions from my editor. I've been toying with three different ideas since that time period. This one came together first and it came together during workshop sessions with my writing group from grad school. But unlike while I was in grad school, I wrote those scenes at least kind of linearly in that they all take place in the first fifty pages or so of the book. I got attached to an initial idea about the book that just wasn't working. It took a lot of back and forth with my agent about that and a lot of attempts at outlining to straighten that out.

The one thing these three projects have had in common is I wrote quite a bit before I mapped out any sort of outline. I certainly had a roadmap in my head, but I just plunged in. And with all the books, I ended up stuck at one point or another.

This current project, I've decided to take a different approach. Well, sort of. It is loosely based on something I submitted 50 pages of to my agent back in February, so I have written a bit about the characters. But my agent felt there was an element missing. I agreed, but I wasn't ready to go there yet. Things needed to stew more. So I worked on Zoe. Zoe was a comfort zone, realistic YA fiction. The element that my agent and I agreed was missing for this other project was a fantastical one. I needed to build a world. I have no fucking idea how to approach this.

So for the past couple weeks, I've been thinking instead of writing, plotting instead of plunging and it feels weird as hell. For most of last week was it satisfying. I figured out my world, my myth, my rules. Awesome, surely this meant I was almost there! But then I realized plot, I need to figure out plot. As usual I know the beginning and the end (actually, that was the anomaly with the Zoe book, I still don't have a solid sense of the end), I have some ideas for plot points, but I can't really figure it out. I want to see the big picture and string things together. I have this really cool worksheet that a fellow author gave me for outlining and plotting and world building, which has been super helpful, but... still stuck on outlining that middle. Oh and I have a few different structure and POV ideas and am not sure which to settle on. I'm honestly beginning to think that the only way to figure things out is go back to the faithful plunging. We'll see I have a lot of time to brainstorm while my hair is being done, but tonight I have writer's group so I'm sure I'll end up writing something. Hopefully it will trigger some direction, but if not there is a phone call with the agent tomorrow to try talking it through.

It'll come together eventually, I'm sure of it. I'm incredibly excited about this idea, possibly more excited than I have been about any idea I've had, so I think I'm just in a rush to figure the whole thing out.

So writer friends, are you plotters, plungers, or a mixture of both? Any particular advice for being stuck mid-outline in the plotting phase? Teach me, I'm still learning!


Teh Awe-Some Sauce said...

I am a plunger. Plotting, outlining, and any sort of planning kill everything. Every time I try to plot (like a lot of *serious* writers recommend) I end up with inchoerent words on a page and characters that run around willy nilly with no sort of direction.

Instead, I write a few pivotal scenes with my characters to get to know them. Once I'm comfortable with their voice, I begin their story from the beginning, laying in the scenes I already wrote where they should go. Sometimes, this means I rearrange events a couple of times. But usually it means my story flows a lot more logically.

As for endings, I mentally plot out several possible endings for my characters, since the ending always ends up different than I think it should.

Working this way means I have to rewrite my middle (a lot), but I think it works pretty well for me. Of course, a friend of mine tried to use this method and almost pulled her hair out. So I guess it's not for everyone. ;)

Eliza Evans said...

Oh, isn't that the worst part about process? I always had a vague idea that it was different for everyone, but no one tells you it's different for every book!

I have a general shape for the overall arc of my current book, but it's coming out in a very non-linear way, which is unusual for me. (I think this has something to do with the Columbia workshop method.) I'm doing what Jenny Crusie calls the Don't Look Down draft, which means I'm just trying to get the bones on the page. I'll worry about putting them in their correct places later.

John Knowles said...

The first thing I do is characters because they are most important to me. Of course I have three stories started that I keep on starting over on and will never get finished. At least I have those characters I can talk about in real life and people will think they are actually people.

I then take these characters and for the particular story i'm writing right now (Started three years ago.) and write a shitload of 2-3 page short stories about them until I find some that I can string together, and then I do that. When I have a bunch of these stories together that make sense in whatever order I put them in, I read it and decide that it either A) sucks. B.) Too melodramatic, not funny enough. or C) too funny, doesn't suck enough, etc etc. If I need to change stuff, I just isolate the short storys and change them or omit them until I get it to how I want it.

In other words, don't do this. That particular story has been in the works for three years, scrapped into oblivion, cannbalised into different stories, those stories then scrapped and then cannabalised back into Elsa Rookwater is Fucking Dead. (The only concrete thing is the title at the moment.)

little miss gnomide said...

Usually I start with character descriptions. With Cast the First Stone, I knew who the main characters were. Then the plot started to come together.

I like to use an outline, but the end result of the book doesn't usually look like the original outline.

Sometimes I get the idea for a plot, but don't know the character yet. I can't start writing with just a plot. I really need to get to know the main character first. Nothing happens for me without knowing who the character is. Then I throw a problem at the character and let her react.

I often get inspired by reading over my journals and really bad poetry. Sometimes one line of a horrible poem will give me a story idea.

I am fascinated by the writing techniques of others. There really is no rulebook on how to write a novel.

Good luck! I'm really looking forward to your next book.

PaulSayThings said...

im going to participate in national novel writing month next november and am taking the whole year to get a plot figured out. So i guess you could say im currently studying the process of writing plots. For the most part I cant get away from writing about things that ive experienced. I cant get away from it so ive started to embrace it. Im starting to keep a notebook with me because ideas just kind of come out randomly and i need to get them on paper or i'll forget them.

so yea. im VERY new to writing things like this and im finding all of it interesting and exciting.

Anonymous said...

I have my characters come to me with their first scene or one line and then I just work from there - but as I go through I come up with several different endings and then pick the ones that work best.

Stephanie Kuehnert said...

Thanks everyone for sharing all your writing styles. I think it is different for everyone, but we can all get ideas from each other.

I'm like most of you where characters dictate story. I've done enough plotting for now (and I could plot because I already knew the characters from playing around with them in another version of this story), and now I am trying to plunge!