Friday, July 8, 2011

My process

So there’s been a lot of talk around the interwebs about people and their process. I almost hate talking about my process because I feel very much the amateur. Usually, I’d step aside and say something like, “I’ll tell you why feeling like an amateur is so scary to me another day.” But not today. Today, you get the whole story. 

Once upon a time, I wrote a novel. It was a story that was too big for its britches, but I wrote it anyway. I was too dumb to realize the mistakes I was making, and in retrospect, I learned a ton about writing. At the time, however, I thought I’d be the next hot thing. Thinking my manuscript was awesome sauce on toast, I gave it to a friend of mine. He had a degree in English (isn’t that the degree you’re supposed to get if you want to write?), and I had a degree in Geology. I figured that my grammar might be a little unfortunate, but what the heck, anyone can fix grammar. Neither of us knew anything about critiquing, good, bad or otherwise.

After he read my manuscript, he sat me down (first clue things weren’t going to go well) and said to me “This is hopelessly amateurish.”** Then he went on to say that it would be too much work to give a real critique because it was so bad. A whole novel boiled down to one line. I won’t lie, it was crushing, but even as my poor heart lay bleeding on the floor I felt like my 75,000 words deserved more than a four word sum up. I’d been reading and commenting on his manuscripts for eons by this point, so I figured I deserved something more than amateurish. He thought my manuscript was so hopeless that it didn’t even deserve the time to say things like “I found your main character to be unbelievable, if you added some details about her life, it might have cleared things up,” or “I have a hard time visualizing your world because you don’t set the scenes well.” Nope: hopelessly amateurish.

I was so thoroughly disregarded that I’m forever fearful of being amateurish again. From that one incident, amateurish became synonymous with worthless, hopeless, and not even worth the time it takes to scrape dog s&*t off the bottom of your shoe.

At this point, I’m so scared that I’ll be perceived that way again, that I can’t even start working on something until it’s the only thought in my head. I wait until I can’t contain so much as one more thought about a novel before I start writing it. In that obsessed place, even my fear gets blotted out and all I can do is write. If it all goes to hell, then at least I’ll have gotten that damned novel out of my head, because seriously, I have other things to do than obsess over ideas that aren’t even on paper yet.

So the short break down of my process:

Step 1: Get initial idea. I usually refer to this as the lightning strike because I get these in crazy flashes. Sometimes it feels like the muse opens my brain and sticks a whole novel inside my head in the space of a microsecond. (note: my most recent draft was not the product of a lightning strike, more to prove to myself that I could write a novel that wasn’t given to me by some arcane flash of whatever).

Step 2: Wait to finish whatever is currently on my docket. This is the hardest step. During this time, I usually start dreaming about my next project. Sometimes this phase is much longer than expected. It’s really difficult to finish up a piece of writing when you want to be working on something else. This is the step where fear bogs my every step. I find myself thinking things like, well, it would be great, but if I write it, it’ll suck because it will sound like an amateur n00b wrote it. I basically have to wait until that voice is completely destroyed before I can move on to step three.

Step 3: when brain is ready to explode, write novel. I seem to take right around three months regardless of the length of the novel. I have a 120,000 word novel that took 10 weeks, and a 60,000 word piece that took every scrap of three months. I don’t know why, it’s just the way it is for me.

So there you have it, my writing process. Subject to change.

** It should be noted that my friend has since apologized profusely for giving such lame criticism (his words not mine). I won’t relay his excuses, but if you keep writing, you’ll end up with an experience almost word for word like mine. It’s just the way things are. But forewarned is fore armed: at the time my friend actually didn’t know much about providing feedback to other people (he’d been getting it from me for free for years, and just hadn’t thought about how to apply it to other manuscripts).


  1. The ONLY reason why I am not currently hunting down this friend of your's name and address so I can scratch his eyes out is because he apologized. >( That is TERRIBLE feedback.

    I hope someday you get the confidence back that you can simply work on the story no matter what stage you're at. I have those nasty voices in my head too, the ones that tell me I am writing horrible dribble and no one is ever going to want to read my book. Ever.

    The only way I know how to get through that is a) whine to a friend :D
    b) just write anyway. There are many mean voices in your head. There's the inner critic, the fear and doubt voice, the bully voice, the seductive voice that tells you to work on something else. If I stopped writing every time I heard one of those voices, I'd never get any work done. :D

    But this is your process. You do what you need to, to make the words happen.

    I also want to reinforce your point that yes, the sort of person you're getting feedback from is important. Most people, no matter if they are super smart and voracious readers, won't know how to give good feedback on a manuscript. The only way I learned was through trial and error with my writer friends, lots of time going back and forth on various scenes. "Did you like this part? No? Too slow? Characters rambling? Okay, thanks."

    Lather, rinse, repeat.

    And let me speak up for your "amateurish" novel. Was it the first one you wrote? Either way...of COURSE it's "amateurish"! You're still learning! I am writing amateurish dreck over here too! Most stuff reads really raw until you get several rounds of edits, and then a few rounds of beta readers. And even then it's still not going to read like a published novel, because you haven't run through agent and editor edits.

    The next time that nasty voice in your head tells you you're writing "amateurish" stuff, just say "Well, duh!" and blow it a raspberry.

    /rant on behalf of Rena.

  2. That is a sucky experience. And you're right--write long enough, you'll probably have one of those. I got one last year--by a NYT Bestselling author, no less! Who didn't even get the genre of my book right! And then gave me a 3 (out of 10) on my MECHANICS!

    No! I'm not over it yet! Because it's ludicrous!

    Anyway, yeah. You have to get over the fear of the "what if it happens again???" because chances are, if you do your job right, it will happen again.

    But probably not because you're really amateurish. Probably it will be because someone is jealous of you.

    Since we've talked on a critiquey level before, let me assure you: you're not near as bad as you think someone might think you are. You have good ideas. You execute them well. In my experience with you, you already know what needs polish or what isn't as strong as it needs to be. That's not amateurish. At all.

  3. Elizabeth: Yes, he apologized, and to this day he still apologizes (that was eight years ago). It was six years before I tried writing a novel again, mostly because the last one had seemed like such a waste of time.

    Liz: Thank you. I'm starting to figure out some things in writing. I kind of feel like I'm in that awkward not professional but more than amateur place. It's like the old story about the man who climbs the wall of his garden and sees that there's a whole city beyond his garden, and he's blown away by how big it is and how much he has to learn. He goes around and learns all about the city, until one day, he sees the city wall. He climbs it, and sees that the world is so much larger than he could have imagined. In that allegory, I think I'm either standing on the garden wall, or just starting to search the city.


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