Hacking the writing process

One of the things most writers learn early on is how they work best. What environment they need and how they need to approach a story to make progress on it. It’s something we learn through trial and error as we go, developing our process as we develop our skills at plotting, pacing, world building, and characterisation. When you read a lot of writing books, they talk about the importance of finding your process and sticking to it. They’ll advocate particular processes and extol the virtues, sometimes explaining (in detail) why their process is the only way to work.

Plotter. Pantser. Distraction-free environment. Free-writing. Coffee shop writing. Group writing. Solo writing. Detailed research. Research on the fly. Placeholders to do the research later. MICE quotient. Structure. No structure. Scene-sequel.

There are so many parts of the process we develop, and when we find one that works, we stick to it. Sometimes to a degree that’s ultimately unhelpful. Kameron Hurley talks about hacking her process on her blog: being unafraid to change it up and try something new. We can get stuck in a rut of “this is how we should write, because it’s what we do and it’s what has previously worked” and that can hold us back. It’s important to try new things, even try things we can’t imagine working, because it might lead us to something that works even better than what we were doing.

And ruts are usually a bad place to be, right?

I’ve always been a pantser. I’ll go in with, at most, the milestones on the way worked out and that’s it. The idea of outlining has always made me nervous because it hasn’t worked with me–I’ll write the outline and then I feel satisfied because I know how the story goes, and I can’t actually write the story. I’m starting to suspect this is a holdover from writing fanfic: you’re writing about characters you know so well already, often in settings you know (unless you’re writing an AU), and if you know them, the arcs they’ll take, and the detailed plot, what is left to discover? You need need to have something new to find as you write, or it becomes mechanical and passionless.

I guess one of the things I’ve realised is that I’m a discovery writer more than a true pantser. As I edited the book I finished earlier this year, I found that most of the big structural issues it had would have been caught and fixed before I ever began if I’d outlined it first. I went in with some research–characters sheets, some world-building, a really highlights-only idea of the plot direction–and I ended up with a mess. Most of the edits were dealing with the huge structural issues, the plot problems, and the missing character arcs–most of which could have been cut off at the pass with an outline.

My newest project (er, the one I’m tinkering with when I have spare time after my NaNo words) is different. The idea happened, I developed it, and I ended up with a one-page outline that felt fairly complete. All the major and minor plot points, right there on the page. I worked on it a bit more, added more details. When I set up the Scriv project, I set up chapter folders and added more details to the outline as I sketched in the chapter descriptions. I caught a few issues, found places that needed more thought and worked on them, and now I’ve got an outline that feels pretty solid. The main characters have arcs, the plot isn’t filled with logical inconsistencies or impossibilities. It’s an outline that, hopefully, won’t leave me with the level of mess I’ve been cleaning up for three months in my other book.

I’ll probably expand it as I go. Some of the chapters I outlined feel too full, so they’ll probably be turned into multiple chapters. An outline isn’t a line-by-line recipe, after all.

What I’ve learned is that for this book, with this outline, I’m still discovering it as I write. I’ve just finished the opening chapter, and I already feel like I’m finding out new things with each new scene. The outline is there, but it’s the details I’m discovering, so I’m still excited to find out what happens next.

Perhaps my old pantser ways only really work for the way I write fanfic, and my process for original fiction had to change. I’ll know better when I finish this book and see how it turns out. Hopefully it will be less fundamentally flawed and messy.

The other part of my process I’ve been playing with is environment. I’ve never been very particular about where I write–sometimes I’m at my desk, sometimes I’m on my iPad elsewhere in the house, or in a coffee shop, or in the lunchroom at work. It’s the reason Scriv for iOS has been so good–it’s fitting in with my habits really well. But for years, I’ve been writing in silence. No music. Having someone else’s words in my head made it impossible to hear my own words.

I’m also really easily distracted and I’ve been finding it difficult to get myself into the word space, which impacts on productivity. If I’m writing 50 words, checking twitter, writing 100, checking email, writing 25, checking twitter…you can see how that’s not really working, can’t you?

So I decided to try something. One evening, I downloaded a ton of classical stuff on Spotify and plugged in, and it’s working. No words, just orchestral–mainly violin or cello concertos, or symphonies–and suddenly, I’m actually getting a fair amount done each time I sit down. I get into the right wording zone and everything zooms along. At a certain stage, I stop hearing the music, but it’s okay because it’s become a background hum helping me to concentrate. It was the one part of my process I refused to consider changing for years, and it’s made a huge difference.

Finding a process that works for our writing is important, but so is trying new things. Sometimes, we need to hack our process and find a new way of working. It might not always work, a change you try might even sound counter-intuitive to everything we’re told by ‘experts’, but we should be open to experimenting.

You never know what you might learn and yourself and your writing.

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