Sunday, October 17, 2021

A Writers Process


When asked how he writes his books, Stephen King once gave the flippant answer: "One word at a time." A little simplistic some may say, as far as the writing process goes, but actually, factually, correct. All writing, be it a short article such as this, a research paper on the migrating habits of lesser-blue sparrows, or one of Mr King's thousand-page doortstop novels, each piece is eventually written one word at a time. But how does the writer approach the actual writing? What is their process for getting an idea out of their head and on to the page?

Over the next few weeks I'm going to be posting some articles and posts I wrote as part of my 2nd years creative writing degree which explores this topic from a variety of angles, starting with today's post specifically about the writers process.

For writers at any level, but especially those taking up the pen (or keyboard) for the first time, this can be extremely confusing, baffling to the point that they waste countless hours frustrated over every detail, studiously researching all their favourite authors to discover the hidden gem, the magic bullet that will help them create a best-selling masterpiece of writing. I know; I speak from thirty years’ experience of trying all manner of different methods when it came to my own writing. Yet what this experience has taught me, with all its false steps, dead-ends and abandoned projects, is that there are three core elements to a writer’s overall process, each adding their own unique ingredient to the process dish: Conceptual, Practical and Revisionist.

Conceptual Process

This is the question most writers hate: where do you get your ideas from? The answer being: everywhere. A newspaper article, an interview on the radio. A catchy sentence in a book you read, a throwaway comment made by your next-door-neighbour’s cousin once-removed. Wherever you get your idea (mine tend to come either when I’m in the shower or bath), next you must decide what to do with it. Note it down? Flesh it out in full, creating synopsis, outlines, character profiles, location details, or just wing it? Research everything straight away or plan to do that in the second draft?

John Irving, writer of Dickensian-style novels such as Last Night In Twisted River, and A Prayer For Owen Meany, fully maps out his book, starting with the last sentence (which rarely, if ever, changes) while Stephen King begins with the What If? scenario and starts writing, letting the story take him where it wants to go. He never writes his ideas down, thinking that “the writer’s notebook is a fantastic way for bad ideas to stick.” Joe Eszterhas famously wrote an idea down for a film on a napkin, went home and turned out Basic Instinct and sold it for $3million in thirteen days.

My own process has changed over the years and now, as I write my third book, the practice seems to work. I start with the chapters broken down and suggested page lengths for each to give me a sign of the pace of the book to come. This is something I did when I wrote screenplays, charting the pacing of the book so I could structure how action and information was revealed. It changes, sometimes drastically as I actually write, with the chapters being longer in length before being trimmed back during several edits.

With the structure in place I tell myself the story, noting down a paragraph about what happens in each chapter. Again, this changes in the writing. When I jotted the story for myself for From Sorrow's Hold, the original idea was based around religious killings with clues left on the bodies, that would lead the detectives to discover religious passages that held hints to the killers identity. When it came to actually writing the book, the story took me down a completely different path, but having the initial plan in place allowed me to modify and steer the course a lot more easily than if I just winged it. 

Practical Process

With your idea ready, perhaps fully mapped out, perhaps nothing but an instinctual inner compass heading, it is time to write. Do you write longhand, typewriter or computer/tablet/phone? Have you a set daily total of either words or pages you want to get down, or is it a case of writing for a set period of time? Have you an overall deadline for the project or will you finish when you finish? Each of these elements forms your practical process and I’ve tried them all.

King’s process, which he discusses in detail in his book on the craft of writing On Writing, is a little more complicated than his “one word at a time” answer. He writes every day, including birthdays and Christmas, looking to get 2000 words or ten pages down. Joe Eszterhas has a formula of 6 pages a day for twenty days to get to his first draft. The writer John Irving writes longhand for up to eight hours a day (broken by the usual interruptions of daily life). The act of writing with pen, he says, slows him down, letting ideas form fully without his fingers rushing off on the keyboard, something I have found happening with my own work lately.

As for me, I give myself 12 weeks to complete the book, aiming for 6 pages a day. If I stuck to this, I would have 500 pages done, which amounts to around 180'000 words - way too big for a crime novel. My books are around the 80-90'000 mark, but having this extra time allows for me to write about 30K words, then go back to the beginning and refine it as the story changes. Sometimes I need to do this, sometimes not. But the time is there. I've found this has resulted in a much tighter, cleaner, manuscript when finished, which makes the next part of the process so much easier.

Revisionist Process

How many drafts should you do? One, three? Do you let people read your work as you write, or wait until you’ve finished? What about beta readers – do you work with a small group who offer feedback before you do your revising? When do you send it out to agents, publishers or producers?

King works with the door closed (getting the story down, no one sees what he’s writing) and then with the door open (his wife Tabatha is his Ideal Reader, the one he writes for, and she always reads his work first). He then puts the book aside for about six weeks, works on something new and goes back to it, revising it twice with a polish before sending it to his people. John Irving spends years on a book – his current work, Darkness As A Bride was due for release in 2021, but there's no sign of it yet, so that means it will have been 7 years between books – with at least a year researching the subject once he has that last sentence. Eszterhas can get to a finished, ready to sell screenplay in 50 days.

Dirty Little Secret went through five drafts before I sent it out. As I honed my own process, From Sorrow's Hold has had three drafts, and the current book will have the same. There will be more drafts when my agent or editor get their hands on it, but the number before I say: "Yeah, people can read this now." is about three or four.

But it doesn't matter if it's twenty drafts before you send it out: it's ready when you say it's ready.

Finding Your Process

As you can see there are many factors to consider when finding your own writing process, but it doesn’t have to be difficult. Certainly not something that should detract from the actual writing. It is all too easy to waste time copying another person’s process, marking out chapter lengths, outlines and such, but until you find your way of working, the work you create won’t feel real or genuine.

Until you find your own personal way of writing, I suggest you follow Mr King’s advice: one word at a time.

Cheers - JP

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