Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Hey, Sean! What's Up With the Creative Process?

Well, here we are again. For those of you just joining, these weekly entries in the months leading up to January the 1st are a way for us to get a little bit better acquainted and prepare for the longer, more intense exercise to come. October, specifically, is focused on these Hey, Sean! articles, which have been written to provide some insight into who I am as a writer, and my general views on the medium and process. This week, I’ll be focusing on process and procedure, and you can probably view this post as a rough outline of what’s to come in the New Year.


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The creative process is kind of a personal thing. Not private. No. In my experience, most of us writers can talk about what we do and how we do it all day long…But it is personal, because each of us does things a little differently, and—at the end of the day—I do believe that some of us look sidelong at the others and feel pride or pity that their processes lack the secret ingredient that makes it so very easy for us, and they are, therefore, a little weird.

And I apologize if this makes me and my fellow writers sound a little bit like superstitious, capering bridge trolls, but I think that such a creature lives inside of everyone—to some extent or another—who works for a living and has the opportunity to observe another person doing what we think of as Our Job.

And really, writers are kind of a superstitious bunch. Anyone who engages in a profession that is so heavily procedural and obsessive has to be a little superstitious eventually, because obsessive, procedural behavior done regularly invariably takes on the tone of ritual. I’ve known writers who can’t start new work while travelling, because they can only get ideas that they trust while looking out of the kitchen window that they were looking out of when they came up with the first novel or story that they sold. I’ve known others who have to have a specific person read their first draft, and nobody else will ever do. Or writers who have to walk a certain route through their neighborhoods before they can even sit in front of their laptops. Or who have to wear a lucky hat while they write the first line. I, personally, have to make all of my notes with the same pen, and—even though I’ll tell you that I do it because I hate shopping for pens, which is true—I will buy countless ink refills for even the most ragged of pens before I will shop for a new one or buy a pack. There have been times when my work grinds to a halt for days because I lost a pen and have to go through a silly searching/mourning period before I will go and buy a replacement.

These are habits and little beliefs—some of which we don’t even know that we engage in or hold—that come about as the result of long years of working and refining our creative processes. Each time that we go through the process, we invest more and more of ourselves into it and it becomes more and more a part of us. Through repetition, we become intimate with our own idiosyncratic tics until they become second nature. They become indistinguishable from us, and we clutch to them no matter how silly they are because they work for us. The personal creative process is a major part of who each writer is, and each of them is silly in such a way that none are silly at all.

So, other than my pen infatuation, how do I work? What’s my process like? What I’d like to do now is run a sort of itemized list from the beginning of things to the end. If—when I’m done—you have questions about any particular point, please ask them. Keep in mind, though, that I’ll be going into each of these in greater detail next year:

  • The Center Point: I’ve referred to this as the Core Idea on other parts of this site because I think that’s a little clearer out of context. We should be fine either way here, though. The Center Point is the thing at the heart of the coming story. A kernel of plot and theme that is usually the first thing that the writer comes to—though, continuing series with existing characters and settings are a handy exception here. The best Center Points are, for me, deceptively simple and come with some facet that the reader can relate with or draw parallels to. They also do some very nice things for the writer, these best ideas, coming to him fully formed and shining, and offering enough depth that the writer can throw plot, characters, and world in and have them all be submerged. The best Core Point touches and informs everything in the book in some way, be it big or small. I usually like a lot of diversity on days when I’m looking for a new Center Point; going to new restaurants or ordering new things, going for walks in different parts of town or visiting a museum, or sometimes just staying at home and hopping articles on the internet for as long as I can stand. The kinds of activities that get me thinking about new things in new ways. And while the search for that new idea can occasionally take a while, I usually don’t need more than one of these “weekend” days before I’m ready to move on.

The next few items are what I usually refer to as the Development stage. Each of them is important in some way, but they are often all happening in parallel:

  • Little Ideas: These are primarily the other bits that go into the story side of the book. Your “B” and “C” stories, and your character arcs. They will almost always touch or be touched by the Center Point in some way, and will have some sort of effect on the plot or the characters (but rarely both). Often, a lot of these will come to me very quickly, and I usually try to write them all down and develop them to some extent. I don’t like to lock myself in and commit to too many of them right away, though, and I’ll usually wait until I’ve started plotting the novel so that I can get a grip on how each of them will fit in and alter the balance and flow of the story. A good example of a Little Idea might be a primary character’s marital problems (a personal B-story that contributes to his personal arc) coming to a head under the stress of the Center Point (the point of contact), and keeping him off-balance or distracted throughout the run of the A-story (the through-line).

  • Building Characters: This should be fairly self-explanatory, but there are a lot of different ways to go about developing a character. A few short minutes on Google will provide you with dozens of lists of questions—put together by writers and critics—that you absolutely have to ask and answer about your character in order to create a perfect, well-rounded hero/villain/mentor/family dog that will be instantly beloved by all readers. But a few more minutes of searching will net you all sorts of articles about letting characters speak for themselves, or how minimal is maximal. All of these ideas are fine, by the by, but if we’re talking about broad-strokes and precision line-work…I like to paint somewhere that’s a little more in-between. Usually I’ll pick out my main characters and do a physical write-up (and sometimes a pencil sketch) and a very basic personal history (place of birth, basic home environment, education level, and primary type of employment). I also usually like to make note of moods and attitudes, and—when possible—basic relationships with other characters and the general public. Beyond that, though, I’ll often wait until the plotting stage before I start really deepening characters, and even that will remain loose until the actual writing of the text and points where development and expansion flow logically into the plot. It’s because of this last bit that I won’t often commit to the reasons behind scars and tattoos until a moment avails itself: It’s much easier to construct a scar story that relates to a situation, than it is to force a situation that relates to a scar story. Unless the character is just a big enough narcissist that he’ll look for any old excuse to break out the story, that is.

  • The World: Because I write stories primarily set in worlds other than our own, this one is kind of a bigger deal for me than it is, say, for the guy writing a contemporary drama set in San Francisco. That guy still needs to know and research San Francisco for it to feel real and genuine, though—especially if he’s a Poughkeepsian and not a San Franciscan (knowing or creating proper local labels for people can be an important part of the “real and genuine” thing). So, because I can’t experience any of my written worlds first hand, world-building is especially important to me. Pretty much everything, from names to dialectic tics, from the geography and weather down to the sights and smells of the streets, from the dress to the drinks…It all has to be fabricated pretty much from scratch. There are loopholes, of course—I’ve run Norwegian translations of dialogue through a basic letter replacement and used it as a flavor language in a fantasy story before, I love to go and get city maps from AAA and draw all over them to create new places with realistic topographies, and some of my far future stuff has a bit of Victorian Colonialist flair to it—and you can get quite far with inference and suggestion, but sooner or later you’re going to have to make sure that your reader is able to look at your words and clearly comprehend and feel the world behind them. It’s a very, very big task, and while a lot of it can be worked out in the Development period, it’s never really done until you save that final draft and walk away from the text forever. And because it is such a large task, and because it is so free-form, I can’t really go into any great detail about how I do it here. I’ll say, though, that I usually start in broad strokes—determining how the setting will influence and reflect the plot and themes, developing key locations for the novel while also coming up with several other places that I can mention in the text, and then developing a sort of basic fact-book that defines politics, population, economy, industry, and that sort of thing. And, while that is plenty to do on its own, it really doesn’t scratch the surface. Everything past this has an initial air of improvisation about it, but as long as I remember to keep writing down these new facts and details into my fact-book (which is slowly transforming into what franchises refer to as a Series Bible) as I slip them into the cracks, everything stays neat and accessible for later use, and the world stays consistent and cohesive.

Those are the major aspects of Development, and all of this can usually take between several days or a month depending on the scale of the project. From there, we move into the final stage of prep:

  • Plotting: Plotting is one of the major aspects of the creative process where writers differ. Some of us like to meticulously plan everything before we ever write the first word, and some of us like to just rush in with a handful of ideas and start flinging them around like crazy. And I’m beginning to feel like I’m repeating myself, but, again, both of these work. There’s no real formula. There’s just what each of us does individually. And, again (again), I seem to fall somewhere in the middle. Extensive plotting kind of bores me. Not in the way where I might find the act of it boring—I actually very much enjoy it—but in that it sort of burns me out on the story. If I plot everything out in too much detail ahead of time, I sit down to finally write and just end up feeling like I’m writing something that I’ve already finished. Improvising completely, likewise, makes me feel lost and a little silly—as though I’ve gone on a sudden trip to another country and realized once I check into the hotel that I didn’t pack any clothes and don’t speak the language. So, what I often do is break out the note-cards. I frigging love note-cards. They’re handy, sturdy, cheap, and the perfect size for my plotting process, which is such: I break the plot down into Beats (individual story moments) and line them all up, with each going on its own card. When I’ve got my basic A-story from beginning to end, then I’ll go back and look at all of the Little Ideas that I made notes on before, and break each of them down into their own beats. When that’s done, I’ll start shuffling the B-story and C-story cards in with the A-story cards and see if there’s a good way to make them fit into the larger narrative; slotting in neatly amongst the rise and fall of the primary action. I’ll usually experiment with one or two combinations of these elements before making a final decision, and along the way, I’ll usually try shuffling the A-story cards around a couple of times, just to make sure that I haven’t overlooked a more interesting way to plot the story.

The Plotting process usually takes about a week when I’m writing a novel, just because I do like to get a fair amount of experimenting out of the way early. Once I’m satisfied with the plot as I’ve laid it out, the cards are numbered, tacked in order to a cork-board next to my desk, and I’m ready to take a couple of days off (little breaks to stave off story-fatigue are good every once in a while) before I begin to write.

  • The Writing: Oh, writing. Writing, writing, writing. There’s not a whole lot else that I would rather do with a day (at least most days). There aren’t a whole lot of different ways to actually write a book. Sure, you can do it long-hand or on a typewriter or computer, you can start at the beginning, at the end, or somewhere in the middle, and you can do your writing in short-hand, via text-to-speech, or in a completely made-up language…But at the end of the day, you’re still just pushing pen to page and putting your story down. The fact that a completed manuscript is the end result of our endeavors, no matter our process and pacing, is probably the thing that brings writers together best. While several years of National Novel Writing Month have made me very comfortable with just powering through and getting to the end as quickly as possible, I do still often like to take a little bit of extra time to stretch my legs and look around creatively. I tend to write from front to back, because that’s how my characters most often experience these events, and—while I usually don’t have any compunction against backtracking a line or two to clear up a messy sentence or re-think a word choice—it’s very rare for me to stop and completely rewrite a scene or section of the manuscript as I go (though if a better way to do something does come to me, I’ll be sure to make some notes and highlight the area to be altered so that I don’t forget it by the time I come around to rewrites). The actual act of writing the book is probably the most stressful aspect of the creative process—and it is where most books fail—but it is also, for me, the most liberating and wonderful. There are ups and downs to it, but, at the end of the day, every word that I put on the page is another word closer to completion. It’s another word towards getting the wonderful thing that I see in my head out to where somebody else can see it and—hopefully—also think that it is wonderful. It’s terrifying. It’s cathartic. It’s a literal one-day-at-a-time (hell, a one-word-at-a-time) process. Actually writing a book is an amazing and conflicting emotional experience, and even though it tortures you on some level it’s also hard to think about it ever being over.

Eventually, though, it is over. You hit the last word, and, whether you write “The End” in size seventy-two font on the last page or not, you’ve got a completed novel on your hands (and sometimes you’ve got bits of your hands stuck inside the keyboard, if you’ve been hitting the keys hard and long enough).

At this point, I usually like to say a prayer to whichever mad, anonymous, foreword-thinking Monk transcribed Beowulf for the very first time, save six or seven back-up copies on various thumb-drives, and go out for tacos and a stiff drink while the manuscript is printing and eating up thirty or forty dollars worth of ink. Then I usually nap heavily for a few days, because it’s time for Editing:

  • The First Revision: This is the part that’s often the most like a grind, but it isn’t all bad. The novel is my baby at this point, and it hasn’t been with me long, but it’s already time to admit that the baby—like all babies—is kind of ugly, smells terrible, and isn’t quite so fragile as my precious writer’s ego is making it out to be. That baby is in for some tough love, and that starts with reading the text with fresh eyes—and I mean really looking at it, just eye-balling it for hours and seeing how ugly it really is. Then, when I’m good and mad and have decided that Me from two months ago was a blistering incompetent, I’ll break out the red pen and fill the margins with scribbles. Afterwards, I’ll take the draft over to the computer, enter my changes and start work on any major re-writes that I made note of during writing (or have settled on since), and finally save all new, separate copies of the manuscript on all of the same thumb-drives that I had out a couple of days before.

  • The Second Revision: After taking another couple of days off (story fatigue, remember?), I’ll print a new, current copy of the manuscript and start all over again. Consistency in setting, tone, language, and characterization is usually my primary focus here, and as I work through the text again I’m probably going to start thinking about who I’ll want to ask about reading an early draft, and send out those requests.

  • The Third Revision: Another short break, another printed copy. By now, a handful of Beta-Readers hopefully have a copy of the completed second revision and are reading it/making notes, so this pass pretty much focuses on major spelling and punctuation errors, and making sure that there isn’t any great amount of repetition or low-level inconsistency. This is often where I’ll take a swing at reading the whole thing aloud to myself, because I’ve found that doing so has a way of finding issues with language and flow (and some word-choice errors) that my eyes miss no matter how many times I read the text.

  • The Fourth Revision: By now, I should hopefully have notes or comments back from Beta Readers. Re-reading the text this time should be done from their perspective, and I should be looking out for the things that they have specifically mentioned. I like to keep my own set of notes as I do this, to see where our comments might not line up. If there are any revisions or attempts at clarification that need to be made, then I’ll work on them now. Usually, though, this is another refining pass for word-choice and consistency.

  • The Fifth Revision: I think you’ve probably got the point by now.

It goes on like that for a while—until the text is good and ready and I’ve hated it for so long that I come back around to loving it again. This time, though, the manuscript usually deserves the love that I’m willing to heap atop it. It’s clean and well mannered, and it doesn’t smell anymore. And then, really, that’s it. All that’s left after that is the long and difficult hunt for publication. There’s a novel sitting on my desk and it has my name on it, and I can feel good about it. Anyone who walks in can see it and ask about it, and I can feel confident in handing it to them to read. Good. Done. Over.

I’ve gone on awfully long here, and I’ve said an awful lot about a good number of things. If I can ask you to take away anything from this, though, I’d like it to be this: There’s a concept in some people’s heads that the creative process is just some magic, tiny thing that happens entirely behind the writer’s eyes and that everything else is just window dressing, and I don’t hold to that. There’s nothing about any part of the noveling process that isn’t creative in some way or another, even the really boring parts like the eleventh editing pass. No matter where he or she is in the process, the writer is never not being creative. He is perpetually forcing and trying out new combinations of words, twisting them together and pulling them apart so that he might evoke something that is just that much brighter and more vivid in your head. No matter how far along we are, that isn’t something that we can really turn off. It’s all behind our eyes, yes, but it’s also all out in the open and waiting for others to notice it and understand it.

So, please try to keep all of this in mind—especially if you love to read, or have a favorite writer. Because this is out magic, and it deserves to be noticed and understood. And because we’re superstitious, capering bridge trolls, and we take our magic seriously.

Thanks for reading, and for waiting the extra day and a half that this monster of a post was late. I hope that you got something out of it, and that you’ll be back next Sunday when I talk about something else entirely.

-Sean

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