Thursday, June 28, 2012

Chaos and Confusion: My Writing Process

I’m often asked about my writing process.  I wish I weren’t.  I don’t mind being asked, but answering honestly is kind of ... well, embarrassing.  It’s not at all what people expect it to be and I hate to disappoint them.

People have very specific ideas about what it is writers do and how they do it.  It’s important to know that all of them are wrong.  It’s not that what writers do is so mysterious, it’s just that there are as many different ways to write as there are writers.  Ask ten different writers about their process and you’ll get ten different answers — hell, maybe more!  There may be some overlap, but the answers will be different.  But chances are, they won’t meet the expectations of those who have a romantic, soft-focus image of what writers do.

I don’t have what I would call a writing routine, a schedule I follow, a time to do this and a time to do that.  That would be like having a breathing routine, or a water-drinking routine.  Writing has always been a part of my life; it’s never been something I’ve had to make myself do because it’s such a major part of my makeup.  If I go for any length of time without writing, I get irritable, agitated, restless.  For me, writing is one of the things I do without giving it a lot of thought, not unlike eating or going to the bathroom (there are some critics who will tell you that my writing bears a striking resemblance to the latter).  So when I’m asked about my writing routine, I always experience a moment of confusion, followed by a second or two of panic as I think to myself, Oh, shit, I’m supposed to have a ROUTINE?

In fact, I don’t give a lot of thought to any aspect of what I do unless I’m asked about it, and then I have to articulate it — and oddly, I find that difficult to do.  I suspect part of the reason may be fear.  I think deep down inside, I’m worried that if I examine this stuff too closely, it’ll fall apart and I won’t be able to do it anymore, it just won’t work.  I’m afraid that, as with a magic trick, once the “how” is uncovered, nothing will be left — and there I’ll be, standing on stage in a tuxedo and top hat with my thumb up my ass.

The whole thing starts out innocently enough.  I’ll get an idea.  It can come from anywhere — a news story, a dream, an overheard conversation, a personal experience, or maybe it just dropped into my head out of nowhere (it happens).  I might jot down a line or two to remind myself of the idea later, but chances are, if I have to be reminded of the idea, it’s not good enough to pursue, because if it were, it would not leave my head.  The ideas that end up getting written are those that lodge in my brain like a fish bone in your throat — and, let’s be honest, those that I can sell.

I don’t do anything that could accurately be called “outlining.”  I’ve tried.  For years, I was told by other writers that I couldn’t possibly be writing novels without outlining them first because that was, they said, impossible.  I heard this so often that I became convinced I was doing it wrong.  So I took a shot at outlining.  Big mistake.  For me, anyway.

I attempted to outline an entire book from beginning to end and nearly ruptured my brain.  Then I tried to follow and stick to the outline as I wrote the book.  It was like trying to write while being chewed on by a bunch of ferrets.  I could not get the book to adhere to the outline, not even for a little while.  The characters rebelled and tried to take the book in a different direction.  As I wrote, I discovered new ideas that made the story better, but that drew it even further away from the outline that did not include them.  I simply.  Could.  Not.  Do it.  But it was a valuable experience because, for the first time, it forced me to look at how I do what I do.  It made me see why I had never outlined in the past and what I did instead of outlining.  It made me more aware of how I work — more importantly, of what works for me.

I have to write in order to discover what I’m writing about.  That means that to write a book, I have to sit down and actually start writing.  Planning ahead with something like an outline, trying to work out the plot and characters before I start actually writing the book, simply doesn’t work for me.  I have to be engaged in the act of writing — not writing about what I’m planning to write, but writing what I’m actually writing.  Does that make sense?  That’s how I learned to write, and that’s how I’ve always written.  And it works.  For me, anyway.  Is it more efficient than writing an outline?  Hell, no!

This is where the chaos and confusion come in.  While I don’t outline, I do jot down notes on character and plot so I can keep track of things, but my notes can be read only by me.  Anyone trying to make sense of them without my help most likely would conclude that I’d been drinking, taking drugs, or was having a stroke when I wrote them down.

It’s often said that writing is rewriting, and that’s true.  But when someone asks me how many drafts I go through on a book, I don’t know how to answer, because I don’t keep track of that.  All the editing and rewriting I do is done while I’m writing.  I might be on page 319 of a manuscript when I write something that refers back to an earlier scene that starts on page 94.  I’ll go back to that scene to read it again and discover something wrong with it.  I’ll start to fix it, but I might end up rewriting the whole scene before going back to page 319 and continuing.  Hell, I might end up rewriting the whole chapter before I resume.  And I might do that three or four times.  But it’s not something I do after I’ve finished the first draft — I do it while writing the first draft, which is never really the first draft, because by the time I’m done with it, I’ve rewritten it, chunk by chunk, several times.  Then when it’s all done, I go through it and work on it some more.  If someone were to ask me of my work in progress, “What draft are you on?” my head would probably explode if I tried to answer accurately, because I never know.

I have a home office where I do my work.  It’s a mess.  It’s mostly books.  Just a big explosion of books all over the place.  It looks like the office collided at high speed with a public library.  There are so many books on shelves and on my desk and stacked on the floor that it would be perfectly fitting to find a black-and-white Burgess Meredith in my office whimpering over his broken glasses, “That's not fair.  That's not fair at all.  There was time now.  There was all the time I needed!”

I used to be able to write no matter what was going on around me.  No matter where I was or what was happening, I could totally immerse myself in my work almost instantly.  As a boy, writing was an escape for me.  It was a way to escape my home life, which was rather dark, and even myself, which seemed necessary at the time because back then, I loathed myself.  Writing was a hermetically sealed, soundproof refuge in which I could lock myself anytime.  That’s no longer the case.  I enjoy my life now and I’m quite happy with who I am — I have no need to escape either.  These days, I’m much more easily distracted.  It’s harder now to quickly burrow deep into the story I’m writing and forget everything else.  I have to work harder than I used to at avoiding or resisting distractions.

Getting into the work isn’t the quick, easy thing it used to be.  I kind of have to sneak up on it.  I always start the day by checking the news online.  Did anything blow up while I was asleep?  Are we at war again?  Which celebrity’s hacked naked cell phone pics have been posted online and is it anyone I want to see?  I’ll read a news story, then open my manuscript and start taking a look at what I wrote the night before.  Then I’ll read another story online, or watch a video.  Maybe I’ll post it on Facebook.  Then back to last night’s work.  I’ll go back and forth for a while and sort of ease myself into the work a bit at a time, like an old man slowly lowering himself into the tub, until I lose interest in all the other stuff.

When I’m writing, the TV is usually on, sometimes I run a movie, or there’s music playing.  You might think that would be a distraction, but it’s not.  It’s all part of the bubble.  In order to write and remove from my awareness any distractions, I have to build a bubble around myself and stay inside it.  Within the bubble, I might be working on a book while a movie is playing.  It’s probably a movie I’ve seen many times, something I love and with which I’m very familiar (playing something I haven’t seen while I’m trying to work would be distracting).  Sometimes, I will look up at the TV and maybe spend a few minutes watching.  That’s always because I’ve hit a bump in the story that needs smoothing out.  The movie gives me a diversion, something to turn to while the bump in the story is addressed in a back room of my brain.  It’s discussed, taken apart, put back together, rearranged, rewritten, argued about, and finally decided upon while I’m watching a scene from Blue Velvet or Some Like it Hot.  When the problem has been hammered out, I start writing again and put the solution on the page.

I’ve always done this.  The only thing that changes is the diversion.  When I first began to work on a computer, for example, it was Solitaire.  Sometimes it’s a movie or TV show.  Maybe it’s a piece of music or a talk show on the radio.  These days, it’s often Facebook.  I’ll post something on my wall or comment on someone else’s post or contribute to a discussion while the story problem is being tackled in that back room.  None of this disrupts the work being done on the problem.  The guys in the back room don’t even know it’s going on.  I can even have an exchange with someone online without the bubble being popped, because that online exchange (which is silent, by the way — that’s important) is within the bubble.  All is well in the bubble until —

— someone talks to me and expects a sensible response.  If it’s just a remark that doesn’t involve responses or discussion, the bubble remains intact.  But if it’s anything more than that, if it’s a phone call and I have to talk to someone, if it requires me to engage my mind and listen to something that’s being said, process and respond to it, the bubble pops.  That pulls me out of the work.  Actually, it ejects me from it.  Then the bubble has to be rebuilt.  In other words, I have to start over and get myself back down there in whatever world I was working on, and that takes time.  I really hate it when my bubble gets popped.

I never fail to reach a point in the book — any book, every book — when I become convinced that it was a terrible mistake, that I never should have written the first word, that it’s going to end my career.  After I’ve gotten through it, I can look back on it and see that it was just like all the other times I became convinced I was working on a disaster.  But at the time that I’m going through it, that’s never obvious.  I think that’s because each time, it’s triggered by something different, something unique to that particular book.  I never panic for the same reason twice, so it always feels new, like this time I’m right, it really will ruin me.

Then comes the time to wrap it up.  That’s not always easy to do.  This is one of the many ways that writing resembles masturbation — you have to know when to stop!  Sometimes I get lucky and the end of the book comes early; on a couple of occasions, it has come first.  Knowing how a book is going to end well in advance can be helpful in knowing when to stop writing it.  But I don’t always know when or how it’s going to end and I have to find that ending the same way I find everything else — gropingly, messily.

The whole process is messy, and the entire time, I feel like I’m up to my elbows in it, physically struggling with it, trying to mold it, pound it into shape.  As a full time writer, I’m usually working against a deadline, which adds some pressure to the process.  For me, writing is messy work that’s not at all romantic.  It’s a little like working in a MASH unit, except all the lives at stake are imaginary.  It can be extremely frustrating, infuriating and exhausting.  But at the same time, it’s exhilarating and exciting and never, ever, ever boring.

When I’m asked how I deal with writer’s block, I sometimes dance around the question because I just don’t want to get into it.  But the honest answer is that I don’t believe in writer’s block, and I wouldn’t have time for it if I did.  Writer’s block does not exist.  It is not an ailment or condition or syndrome, although you’d never know it from the way some writer’s refer to it.  “I’m struggling with writer’s block.”  No, you’re not.  You’re not writing, that’s what you’re doing.  But saying you’re struggling with writer’s block sounds sexier than, “I don’t feel like writing.”

No one feels like working all the time, no matter what they do, but they do it, anyway.  We all do it.  Writing is no different.  You won’t feel like doing it every day.  Maybe you didn't get enough sleep the night before, or you're distracted by family problems or financial problems or health problems, or any number of things.  Whatever it is that's keeping you from writing, it's not writer's block!  If there's something in you that's getting in the way of your work, find out what it is and fix it.  Sometimes you can do that in your writing, sometimes you need help to do it, but be honest with yourself about it.  Writers have to be honest with themselves about their work because if they're not, sooner or later they will make fools of themselves.  But you have to keep writing — even when you don't feel like it or don't want to — because that’s what writers do.  You just have to get comfortable with the fact that not everything you write will be great, or good, or even passable.  On those days when you don’t feel like writing, you’ll probably write a lot of crap.  But writing crap is often what gets you to the good stuff.  That’s why you have to write.  If you keep writing, you’ll write something good.  If you don’t write, you won’t write anything.  Writer’s block is a lie writers tell themselves.

Now, if you were to try to mimic my writing process — the train wreck outlined above — I would be flabbergasted if it worked for you.  That’s why I always caution aspiring writers not to believe everything they hear or read about writing, even if it’s said or written by a writer.  No one can tell you how to write.  Don’t get me wrong — that won’t stop them, and plenty will try to tell you how to write.  The writers who told me I couldn’t possibly write a novel without an outline were telling the truth at the time because outlines worked for them.  They couldn’t write a novel without an outline, and they shouldn’t try, because that’s what works.  Over the years, I’ve met a lot of writers who, like me, don’t outline and prefer to discover their stories and characters as they write.  That’s what works for them.  Neither is right, neither is wrong.  The right thing for any writer to do is whatever works.

It’s a good idea to find out how other writers work because you may find bits and pieces you can use or perhaps just some sensible advice.  Read their books, listen to their lectures.  But keep in mind that what they’re telling you works for them and not necessarily for anyone else.  Ultimately, your process, your technique, your routine — everything about the way you write will be yours alone.  And the only way you’ll figure out what your process, technique and routine are is to develop them.  With all things connected to writing, the only way you can accomplish that is to do it.  Don't talk about it.  Don't think about it.  Do it.  Figure it out by process of elimination.  In other words, do the one and only thing that will get you where you want to go as a writer — WRITE.