Jettisoning Your Writing Process: Can You Start Anew?

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In his book, The Snowflake Method, author/ fiction writing coach, Randy Ingermanson, mentions two different categories of writers: the outliner and the organic writer.

The outliner, well, outlines his book and does so in gory detail, a la Robert Ludlum, whose novel outlines could reach some 150 pages in length. At the opposite end of the spectrum are the ethereal-minded organic writers, who pen words only when inspiration strikes. Their heads float amongst the clouds while they wait for genius to descend upon them.

Not surprisingly, the portraits Ingermanson paints of both types of writer are unflattering. Outlining comes off as stodgy and boring, while organic writing is so inefficient, it often leads to a lack of productivity- stalled manuscripts and anxiety over putting words down on the page.

Of course, few novelists really compose their fictions in either fashion. We’re, most of us, somewhere in the middle of these two extremes.

I, myself, fall closer to the organic writer end of spectrum. My process is purely organic at first, but at some point, when a story emerges, I do some loose planning, like creating a scene list.

And yet, despite this hybrid approach, I’m a very slow writer. Any organic gardener will tell you composting takes time- about 6 to 9 months, and so does writing organically. Creating a book, at least for me, often takes a year. Sometimes a year and a half. And then there are the novels that fizzle out halfway through.

The one lesson I have learned about organic writing is not to start with premises. My successes have only come when I just let ideas flow. Where I started may end up at the beginning of the novel, but it might also be the middle or the end. I call this x-treme pantsing (see here).

Creating a New Process

Recently, however, I’ve been looking for a new writing process; one that moves me closer to the other end of the writing spectrum. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, that while my current process is fun, it’s inefficient. What I want to create is a process that merges early stage outlining with organic writing.

To do so, I will consult three how-to-write-fiction texts for inspiration: the above mentioned, The Snowflake Method, Jessica Brody’s Save the Cat! Writes a Novel, and Robert J. Ray’s The Weekend Novelist. I chose the latter mostly because I’ve owned it for years.

I will take their collective advice and try weaving them into something that works for me.

Furthermore, I’ve also decided to be more ambitious this year. I’m going to attempt writing multiple novels at once. This will guarantee at least one book will get finished. (Or no books get finished. We’ll see.)

Wish me luck! And if you have any suggestions for other, possibly better, how-to-write-fiction books I can consult, suggest them in the comments below.

Thank you for reading. This is post one in a series on becoming a plotter. Come back to see if this dyed in the wool x-treme pantser can change their spots. 

Meeting 2020 Writing Goals, Burnout, Symptoms and Cures

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New Year. New work in progress.

That was the dream.

Well, that didn’t happen, but I came close. I finished making content changes to my novel in early December. This was a protracted process during which I chopped twenty thousand words out of my manuscript and added a second narrative point of view. My target goal was 85,000 words. I ended up missing this goal too, but I’m happy with the novel’s current length (89K).

During the rest of December and the first weeks of January, I focused on line editing. My primary goals were to fix paragraph flow and maximize readability. After all the chopping I did earlier, there were issues with transitions both within and between paragraphs. More often than not, I found stray sentences that broke the smooth flow of the rest of the paragraph. I either had to delete those sentences or move them to some other place in the manuscript. Usually the latter.

The third editing phase was copy editing. Here I went line by line, fixing the grammar and correcting typos. A lot of the errors were missing commas. Occasionally, I’d find a misplaced modifier. Every copy editing session starts off fun, but boy does it get mind-numbing. That’s when I have to stop. If your head isn’t in copy editing mode, then you’ll end up overlooking errors. Because I often did my copy editing after work, when I’m mentally exhausted to begin with, this process took a few weeks.

So, I’ve basically missed my end-of-the-year deadline by a month.

If you’re asking why, the answer is burnout.

What is burnout?

Interestingly, the word was first coined to describe the mental state of people suffering from severe work-related stress, particularly of people working in the “helping” professions (i.e. nursing). The term was later expanded to include people in other professions- to any overworked individual. This includes anyone running the career rat race.

So can a writer- one who isn’t under contract to produce- feel burn out? I’d say yes. Writing is a career and is therefore a trajectory that one has to be on. Even people who publish using Kindle Direct Publishing (or want to) will feel burnout. The push to create output is intense.

As for me, I’m not sure what the cause of my burnout is. One possibility is that I’ve been working on this manuscript for more than a year. Maybe that’s just too long.

Symptoms of Burnout

So, what was my experience of burnout like?

Writers report many symptoms such as exhaustion, lack of motivation, negativity, declining memory, and bad writing.

Except for lack of motivation, I’ve experienced all these symptoms to some extent. A lot of these exist separately from my writing, however. Negativity, for instance. Also, I’m a sufferer of chronic insomnia, so things like exhaustion and declining memory go hand in hand. The symptom that made me stop and take notice was the bad writing.

As I did my content editing- deleting what wasn’t necessary and adding what was, I realized that the sentences I was writing/ rewriting/ adding were getting shorter and simpler. It became a struggle to add feeling to them. I eventually got there, but it was a struggle.

What I now mostly feel is depletion. In some sense, this is normal. I can’t find the quote, but I remember reading some article, either in the Guardian or the New York Times, in which a writer says that finishing a manuscript leaves a hole in your head (something like that; I think it might have been Salman Rushdie). I’m definitely feeling that now.

To recuperate, I’m going to just write sentences. Maybe twenty sentences a day, and I’ll work at them until I can feel something. Drawing masters often practice making lines to warm up the muscle memory in their shoulders and their arms. What if writers need to do the same thing? It’s worth a shot.

Anyway, I’ll have fun, regardless.

And who knows? Maybe like a sketch artist I can work alfresco.

(Who am I kidding? There’s a pandemic going on. There’ll be no sitting in a coffee shop eavesdropping on conversations for writing inspiration. I’ll have to stay put, in my gray, gray room.)

Let me know what your experience of creative burnout was like in the comments.

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Help! Can I Transform My Plot Driven Novel into a Character Driven Novel?

Altered screenshot from an article posted on The Writing Cooperative

If you fully flesh out a character before sending them off on their journey or adventure, have you then created a character driven story?

The answer is not necessarily. Not even if you know what’s in their closet or under their bed or in their purse.

That’s because plot driven stories and character driven stories focus on different things. A character driven story focuses on the illumination of a character or some aspect of life, while a plot driven story focuses on telling a story. Even the ways a writer goes about writing the two types of books are different.

Two Goals, Two Approaches

In a plot driven story, each scene moves the story forward. This doesn’t mean that characters in a plot driven novel are cardboard cutouts. It merely means that characterization is woven into the novel’s narrative. On the most basic level, how a character pursues her goal or reacts to a plot development shows who they are. This is inherent to all plot driven fiction. Besides this, authors can also embed snippets of backstory into the narrative or allow us to meet the character’s friends and family. An additional option is to use character driven subplots.

On the other hand, a character driven story is built entirely differently. The author must first decide what they want to say about a character or what aspects of a character’s life they wish to explore. After that, they must devise scenes and sequences to illuminate that aspect of a character’s life. The key is to choose a perspective for your portrayal (have something to say). The sky’s the limit in terms of themes. A character driven novel can be about handling grief or falling in love, betraying a loved one or sacrificing themselves for the greater good.

Right about now, you’re probably thinking: “But wait! Since all plots require active characters, can you really separate the two?”

The Plot Driven-Character Driven Story Combo

Some very confused writers will answer no. They will argue that if a character drives the plot, then the novel is character driven. Here’s a link to an article featured on The Writing Cooperative that suggests just that. The argument here is not about different narrative compositions (as outlined above). The argument is more hierarchical. Character based stories are more literary and therefore better. An added carrot is that publishers prefer books that are character driven.

That said, it’s easy to find examples in which fleshed out characters inhabit a strong plot. The novels of Gillian Flynn are good examples. The question is, how do we categorize novels like Dark Places and Gone Girl.

Ultimately, I’d say they’re mostly character driven fictions.

Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment!