What is my writing process? Apparently, all writers have them and all are unique. Do you write standing up? Write Drunk and Edit Sober or vice versa? Devote an hour a day? Don’t stop until at least three pages are finished? Don’t even think about your book until you’ve accomplished a half hour of free-writing? I enjoy reading about other writers’ processes and there is a sense of community as I find writers share many of the same struggles, but though I’ve been working on my book for years, I still don’t have a process. It’s constantly changing and has yet to be nailed down.
I try. “I’m going to write an hour a day. Period.” I begin with that goal but then I’ll have a day where I’m so tired I can’t string words together verbally much less type something other than gibberish. Then there days when my arm will hurt and I can’t type or write by hand and, before I know it, days have passed with no progress on the manuscript. That doesn’t mean I’m not writing if by ‘writing’ I mean thinking about my book and characters, plotting what happens next, or reading a bit by way of research. In many ways, my process is to work on my book every waking moment-and some sleeping moments-even though words don’t always make it onto paper.
I hear advice like; don’t edit yourself-get it down on paper and then edit. That makes sense but that doesn’t work for me. I’ll be writing away and then I realize that both plot and characters feel dry and that a change needs to be made; often four or five chapters ago. If I don’t go back and make the change, I CANNOT continue writing. It’s like all creativity dries up. So, I edit myself I great deal while working.
One piece of advice I have taken to heart is don’t throw anything away. I have a dump file and, whenever I hit a situation mentioned in the above paragraph, I take the scene that isn’t working and stick it in the dump file. This has been crucial for me. There have been so many times I plopped something that wasn’t working in the file and forgot about it until I found I needed it; often years after first setting it down. I recently copied in work I’d done in my earliest draft-almost ten years old now-into my current draft and was thrilled not to have to re-write the scene.
“Taking a long time” is definitely part of my process but my story arcs over seven books and I don’t want to make the mistake of introducing something in Book One that is utterly contradicted in Book Seven. I hate it when authors do that. I’ve had authors I like reference an instance from an earlier book that I remember happening differently and, sure enough, I scrounge up the appropriate book and find I’m correct. Why does that happen? Is it easier to tweak the facts for the current book? I don’t know but it’s annoying. I also have a hard time continuing to read an author that changes a character’s name in a later book. Is the name unimportant because the character is a minor one? No. If you’re going to bring the character back in later books, make sure you use the same name! I don’t know if that’s an author or an editor mistake but, again, it’s annoying.
I respect authors that go that extra mile in research and attention to detail. The Denver Museum of Nature and Science recently had a Sherlock Holmes exhibit. Sherlock Holmes is one of my favorite characters and I enjoyed immersing myself in that world. The exhibit had plenty of hands on activities and there was a mystery to be solved as I moved through the different displays. Great fun but I enjoyed reading the letters written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. One such letter was to his publisher and Mr. Conan Doyle was requesting a copy of an early manuscript as he couldn’t remember all the details he’d set down and no longer had a copy of his own. My writer spirit felt camaraderie with that: a writer respecting both his characters and his readers enough to research his early work. Such an eye for detail and a respect for research-as well as great writing-keeps Sir Arthur Conan Doyle on my shelves.
I knew Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote other books: I’ve seen The Lost World even though I haven’t yet acquired a copy of the book. I did find a collection of stories I’d never known Conan Doyle wrote and I was especially interested in the Preface to The White Company written by Conan Doyle’s wife. It begins:
My husband was intensely thorough in all his literary work. He took enormous pains to have everything right. For instance, before writing The White Company, he soaked his brain with a knowledge of the period he intended to portray. He read over sixty books dealing with heraldry-armour-falconry-the medieval habits of the peasants of that time-the social customs of the higher fold of the land, etc. Only when he knew those days as though he had lived in them-when he had got the very atmosphere steeped into his brain-did he put pen to paper and let loose the creations of his mind. (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Historical Novels: Volume One; Preface to The White Company)
This, also, I deeply respect. I do write a bit differently than this; I soak my brain in the period I’m writing in but there are things I don’t realize I should be researching until I’m already in the writing process. For instance, merely having a character attend a public bath isn’t enough. I need to know what the baths in both Ancient Rome and Ancient Arabia were like. How did they differ from one another? Were there different rules for men and women? Were there castes of society not allowed to attend at all? What did one do with his or her clothes when bathing? Fortunately for me, there are historians with these same interests and I can scare up a book or a documentary that will tell me what I need to know.
Maybe my writing should be more disciplined. Maybe I take too much time. Maybe I shouldn’t be getting wrapped up in these little details until a second or even a third draft. Maybe, but it doesn’t seem to be part of my process.