On Writing Process, part one: me

Posted in writing, process.

I’ve been thinking about how to write about my writing process.

I want to make clear that this is not really meant to be advice, or to be prac­tical advice, because writing process is very indi­vidual. Yes, those of us who write in English are composing sentences of (mostly) English words, and the tech­nical aspect — writing sentences — is what even­tu­ally results in a book. But our approach to those sentences and the even­tual story those sentences present is highly idio­syn­cratic.

What I do is not what other writers do because all writers work differ­ently. I know writers whose process are similar to mine, at least super­fi­cially, but no two writers approach writing the same way. I am a bit of a process geek, and I find process discus­sions endlessly fasci­nating, even if the process used would be book killers for me.

But…in order to discuss my process, I thought I would take a step back a bit and discuss me. Or more precisely, why I write, why I wanted to write, what I hope for from writing.

I have what my friends frequently refer to as an engi­neering brain (some­times with amuse­ment and some­times with frus­tra­tion). To my engi­neering brain I want to write books. I start. I finish. I sent the book to a publisher. The book is published. And I then write another book. The writing itself is the key activity. It is sepa­rate, in my head, from the rest of the elements that consti­tute publishing.

I wrote before I was published. I wrote a lot of poetry, but also some fiction, attempts at novels that were never finished because they didn’t have to be finished. Some­times, I would get end-scenes or strong, visceral emotional sequences, and they would kind of crowd out the rest of the thoughts that should have been there (home­work, etc.).

So I would start them.

At the begin­ning, I would just write the scene itself. Because that’s where the emotion was. Since I didn’t write for other people, the conti­nuity and context of that emotion were kind of irrel­e­vant.

My writing was not good. It did get better, but I wouldn’t consider any of the early work (except possibly the poetry) to be publish­able. Again: it wasn’t written for other people, so it didn’t matter. It was a way of expunging it from the fore­front of my brain.

This private back and forth between my brain and the page continued throughout univer­sity in bits and pieces. I always carried note­books and multi-colored pens and would often retreat a bit when I was caught in a scene so I could scribble it down. Again: scene, not story.

It was only upon leaving univer­sity that I sat down to consider what I was going to do with the rest of my life — because there’s so much pres­sure to make a deci­sion, to commit to a career. I worked in a book­store, and actu­ally, I love working in book­stores. I worked in various stores since I was sixteen, some chains, until I started working at Bakka in 1986.

Anyone who works in retail will tell you that it’s…not much of a living. I knew enough by this time to know that writing, without timing and luck, is also not much of a living.

So I thought I could combine these two things: book­store and writing. And then I would make an office equiv­a­lent salary and could support myself.

I did not have dreams about success or being successful; I’d seen too many heavily promoted titles even­tu­ally sink without a trace. When I first started working at Clas­sics at sixteen, it shocked me that books that I loved beyond measure were… out of print. I loved them. But sales and me loving them were two entirely sepa­rate things. Some books I loved did sell well. Some books I hated did sink. But books I hated also sold well. There didn’t seem — to me — to be much rhyme or reason.

So: I under­stood that it was unlikely that I would make a real living as a writer. But I wrote. I was working with a published author at the time, and she gave me advice (one of the pieces being that I should have an outline, a plan for the story itself). I tried to follow that advice. It did not work out well for me, and even­tu­ally, having spend every single writing day rewriting the damn outline AGAIN, I just ditched the outline. I knew what the end was. I knew where I was aiming.

I…didn’t know that the short story would actu­ally end up being four books. My first four books.

I wrote those four books. Well, no, I wrote the book that would become the second book first, and then I wrote the first book because Lester del Rey was not best-pleased with my use of flash­back in book two. And then I wrote book three.

Book three was not good. I knew it was not good. I could not figure out exactly why it was not good or what it was missing. I sent it to my editor and she told me it was not good. And she told me what it was missing.

This was actu­ally a relief to me, but I don’t have a paper letter and at this remove I honestly do not remember anything she said except for one thing: I told her, “I’m going to have to throw this out and start it again.” Because it was a systemic problem, in my opinion. She said, “Yes, I think so.”

So — I threw that out and started it again. The book was much better, and actu­ally, doing this taught me most of what I know about struc­ture.

At this point, some people loved these early books, but they were invis­ible to most readers – and, to be honest, the people who deeply loved them loved them because of the depic­tion of loss and grief (I did not discover this until later, and only because I had suspi­cions and started to ask readers).

But… this happens to books. It happens to most books. I didn’t feel, on any level, that I was an excep­tion. Did I hope? Sure. But I didn’t expect it. I had seen hundreds of thou­sands of dollars pumped into books that disap­peared. I didn’t believe that it was just about promo­tion. But it’s like a limited lottery and you have to write a ticket to get a chance, but… most tickets don’t win lotteries.

What I knew was: I had to keep writing. I could write. I could write well enough that publishers thought there was some merit in publishing my books. These books didn’t do well? I could keep writing. Maybe I’d have to change my name. Maybe I’d have to start again. But: I could write.

So I wrote.

The publishing part of being an author was prac­tical. The submis­sion. The revi­sions. The page proofs and line-edits. The covers, etc. Many of these were outside of my actual control (covers, place in list, publi­ca­tion month, cover copy). But the writing, without which all of those other tasks did not exist, was not. It was the only thing I had control over.

The writing was different from earlier writing, because the writing was now, by design, some­thing meant to be read by others. By people who were not me. But at the same point in time, it was driven by the same impulse. The biggest differ­ence was the certainty that in order for the work to have any power, in order to show readers what I’d felt when I’d first envi­sioned a scene, I had to create the entire context. I had to write from page one and grope through emotion and impulse to reach the end.

More succinctly: I decided to try to get published because I wanted to earn money. The writing and the publishing, however, remained two sepa­rate streams of activity on the inside of my head. There was writing, and there was Other Stuff.

What I would get out of publi­ca­tion was enough money that I could earn a living while also working at a book­store. I didn’t neces­sarily want to be seen as an author. I was not at all certain that I had anything inter­esting to say to people, and I was pretty certain that I could, without thought, offend them, so I stressed out about it – and often still do. There’s not a lot of appeal in being seen as an author, for me – unless I’m actu­ally speaking with my readers. Because yes, I did write these books, and yes, they spoke to you in some fashion. To you, I am an author. To me, you are my readers.

20 Responses to On Writing Process, part one: me

  1. E Dianne Fiorentini says:

    Regard­less of your method the finished prod­ucts have kept me enthralled. Your char­acter devel­op­ment and the detail and feeling in the civi­liza­tions and cultures are exem­plary.
    You series are candy to me and more.

  2. michelle says:

    @E Dianne: I think what I hope to do by the end of this is to really under­line the regard­less of … method.

    Because of course the only thing that matters is the book itself, and when you hold a book in your hand it’s often impos­sible to tell how it was written or what the process was or whether or not it took 6 weeks or 6 years; what’s there are the words on the page and whether or not they speak to you.

    But also — there’s a lot of stumble and fail on the way, and — hope­fully none of that shows in the actual book, either.

  3. Argentum says:

    You are my favorite author and have been since I read The Broken Crown in high school. By which I mean, the books you wrote are my favorite books; for a long time I had a weird atti­tude towards authors, born of the delight I found in their char­ac­ters. It was almost posses­sive, as if acknowl­edging the exis­tence of an author meant Kallan­dras and Isladar and Serra Teresa and Diora were less real. Now I’m attempting to write to publish myself, and genuinely trea­sure such insights from authors who are generous enough to share — let alone my favorite author! Thank you very much!

  4. Julianne Single says:

    I’m curious which stories you mention are the ones that turned into your 1st four novels? Is there are chrono­log­ical list anywhere of what you’ve published. I found you with Elantra and despite your warning that people who enjoy the Sagara books don’t enjoy the West ones as much I’ve started reading the hunter books and are enjoying them. I also plan to try the first book in the house war series again because yes I read it but didn’t LOVE it not like I fell in love with Elantra. But I didn’t hate it either I think it was more I couldn’t get vested in the char­ac­ters like it was so easy to do with Elantra because the house war books seem more plot driven (or it seems so to me when you read some­thing with multiple POV shifts versus one main char­acter POV). I didn’t realize the differ­ence in styles with the two pennames so I guess I’m also curious what made you choose to write under both names with different styles as you wouldn’t be the first author to depart from a usual style to try some­thing else. Also, if you feel like sharing, how long before you told your coworkers at the store that you had anything actu­ally published?

  5. michelle says:

    @Argentum: Part of reading is personal and internal. What I feel reading certain books isn’t guar­an­teed to be what other readers feel; we bring part of our own expe­ri­ence to every­thing we read. So… half of that attach­ment is yours, half the writing. IMHO.

    But — again: This is mostly about how *I* write a book — and it differs wildly from how other authors write because writers do. The trick of finishing a book is — in hind­sight — the finding of the process that can get you from page one to the end. There is no other value attached to it; it’s not supe­rior, it’s not infe­rior. It’s just what works for me.

    (I once had a writing instructor who was also a published author tell me that if someone in his class started and wrote the way I did he would assume they would never finish a book. But – it’s how I could finish a book. It worked for me; it didn’t need to work for anyone else because I’m not writing anyone else’s books, if that makes sense.)

    @Julianne: The books I’m speaking of are the Books of the Sundered. When I start talking more specif­i­cally about process, I’m going to start with the very first book I wrote. But: I think it’s impor­tant to note that for me, possibly because I’d spent so much of my life working in book­stores, the two things — writing and publishing — were distinctly sepa­rate in my mind. The crossover is that you are writing *to be* published. But… they’re not the same.

    Also: the thing about process is that it evolves – and your writing will evolve as you write, as well.

  6. michelle says:

    @Julianne: Also, I forgot to add: my co-workers knew because one of them was Tanya Huff. So throughout the process, she was aware of what I was trying to do, and she was there when I sold the first book (meaning the first book I sold), and she there­fore knew I was going to be published.

    It’s prob­ably not the same outside of that, and I didn’t mention it much anywhere else. But… to be fair, I don’t mention it a lot now. When asked what I do for a living, I say “I’m a free­lance writer”, and most people assume this means I write arti­cles for web-sites…

  7. Tracy Perkins says:

    Thank you for writing this Michelle. Recently I finished my first book and as hard as writing the book was the editing process was just brutal. It took enough out of me that the thought of starting some­thing new makes me feel some­what exhausted. I learned a lot from the expe­ri­ence though, and real­ized that I would need to feel really passionate about my story and char­ac­ters to make it worth it. I appre­ciate you talking about your process and your honesty about how it isn’t always easy.

  8. Argentum says:

    @michelle, I completely agree that readers bring them­selves to books. In her 1994 Newbery Accep­tance Speech for The Giver, Lois Lowry recounts a letter she got from a young reader about another book she wrote. The girl recounted in detail her favorite things that the main char­acter did — none of which actu­ally happened in the book! Lowry said, “The child – as we all do – has brought her own life to a book.” That’s always stuck with me! It’s occurred to me that in some ways, kids are BETTER at this, this melding of personal expe­ri­ence with the text, than adults are.

    Anyway, I certainly hope process evolves because my current process involved starting a story with no plan 10 years ago, then writing on and off for a decade, then making an outline, then finishing a rough draft, and now really strug­gling with rewriting lots of early words!

  9. DeDe says:

    I still have those first four books! I should have guessed they started as a Michelle-length short story. :)

  10. michelle says:

    @Tracy & Argentum: Congrat­u­la­tions! And I mean that. You’ve both started and finished a book. A lot of people start and don’t finish. This would also refer to me in my earlier years. But… as I said, I didn’t need to finish anything at that point. I never needed to finish if I didn’t intend for the words to be read by people who were not me.

    Failure is the base state of trying some­thing different or new. I think we have — cultur­ally — a profound fear of failing, or rather, of being seen as a failure — as if people who are seen as successes have somehow never failed or never strug­gled or never taken the time to make All The Mistakes and learn from them.

    Hmmm. I remember once asking my then-six year old son “What do you say about someone who’s never failed?”

    He rolled his eyes and said, “They’ve never tried anything.”

    …and I thought maybe I was banging that partic­ular drum a *little bit* heavily.

    We all fail at things. It’s a process. If what you’ve done isn’t what you want it to be, that’s when the next step of the work begins.

  11. michelle says:

    @DeDe: Yes, sadly, they did.

    I will write a bit more about that in the next post, because I will try to *be* a bit more nuts-and-bolts about that first novel, that first attempt at novel. Which was, in fact, the second attempt at a short story.

  12. Wendy S says:

    My first expe­ri­ence was the hunter duology, then Elantra. I started Hidden City not real­izing it was the same world as the Hunter duology, and read it three times back to back. I had to stop at book four and read the six books starting with the Broken Crown, but it was all amazing. Thank you for the books.

  13. michelle says:

    @Fyreink: Yes. I think the writing style is different for different series.

    I would say the only delib­erate change — rather than a general, evolu­tionary one — is for the CAST series. But… more on that later.

  14. Lesa says:

    Wow, thanks for writing! I know that writing is a hard process and just getting my students to write was always a hard task. Please keep doing what you are doing!!

  15. michelle says:

    @Joey: I think process(ish) is prob­ably going to cover the writing posts as a single word descrip­tion. It’s not a step by step but… I’m trying to insert the why I in partic­ular approach things this way.

  16. Maia says:

    I’ve read Cast in Shadow first. Into the Dark Lands came second and somehow, I haven’t fully realised the author is the same person.

    I really liked (and still love) Cast series (it was binge read for me at the time and because I started reading in 2015, that mean ten long books with incred­ible story. In one go. The waiting for Cast in Honor was really long one for me because I spoiled myself with sprint with no clear finish in sight… in the begin­ning. :‘D).

    strangelly enough, Into the Dark Land was book I really really fell in love with and started to (ehm, ehm, stalk, ehm) follow the awesome author. I just loved it. The beauty and the Beast vibe, main char­ac­ters. It was romance. It was magical. It was so sad and some­times painful. It was somehow… other.
    (Also, i re-read it five times. For some reason, only on that fifth time I really finished all four books. The first one was somehow precious to me and I just couldn’t continue with the story for a long time. First one is also my favourite still.)

    i just wanted to write this. These books are incred­ible and I very much cherish each one of them. :)

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