Wednesday, June 1, 2011
Last Saturday, at the invitation of my friend John Herman (real name, not a pseudonym: as a general note if I'm involving last names I'm usually using someone's real name, unless otherwise noted), I took part in a project that's probably the closest I'm ever going to get to performance art. In literal terms, with the help of Google Documents, I and 22 other writers and an illustrator wrote a novel in 24 hours, all the while broadcasting live both on the web and in a gallery in New Jersey that sponsored the event. In a way, the experience was very ordinary for me, but in many other ways (and I hope this doesn't sound too cliché) it was both extraordinary and unique. It made me realize a lot of things about my writing process, which I am going to attempt to rectify here in this post.
The short answer to the question "What is my process?" is that it is quick, intense, and runs on a combination of jealousy, dread, and self-discipline. I am part of a local writing group of about 30 or so regulars (of which John is one of our co-chairs), and one of the most frequent subjects at our get-togethers has to do with how much and how often we write. On a typical day, I will write between 2000 and 4000 words over the course of about 3-4 hours in the morning, usually at a rate of about 1000 words an hour, though sometimes that can almost double, and sometimes it only goes about half that speed. The highest single-day word count I've ever achieved is about 9100, and the greatest weekly word count I've achieved is about 50,000. On Saturday I wrote about 8500 words after receiving a very brief outline and character description at midnight the night before, which is a typical length when I'm on a deadline. Generally speaking, on first drafts, I'm more concerned with working efficiently and getting the story down on paper than I am the details, though that's more of a guideline than it is a universal doctrine. I've had first drafts take me as few as eight days, and as many as eighty. This apparently flabbergasts many of my friends in the group, and they want to know how I do it. I'd like to say this comes about through the power of positive thinking, but that would be a lie. Generally speaking, the better I feel about a story, the less that gets done. My claim to fame was that I wrote a 320,000-word trilogy in a summer. What nobody knows about that feat was that the whole reason I wrote it that quickly was to try and beat the TV show Dollhouse to the air, which I was convinced had ripped off my idea (and, to be perfectly honest, helped in principle to inspire it just a little bit once the story got going). The first book of that became known as THE WONDERS AT YOUR FEET, my first published novel (the second, OVERFLY, was written in collaboration with John Herman's 24 Hour Novel Project last weekend). I like deadlines with real consequences: they get me to work more efficiently.
Of course, the first draft is, ultimately, probably the least of all the stages of writing a novel, though certainly one of the most important. My friend and fellow author Clark Knowles likes to speak of re-writing as the best part of novel-writing, and I'm inclined to agree. The truth of the matter is, there's only so much I can get done in most drafts. If it's a plot-driven story, the first draft is always about hashing out the plot. If it's character-driven, it's about figuring out the character dynamics, and even then sometimes only the most important. I don't believe you HAVE to write a shitty first draft and then work your way up: every story has a certain potential, no two stories are alike, and each story requires its own process to fulfill its potential. For me, that's usually 2-4 drafts, but again, those numbers aren't doctrine. For the early drafts, I just pick a part of the story to work on and take everything else along with it. I think the two most important thing new writers need to understand about novel-writing is how to be flexible enough to follow the story and its needs, and how to be patient enough to see fulfilling all those needs through. Some drafts are brilliant, some are messy, you may even have to take one step backwards to take two steps forwards. All of the above have happened to me at some point or another. There is nothing glamorous about this, either: it's hard, difficult, often thankless work for very little immediately tangible reward. I don't believe in this "writing because you have to" mantra, either. Nothing makes me write. I write because I enjoy it, and it's a very good way of sorting out complicated thoughts and emotions in my head. The more magical you try to make your art, and the more important you try to make it to you, the harder it's going to be to work on it, let alone finish it. My process works precisely because I treat it as something mundane -- just work by any other name. That isn't to say that it isn't extraordinarily fun and entertanining work. My fiancée can certainly attest to that, given the number of rants and raves I've subjected her to about it over the years. But it is just another job nonetheless. All writers would do well to remember that, regardless of their level of experience.
As far as my chapter in OVERFLY goes, I wrote the story I was given. My characterization doesn't tend to show up until the second or third drafts of a really plot-driven story like my assigned chapter was, and for that I feel tremendously self-conscious about it. I feel like I was basically asked to write a really crazy episode of Scooby Doo, and so that's what I did. Quite frankly, while my chapter was the longest, it wasn't the best, and there is a competitive, ego-driven part of me that's pissed off about it. But that in no way diminishes the actual experience of working with so many other talented authors on such a collaborative project. At the end of the day, the high I got from it was as great or better as some of the best rock concerts I've ever been to, and it's that high from creating something -- bringing something from your head to life that makes writing so enjoyable and rewarding to me. Like all things, there's a positive and a negative side to it for me, and it's only by acknowledging both that I can feel truly in touch with my creations.