Sunday, January 5, 2014

My Crazy Writing Life - Day 5: My Flawed Writing Process

When I first started writing seven years ago, I wasn’t sure which approach I’d take. Should I use an outline? Or should I write off-the-cuff (i.e., whatever came to mind)? Typically, I’m a slow writer, and wanted to find something that would speed me up. With the outline approach, I’d seen the joy of writing evaporate as every major decision was decided beforehand, the process marginalized by pouring a lifeless story into a ready-made cast. Besides, the best stories are designed, not thrown onto the page, right?

A short time later, I read Stephen King’s Author Note in The Green Mile, which made me realize that quite a few successful novels had been written serially. What captivated me about this process was that the writer lived for the moment, writing down what they knew at the time, and moving forward without knowledge of where the story would lead next. The process sounded exciting, and made every day a unique adventure.

Afterwards, I started practicing stream-of-consciousness exercises, where I wrote down thoughts as they came to me, focusing solely on the next few words. By taking it one sentence at a time, I found that I could put down several thousand words without difficulty, and the quality wasn’t bad at all. In fact, it was quite good. With a little practice, my writing improved along with my speed.

Quickly I fell in love with panstering, or writing by the seat of your pants, but it’s far from a perfect process. At first I did it wrong, worrying about quality and rewriting everything that I’d written over and over until I was sick of it. Ultimately, editing is the where an author earns their keep, and readers are only willing to pay high prices for well-edited manuscripts.

But what exactly qualifies as “well-edited”? Is there a barometer one has to pass to meet this criteria? A certain number of rewrites? Or a certain number of times that you must reread your work until you can no longer find any errors? Surely you can’t write something of quality that comes off the top of your head!

And what if I veer off track? That happens time-to-time with panstering. More importantly, what if you don’t know that you’ve veered off track? No one wants to discover after the fact that dozens of pages, or in some cases an entire manuscript, must be tossed.

But the risk comes with the territory. If you discover that you’ve made a wrong turn somewhere, back up, throw out the offending text, and try again. It’s not worth your time to try to fix a passage that is deeply flawed or simply stinks. Try, try again! You’re creating so much content anyways that you can afford to throw out some every now and then. It’s the nature of the beast.

There does come a time when you realize that a light framework is beneficial. Think about the point that you’re trying to reach and move towards it. This simple structure should be flexible enough to throw out if you come up with a better idea along the way. Mistakes can be expensive, especially when time is used as currency. You can write more effectively and faster if you hash out a few details beforehand and it doesn’t seem to hinder the panstering process.

If all this feels unnatural, toss out your notes and write what’s in your head. There’s no right way to do this.

Personally, I’m a sucker for the freewheeling nature of panstering. It’s a system of discovery, and relies on listening more than thinking. It’s the closest thing to freedom that I’ve ever felt, and once you’ve tasted it, you’ll be hooked.

Plenty of arguments can be made for the efficiency of outlining, but I’ve seen writers plan out their books extensively beforehand only to find a very different story when they finally enter it. Sometimes the two are not conductive and new characters appear out of thin air, bringing a fresh round of analysis and doubt. Slowly the story ekes out of them, and frequently they grind to a halt, pondering over a single sentence or paragraph.

Yes, I’ve heard of writers obsessing over a sentence or paragraph for months, and I am no less the sucker for wanting my words to sound good the first time they come out of me. But writing flowery prose that dazzle and sing is fool’s gold. You’re better off aiming for clarity instead.

For argument’s sake, let’s assume that the aforementioned process from outline to final draft takes six months for a 100,000-word novel, and that you will not get stuck for an appreciable amount of time. If one were to write 2,500 words per day, every day, they’d finish a draft in six weeks. Every one and a half months, the author could churn out a new draft even if they didn’t know what the story was about.

“But what if I have to throw out large sections of my manuscript?” you say.

Good. It means that you’ve discovered what you want to say. Make a few notes, keep what’s working, and tell the story better, the writing process becoming a redrafting process. Notice I didn’t use the word “rewriting.” More and more I’m discovering about the ineffectiveness of rewriting chapters over and over again and instead trusting the creative side of my brain.

Writing “off-the-cuff,” can help a manuscript evolve through a series of drafts, or you can (gasp) move on to something else. Alternatively, the outlining approach produces a more mature draft from the outset, and the story is more likely to stay on a predefined course. In the end, it’s possible that a combination of both can yield effective results; what one lacks in complex structure, the other makes up for with spontaneity, energy and excitement.

As an added benefit, panstering is easy to plan out on a calendar. Every day you know exactly where you’ll be, because you have to produce or else. All you need to do is hit your word count goal for the day, and you never think too far ahead, instead focusing on the excitement of the moment.

Outlining can also produce a manuscript in a short amount of time if you’re comfortable with it. Neither process is necessarily better, and the benefits are entirely debatable. It’s up to you.

But here’s where I have a problem with the structured approach: outlining tends to insert editing into the process too soon, that’s why initial drafts take longer. Also, it seems (to me, at least) that all of the excitement is sucked right out of the project when you plan to the last detail. Something must be unaccounted for that sparks your imagination, otherwise the process is cumbersome and secretarial and the writing suffers.

Although I respect the structured approach, it’s not for me. I love watching a story materialize out of thin air and discovering fantastic gems buried deep inside of me. Since writing entails a huge investment of time and hard work, the joy of discovery is the one thing that keeps me going each day.

And enjoyment is a necessity.

Day 1: 1,035 words
Day 2: 1,045 words
Day 3: 1,035 words
Day 4: 1,560 words
Day 5: 1,193 words
Total: 5,868 words

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