I’ve read a lot of opinions from a lot of accomplished writers on how one should go about every little aspect of writing; enough to see that pretty much every one of those opinions is contradicted by someone else’s. What does that mean? The bad news is that it’s fairly indicative that there’s not really a tried-and-true “right way” to do anything involved in getting that book put together. The good news is that there isn’t really a “wrong way”, either. It just comes down to experimenting a bit and seeing what makes the most sense to you and the story you’re trying to tell. This goes for narrative mechanics as well as the manner by which you get words on the page. Be open to trying new approaches, but don’t believe anyone who tells you that whatever method works for you is bad.
But, since we’re here, this is my own take:
We can divide the writing process into three phases. Hey, process and phase start with a ‘P’, so let’s just go ahead and call them the three ‘P’s of writing, because rules and sets of things are apparently more appealing with forced alliteration.
Phase One: Plotting
This is the planning stage. It involves creating characters, settings, and plot points. It’s doing research and putting notes together. It’s all the preparatory work that goes into getting oneself something to write about. I spend most of this phase in Evernote. I started with separate files on characters, settings, outlines, and so on, but I ultimately discovered that, despite my sometimes-crippling organizational tendencies, one giant free-form file was more conducive to my creative methods. When I get an idea, I just want to put it down somewhere, and not having to think about where to put it is more liberating than it may seem. The less you have to meta-think about what you’re thinking, the easier it is to keep the slog at bay. When I’m on a roll, I don’t need to switch files for different idea categories, and can freely brain-dump on whatever tangent arises.
Actually, there are still a couple other ancillary files I keep around for reference. One is an Excel sheet which keeps track of the scene order (indicating the perspective character and a brief description of each), and the other is a grammar/vocabulary sheet for the book’s made-up
space fay language (a topic for its own post!), but both of these are compiled after the fact from the primary free-form file.
A lot of planning comes down to mining yourself for ideas and figuring out how things should fit together. So, my notes consist of a lot of talking to myself in written form. I’ll ask myself a question about some story element, then I’ll jot down any answers that come to mind. That usually leads to sub-questions and more strings of possible answers to those, and ends up with a big block of text that, while not pretty to look at, has helped me make a decision or flesh out a concept a lot better than just sitting there thinking about it would. My notes may not be easy to navigate, but hey, that’s what CTRL-F is for. (>^-‘)>
Before I start a chapter, I’ll make a high-level outline of ideas for scenes I want to include, which characters should get perspective, and what I want to accomplish with each. Scenes that don’t make the cut often end up working their way in the next time around. Once I have a handle on what I’m doing with the chapter, it’s time to start typing it out.
Phase Two: Penning
Next comes the actual writing stage. It’s getting those ideas down into some kind of narrative. As much as ‘writing’ is the synecdoche we use for crafting fiction, it is by far the smallest part of it. I spend my writing days in Word. My notes may be a jumble, but I’m a bit more organized here. I keep each chapter as a separate document, leaving my current draft of each in the root of my writing folder, and putting older drafts in a subfolder when done with them. When I want to make a full draft, I compile them together and label which draft stage each chapter is at.
I begin a section with Draft 0 – full-throttle, uninhibited, almost stream-of-consciousness writing. I can finish the zero-draft of a chapter in a couple of hours. Now, it’s terrible – unbelievably terrible – but it gives me a starting point to work with, and manages to avoid provoking the slog. I’ll talk more about zero-drafting, later. When I start Draft 1, it’s back to my normal writing habits.
My goal is to get four pages done in a day, although I usually only end up with two. Sometimes I’ll accomplish nothing more than agonizing over a single paragraph for hours on end and then hate myself for the rest of the day. (>^-‘)> This is primarily because I’m not doing a good job of staying within the current phase.
Some advice which I should learn to take, myself – it’s O.K. to walk away for a while if you’re getting frustrated. It’s tempting to sit tight and trudge through the rough spots, but if your brain is feeling burnt out, it probably won’t be producing that great of stuff, and associating those negative sensations with writing won’t make you eager to keep coming back to it. A rested mind is much better equipped to work out whatever issue you’re having.
Nothing says you have to write in sequence, but I do so for the most part, as it helps me develop and keep in mind the story’s progression from the potential reader’s perspective. Some folks, on the other hand, might write any given scene as it comes to them, regardless of its place in the narrative, so they can get it down while the idea’s fresh, or use it as a reference point to work toward.
Phase Three: Polishing
Finally, we have the editing phase. It’s all the fixing, updating, changing, and rearranging needed to get that draft to a presentable state. All of my resources come into play, here.
There are a few different types of edits. Editing for content, editing for phrasing, and copyediting (grammar/spelling/punctuation). For me, copyediting is the easiest, as it’s the most straightforward; there are rules and standards of language to govern it. Phrasing is more involved and individual, amounting to rewording things so that they sound good and make sense. Content editing is the most in-depth and demanding, as it’s adding, cutting, or shuffling around segments or entire scenes and story elements. You can do all your editing at once, but I find that it’s more effective to work out the content changes first, then have a look at the phrasing, and lastly do a pass to check for grammatical issues.
If you’re lucky enough to have someone willing to critique your work, this is where you would consider their suggestions, but your own self-criticism and desire for improvement will usually be the biggest driving factor. Between drafts, I’ll write notes to myself as to what I want to change, and during them, I’ll bury my head in the dictionary to find better ways to say things. If you’re as meticulous as I am, this is where it’s almost impossible not to feel the pull of the slog. But editing is what gets your story to a state that you can be proud of, so the need for it is as unavoidable as that stupid blue shell.
These three phases are cyclical; once complete the process begins anew for the next chapter, section, rewrite, or what have you. They can each be approached in any number of ways, but the one thing that should always be observed is their order – if you write before you plan, or edit before you write, you’re issuing an invitation to the slog.
Some people have a muse. Instead, I have this guy. I have no doubt that many of you are also familiar with it. The slog is basically an anti-muse. Its goal is to erode your ideas, make you question your judgment, and slow down if not stall out your whole creative process. It will rack you with indecision and make the simplest of tasks take ten times longer than they ought. It survives on frustration and unproductivity. It is sneaky. Out of nowhere it will give you a headache so you’ll lose focus, or make you tired so you’ll take a break. It will distract you with tangentially related activities to divert your time and attention away from writing itself. It gobbles your confidence and barfs on your vision. Your failure is its favorite.
Don’t feed the slog.