Process, Schmocess

 

My trusty, late-night writing companion

I’m shy/not shy about discussing my writing “process.” I actually dislike the word “process” when it comes to writing because it makes writing sound both vaunted and ridiculously precious at the same time.

I’m often shy sharing mine here because the posts on TKZ are created by professional, grown-up writers. Most have regimented schedules, produce work, reward themselves, and move onto the next project. They support families and/or themselves. Writing is a job. They also have other jobs, whether they be at home, or working outside the home. They blow me away every day with their dedication, creativity, and professionalism.

Weirdly, I’m also a professional, grown up writer. Though I’m a professional writer who has resisted schedules all her life. The ADHD is an issue. My brain can truly hyper-focus, but when it’s not hyper-focusing, it’s constantly on fire. It can’t be still at all. It constantly searches for novelty and stimulation. ADHD meds clamp down my creativity like an empty yogurt carton trapping a spider in the front hallway. Oh, and the yogurt carton has the Complete Works of Shakespeare on top of it. No more web-spinning, fly-sucking, or terrorizing the kiddies for that spider! (Hmmm. That about describes my creativity, though I’ve never actually drained a fly. I found myself weirdly desirous of eating a dead one once–but that’s another blog.)

Every so often, I dive into schedules and calendars and self-help books and organization projects. They delight me! The future immediately looks so bright! I love the idea of not writing at two in the morning because I couldn’t settle down all day to the work. (I don’t enjoy overnight writing, but I often do it out of necessity.) Schedules discourage writing right up to deadline. What a brilliant concept.  I’ve actually done it a few times and it was AMAZING. Like Graeter’s Ice Cream amazing. First kiss amazing. (Actually, my first kiss was kind of awful. But that’s also another blog. Or not.) Finding six Hershey’s kisses from last Christmas at the back of the cabinet when you’ve been out of chocolate for an entire day amazing. Dang, that’s a great feeling, isn’t it?

I’ve been in next-book mode for months and have restarted it three times. We’re talking between 30 and 50 pages started. I just couldn’t figure out WHERE the book needed to start because it’s a story with a higher number than my usual amount of turning points. (Hey, I used one of those professional writer terms here. Woot.) This is a big book, a big story. It’s opened in different time periods and with different characters. Also different POVs. Many (more sensible) writers would’ve moved on to another idea by now. Another writer might have been at their desk daily at 8:30 a.m. and gone through the three restarts in a few weeks.

Did I mention I’m 56.5 years old? I’ve been writing for thirty years. Honestly, my meandering process has changed little. I’ve written ten novels (eight of which have been published, 2 will remain unseen), anthologies, short stories, essays, blogs, articles, book reviews. There were even several profitable copywriting gigs. Somehow I’ve produced a reasonably significant amount of work.

But I still hunger for the right schedule. The right way to work. The right amount of finished pieces. I still imagine there’s a Platonic Ideal of Laura’s Writing Career out there.

Perfectibility is the eternal illusion. A quest at least as old as the first cave artist who sketched an Ibex that came out looking like a prairie dog, scraped it off and tried again. And again. Funny how we look at so many of those cave paintings now and think them wondrous. Are they perfect? Who’s to say? By what standards can we judge ancient art? We can classify it. Trace developments over time by looking at similar work. Say one artist’s work is somehow better than another. But each effort stands alone. Human creations are imperfectible, just like humans. (My opinion, y’all. I’m not itching to argue religion or philosophy here…) Here’s the cool thing I’ve discovered about the desire for perfection, though: It keeps me striving. As long as I don’t constantly kick myself for not ever being perfect, I still get plenty of satisfaction.

I will probably die with the notion of the Platonic Ideal of Laura’s Writing Career in my head. Oh, well. It’s definitely far less difficult to live with than it used to be.

Every time I post on Facebook these days, I get some stupid message about how people really respond better to posts with pictures. “Posts with pictures are more popular than posts without pictures, Laura Benedict. Why don’t you include some pictures in this post? And, by the way, you can go ahead and add your photos to this post, and we will automatically remove any preview links you’ve already included in the post, thus completely destroying it. You may then add pictures to your new post.”

So I’m going to add some pictures here. This is what my life has been like over the past five days in which I was hyper-focusing on the third start on this novel. I’m pretty sure I got it almost right this time, in the tradition of horseshoes and hand grenades.

They’re not lovely pictures. But in my life, creation is messy, and occasionally people have to make their own dinner.

After the photos:  Tell us about your process. Or your quest for perfection. Or creativity/work habits that really work for you. We are always open to new ideas here!

Where I slept last night because it’s not fair to disturb a sleeping husband at 5:00 a.m. when he usually gets up at six.

Trust me. You don’t want to see the front.

Sustenance. All the food groups. Plus, I roasted those pecans on Sunday. No one can say I didn’t cook.

I think a dozen clementines, two apples, and a 1/2 grapefruit count as nutrition, yes?

Uniform. Or as I like to call them, Second Jammies.

Bonus: Sometimes if you take the dog out to pee at 1:30 in the morning, there’s a ring around the moon.

Husbands can feed themselves. Birds can too. But I can’t convince Husband to go out and hop around the pole to entertain me when I look out the window as I write.

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Saving the Sagging Middle

I thought today I would build upon an issue that came up with my last blog post on subplots. Someone asked in a comment whether a subplot could help with the infamous ‘sagging middle’ and my response was (basically) that an author needs to resolve why the middle is sagging before throwing in a subplot to try and ‘fix’ the issue. So today I thought I’d discuss the whole ‘middle’ of the novel issue, and see what processes or cures we might come up with that could help avoid the angst that comes with a middle that seems flat, meandering or just plain soggy…

Once again, I like to refer people to Jim Bell’s great book on Plot & Structure. His approach to the infamous middle focuses (and Jim I hope I’m not misquoting you here!) on two main areas: (1) stretching the tension; and (2) raising the stakes. I am particularly drawn to (2) as I like using the middle of a novel to up the ante for my protagonist. For me, the middle is where you really get to complicate and stir things up for your characters. As an outliner, I focus quite a lot on the middle and often find myself graphing out the tension levels in the novel I’m drafting. If I see a flat line in the middle then I know I’m in trouble. But, whether your an outliner or not – what do you do if, after the first draft is complete, you realize that the middle section just isn’t working? Here are some of my ideas:

(1) Reassess the premise of the novel and explore ways in which you can add complexity, drama and tension to this in the middle.

This could involve adding an additional obstacle for the protagonist, introducing a subplot to add more emotional resonance or tension, or it could be introducing an event that raises the stakes for your characters. Sometimes, the reason the middle of a novel is flat is because the author may not have sufficient depth (in either the premise of the book or its execution) and so the middle feels like ‘treading water’ until the resolution/final conflict occurs. Taking a step back and re-examining the premise might help you identify this and come up with some solutions.

(2) Map out the plot and brainstorm ways to raise the stake or add tension.

As an extremely visual person and a strong believer in outlining, I like to try and display the plot in a visual way that helps me identify places where I might need to add scenes that raise the stakes or add tension. I find once I can see the chapters that meander or sag, I can brainstorm ways in which I can alter the plot to add dramatic tension. This could be the place where an unexpected death occurs, a new character walks in to shake things up, or another obstacle is thrown in the protagonist’s way. Whatever you decide, it should all be aimed at keeping the reader turning the pages…

(3) Eliminate the boring bits!

Sometimes the middle gets bogged down with clues or details of an investigation, the mechanics of the plot or the protagonist going through the motions/actions necessary to progress the novel towards its denouement. One thing I like to bear in mind is that readers get bored…so when re-reading a draft I like to identify areas that even I am starting to glaze over. If, as the author, I’m not riveted, then it’s time to ditch those boring bits and think through how to maintain the tension rather than deflate it.

(4) Use your beta readers!

Another set of eyes and an honest opinion can really help when it comes to working out why the middle of your novel may be meandering or sagging. I like to give my beta readers specific questions to bear in mind while they are reading and one of these is often ‘let me know where you start to lose interest’. Sometimes beta readers help you realize what isn’t working (and often this can come at surprising moments in the book) and can identify the moment they started to find their interest waning. The key, of course, is finding beta readers critical and honest enough to tell you this (rather than what they think you want to hear!).

These are just four options for trying to wrestle with the issue of the dreaded ‘middle’ –  TKZers do you have anything to add or feedback on your own experiences with the dealing with middle-of-the novel ‘sag’?

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On Fishing For A Story

Hemingway Fishing

Ernest Hemingway working on his hook.

Analogies about writing, especially about how to write, abound. In my first writing book I beat them to death (because I love analogies), and have since been beaten senseless by some reviewers who don’t care (or know) that analogies are a proven and strategically effective way to teach.

So I was delighted to see Jim Bell’s analogy about playing basketball a couple of weeks ago (and another in the first paragraph yesterday), if nothing else than it allows me to point to him if someone reading TKZ isn’t appreciative of the analogy I am about to offer in today’s post.

Thanks, Jim, for opening that can of worms (itself an analogy, for the record).

All of the analogies I have employed – flying an airplane, playing golf, cooking, building a bridge, a few others – become a thematic chorus when considered en masse. The message is clear, and twofold: professionals can wing it and play loose with the core principles (just like when Michael Jordan shot and made a free throw in an NBA game… with his eyes closed), in a way that less experienced cannot and should not.

At the core of each of these avocations there are unimpeachable truths…

… essential physics that are not to be messed with. When a proven professional does so – and we all do it from time to time… because we can – even a little, they do so in context to an evolved storytelling sensibility and learning curve that a newbie does not yet possess.

In effect, they can do it with their eyes closed, in a way that would make the rest of us look silly.

You don’t tee off with a putter in the name of your art, you don’t under-cook the chicken in the name of table appeal, you don’t build a bridge on sand for obvious reasons, and so on.

The second thing is this: the same is true, every bit as true, for authors who are navigating, cooking up, teeing up, or building a novel. Mess with the core physics of the craft and your story will crash and burn. And when you are rejected, it will most likely be because of an ignorance (as in, to ignore) or a lack of regard (as in, to over-estimate your skills) of the core physics of storytelling.

And so we come to today’s analogy: fishing.

When I was a kid my father took me fishing several times each summer. He selected the tackle, baited the hook, threaded the line, made my casts and, when something nibbled, put his hands on mine as we played the line before setting the hook and reeling in. Then he gave me credit for landing “a big one.” The result was a few fabulous rainbow trout breakfasts and more than a few thrown-back bottom fish, not to mention some of my most precious childhood memories.

There came a point when I was a teenager too cool to fish with my father, so off I went with friends to fish on our own and talk about girls we could not catch from the bank of a river containing fish we could not catch. That period of my fishing life lasted about ten years, when that teen independence gave way to young adult cluelessness.

Over that decade, I caught exactly zero fish.  Not one.

Because I was imitating what I had seen my father do for me, and had been too proud or busy or stupid to learn those basics on my own. He smiled when he realized the life lesson to be learned from this failure, a lesson that took years to sink in for me.

I haven’t been fishing since, perhaps disqualifying me from using this analogy at all.

Except… it works.

I can’t help but think about how those fundamentals and processes of fishing are parallel in every way to the experience of learning how to write a novel. How the selection of the story, the way we set it up, the way we play the line and set the hook, are not only essential, but complex and nuanced, not remotely something that can be done without instruction or via imitation.

New writers must be excused from what they don’t yet know, because there is something noble about attempting to learn by doing. At least for a while. But when that takes place in a vacuum, without a parallel experience of learning and apprenticeship, the nobility of it fades away like a fish fleeing from a poorly tied fly.

Most writers come to the intention of writing a novel based upon their reading experience…

… usually joyous, but often riddled with a wildly uninformed belief that they can do what those authors they read can do, or worse, do anything they want – as a reader of novels. Some writers believe this is all you need, that writing is purely intuitive, a misperception reinforced because so many of the authors they’ve read made it look easy.

Logical and functional is not synonymous with easy. Just ask Michael Jordan as he lined up to shoot that free throw with his eyes shut.

Writing stories from this limited base of knowledge is no different that believing you can fly the plane after years of sitting in coach… that you can whip up a killer chicken piccata because you’ve been ordering it for years at the Cheesecake Factory (their best dish, by the way)… that you can hit a nine iron off the tee of a 205 yard par three because that’s what Tiger does… or that you can design and build a functional bridge because you’ve been driving across one for years on your way to work.

Or – I forgot perhaps my favorite analogy, so here goes: You believe that you can take out your own appendix because it took your doctor only fifteen minutes to get that job done. (I smiled when I just saw that Jim used nearly this exact analogy yesterday in the first paragraph of his terrific post; analogies are universal and eternal, and they often speak things more clearly than the direct route can achieve.)

My wife, who is an excellent cook, has for years been trying to nail a chicken piccata that holds a candle to the Cheesecake Factory’s (the recipe for which is not for public consumption), and she’s finally resigned to simply going there to enjoy this dish. Just like we can try to write like Stephen King, using his process (as described in his book, On Writing*), but until you know what he knows, that may not – probably won’t – serve you.

By implication, King is saying that all you need to do is just write. Imagine a surgeon being told, in her first year of med school, that all she needs to do is just cut.

Of course those are silly and obvious comparisons. 

And yet, so many writers attempt to write a novel from an equally consumer-focused and over-simplified learning curve (and dare I say, naive), and as a result they inevitably crash, burn, throw up and, like me, fail to catch a single fish for decades or more.

But that’s not you, you’re saying. You attend writing conferences and read all the writing books, maybe even mine and Jim Bell’s.

Which is great, keep going. But ask yourself this: are you truly and deeply internalizing the principles you read there, and are you practicing and applying them in a way that trumps the in-the-moment bliss of storytelling, which is what some writing gurus tell you is the only thing you need to pay attention to?

Do you know the difference between a concept and a premise?

Do you understand the nature of classic story structure, or even believe in it in the first place? Do you know the role of theme in a story? Do you understand what creates drama and suspense, and how to pace it over the arc of the narrative?

Do you believe you can simply make up the forms and standards and processes by which these things are made manifest in your story?

Professional writers know these things, and they just don’t do it any other way than the prescribed and proven way, no matter how they choose to describe their process.

Something to think about the next time it’s just you and a pole on a peaceful afternoon at the river, waiting for the next story to descend upon you from heaven.

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*In his book On Writing, King advises writers to take their initial story idea and just sit down and start writing from it, allowing an inner sense of story to help navigate the road leading to the best possible story. He omits, however, to add that this works for him, which by definition could mean that unless and until you know what he knows, the results you achieve may not compare to his, and thus, rendering this among the worst writing advice ever rendered… this being my opinion, of course. I’m no Stephen King, either, but at least I know what a writer must understand before that or any other method of writing a story will bear fruit, or not take you a decade to write, which is why I’m here.

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Larry’s new writing book, Story Fix: Transforming Your Novel from Broken to Brilliant” is available now in digital formats on Amazon.com and BN.com, and will be out in trade paperback within the next few weeks. Analogies kept to a minimum, he swears.  Visit Larry’s website at http://storyfix.com/.

Flickr photo from Don…The UpNorth Memories Guy… Harrison.

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