How I Write

I don’t often get asked how I write. Maybe I should consider this unusual, since it’s one of the most common questions non-writers ask, but I don’t. I end up simply not thinking about how I write and let the creative process take hold. It is, after all, a mystery and one which is just as difficult for the artist to solve as for the critic. Given that I haven’t thought about this very much, this could be a short post. I could also decide in the future that this isn’t how I write at all. But the nice thing about a blog is that it’s like a diary; you can flip back through the musings and see how you’ve grown.

The first thing I should say about my creative process is that it’s my own, no one else’s. That might seem obvious to some, but to people who aren’t used to exercising their creative muscles it will probably be helpful if I just point out that no writer writes the same way. There’s no single road to a good story, no proscribed twelve-step program, no law of physics. Different writers have methods as unique as their personalities. This is the first thing a writer must admit: that their way is the best way, but really only for them.

That being said, every writer does start at the same place: the Idea. Where does it come from? The easiest answer is “We don’t know.” The second easiest answer is “They come from everywhere, stupid.” I suspect the truth is somewhere in between. Here’s a thought I’ve just had about where writers get ideas. I think it’s probably just from being alive, from experiencing the world the same way everybody else on the planet does. Writers don’t see things others can’t, it’s just that they process everything in a certain way. This does not make them special any more than having brown hair or blue eyes. It’s all in the way you look at life. A writer can see the same thing that, for example, a painter does and yet see a different aspect. Suppose a writer and a painter were looking at a rose bed. The painter would be considering the way the sunlight hits the petals, the pattern cast by the shadow of a nearby tree, the varying shades of red between individual flowers. The writer, on the other hand, would be thinking about the way the breeze was gently fluttering the petals, where the bee that just flew down into the bed came from, and possibly wondering if there was any significance to the fact that every beautiful rose has a stem covered in thorns. (A gardener, of course, would see things from yet a third perspective.) We all look at the world differently than the person standing next to us. Artists just feel the need to tell everyone about it, and they don’t all do it in the same way.

Wherever it comes from, each writer has to decide what to do with the idea after the initial inspiration. This is what I do: dwell on it. Even before writing it down (which eventually must happen or else it will fly away), I have to consider it. Usually this is because I have to know what I’ll be writing down. Simply writing down a word or phrase may not be enough to recall it later; I’ve looked at notes I’ve made and wondered what on earth I meant by them. So I take a little time to consider. Often ideas come to me in pictures, whether in something I’ve actually seen or something that just pops into my head. I visualize what I write, and in that sense I’m not so different from the painter. The length of time I take to go through the initial development can vary extremely. I once spent close to an hour pacing up and down the living room going through all the possibilities an idea offered, all the things I could do with it. Sometimes the idea only takes a few minutes to coalesce. Of course the longer the time I spend with it in nothing but my head, the more substantial my notes will be. As a general trend, though not an absolute, longer notes and thoughts mean a large project like a novel and shorter ones mean a short story. Sometimes, though, two different ideas produced at different times can collide with each other and start having babies. That will often mean a novel as well. The bare skeleton of a plot usually starts coming together in this initial phase.

After those first notes are made, the next phase of thinking begins. There’s an awful lot of thinking involved in this art form; it’s what lets us joke that we’re working hardest when we sit there staring out the window. More notes are made. This is usually the part where characters who may have been just faces or concepts begin getting names and traits that will let them fit into the plot (or what there is of one so far) and also move it forward. Do they need to be optimistic or cynical? Do they need a sense of humour or a sense of inevitable doom? What gifts do they have? What weaknesses? I start moving from the general to the specific. One way I do that is by adding a sort of extra layer of development, where I figure out what it is I need to figure out. How many main characters will I need? Would a character like this serve a purpose or are they better left out? Another thing that can happen at this point is that I try some actual writing if I have an idea for the first scene or the opening chapter. This feels nice because it seems like I’m on track, like I’m getting something done, like I’m ready to write. It always gets junked. Or at the very least heavily reworked. It’s also only a short bit because I come to the point where I realize I haven’t properly thought something through, or that I have no idea what comes next, or freuqently both. This is when I find myself moving into the third phase.

I have found myself to be that kind of writer that likes an outline. But it has to happen carefully. I once wrote a very detailed, chapter by chapter, scene by scene outline of an epic science fiction novel. I had certain beats and emotions I wanted to hit. I knew who the main character was, what motivated him, and what would happen to him. I even picked music to reference. I visualized whole sections of it as if I had a movie of it playing in my head. And then I ultimately didn’t want to write the story. I’m not sure why exactly. It wasn’t a shaky idea, certainly. I had done a lot of thinking, though there was still plenty to think about, but I think what happened is that I had spent all of my spontaneity on the outline instead of the writing itself. When I realized that I hadn’t left room for certain developments to happen that needed to, I couldn’t find a way of fitting it into the structure I had laid out. I had tied everything into a nice little package that fit like a glove, but discovered I couldn’t move my fingers to grab hold of something. It looked nice, but wouldn’t work. It wouldn’t do what I wanted it to do. Oh the mistakes of youth.

But it wasn’t for nothing. I kept writing, kept finding inspiration and developing ideas. One of them was the desire to write a 1930s action adventure story, which eventually became The Whitehawk Legion. It took quite awhile, but I finally found a premise and a plot that would work. This time, when I sat down to outline, I kept it loose. I let scenes develop naturally and let chapters be as long or as short as they liked. But there was far from total chaos. I knew I would be publishing it as a blog serial, so I knew I had to keep a firm grip on where I was going and how I was getting there. But exactly when I would get there I left open. I gave a target word count for each chapter, but made sure I was flexible about it. Occasionally I wouldn’t know what a cliffhanger was going to be until I came to it–but I definitely made sure I knew how the heroes would escape the clutches of death before committing myself. The result was a fairly well-paced story, though rough around the edges, that also got a lot of the atmosphere I was aiming for. Not only that, but it’s something I want to return to, a first draft that I won’t just toss in the trash can of failed ideas. When that will happen I don’t know, but it wasn’t too long ago that I started figuring out what sort of refinements could be made. Notes started to get written. A new outline was begun.

So that is, by and large, my creative process as it looks for the moment. These are the things my brain goes through when I write a story. Some days it feels organized. Some days it feels like I’m flying by the seat of my pants. I think the thing I need most is to keep the balance between the two; an awareness of when I still have blueprints to revise counterpointed against an awareness of when to leap out and see if my makeshift wings will take me where I want to go.

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