25 Apr 2012

Do you have a writing process?

"Why do some authors write literary fiction? Because they can't plot."
-Lee Child, author of something called the 'Jack Reacher' novels

Screw dental plans. I've got bananas. 
The words of 'genre' fiction writer Lee Child came back to haunt me this weekend when I was put on the spot by a publisher to basically come up with a 2,000-word story line for a novel on a theme of their recommendation in 48 hours. Yes, that's my indirect way of saying I'm now moving up the ladder of writerly anonymity from Nobody to Nobody-you-know-yet.

I don't want to go into the details for fear of pissing off my superhero agent (he really is, he has the cape to prove it!) who wrangled me the offer, but suffice to say he got them to read my manuscript, they liked my style, and wanted me to write about a topic that they felt would definitely sell.

A few months ago, when I had a well-paying job and a penthouse apartment in Singapore, I would have hesitated and deliberated and generally screwed the pooch by wondering if writing-on-demand is a kind of 'selling out'and entertaining all sorts of ethical dilemmas, but I'm happy to report I was in this instance thoroughly mature and saw it for what it was- a fantastic opportunity.

Opportunity, as it turns out, is not the same as ability. The recommended theme is one I feel passionately about (bonus!), something I've spent a good part of my life being involved in, but I couldn't for the life of me come up with a story. I tried writing a chapter, just letting words run riot, and that happened spontaneously enough. But to predict where those words would take me - no cigar!

After repeated back-and-forths between Super Agent and I, I did somehow manage to come up with a basic premise that is promising in theory, but is a long way short of being a full-bodied plot. The experience made me realize just how important the 'writing process' is to a writer, and how differently writers probably approach their work.

When I sit down to write fiction-be it a novel or a short story or a blog post- I usually have no clue where it's headed. The characters seem to just take on a life of their own, they meet other people, they fall in love and start wars and do the macarena and adopt broken-limbed pets, sometimes against my better judgement. I really have no control over their decisions, I'm merely a medium for their story.

Even on those rare occasions where I already have a plot sussed out, chances are the finished product is nothing like the story I set out to write. This unpredictability, this constant tendency to surprise and titillate, is why I love and enjoy writing so much- a bit like working for Dr. Julia Harris in Horrible Bosses (shut up Charlie Day, sexual harassment is awesome!)

I certainly don't consider myself a 'literary' writer, but neither do I believe in the concept of 'genre' fiction. I'd go so far as to rate fiction by age appropriateness, but no further. I'd hope to be able to write stories that readers of any type of fiction would consider reading, if not actively appreciate, and that it is the quality of writing, and the tastes of each individual reader- and not the 'genre'- that makes a book palatable.

Anyway, I can't help wondering how others 'write' - do you have storyboards and post-its and the rest of the hupla, or do you feel your way forward, arms outstretched in the dark like I do? Is there a method to this madness? Do you have tips for somebody like me, who is suddenly required to change tack? I'd love to hear if you do. In the meantime, here's hoping Super Agent will come through and completely blind the publisher to the glaring holes in my first attempt at 'plot'.


austere said...

I will buy your book.(You know how *kanjoos* I am)

Novels I dunno, but my stories begin with 400 word practice stubs on IWW. And they grow bit by painful bit.

There is something called Scrivener ? that people use to storyboard, so I've read.

Boss ALL fingers and toes crossed.
* karo!*

The Angry Lurker said...

I apologise as I am not a writer but do write scenarios for gaming and try to entertain but be strict, not the same thing I know!

Revacious said...

Not knowing how it's all finally gonna turn out is fun, no?
I don't know about books, but in music genres are a way to sell the song. One reason why I don't look at the genre before listening to music.
Congratulations, I REALLY hope you get to do what u like :)

Sarge said...

There are gad-zillions of books out there on how to write fiction. Writer's Digest Magazine is a great source of information. My favorite authors were Leon Uris and James Clavell. I tried Anne Rice but the shit got boring - vampires and the like.

But, here it is - If you can blog - You can write...


icyHighs said...

Thanks guys, and thanks especially for not pulling me up for inserting that very random pic of Jennifer Aniston in her undies.

Austere - Thanks, I'm actually more interested in the process than the tools, but should check this stuff out.

Lurker - U know I'm a regular reader of your blog but this is the closest I've come to understanding what you actually do. :)

Revacious - Genres are certainly the easiest way for record companies to sell an album/song. I just dump everything I listen to under 'rock'-i.e. its not been made by a computer.

Sarge - You're the second person this week to mention Clavell. Loved The Great Escape; must check out his writing. Surprised you didn't make a crack about ol' Jen!

goatman said...

Not to be apparent, but what was the theme you were to write about?

I read somewhere that Hemingway would labor for days on an essential paragraph . . . but then he shot himself! So . . .

I would advise as to the utility of the creative method: originate an idea plotline or paragraph, build any relation you can to it -- jot down notes bluesky, take a break -- have a beer or two, let time pass (this may involve sleep and dreaming), then later see if your creative mind came up with anything useful to put it all together.

This works with inventions and constructing designs as well. I use it all the time for solving problems also.

Super Earthling said...

Congrats on your good news! :)

The one thing I've learned to do when I write is to keep a character sheet, with all the identifying characteristics, nicknames, facts, etc., about each character in the novel.

That saves me from having a blue-eyed blonde become a green eyed brunette a few chapters later because I forgot to change it.

I never use an outline though. I just type what's inside my head. :)

Sarge said...

That ain't shit! Wait til you see this - email me at msgtron@aol.com

I have a shaved bare Jen...


Workingdan said...

I'm not a writer. But when I write a blog post, I fly by the seat of my pants. Sometimes where I want the story to go ends up in a totally different direction.

If I were to write a novel or such, I would probably at least keep a list of characters handy, lest I get names or characteristics mixed up!

I just watched that movie, Horrible Bosses. When Jennifer came out wearing just her lab coat, my eyes got all wide and I was like DAMN!......then my wife slapped me!

Mrs. One Day said...

Sometimes I sit down with a clear idea in my head of where I'm going, but I'd say the majority of the time I know I want (need) to write something but have no idea what. Once I start it sort of just pours forth as corn as that sounds.

And congratulations!!

Crack You Whip said...

I never know what I am going to write about or what direction I am heading in when I write.

I just let the magic flow. Hopefully it flows well.

Revacious said...

"'rock'-i.e. its not been made by a computer." Heard of Chemical Brothers? Electronic music with rock undertones.
No sir, genres are absolutely not to be trusted! :D

icyHighs said...

i know i know. daft punk, kraftwerk, i didn't say its a perfect system.

hyperCRYPTICal said...

I love prompts - ekphrastic or otherwise – never know where they are going to take me. More often than not, my original idea morphs along the way into something completely different and then if I can, I will add something ‘intelligent’ to the post – something I hope will get folk thinking – especially about much stigmatised mental health.

Sometimes I can’t come up with anything and just accept that – but I guess your situation is completely different in that you have a time limit involved and a definite reason for coming up with the goods!

As said by Sarge – if you can blog you can write – and my you can certainly write! So I would say do what you do now – looking for or at others way of writing will only be a distraction…

Anna :o]

icyHighs said...

Whoa,Hypercryptical: 'ekphrastic' - you learn something new everyday! Thanks for sharing, and yes, Sarge is a very wise man.

Hi Goatman, unfortunately I'm not allowed to out the topic, but beer is always good advice! Glad to see you posting again, its been a while.

Hi WD, that movie is ace! And I dont know about what makes somebody a 'writer' but you're an ace story-teller, no doubt about it.

Hi Mrs. One Day & Crack You Whip, Thanks and that's pretty much how I roll too, corny as that sounds!