Saturday, February 12, 2011

Thinking, Stewing, Fermenting, and Percolating and the Joys Therein

For the past week I’vebeen cogitating on what an active part thinking plays in the writing process—or at least MY writing process. And then a few days ago I came across a blog post where someone was talking about how what people NEEDED to do to be a productive/professional writer was to sit down and write one page in an hour. They had done the math, you see. They figured out how long it takes to write an email and computed that into how long it would take to write a page, and if you did that three times during the day, voila! You would have a book—or three—by the end of a year. Mind you, this was a professional writer who made his/her living at writing. They firmly believed that all this thinking and researching and note-taking were simply procrastination measures and by and large useless and not-necessary.

It was all I could do not to pull my hair out by the roots and scream at the computer screen.

It would be one thing if this person had made it clear that it was THEIR process—but to extrapolate it out to the writing public at large was, at best irresponsible, at worst egotistical.

I have written over twenty books, and published thirteen of those. The longer I am involved in this writing gig the more convinced I become that the actual writing—putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard—is sometimes only 20-30% of the writing process. Not because I’m avoiding anything or letting myself be sidetracked, but because good pages don’t just happen. They are thought about and pondered over. They stew and ferment and percolate. This is especially true as my books become longer and more complex. Depth and nuance doesn’t (usually!) just fall from the sky in a burst of inspiration while I happen to be pounding out my 250 words per hour. It can, but it doesn’t always. Most often, you have to go out and hunt depth and layers and subtext and club it over the head, drag it home, and then finesse it into your WIP.

Their point was that fast writers were much better and more likely to be true professionals that slow writers. Gah. Of course, that doesn’t even address the issue of those of us who write some books slowly and others quickly…

The funny thing is, I was wrestling with this very issue before I even stumbled upon this blog post. I had set my Start Date for the medievalteenassassin#2 as Feb. 1. As I said, I’d been gathering research materials and making notes and blocking out the big picture plot things. But try as hard as I might, the story egg was NOT ready to crack yet. Was. Not. Now sure, I wrote a couple of pages. And I could very easily have forced myself to stay there and write X number of pages until I have five pages each day. But what sort of pages would they be? The wrong ones, ones leading into a story I didn’t want to tell. Now sure, you can always fix a bad page—but sometimes committing too early to the wrong story is not helpful. Besides, I could have blindly put words on paper that had no depth, no nuance, no layered meaning, and no subtext, but whatever is the point?


So instead, I pulled out my bag of tricks that I fall back on time and time again to help dig around until I find my character and story. (My next post will detail those tricks—I pinkie swear!) Some, like the above referenced blog poster, would call that procrastination. I call it assembling the material from which I plan to craft my story. Sure, one can build something using any old materials one has on hand. Or. One can look long and carefully for the right materials, the ones that compliment and contrast, provide shadows as well as illumination, and are the best quality—the strongest and most aesthetically pleasing materials one can find.

All this ruminating and mulling bore rich fruit. I quickly realized I had started in the wrong place. Once I made the adjustment and backed up, the pages came much, much more easily. Where I had been eking out two painful pages a day, when I backed up and did the necessary story and character work, I was able to write 20 pages in three days. Not a record, by any means, but much more free flowing when they came from the right place. They are still first draft pages, but they have the bones and sinew of the story I am trying to tell, rather than no relation to anything I’m trying to convey.

So the point I am trying to make is that, no, there is no one formula or approach one has to take in order to be a professional working writer who can support themselves with their writing. Ignore anyone who tells you otherwise.

14 comments:

aquafortis said...

I love this. I definitely have to stew--sometimes for a pretty long time! I think it's a personality trait...

In my experience, too, every project is different. I'm glad to hear I'm not the only one!

Robin L said...

Definitely not the only one, Sarah!

Girl Friday said...

Love this post. Letting ideas percolate is - for me anyway - vital. Otherwise it's like taking the teabag out of the mug too soon - yes it's tea, but it's not nearly as well-flavoured as it would be if I'd just let it stew a little longer.

It's like the old quote 'What no one can understand is that a writer is working when he is looking out the window.' I need that time looking out of the window.

TME said...

This is so true for any sort of writing or art. I sometimes do tons of research formulating ideas, other times things just fall together with hardly a thought. Each piece of work just uses a different process.

Sydney said...

I think you're right when you say that it varies from person to person, writer to writer. The most prolific person I ever met was in a screenwriting class. She could write 40-50 pages in one night - and all of them were dreadful. There's no point in churning out pages that are lousy. I'd love to know whose blog you read. This seems like terrible advice. I wonder if I would feel the same about his(?) work.

Robin L said...

Girl Friday, I LOVE your tea bag analogy. That is so perfect! And I'd forgotten about that quote about staring out the window. Very apt.

TME--isn't that funny how that works? I think it must be in part to how long the idea has percolated, unnoticed, in our subconscious...

Sydney--that's just it. Quantity is VERY different from quality. As for the person who blogged--they had written well over fifty novels, but none I'd ever heard of, and lots of work for hire for well established movie tie in type stuff.

Mae said...

How did I begin my writing career?

Procrastinating.

I'll admit, I was quite ready-- or rather, the story was. I wasn't. I'd hated writing for so long...

Writing requires three things- the ability to unearth an idea, the ability to go and type up a book, and the ability to polish the book.

I HATE the actual writing part. I don't want to write this filler scene! I want to write the climax- now! So, most of my books do have 'Excerpts'- the scenes I really do want to write NOW. Actually, one is like the last quarter of the book- plotwise, I need a good bit of editing to make it a real book!

I really do need to get a blog as soon as I publish a book...

Krystal said...

It is very affirming to hear that all writers have different processes, and at the same time it is hard to figure out my own. I would love to hear about your "bag of tricks." Looking forward to your next post. Thanks for the inspiration.

Quirkywriter said...

Oh, it would make me nuts to have to commit to doing X pages per day. Yes, it's essential to commit to butt-in-chair time, but I'm with you that thinking first is a better approach. I'm sure there are people who are designed to write by schedule, but where's the room for following those little rabbit trails that may turn out to be the REAL story? I love what you said about writing the wrong story. I just tossed one of those.

Melanie Abed said...

God love you Robin! Thank you for sharing this. Honestly, I know in my heART that as i have spent the last 5-6 years coming up with my world, I could never have forced it. I know that the process is different for everyone and that there is just no one way to write. We see proof of that everyday just as we learn about our writing heros. So many of them had to "percolate" for very long periods before they hit their strides - years or even decades.

Anonymous said...

Oh, you make me feel so much better. I read a post today to that effect that just made me feel like I'm a horrible writer who will never succeed b/c I am slow, tend to stick to one genre, and am not very hip to the latest technology. Your style is much more akin to mine. And I'm longing to read more of medievalteenassassin's adventures. Um...after I finish my Victoriannaturalistmagicpunk of my own.

Robin L said...

Mae, I think a lot of readers dislike reading filler scenes as much as you dislike writing them! Good idea to minimize them as much as possible.

Krystal, my process changes from one book to the next. That's the one constant about it--that it changes!

Quirkywriter, I use a weekly goal, which allows me a lot of freedom for sitting and staring at the walls some days, but still having a nudge to produce.

Melanie, I firmly, FIRMLY believe that all that stewing in our minds makes our story worlds richer!

Yep Tiffany, that sounds remarkably similar to the one I read! And I am very much looking forward to hearing more about your Victoriannaturalistmagicpunk!

Donna Maloy said...

Sometimes I get my most creative twists for the story when I'm pawing semi-aimlessly through the research. Dry facts, dull narrative, repetitious twaddle, and then poof! the bit of magical serendipity I need to propel me forward. Don't tell me I spend too much time on research!

Robin L said...

Donna, that exact same things happens to me, which is why I would NEVER give up my research time!