In the last four years, I've written four novels and a collection of novellas. When I'm not writing, or teaching, or parenting, or husbanding (my other jobs), I spend a lot of time thinking about the writing.
I would like to share some of my thoughts about the writing process and the writing life, and meditate for a few minutes about what it means to me (and what it might mean to you, if you let it) ... I'll do that with the help of some great thinkers about writing.
Writing is often hard and frustrating work, but it's not magic. I've spent my whole life reading a lot, and thinking about stories ... sometimes a story comes to me, I take notes, outline my ideas, and if I still like the story, begin writing.
I almost always go into writing a story not knowing everything about the characters and conflicts involved, but so that I can find out more about them ... and myself. When my writing process is at its best, I come out the other side changed somehow (and hopefully so do my readers).
Often the seeds of the stories I tell in my writing come from imagining myself, or someone else, in an untenable position ... how would they/I get out of the situation with their body and soul intact?
If a story cannot stretch me as a writer and a person, as well as my readers, I have some trouble picturing a good reason for the investment in time on anyone's part.
I recently finished the first draft of my fourth novel, and the above quote is now being hammered home daily ... during meetings with my reader, while trying to work through the first round of edits, while imagining the rough work in front of me as finished novel.
I write drunk, as Ernest suggested ... not literally, but close enough.
I have done the pre-planning and outlining months ahead of time, and when the time comes for my annual writing spring, I get into a zone/mood/state of caffeinated tension/relaxation.
I let the words, the story come out of me as fast as my fingers can move ... sometimes as much as five thousand (or more) words a day. I don't sweat spelling or grammar or even completeness of thought (sometimes I leave a blank spot in the page with a note about how the scene should end, to be fixed later).
Something about this process, this release, works for me, and I'm able to disconnect the careful and self-conscious parts of me, and just write ... just tell the story.
Later, after I've finished the first draft and my reader has gone through the rough work with a fine-toothed mind, I sober up and start to look at each word and sentence and paragraph and page and scene and, eventually, the book/story, as a whole.
We work together to fix/make linkages and connections throughout the story, to enhance continuity and the feeling of place and people, to round off any edges too rough for my readers to read through without hanging up on.
It takes an entirely different approach, possibly another kind of mind or writer, to make this part of the process work, and luckily (for me) I have a partner in the process who makes up for what I lack, and together we manage to craft a nice story (if I do say so myself).
One of the things that amazes me every time I produce a story is the truth of Neil Gaiman's statement above ... readers can always identify when something in a story doesn't ring true, but hardly ever offer the right fix for the problem.
I think the problem with the second part of that equation (there's nothing wrong with the front end of that particular equation .. it's a sort of magic that allows for readers' crap-detection) is that readers weren't involved in the 'drunk' segment of the process, the writing.
Something in the sub-conscious, or unconscious, connections that are made during the writing of any story tend to make the fixes unavailable to people who didn't do the writing ... they can, and thankfully do, make useful suggestions about what is wrong, and then stand aside to let me (and other writers) re-immerse themselves in the story to try and fix things.
The above is a poem/statement made by Donald Rumsfeld, while serving as Secretary of Defense ... it captures imperfectly, but wonderfully, the feeling I get when approaching both the writing and editing side of my storytelling endeavors.
As I march forward in this process for the fourth time, grafting and pruning and fixing and (sometimes) ignoring, I can feel something huge looming ahead of me ... a change in my life, my writing, my process, the ways in which the various parts of my writing life and the rest of my life fit together.
It's scary and exciting and scary, and if I think about it too much, it might swallow me whole ... but I cannot ignore it.
There's an ominous presence lurking in the closet, sometimes under the bed, occasionally just inside the woods when I take the dogs out late at night; waiting for me to acknowledge it, so it can swoop in and ... hug me and make everything better, or rip me apart and feast on my marrow (I don't which, possibly both).
The only thing I can do until the unknown knowns and the unknown unknowns make themselves known is to keep writing drunk and editing sober ... you keep reading and I'll keep writing.