In my last post (“Inspired to Emulation—or Preparing to Jump“), I talked about The Rule of No Rules, and how reading other writers you admire will provide the best writing advice you will ever receive.
Not long after the post went up, one of my favorite novelists, Adrian McKinty—who writes brilliantly about Northern Ireland during the Troubles from the perspective of a Catholic detective serving in the overwhelmingly Protestant Royal Ulster Constabulary—posted the following letter on Twitter. He composed it to an aspiring author who had asked his advice on this whole writing business. This is what Adrian wrote in response (the recipient’s name has been removed for the sake of privacy ):
I’m tempted to end this blog post here, because I couldn’t possibly say anything as perfect, but that would be cheating, or lazy, or both. So instead, I’m going to talk a little about my writing process, and in so doing I ironically intend to prove that Adrian is absolutely right—there are no rules. (Incidentally — for more on Adrian and his truly wonderful books, visit his blog The Psychopathology of Everyday Life.)
I’m currently writing a new novel, and for the sake of this post have been taking note of my revision process, which otherwise would go largely unanalyzed. I make no assertions that my way is the right way—in fact, I would like to begin with a contrarian point, that my way actually is slow, laborious, and not suitable for “mainstream” writers obliged to crank out one or more books a year. I will leave guidance on that front to those entitled to provide it. My way is simply my way, and I hope by discussing it I might help you shed light on your own, for better and/or worse.
Searching for a phrase that might describe my way of revising, I first came up with “descending into the text,” but that seemed so utterly hokey, so sniffily pompous, I discarded it immediately.
Instead, deferring to my recent research on all-things-Ireland, and hoping for a bit of ironic wit to cut through the humbug, I settled on the title above. It’s suggestive of a process of discovering something already there on the page, buried beneath some obscuring element, waiting to be unearthed. Although that does indeed resonate with some of what I mean here, something very different is at play as well. Creation, not just discovery, figures in.
What I discover as I’m writing a given scene or chapter is that the first couple of drafts only descend so far into the emotional, dramatic, and experiential truth of the situation. I sometimes describe the precess as working out a preliminary sketch then gradually, slowly, layering on the color.
Or think of it this way: I get the furniture arranged, I invite everyone in, and listen to the first things that pop into their minds (and out of their mouths) given my initial sense of where things need to go.
This will usually occupy me for a day or two. Often I will tinker with this or that, tightening the prose, trimming away the excess, eliminating repetition, correcting mistakes. Fiddling. Mucking about. Getting acquainted with the material.
Then I descend a little further. I often need time off—overnight will do, usually—to let my unconscious prowl around the situation I’ve invented, to notice what my conscious writer self has overlooked due to being preoccupied with word choice, sentence structure, punctuation, and so on. (William James was referring to this back and forth between conscious and unconscious effort with his bon mot: “We learn to ski in the summer, and learn to swim in the winter.”)
I notice that my characters are, as yet, largely functional—they’re playing their roles, not acting like real people in the situation with quirks, tics, contradictions, dual agendas, bad habits, emotional blind spots, and so on. I need to liberate them from what I want them to do and simply let them behave.
Step one, I imagine their appearance and physical nature more specifically, and look for what I missed so far—the torn pocket on a shirt, mustard stain on a tie, worn heels on the shoes, hair dye, a hand tremor, cologne or perfume. This almost always brings me closer to the character’s emotional and psychological specficity as well.
Step Two, I remind myself of each character’s Objective, Obstacle, and Action: what she wants in the scene, what stands in her way, what she does to overcome the obstacle to achieve her goal. I clarify and intensify the tension, and make sure I’m revealing through conflict, not straight narration.
Due to Donald “Master Don” Maass’s expert advice, I now also ask myself how each character hopes to feel by the end of the scene, and what happens to that hope, that feeling, given what happens. This helps me not only understand each character better, but to distinguish among them—for example, if I have friends or siblings or co-workers in the scene, this is usually where I begin to separate them more clearly in my mind.
Once I have that in hand, if the scene still feels unfinished, I take each character’s perspective and run through the scene from their point of view, then do so with each of the other characters. I listen for what each character would really say given what just happened. each character’s distinct rhythms, their idiosyncratic word choice (more on that below)—most importantly, I imagine more deeply what they would feel and what they would do, letting the dialogue, if any, arise from that.
On the issue of word choice specific to each character: One of the greatest techniques I ever learned in this regard I gernered from Joshua Mohr, another wonderful writer. He suggested setting up a dialogue grid, with each character’s specific or idiosyncratic verbal expressions, from certain words they “hit” particular hard or often, to regional dialect, to favorite curse words, to syntactical peculiarities—e.g., the subjectless sentence (“Going to the dance tongiht?”), the serial interrogatory (“Mrs. Hornby? You know the report you wanted me to write? About Chaucer?”)
If I’m still feeling like I’m not quite there, I remind myself how this scene fits into each character’s general Yearning—their dream of life: the kind of person they want to be, the way of life they hope to live. This scene is a moment in that pursuit—where does that moment fit in the general outline provided by the story, and the story within their lives. If I’ve associated the Yearning with an image, a symbol, or a piece of music, how does that get reflected here?
Similarly, what is holding them back from fulfilling their Yearning—what wounds, weaknesses, limitations, moral flaws are undermining their pursuit of their dream of life. How is all that reflected here?
Sometimes this takes deliberate effort, other times it’s an intuitive plunge into the scene. It may take one day, it may take three—but if I’m not getting it right by then, it’s time to move on.
As I continue into the story, my unconscious will continue providing me little insights—a change in an action, a line of dialogue, a description—and I’ll jot them down and slip them in where they fit, or make notes to myself to return to the scene and write the change in.
This sort of revising-as-I-go is contrary to the advice of many writers, who save this sort of revision for a second pass after they “have the story down.” But I don’t feel I’ve truly got the story down until I do this sort of sinking into each scene. Until then I’m just skimming the surface of events—and is that really the story?
This deeper exploration of each scene often feels like discovery, as though I’m finding what was already there but wasn’t yet aware of. And yet it is also creation, obviously, because I am inventng new details, adding touches I come up with on the fly. The test of truth to any created bit, however, is if it serves the story, rather than feeling jammed in or slapped on for effect. So in truth it is more of a back and forth between creation and discovery, and the bog I’m sinking into is my imagination.
Regardless, this effort typically also prompts me to go to my outline and make changes in the overall story—usually to upcoming scenes, but on occasion for already written scenes as well.
I know this all sounds laborious, and as already noted, it’s time-consuming. I can’t say I recommend it, and I envy those who can work well more rapidly. I’ve tried just plowing ahead, however, hoping to get a “lousy first draft.” Sooner or later it just feels wrong, like I’ve taken a wrong step, or have sold short the real possibilities in the story. I’ve ultimately had to accept that this is simply my process, and as I often tell my students, one of the most important things you will learn as a writer is how you work and coming to trust that.
Now, of course, we all develop bad habits, and shouldn’t allow them to undermine our work in the name of “owning our process.” But in the inevitable calculation of what is the best use of your time, you need to gauge for yourself whether that time is better spent moving ahead with your current way of doing things or better spent breaking down those bad habits, learning new ones, and suffering the inevitable struggles any such change in methods will entail. (Those who have taken the plunge into Scrivener have no doubt insights to share on this trade-off.)
Regardless, we once again return to The Rule of No Rules. You have to find your own way into and out of the bog, as both Adrian and I have advised. Sadly, there are no guarantees—or, as Adrian advised his fledling writer, “It’s just the nature of the beast.” There are simply the stories only you can tell, and that will have to suffice, as it always has.
What parts of your writing process would you change if you knew how, or could risk the readjustment time required? What do you think of Adrian’s advice to his fledgling writer—do you agree? Disagree? Something in between?
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