Saturday, May 08, 2010

In Search of a Process (sorry, no pictures, just a lot of words)

When I was a teen, it came easy. I had oodles of free time, having no after school activities to distract me. I also had a chaotic home life at times, which led to hours upon hours of alone time with nothing but my thoughts, and a pen and paper. I wrote constantly, when I wasn't reading, that is. I filled notebooks. I wrote fantasies with made-up creatures, dramas about kids on the street with absentee parents, romance (what did I know?), and comedy. Some pieces were short, some were long. I had no set goal and no writing process. I just had ideas swirling in my head that needed to get out, usually faster than my hand could move. I wrote in pencil almost exclusively, erasing and moving phrases and paragraphs, until I had it the way I wanted it. Then, I would copy the stories into another notebook in pen, long hand...yes, this was before computers and we didn't have a good typewriter.

And the ideas never seemed to stop coming. I did a lot of daydreaming, a lot of "what if" thinking, and, of course, I was inspired by all the reading I did. My friend, Suzie Kuchinski, wrote poetry as voraciously as I wrote fiction. Sometimes we'd exchange notebooks and give each other critiques. Suzie was good. She made suggestions without sounding critical. "This is good, but I don't need a full description of what the guy looks like. Let that come later." Things like that. Her poetry was also pretty amazing, but I'm a lousy critic. I can never say a bad thing to someone about their work. Everyone is brilliant in my eyes. But other than Suzie and maybe one or two others, no one ever saw my writing. I subscribed to Writer's Digest. I had several volumes of writers' market guides. Yet, I never tried to publish or enter contests. I was afraid of...well, everything, I guess.

After high school, I began what would become over 20 years of working two jobs. The jobs varied but there were always two, and sometimes three. Free time became scarce and the drama of daily living chased away all the ideas that swirled in my brain. Eventually, the swirling became nothing more than an occasional breeze on which a snippet of something floated past. Sometimes I'd stop to write it. Sometimes I wouldn't. But the desire to write, to be A WRITER never died. There were still those moments when a story would seize me and I'd have to write it, curled up on the bed or in a chair just like I had done when I was 15. They were very rare, but they let me know that I wasn't done yet. I hadn't lost it all.

So, I don't know what I was thinking (I kind of do, but I can't explain it here) when I signed up to receive the prompt from 48hr Magazine. I blame San Diego Momma for tweeting about it, she of the Tuesday prompts and encouragement. I read the email at 12:50 yesterday with the theme for the very first 48hr Magazine--"Hustle." That's it. Just a theme. One could submit anything. Short fiction, essays, photos, poetry--anything! I was on my way to the front desk to cover for the reception and stopped off in the work room to fill my water bottle. On the fax machine was an offer for cheap vacations to Cancun. It was one of those faxes from the travel agency made to look like some gal in a boring office was faxing it to her friend in another boring office. "Hey Susan, Here's that Cancun deal I was telling you about. You'd better hurry." And just like that, I had my idea. I sent a few instant messages to The Roy--"Tell me I can do this. I need encouragement. I'm scared." He said all the right things (because he's awesome) and I got to writing.

Roy suggested outlining the story at work, banging it out when I got home, then revising and submitting. The rules of the magazine are such that you only have 24 hours to submit and sooner is always better. Sounds great...until I tried to outline the story. I have never outlined a story. I always just wrote. So that's what I did. I started writing and wrote like a mad woman for an hour. I got pretty far, too. Then, I had to go back to my desk. I ate lunch, walked with Criss, and when we got back, there was one thing after another to distract me. I tried to pick up the thread on my way home. I tried to finish writing it in my head, so that when I got home, I could just put it on paper (or computer screen). But it didn't come. I did some revisions on the first part, changed the characters a bit, fooled around with phrasing but in the end, I got stuck on the way to the climax (dirty). I went to bed, worked on it again today, albeit half-heartedly, and finally, missed the deadline.

I have a lot of writer friends. What do you do? What is your process? Because I have absolutely none and I'd love to hear what works for you. I've read the suggestions in various magazines and such, but none of them seems right for me. I may never be A WRITER, but I'd sure like to at least complete a story. Help!


the slackmistress said...

I know this sounds pat. It's not meant to be.

Writers write.

For me, I generally go:

At some point I outline, even if it's "this is at the beginning, this stuff is in the middle, and this is the end." It's just a roadmap, and I allow myself the freedom to wander from it. Generally I get back on the main road, not not always.

I find that sometimes people get hung up on process. It's easy to spend your writing time talking about how you do it. My thought is just do it, and then finetune from there.

My two cents, worth what you paid for 'em. ;)


Annika said...

With fiction, I have to think about the story a lot (a LOT) before I write anything down. Often I will ruminate on a tiny seed of an idea for months or even years before I put anything down. And even then, I have to know the first sentence before I can start. (I mean, OBVIOUSLY I need a first sentence. It's more than that.) I never outlined until I started writing screenplays. For those, I need a detailed outline, but for fiction I haven't yet managed more than a few notes jotted down before I start writing.

But I am not very good at getting things actually written, so I am not sure I have anything helpful for you.

ChiaLynn said...

Process varies hugely from one writer to the next, and for many writers, their own process varies from one story to the next, or changes the longer they write. (Elizabeth Bear talks a lot about this - her LiveJournal is

I rarely outline, but some writers outline everything, and others outline only when they need to get "unstuck." For years, I wrote only when "inspired," and then I wrote quickly and almost never finished anything. (Also, like Annika, I often got hung up on the first sentence, to the point that NOTHING got written because I couldn't get that first sentence just like I wanted it.) Now, I'm finally trying to discipline myself to write when I don't want to, and I often hate what I end up with, but I'm also learning to let that go. (Repeating "It's a draft, it can suck" often helps.)

I'm also learning that I don't need to write in chronological order - I can jump into the middle of the story, and know that the beginning will make itself clear later. (As to whether the end makes itself clear - well, that's a whole other issue, isn't it?)