Friday, February 12, 2016

My Writing Process // The Backstory

because all writers write with little green plants by their desk. 
I'm on my third full length novel. With the first two, I put them through two or three edits, so I got a good idea of what the entire package looked like. With this next one, I'm trying out some new techniques to see if they'll make my writing journey more efficient, more enjoyable, and higher quality. I have to finish the first draft to complete some of my testing (after which I'll be reviewing the K.M. Weiland Structuring and Outlining books here on the blog).

Last Friday I talked about my current writing process and the different methods and words that were cornerstones to my productivity. Today, I thought it would be fun to take a trip down memory lane. Because honestly, the writing process takes a lot of twists and turns before you start feeling comfortable with it.

The Beginnings
My first childhood ambition was a story about an English princess during the American Civil War. It had accompanying illustrations. I believe I was nine, and I'm not sure where it is now, but it will not see the light of day for publication. It is probably pretty cute, though. After that, I had a long and convoluted series idea set around the Civil War. I still keep it in the back of my head. You never know. In fact, I have a folder stuffed with scraps of paper that were the story ideas of my childhood, full of mystery-solving cats and homeschool girls and all sorts of Pulitzer-Prize potential.

I didn't stick with any of them, really, until War of Loyalties.

War of Loyalties is my first writing love. I learned how to write on this book.

Book One, Draft One: Learn How to Write
Basically, learn everything. Learn that we must pick one eye color for Jaeryn and not three (he had brown, grey, and green interchangeably). Learn that encoded messages are not really my thing in spy fiction. (That was kind of a cool plot, though. It was a bet between the spy and the arch villain, and if the spy didn't get the answer by the last clue he would die.) Learn that any dream can be realized, even if you don't have a laptop, if you're just willing to write with pen and paper. I wrote over 300 pages by hand, because I wanted that story told. I used an orange school folder until it got so ripped and worn it wouldn't hold together. Then I switched to a folder with a cat on it, until that got so full it ripped too, and I upgraded to a fancy zip case. You can't imagine the delight of holding a growing stack of papers and reading your favorite parts. I still have those old folders. I learned that medical catastrophes in a book should be limited to a non-ridiculous number. Learned about cutting out extraneous characters (the eleven year old boy reincarnated in a different story and I am so happy.) Learned that if one wants to write historical fiction, one really can't make up geographical locations. (I struck gold though, and made up a location that actually existed). I learned about logic during those years, being in my mid-teens, and how that affects stories. I learned how to take advantage of five minute breaks between school subjects. We had a fifteen minute break mid-morning in our homeschool, and towards the end I used that time to write, write, write.

In some ways I miss those days. It was just me and the story I loved, and a total oblivion to its faults.

But to stay there would be to remain stuck in a writing childhood, and nobody's designed to do that.

Book One, Draft Two: Learn Discipline 
I got a snazzy laptop just before draft one ended, but for nostalgia's sake, I chose to finish writing it by hand. It now resides on my bookshelf in a shoe box. I do not want it displayed for future posterity if this ever becomes a bestseller.

It was during this draft that I put into practice a key concept I hope to practice for the rest of my life. The Twenty Mile March. The basic idea, which I heard at a writer's conference, was to set your daily march, and make sure you got it done. On the easy days, you stick to your march. On the hard days, you stick to your march. Ultimately, consistent daily marching will get you to your word goals much faster than haphazard binging on one day and doing nothing the next. You can shift your march according to various life seasons, but so long as you have that daily goal, you'll get to the end. For draft two, I set myself a march of a chapter a week and sending it to beta readers. I hoped to increase it as time went on, but it never varied. I wrote it in installments, which was a really good way to fix some plots and a really bad way to bomb others. But overall it turned it into a more cohesive story. I also learned that one could finish marching late on Saturday nights. That was a season of tired Sunday mornings. Want to change that next time.

Book One, Draft Three: Learn Layering 
This draft was some of the sharpest agony I've hit in my writing so far. It was a draft, for various reasons, I had to write with the door closed. I needed time to think about some things, experiment with various plots and characters that hadn't worked, and generally get this thing into much better shape. I hated having to answer the question of "what are you writing?" with "still editing". I gave that answer so many times. It felt humiliating. I wished I had never told anyone I was a writer. It was a huge, huge book, and without the momentum of sending out weekly installments, I found it hard to write a chapter a week. I don't know exactly what I would do differently next time, but I do know that lots of prayers got me to the end. In this draft I focused more on going out on a limb. Experimenting with sensory description, trying to make my writing a lot richer, and also exposing my character's hearts and motivations in a more vulnerable way. I remember ending the draft thinking never, never, never again--but I would do it again if that's what was needed to turn a story I loved into a finished product. Pain and commitment is part of the deal with writing. I was really happy with the added detail and things I had learned.

After that draft, I sent it out to a few more people who entered the world of the characters. Their love equaled other reactions, so I was thrilled, and the long wait was worth it. It's amazing how a few words of praise make all the pain seem like nothing.

The Novellas
Then the novella era started. Actually, the novella era started sometime in the middle of Draft Three. I couldn't justify starting another long novel at the time, so I decided to pull out a short story of an Irishman who goes wandering. It was one that had tugged at my heartstrings for over a year, but I had tossed it away. It was begun in bitterness of spirit, and I didn't want a story affected by that. A year later, the  Lord gave me the grace to pick it up again and write a much better plot, with a deeper and more mature understanding of its themes, than I could have done when I first thought of it.

I also started something completely different--a couple of modern stories about a ballet dancer and two marines who meet up on vacation. I was hoping to capture a feeling--I think all my stories start with wanting to encapsulate a feeling--of the yearning and fellowship and love that can come from unexpected friendships. With these novellas I didn't have any particular learning object in mind. I just wanted them to be fun, to specifically address boy and girl friendships, and so far they have exuded that carefree friendship I was shooting for. I've still learned a lot along the way, but all in all these stories were more to relax with, so I didn't stress about the details.

Book Two: Learn What Doesn't Work
For a brief jaunt, I tried modern fiction set in a diary format. While I don't despair of making it work, I didn't have the passion for it at the time. I wrote it because I thought I ought to, and it was a good idea, and I needed a break from the others. That was two months last year (I was sitting here this morning thinking "what did I do last summer writing wise?", and I remembered "oh, that novel"). You can't write a book because you ought to. It just does not work, and it turns out bad quality, especially when you have another project you'd rather be doing. I never finished that first draft, and I don't know if I will. Plus I can't find it and I'm afraid it got eaten.

Book Three: Learn How to Plan
With this novel, I'm adding some more layers to my writing arsenal. This is a sequel, so there are some skills to sequel-writing I'm trying to grasp. It's challenging to have continuity with the characters and make sure they're learning new things. I decided to go through extensive structuring with K.M. Weiland's workbooks to endeavor to eliminate large plot holes. That was a good experience for me, digging into the plot incidents and motivations. However, it had a couple of side effects I didn't care for. I discovered that sometimes plans look good in a list of incidents and just don't execute well on paper. I also learned that too much planning turned my story into an assignment of connecting each little dot and I had to learn how to re-harness the creative side. When you're trying to improve your process, it's easy to turn it all into a system and lose the creative streaks. To remedy that problem, sometimes I've ditched my outline and gone on completely uncharted territory. It leaves me with plot holes (even large ones) but I'm getting a feel for my process as a writer, and I think an extensive second-draft rewrite is part of that. If I had to describe myself, I'd be a "plantser"--a person who likes a combination of pantsing and planning to get through the first draft.

I'm also learning how to pray along the way. I prayed going into it, and then going into NaNoWriMo as well, about a month after I started. A couple weeks ago when I reached the midpoint, I took a day off just to pray about the second half. I want to seek God all throughout this process in a meaningful way--not merely ask his blessing on my word count at the beginning of each day. It's not as much as I'd like it to be yet, but it's more than it was.

There are so many things to tell. I could write a book about what it takes to write a book. I think a writer's life would make a really cool documentary. Every draft I get a little more skill and figure out something new to learn. With the fourth book I write, I want to get better at my research methods and add a female POV to the mix. I've got that in the works, but it will be a while before I start it.

It will always be a changing, growing process. I'll never have it figured out. But the excitement of craftsmanship--writing and writing and writing until you've refined that vision into a beautiful product--is something I've never gotten tired of so far.


  1. I love this post! You've come such a long way, and truly it's been a pleasure to pray and laugh with you through some of it. I'd love to read that English princess story...and the modern fiction diary one someday. :wasntme: What exactly would have eaten the latter one? :P

    I especially appreciate your committment to pray in all your writing. You set aside time to pray or you ask others to pray and you pray sometimes just for the "little things". It's been an example to me. <3

  2. Loved this post, too. I always enjoy hearing about your writing process, and I remember some of these things along the way. ;)
    The hand-written version of WoL--I protest your decision about posterity not seeing it! :P It would be like reading grandparent love letters, and you just can't deny them that. :wasntme:
    What? *splutter* Eaten it?? What on earth?

    Glad you got through that third draft. <3 And the novellas, you know how we all love those. Keep going, my friend; you're wonderfully touching other lives through it. <3



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