Thursday, February 02, 2006

The Writer's Process

I got an email today. A local high school is looking for a writer to talk to an honors English class next Thursday morning. The high school contacted the local library. The local library contacted the Irving Writers' Connection. The Irving Writers' Connection contacted me, and I agreed to do it. The class wants to know about "the writer's process." Therefore, I'm going to blog about that process tonight to help order my thoughts on the subject.

Among my group of friends and colleagues, we identify ourselves as either plotters or pantsers. The plotters are very organized with written outlines and completed synopses before they ever sit down to start a novel. The pantsers write "by the seat of their pants" without much planning or forethought.

I am definitely a pantser. I do not hang pictures of my characters in my office, I do not interview my characters ahead of time, I do not outline. I come up with an idea, play with it in my head for a day or two and then sit down to write. I usually have the beginnings of an idea of the hero and heroine's archetypes and their external and internal goals, but those develop as I go along.

I'm all about an opening hook. If I haven't engaged my reader's attention on the very first page, with the first 250 words, I haven't done my job. Most times, my inspiration for a novel will be an idea for an opening hook. I then develop a story behind that opening. I follow my characters' lead; they decide the path the book will take.

There is a BIG danger in writing this way. Pantsers often run into sagging middles in their novels. They start off with a bang and then trail off because they have not clearly established the plot for the novel. Each pantser has developed his/her own method for dealing with this issue--the little tricks they use to keep their momentum and focus.

For me, the trick is to balance between a required weekly goal for number of words written and the need to allow myself sufficient time for plot development. Over the last two and a half years, I've established a system that works.

First, I must write every day in order to achieve the week's goal of sixty pages. Sixty pages is 15,000 words. I can do that in five days at 3,000 words a day or I can do it in seven days at about 2,150 words per day. The critical thing is that, by Sunday night, I need 15,000 words.

You can see the dilemma here. What if I am not sure what is going to happen next in a manuscript? What do I do?

My solution--while not unique--is a little unusual. I always have three manuscripts going at once. When I get stuck on one, I immediately switch to another to allow myself time to sort through the plotting problems on the first.

It helps that I'm a gardener. From about February 1 to October 31, I spend at least ninety minutes in my garden every day. That is a terrific opportunity to work out plot problems and dialogue while planting, weeding and spraying.

I identify each manuscript by the names of the heroes and heroines. Right now, I have Maggie and Gabe, Hallie and Miles, and Meta and Tony.

It's not foolproof. Frequently, one of my critique partners, Jeanne Laws, will have to remind me of a particular character's name because I'm happy to call him the artist or the reporter. Of course, as I get deeper into a novel (Page 75 is usually the magic number), I fall in love with my hero and heroine and become very protective of them.

Invariably, I begin to have a problem around Page 300. The end is in sight (my novels usually run 375 to 400 pages on the first draft) and I start dragging my heels because I don't want the story to end. The last 25 pages are agony. I will procrastinate for days, weeks and even months because I don't want to say goodbye to characters I've grown to love.

Even this refusal to let go works to help my process. I switch over to another novel and work on that. By the time I get to page 75, I'm in love again and ready to say goodbye to the original couple. Yes, I'll admit it. I'm a fickle slut. But I'm a productive fickle slut.

Enough for tonight. More later . . .


Buffy said...

Three freakin' manuscripts at one time?! What are you?? Superwoman?

Maya said...

No, I just have a *very* short attention span. [grin]