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On writing

As many of you know, I finished another novel last week. It's an amazing feeling to write "the end" on a book. Ever since I was twelve, I dreamed of writing a novel. It took me until I was thirty to actually sit down and do it. Now I wish I wouldn't have been such a procrastinator in my twenties, but I digress.

I get asked all the time as to what my process is when I write a book. A lot of those emails could be paraphrased like this: I have all these ideas and I want to write a book, but I'm not sure how to do it. How do you write?

I still consider myself fairly new to writing, but I'll talk about my process. In fact, one thing I pondered a couple weeks ago was that a finished novel only represented about 25% of the effort involved in creating it for me, and I'm not even talking about what happens once my publisher gets their hands on it. Here I'll pause to say that every author has their own process. The day someone tells you that you HAVE to write a book following their specific formula, run, don't walk, away from them. Plotting versus pantsing (or a variation of both) and what works best before starting a novel depends on the writer. If there was a tried-and-true specific formula for success, we'd all be J.K. Rowling or Dan Brown. So, my method is not THE method any more than my deep love of dark chocolate means you have to love dark chocolate, too (though white chocolate lovers...I don't understand you ;).

If you're already bored reading about my writing process, stop here, because I'm just getting warmed up. Hungry for more? Here goes!

Why do I say a completed novel only represents about 25% of my efforts? Does that mean I'm shortchanging readers and not giving them my best? Not at all. Before I even type "Chapter One", I've spent a while thinking about my hero and heroine. Things like what they look like, what type of family or background they came from, what they want the most, what they're most afraid of, what are they struggling with, what's their best attributes, their biggest flaws, etc. Then, I usually ask all those questions to myself about the villain, too.

Once I've got a detailed picture of my hero/heroine/villain in my head (this can take weeks or sometimes even years, in the case of my spin-off novels), I move on to writing a skeletal outline that highlights the basics of my main plot - and that's subject to change. If my editor isn’t a drinker, she should be, because on several occasions I've called her to say a variation of "You know how I wrote that X would happen in my proposal? Well, I have this idea about Z instead, and here's why I think it'll work even better..." Well over half of the events in every book I've written have not been plotted out in advance. Most subplots, side characters, twists and scenes come to me as I write, not before I write. For me, until I'm fully immersed in writing a book, I don't know enough about it to give a detailed summary of everything that’s going to happen.

Take all that brainstorming I mentioned on my hero/heroine/villain before starting a novel. By the end of the book, it inevitably turns out I only knew about thirty percent of what made them tick, even though at the onset, I thought I had them pegged. That knowing comes through seeing how the characters react in scenes, whether stressful, dangerous, or sexy. And through - one might say - an obsessive tendency to think about my characters night and day. An average novel takes me anywhere from four to six months to write, depending on the book and what else might be going on in my life. During that period, even when I'm not at my keyboard, I spent a lot of time thinking about the book and the characters (Don't believe me? Ask my husband or family. They'll confirm that I have a perpetual glazed look on my face and I'm only partially paying attention to things around me while writing a new book).

Then there's research. Eternal Kiss of Darkness had my heroine living in Chicago, for example. I must've spent eight to nine hours just looking up neighborhoods that would fit her finances and proximity to where she worked, what transit line she would ride, what streets she'd walk on, what the view out of her building would look like...all for maybe four to five sentences of description in the book. Add in the various other locations in the novel (all which must be researched), any references to historical happenings or people, and I probably spend a few hours a week doing research in addition to writing new words. All that's in addition to the frequent mulling about my characters, worldbuilding, and/or rewriting when inspiration strikes and I decide to change something.

If this sounds like a lot, let me say that most authors I know do all the same, if not more, when writing their books. My critique partner's research habits put mine to shame, and you could ask my other regular critiquer, Ilona Andrews, the most obscure worldbuilding question and she'll have an answer for you that second.

So perhaps you see why, between the new plots, subplots, characters, research, endless mulling, bouncing ideas off my long-suffering friends, implementing edit notes from my critique readers, and lots of self-revision along the way, I say that a finished book only represents about 25% of the effort involved, even before my editor sends me revision notes and I complete those (plus copyedits, galley edits, etc.)

And you know what? Some days, I love this process. Some days, I have to drag myself into my office and force myself to work, knowing that all the obscure facts about a character's neighborhood or time period or other details might never make it into the book, but they're still necessary. They’re the cogs in the wheel that eventually leads to that moment of satisfaction when I type “The End."

That’s my process when writing. I’m not saying it’s the One Right Way. Other authors have different processes andcan write a better book in half the time with far less obsessive tendencies (I aspire to be like them.) The truth is that writing doesn’t have a one-size-fits-all approach. It’s more trial and error that’s repeated until success or insanity occurs – or both J. For everyone who has stories and characters that demand to be written, I wish I had the perfect formula to give you, but I don’t. Just keep at it until you find the process that works best for you.

And if you find yourself thinking about your book obsessively while writing it, and your husband or family asks, “Are you paying attention to a word I’ve said?” make sure to smile, nod, and say “Of course I am!” in a convincing tone ;-).


Comments

zoe_zygmunt
Oct. 20th, 2009 05:45 pm (UTC)
Hey Jeaniene! Thanks for sharing your process! I find I use a similar process when I write. Now I don't feel so bad when my husband comes home and I'm lost in my own little world. I am totally guilty of thinking, "why the heck is home so soon, I'm in the middle of a really good idea!" :)

If I'm not writing about my characters I'm usually thinking about them. They have the most interesting conversations when I least expect it!

And I have found more places I want to visit with research than I ever did on a travel website!

Perhaps there is a support group for family and friends of writers (especially those on a deadline!)

Zoe