Thursday, January 01, 2009

The Process of Writing

I hope you had a good first day of 2009. I did. I made sure to eat black-eyed peas, an old Southern tradition that insures good luck throughout the coming year.

Wishing all of you the best of luck in the new year.

I have a friend who is a talented painter. We had dinner recently and, after eating, we sat with glasses of liqueur and talked about our respective processes. To my surprise, I found that we shared a number of similarities.

When M gets ready to do a landscape, she begins by blocking out the prominent features--like mountains and buildings--to insure that she gets the perspective right. Once she has the larger attributes distributed across the canvas, she goes back to begin filling in the detail. Her final step is to add the light and shade. She contends that it is this step that separates the amateurs from the professionals, and that lighting and shade can make or break a landscape.

I was interested because I essentially follow the same process in my writing; only I do it chapter by chapter. This is largely because I am a pantser, writing by the seat of my pants. I get an idea for a story, sit down and begin writing without knowing much more than how the plot will begin and how it will end.

My usual process is to begin the story, but not to curb my tendency to wander off into backstory. I allow each of the characters to natter on as much as they like about their pasts. I don't try to curb them for two reasons: (1) It's how I warm up to a story, and (2) This is how I learn who the characters are.

Plus I plan to lop all this backstory off when I get to that first moment of action so I can afford to be indulgent.

Once I get to the moment of action, the real novel begins. I start by describing the action in the old journalistic tradition: who, what, when, where and why. I do this primarily through dialogue, which is probably my strongest skill as a writer.

When I have finished "blocking" out the prominent features of my chapter, I go back and begin filling in the detail. This usually means some narrative (often taken from that backstory--but only a line or two at a time) and some description. When I am writing that first run through above, I don't stop to describe the setting. During my second pass, I fill in a bit of detail to help anchor the reader as to time and place.

One of my critique partners, Linda, does such a great job with descriptions that I have learned an enormous amount from her. She uses wonderful metaphors and odd word pairings to describe her settings and her characters. This is usually where I add a touch of light humor.

My last pass on a chapter will be to fill in the emotional color. What are the characters thinking and feeling? This is the hardest part of the job for me. I do it mostly through internal dialogue to keep from drifting from "showing" into "telling." Without emotional color, your readers fail to connect to your characters. Too much and the story becomes soppy. Another of my critique partners does it so naturally that I envy her skill. When she critiques my chapters, she puts her finger right on the places where I need to flesh out the emotional story more.

I find that many newbie writers get so busy with their narrative and description of action and settings that they completely ignore the emotional side of the story. In my romances, I try to include both the hero and heroine's POV (in different scenes, of course). If you can get inside your characters' heads, you can listen to their reactions and express them on the page for your reader. Like my painter friend said about lighting and shading, emotional color can make or break your novel.

During each of my three passes over each chapter, I re-read and clean up the language and grammar. The result is, when I reach the end of the novel, I have very little more to do in terms of editing. That is, of course, until my editor and copy editor get their hands on the manuscript.

I am not suggesting that every writer needs to do three passes on a chapter. Every writer needs to find his/her way through their story. But ignore action, dialogue, narrative or emotional color at your own risk.

Happy writing in 2009.

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