The Writing Process: A self-interview (or why it took me six weeks to write this post)
My good friend Sarah Stevenson* invited me to participate in this writing process blog tour a while back.
Actually, it was a month ago.
Wait, it was actually about six weeks ago.
So, yeah that's my writing process in a nutshell--I guess we're done here, right? Kidding. But procrastination is a big part of it, obviously.
I'm writing this post now (finally) from San Jose where I'm attending BlogHer 14, a social media conference dedicated to all things blogging, networking, and writing. Seems like as good a time as any to finally tackle this.
The writing process is a mysterious one. As Sarah wrote in her post, "writing is often an isolated, isolating activity, and that tends to make us writers feel like we're weirdos alone in our self-imposed struggles."
This applies, largely, whether I'm writing for work, working on my book or poetry, or tackling a blog post. Before I started blogging regularly again I'd tricked myself into thinking I'd blog several times a week but truth is it takes me forever to even write a post sometimes because I agonize over words, phrases, the order of information and thoughts.
I'm not saying my blog posts read as if they're superbly crafted (they do not), just that sometimes it's very, very difficult to commit them to the Internet. (The exception to this, of course, occurred when I took part in the BlogHer writing challenge, which forced me to post every day for a month).
Anyway, the degree of anxiety, neurosis and weirdness may shift depending on the focus, but those components are mostly always there.
On that note:
1. WHAT AM I WORKING ON?
I'm always writing something. That's what I do for a living. Well, I'm also an editor so often this means I only have time for really short pieces. But sometimes I knock out longer articles; occasionally I even write a 3,000-word cover story. In the last couple of years I've also made a concerted effort to work on a book. It's been both a rewarding and a frustrating process. After all it's been nearly 10 years (!) since I received my MFA in Creative Writing--you'd think I'd have coughed up a book by now. I do have a contemporary lit book that I'd like to return to one day but in the last five years I've been working on two books. Both are young adult novels. One is a collaboration with a friend but for various reasons it's been on hold for the last year and a half.
I started the other book about four years ago and have been writing it on and off with more seriousness for the last two years. I've set a goal to finish the draft by the end of summer (I'm about three or four chapters out. I think. I mean, that could easily change) and another goal to do at least one serious write-through revision by the end of the year.
The book is called Kissyface but that's just a working title at this point. It's a coming of age story about a 17-year-old girl who feels stuck in childhood, abandoned by her parents and completely lost in life.
This is really simplifying the story of course, but ultimately that's what it's about, at least in part. The scope and tone of the book have changed so dramatically that sometimes I hardly recognize it anymore. This is mostly a good thing. In the last year or so I've worked hard to focus the story and make it something that I would want to read. That last part is key. Initially this story started out as a screenplay in the style of an 80s-era teen movie--lighthearted, funny, etc. Now as I continue to shape it into a book, it's become more serious, more melancholy, a bit grittier in places.
2. HOW DOES MY WORK DIFFER FROM OTHERS OF ITS GENRE?
Hmmm, good question. When I think of contemporary YA lit that I like--stuff like Rainbow Rowell's Eleanor & Park or Melina Marchetta's Jellicoe Road, I think of books that stay with me for a long, long time. Books that make me cry or talk out loud to myself. When I finished Eleanor & Park I literally gasped at the last line. And cried a little.
Jellicoe Road was, at first, hard to get into it but I pushed through and was rewarded with an emotionally complex book that haunted me so much I had to reread it. I want to reread it again because I still can't really pinpoint just how it got under my skin.
Anyway, that doesn't answer the question I guess. Truth is I don't know how it differs other than it's my story in my voice. That's the beauty of writing fiction--or writing at all, really. No two people will craft the same thoughts into the same sentences in the same order. Even if it's a story with an ending that's already known. No two people will tell that story the same way.
More concretely, I suppose, much of my fiction deals with themes of identity--figuring out one's purpose--and also themes of friendship. The subject of female friendship is something I write on a lot. It interests me more, I suppose, than just writing a love story. Don't get me wrong, I love love--I'd really be a weirdo creep if I didn't--but when it comes to writing I think I just like examining the complexity and entanglements of relationships period, whatever their nature. Why do we interact with people the ways that we do. How do people influence us and change us? How do we influence and change them? That's an underlying theme in my current book.
3. WHY DO I WRITE WHAT I DO?
Because that's what interests me. Or sometimes when it comes to poetry, it's just because it has to come out of me. That probably sounds horribly pretentious but many of my poems were written in what I can only describe as a fugue state--I have little recollection of writing them. I mean, I remember the seed of the idea and I remember putting a few words together and I remember endless polishing but often I don't remember the core that made up the experience. It's not quite the same with fiction and it's definitely not the same with journalism or my blog even. For journalism, I write about things that either need to be covered or about things that encompass topics that interest me. For blog posts I tend to write about whatever is stuck in my craw at that particular moment.
4. HOW DOES MY WRITING PROCESS WORK
I think the real question should be 'does it ever work?' Kidding. Kind of. I'm a horrible procrastinator and when I do get down to writing, more often than not I have that evil little voice in my head telling me how horrible my writing is.
I also get very easily distracted. The Internet does not help with this. Laundry does not help with this. A million and one minor work tasks definitely do not help with this.
In the last few years I've worked hard to push through some of these moments. To just write, almost blindly, and then sort out the mess later. I've been working from an outline on this book--which is great, but sometimes I think it can also constrain the creative process. Two years ago when I took the train out to see family in Texas I remember sitting, staring at the window, stuck in a particular spot on the book, stuck on what the outline was telling me to do. Finally I just looked down at the keyboard and started typing. At that particular moment I refused to listen to the evil voice, I refused to question the logic (or quality) of what I was writing; I refused to think too hard. I found the process pretty damn rewarding. Suddenly my story veered off course and I had a brand new character and subplot. I absolutely love the character that appeared out of nowhere once I shut off the more orderly, logical side of my brain. This is not to say that the revision on this particular writing wasn't brutal--it was--but it shows that creativity requires room to roam, wander and get lost.
That said, back to the outlines. I love working with an outline--it's vital to my journalism, too. For my book I also use flow charts and lists and other various visual tools. For example I have an online notebook with photos of what I think my characters look like. Last summer I started a family tree for my main character and I found that to be a really interesting process as it got me to better understand her quirks--most of this won't ever end up on the page, but it helps for me to know it. I also use maps, playlists and other tools that help me flesh out the characters.
Currently I'm taking a step back and applying the Save the Cat! beat sheet method to my story and that's taking me down a whole other rabbit hole. I probably should have done that first but it is interesting and useful to do it now because I think it's helping me identify issues that I might not have seen before I started writing even if I had done the beat sheet at the beginning. You know, hindsight is 20/20 and all that.
5. AND THE OTHER PART OF THIS QUESTION: HOW DOES MY WRITING PROCESS NOT WORK?
I'm not very good at explicit character back story details sheets (some people devote pages and pages to this).
I also am not very good at packing writing into small chunks of time. I wish that I were--I'd probably be done with this book a million times over by now. Truth is, I usually need a few hours to think, procrastinate, be distracted, look up stuff on the Internet, make coffee, play with my cats and, oh yeah, put a few words down.
And that's all she wrote.
For now at least.
The whole point of this blog tour is that you're supposed to pass the torch to other writers. I asked three other bloggers; two of whom declined ("too busy"--I get that) and one who, I think, pretended not to hear me. No worries. Consider this an open call to anyone who wants to join in and share his or her own process.
*Sarah Stevenson isn't just a good friend, she's also a really talented YA author. Her debut novel The Latte Rebellion received tons of acclaim and you should also check out her latest book The Truth Against the World.