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.