Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Phases of Writing

I've been doing this blog since 2005. You'd think by now there wouldn't be a writing subject I hadn't touched upon.

However, this morning in answering a question on a writing loop, I realized I've never addressed the issue of the phases of writing a novel.

First, a disclaimer. This post is obviously based on my writing process. Other writers may have completely different experiences.

As I began to think about the subject, I realized my connection to a manuscript roughly follows the pattern of some of my real-life relationships.

The Honeymoon Phase: This is always how it is when I start a manuscript. I'm in love with the idea of the novel, with the characters, and with the story. I want to write 24/7. I get up early to write, I write during my lunch hour, I rush home from work to write, and I wake up in the middle of the night to write. If I'm lucky, this burst of creativity carries me through the first third of the novel (somewhere between 25K to 30K words). It also helps to establish the voices of the main characters so that they start to help direct the action.

Ennui: Lots of writers are familiar with this phase of a manuscript. It's often called the "sagging middle." It's a particular bĂȘte noire for pantsers like me . . . people who do not plot novels out beforehand, but who approach a novel organically, allowing it to grow in a non-linear fashion as the individual responses of the characters dictate.

I always know how my novel will start and how it will end but, as my characters develop, their unique personalities help to mold the plot. The problem comes when that initial bubble of creativity bursts, and I find myself saying, "Okay, what happens now?"

For me, the middle of the novel always involves experimentation. Keeping in mind the classic structure of Western novels (the three-act format) I try different paths, exploring where each will lead me as I head toward the climax.

When it works, it's magical. The characters learn and grow and the tension builds. When it doesn't work, it's like slogging through a bog of mud with a heavy backpack weighing me down.

In Bad Boy, the cross-cultural nature of the relationship between Leah Reece and Quin Perez has each introducing the other to their very different worlds. I decided to experiment with turning the stereotype of the possessive Hispanic male on its ear, giving Leah a moment when she acts very possessively of Quin. He allows it to pass without comment. Later when he responds negatively to a grab-ass friend of Leah's, she doesn't like it and lets him know in no uncertain terms. Quin calls her on the double standard. That interaction between the two is an important step in their developing relationship.

When I started to write that scene, mutual jealousy was the farthest thing from my mind. However, as the couple interacted with a crowd at a party, the incident simply evolved.

The rough part of experimentation is when nothing seems to go right. I write for hours and then, the next day, end up moving all that output into a "overflow" folder because it just doesn't work.

Another problem with sagging middles is when I write myself into a corner. Or when I think I've "lost" a character's voice. Or when I just can't stand these characters one more minute. I call it manuscript fatigue.

Invariably, somewhere between 33K and 65K words, I have to put the manuscript aside and take a break for a few days. Walking away gives me the distance to look at the manuscript with fresh eyes. But it's hard to do. I'm stuck in the middle . . . caught between wanting to write and knowing I need to stay away from that work-in-progress.

I'm not much of a shopper, but while I'm trying to stay away from my manuscript, I usually call my BFF and ask if she wants to go shopping. She almost always responds the same way: "Who are you, and what did you do with Maya?"

After five days or so, I go back. I ALWAYS start by re-reading the entire manuscript. By doing so, I fall back in love with my characters and regain their voices.

Almost every time I have written myself into a corner, it began two or three chapters before I stalled. During my re-read, I can usually spot that moment immediately. Time and distance permit me to be objective.

The Dash to the Finish: The last thirty thousand words present a different challenge for me. I'm getting close enough to smell the finish of the manuscript. I'll soon write "the end" on the story.

Inevitably, I begin to procrastinate. I avoid writing on my W-I-P. I avoid even thinking about it.

It took me a long time to figure out the cause of this problem.

I'm back in love with my hero and heroine and don't want their story to end.

Silly, isn't it? I am generally pretty goal-oriented and pragmatic. This emotional reaction completely surprised me, but it happens every time. Once I identified the problem, I was able to come up with a solution.

When I near the end of any manuscript, I start something new. For a month or so, I work on both the last third of my W-I-P and the first third of another. Initially, I don't want to leave my nearly finished novel to mess with the new one, but--before long--I become anxious to concentrate all my attention on the new one and am, therefore, willing to wrap up the old one.

I know it sounds goofy, but it works. I satisfy my emotional needs and trick my own brain into success.

The whole point of this lengthy post is to encourage you to identify the phases of your writing and, more importantly, to recognize the barriers your brain or your process erect in your path.

Once you identify the obstructions, you can begin to overcome them.

Good luck!

Taking the day off tomorrow to play in the dirt and go see the film Duplicity. See you on Monday.

10 comments:

Redleg said...

The last thirty thousand pages are challenging for you? Are you writing the longer, more drawn out sequel to War and Peace?

Maya Reynolds said...

Thanks, Redleg. I meant "words," of course.

Appreciate the editing service.

Regards,

Maya

Tara Maya said...

I recognize these stages. I particularly have a problem with not wanting to finish.

Maya Reynolds said...

Tara: Is your reason for not wanting to finish the same as mine?

Mitch Wallace said...

I'm working on the 3rd draft/rewrite of my first YA novel, and I can tell you that I'm definitely feeling the procrastination bug kicking in. This is basically my third time through the story (and my seventh month working on it), and even though most of the text has changed entirely since the first draft, I'm very aware of where everything's going and I'm getting quite impatient - it's almost done! And now that I can truly see the light at the end of the tunnel, I find myself either trying not to work on my manuscript or just wishing the damn thing would complete itself on its own.

It should be finished by next Friday (that's the deadline I've given myself), so I just have to plow ahead and make it good. Fascinating post Maya - I'd love for you to do more stuff that explains your writing process. It helps us fledgling writers out!

Maya Reynolds said...

Mitch: I'll be happy to do more posts along this vein. But it might help me if you ask a specific question that I can sink my teeth into {grin}.

Regards,

Maya

Mitch Wallace said...

Hmmmm...I'm always interested in the usual stuff, like:

- How long does it take you to finish a manuscript, from typing the first word to having a finished product in your hands?

- What do you do when self-doubt sets in? (This is a huge one for me - it's absolutely crippling on some days).

- How many drafts do you typically go through for one story?

- How hard was it to find an agent for your work? And what was the process like for you? (I'm about to embark on my own quest for an agent, so I'd love for you to elaborate on this).

Maya Reynolds said...

Okay, I'll plan to do a post a week that addresses some of these issues.

Regards,

Maya

Mike Keyton said...

You've just ruined my day. I'm still 20K in my 'honeymoon' phase and you've reminded me what's to come. Hmm. I think I'll go back to bed.

Maya Reynolds said...

Mike!! I was just thinking about you yesterday and wondering how you were doing.

It's good to hear from you.

Regards,

Maya