Sunday, March 13, 2011

How I do what I do

I have to admit from the outset that I don’t have a firm grip on how I write. To tell you the truth, I think that’s probably true of many, if not most, writers. I don’t know where I come up with some of the things that come out of my fingers…you know, the sort of instance where the author insists “the character said that,” or “I tried to make the heroine do X, but she just wouldn’t do it.” That’s all cute and cosmic and stuff, but the truth is there only is the writer and a blank piece of paper or, these days, screen.

Given the above, there are a couple of things that mark my coordinates in the universe of writers. One, I’m a pantser. Those of you who aren’t insane enough to try to do this may not be aware that as a group, we divide up pretty firmly into two camps: the plotters and the pantsers. Plotters plot. They lay out the whole story in advance and know what’s going to happen all along the way before they start on page one. Pantsers write by the seat of their pants. They pretty much open a new document and start writing. Then, they keep writing until the story’s done.

I once managed to plot out an outline before I started writing the book, but the only way I could do it was to grit my teeth and promise myself that I wouldn’t have to stick to the damned outline if I didn’t want to. It was agony.

I generally used to think up two characters and an interesting opening situation and started writing. Since I started in (cough) 1990, I’ve learned that there are a couple of pitfalls I tend to fall into, and now I plan ahead how I’m going to avoid those before I start the story. I’m happy to report I never run out of pitfalls. So, I’m doing more and more planning as I mature as a writer. Which brings me to the next point.

Just about nobody is a pure plotter or pure pantser. I have one friend who writes an outline and then fills in the scenes and then the details for the scenes so that when she’s done, she pretty much just needs to flesh out her outline. She’s extreme. Most plotters work from a more general outline than that.

Even the most extreme pantser who writes romance knows some things about her story before she starts writing. She knows there will be at least two people who are destined to love each other but who have to overcome some conflict to be together. There will be a happy ending, usually following a dark period in which it appears their love can‘t succeed. Sexual tension will be a big part of the story, whether or not it’s expressed in actual sex. Most of us writers aren’t pure plotters or pantsers but are hybrids to some extent.

A second dimension on the plane of my writing lies along the continuum of what I call multiple-drafters and few-drafters. Some writers love to barf out whole books in what they sometimes call “sh***y first drafts” and go on to revise, revise, revise. Such writers thrive in forums like Book-in-a-Week or National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). They get it all out and go back and fix it. The few-drafters write more slowly, revise as they go along, and only need to polish (even if they do a lot of polishing) at the end.

I fall in the second camp. My idea of hell would be to take 50,000 words of stuff I threw at a page and turn it into a book. In fact, I hate revisions of any kind. (My editor can’t read this, right?) My friend, the extreme plotter I mentioned above, puts it perfectly. “Every day, I write six sh***y pages. The next day, I revise them and write another six sh***y pages.” That’s how I work. At the end, I have a book that needs a few pass-throughs before I send it in and wait for the inevitable revision letter. I don’t know of any evidence that the other method is better at avoiding revision letters than my method, so I’ll stick to mine.

I’ve met Chris Baty, the creator of NaNoWriMo, and truly, he and his creation are unmitigated Forces for Good. Someday, I will do NaNoWriMo, but when I’ve finished, I won’t have an entire book. I’ll have the first 50,000 words of a book. (Chris can’t read this here, right?)

So, I’m a slow-and-steady pantser. There’s one real danger at being that type of writer. If you write small amounts of material at a stretch, you’d better make sure that you have Discipline. Writing 1,000 words every once in a while will pretty much guarantee that you never get a book done. Discipline is where I shine.

I work at my day job four days a week. That gives me three-day weekends. I’ve found that 5,000 words per week produces enough pages to create finished stories on a pretty good schedule. Five-thousand words divided by three days is 1,666.666666666 words per day. That’s what I do. I have to take days off from time to time, but otherwise, I write those 1,667 words every Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. I will literally stop in the middle of a sentence once I get to that magic number.

That was working for me until a publisher asked me to do an extra story I couldn’t refuse. Rather than give up working on my main work-in-progress, I decided to add another 625 words per day on my lunch hours at work. That gave me another 2,500 words per week. Slower than 5,000 words per week but workable.

Then, I got involved in blogging regularly. To do that, I added another 500 words when I get home in the evening. (That’s what I’m doing right now.) I’m almost fanatical about doing this. If you’re a slow writer, you need to be religious about your schedule, too, even if it’s an hour per day and you get 500 words done during that hour.

Writers write. Period. You may take months plotting out your book so that when you sit down to write it, you’re only fleshing out what you’ve already planned, or you can sit down at the computer and let your freak flag fly. You can write in marathon sessions, producing twenty, thirty, forty pages a day, or you can schedule regular hours during your weekends and reliably produce small amounts of text that finally build to a completed manuscript. It doesn’t matter how you do it. Just do it.


Elyse Mady said...

Alice - you and I sound a lot a like. I'm a "percolating" pantster. I start building a story in my head long before I ever get it down on paper. I need to ruminate and work out solutions otherwise I end up having to edit (which I, too, am not fond of!)

When I start writing, I have bits and pieces of scenes that speak to me - key moments often - that I jotted down while percolating and then I go back and write the pieces together to form a book. No start to finish gal, in other words! :)


Taryn Kincaid said...

I'm a pantser and a reviser. I spend a long time choosing the right word, making the sentence sound smooth, rather than clunky, to my ear. And I revise before moving on. Slow and painful process. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone. I couldn't do NaNo. I wouldn't even try. But when I do finally turn the ms in, it's relatively "clean." (Editors have said so!) Maybe it requires a "punch this up here" or "punch that up there" but the writing itself is going to be pretty much what you'll see on the page when the book lands on your Kindle or Nook.
I wish I could plot. I don't see that happening anytime soon. I wish I had more discipline. But given my life and my day job, I don't really see that happening, either.
Different strokes. And all that.
And, very sorry, but my characters do talk to me. Once in awhile, I interview them on my blog.

Erastes said...

You inspire me - I've been editing and blaming that for not writing. Tomorrow I set myself a target

Wendy Soliman said...

I don't do targets; far too much pressure. I don't categorise myself and the only way I can do what I do is to sit down with a vague idea and let it gain legs. It's worked so far!

Claire Robyns said...

Your commitment to daily wordcount is great, especially for a few-drafters writer - I'm like that, which is why I've never entered a NaNo, but at times for me I use that as an excuse as well, such as when I content myself with 250 words a day with self-encouragement like, "at least they're keepers"

Susanna Fraser said...

I'm closer to pantser than plotter. Like Elyse, I percolate, and I write to milestones. I'll have a strong vision for how the story opens, and then I'll have a few later scenes that are vivid in my mind, usually including the ending. I just have no idea what the path between the milestones is going to look like till I sit down and write it.

Alice Gaines said...

Thanks, everyone. Whatever works for you is the right thing. Keep doing it!