State of the Writer, September 2017 edition, with writing process

Posted in writing.

Well.

The best laid plans, as they say.

But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft a-gley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promised joy.

— Robert Burns

Having finished War, I sat down to revise it. And that lasted five days before Cast in Deception returned to me, in the form of an edit letter. My new editor, Lauren Smulski (waving in Lauren’s direction) has been promoted. Unfortunately for me, she’s been promoted to the HLQ Teen line–where most of her current authors are being published. She’ll be great, and a great fit for Teen–but I’m staying with Mira.

This means, among other things, that things were chaotic at Mira–as they sometimes are when there’s change–and in the end, my former editor, MaryTheresa Hussey, has been hired to edit the Cast novels (I squealed and bounced when informed), and Margot Mallinson at Mira will be shepherding the books through the rest of production.

(This means, among other things, copy-edits, back cover copy, catalogue copy, cover art/discussions, page proofs, publication scheduling (as in: pub date), just off the top of my head.)

None of this is bad.

But the revisions to Cast in Deception were due at the end of August. I may have mentioned a time or two that I could not write a single word of fiction for two months – all of November, all of December – and that I started again in January. But clearly, my brain had not fully kicked in until about 3 months later, judging by the state of the manuscript.

I can edit myself if I have 6 months to a year away from the text on the page. At that point, I can see what’s on the page clearly; until then, it gets mixed up with the book I thought I was writing. The book was late because you don’t lose two months of writing time and make it up in a rush. Well, some people can, but one of those people isn’t Michelle.

The first ten chapters were… in need of work. I threw out the first chapter entirely and rewrote that from the first sentence. And that meant that the flow of the book changed. (I really like the first chapter now.) The entire revision process for this book made me think of my normal writing process, and how this particular book differed, because the thing that struck me about the book as I revised is the lack of proper flow.

I am a pantser, as we’re called. I don’t outline. I have an end, I have my characters, and I write toward that end, with some faith that I will reach it. Touch taught me that the end must have an emotional resonance that works for me; it can’t be a theoretical, structural end. It must be an ending that is inseparable from the characters as created, an emotion that I want others to experience as I experience it. I think Touch was my thirtieth novel (I would have to go back and count, and as it’s not relevant, I’m being lazy). (Yes, I am still learning about writing process, that many books in. And yes, clearly, I am still struggling to get it right; what right means evolves with books and time, but the innate struggle doesn’t change as much.)

But, having said I’m a pantser, there are things that Cast in Deception taught me about my regular writing process.

This requires a bit of an aside.

***

A writer friend asked me, one day, “what are you thinking about?”, and I answered. She then continued with “and what else are you thinking about?” and I answered that as well. “Anything else?” Yes, actually. So I answered that. I can’t actually remember what the several answers were at the time – because the answers I’d give would change based on where I was at the time – but the reason she asked was because she had discovered that some people only think about one thing at a time (one of these was her husband, and I do remember his answers: 1. I’m thinking about how to debug this program. And two: “… I’m thinking about how to debug this program.” He was focused on that, and that’s what he was thinking and the “what else” question did not really make sense.

It made perfect sense to me.

For War, I have several tracks of thought. I have the story itself. I have the characters, and their viewpoints, and their experiences, or rather, the experiences I explicitly know about. I have the structure of a novel–separate from the story structure, which crosses several books. I have the actual choice of the words on the page. I write scenes that balance the structural shape of the book – I almost started to talk about what this means, but realized: spoilers. If anyone remembers this and wants to ask me about it after War is published, I can give more concrete examples.

But I have four tracks of thought. The one that’s in the driver’s seat, the one that’s most present and most in control when I write actual words on the page is the last one. I choose the words on the page. But… there’s a tone, a voice, that each novel has. Or each world. There are things that break that tone or that voice. There are words that simply won’t work with the specific book, and those are never words I reach for when I’m writing. There are elements that won’t work with the structure of the specific novel, and elements that won’t work with the structure of the series as a whole. And those, again, I pass over. And that isn’t a conscious decision.

But it is a decision. While I write, there are elements that enter the novel from left field. In Shining Court, an example would be the three leaves, and the forests of diamond, gold and silver. The minute the words hit the page, it was as if I had opened a window into a darkened room–at midnight. I could see moonlight; I could see that the moonlight touched things in the room. I could see their shape, but it was shadowed, imprecise. I understood that the shapes were in the room; that I did not see them clearly. But I was certain that I could. Not every element, of course, is significant in the same way – but some things reach out and smack me on the head. And those leaves with their shadowed but solid significance lead to Skirmish, which I had intended to be an entirely political book. But again, when she let those leaves fly, I understood … so, so much. What had been shadowed became clear as moonlight gave way to sun.

Those would be the things I did not consciously plan.

For instance: (yes, sorry, this is long) Sun Sword. I wrote six books in that world. I knew the end that I was writing towards (Kiriel’s end choice, actually), because that had always been the end I was writing toward. I knew what would happen to Auralis; I knew who he was. But I did not know how Valedan’s arc would end. I knew that Diora intended to make him Tyr; that was one of the end elements for Diora. I knew who Valedan was, and I knew which choices he would make easily and which choices he would never make.

But I did not know how his part of the series would end. And it was a big, stressful question for me. I panicked about it even more as I was nearing the end of the last book. And then I had an epiphany. I ran downstairs to tell my husband: I know how this part ends! He then listened while I told him in a rush of relieved triumph.

And he stared at me as if I were trying to grow two extra heads (this happens a lot in my house) and finally said, “yes, but — that’s kind of been obvious since almost the beginning.”

(Yes, he is still alive.) “…what do you mean?”

“That’s obviously where the series has to go. I assumed that you knew that, because you’ve written it that way. Structurally, that’s what has to happen.”

He was, of course, right. And no, I did not consciously know that, or I would not have been stressed out and anxious.

***

So: writing for me involves a number of things. It’s not that my brain doesn’t understand structure or character or etc.; it’s more like — hmmm. Maybe it’s like swimming or floating. When I float, my head is above the water, and some parts of my body are above the water’s surface. But a lot of me – all still attached – is beneath the water’s surface. Sometimes, it comes up to the surface, where I can examine it critically and intellectually–but for the most part, it is simply there.

I always trust that regardless, I am going to float.

***

Cast in Deception was written while almost all of my brain was still in panic and planning mode. When there’s an emergency, that’s where my brain goes. The part of me that worries is the part of me that writes. It’s the what-if. I thought I had recovered enough of my scattered, frayed mind that I could write again in January. And I did write.

But the parts of the brain that are generally thinking just beneath the meniscus of the metaphorical water, weren’t thinking about the book. I can see that now. I can see where, in the manuscript, those parts of brain finally came back on-line.

I have finished revising Cast in Deception. It was due at the end of August, and it’s gone. But that was most of August, and I am revising War now. So: August. No new words if you don’t count the new words the revision required.

37 Responses to State of the Writer, September 2017 edition, with writing process

  1. Aelynn says:

    It’s always great to hear more about your process and I can’t wait to read the books! … Not that I could wait before, mind you. >_<;
    Hang in there!

  2. Zia says:

    Thank you for the update, and while I’m sure the change in Mira of editors and the like may have been kind of confusing briefly, I am also thrilled to hear you get to work again with Mary Theresa Hussey on the Cast novels.

    I also always enjoy reading about your thought process because (in my mind) you’re great at explaining it, and I like hearing different ways people teach their…goals, I suppose the word would be (I, on the other hand, am terrible at explaining things.)

  3. John Tilley says:

    Thank you for sharing so much of yourself. I am so looking forward to WAR. When will it actually be available is the question?

  4. Wow. Thank you so very much for sharing your process. I am also one of those people with a complicated brain…going off in many directions simultaneously. I find that fact that you mange to focus all of that into an end product inspiring. Truly…thank you for sharing.

    Trace

  5. Rebecca Gaspard says:

    Hearing a little of your writing process was fascinating! You kept me in suspense because I was worrying you were working your way to a delay in Deception – which would be nearly unbearable!

  6. hsmyers says:

    You know, I enjoy reading these notes as much as I enjoy reading the novels (and attendant re-reading)! I think it is so firmly a part of how you write that I find so enjoyable. This is not to say I’m not looking towards the next work, because I am, but just to let you know that your ‘letters’ to us are just as significant…I think…sorta’ :)

  7. Michelle,
    These updates add a depth to your books which would be missing otherwise. Thank you for the updates. I always look forward to each of your books and these letters are a wonderful taste of what is to come.

  8. Stephen P. Engel says:

    Michelle, I always love to hear from you, and that is unconditional. :) Your update is wonderful, you present it such that it makes perfect sense and it adds a layer of understanding to my thoughts about your writing. I now understand more of why I believe you are the best author of our time. Your writing is beautiful.

  9. brownrhon says:

    I realize I am a microblip in world, but your posts truly bring us into your home space, fix a cup of good coffee and serves up it some pretty flaky fine pastry. Am I gnashing for the next story? Oh abso-freaking-lutely, but you are so honest as to the common chaos that is your life – makes you just too dang likeable. So not hating that the wait is on, but truly liking you even more as a person even more as you share with us. Thanks for making the writing true and even more gratitude for sharing!

  10. Melanie says:

    My mind go where yours goes, what if goes in several directions, and then there are days I don’t have a clue what’s floating in my brain usually some emotion. I can’t write an outline either, yet I can write a paper well, but revision is like writing the hold thing again. It is a slow process for me. I say take your time; I love all your books

  11. Tchula says:

    I always find it fascinating when you write about your process. And I had to laugh out loud when your friend’s husband was thinking only about how to debug his code while you were thinking of 3 or 4 different things all at once. This is my husband and me in a nutshell! ;-P

  12. Linda says:

    I look forward to reading your comments about how the books are going. It sort of helps me a bit while I wait impatiently for the new books to come out.

  13. Peter Moore says:

    First, yea and hooray about War, I will be excited to start reading it when it comes out. Secondly, I personally think that the editor change is a Good Thing. Editors shape books almost as much as the authors do and I don’t think that Ms. Smulski was the best fit for the Cast novels. The pacing and readability of the earlier novels was better than the last few. But that is only my opinion YMMV. Finally I’d like to offer a minor correction. Sun Sword was the 8th novel in the Essaylian World, not the 6th. I think you forgot the Hunter’s duology. I like to reread, I pick up stuff I missed the first time around, and I pay more attention to small details in plot and style. My favorite reread of all time and authors was going back and forth between Hunter’s Death and City of Night/House Name. As a reader it is very rare to be able to visit the same scenes, written from different view points and written 15 years apart. When I first started the project I thought I’d universally like the House Wars scenes better but that was not the case. There were some POV’s and action emphasis that were more effective for me in Hunter’s Death. In any event I had great fun flipping back and forth between the decades as it were, comparing POV, descriptions, style differences, action details and emphasis etc. etc. So thank you for that opportunity. I know it wasn’t your intention but it gave me great pleasure anyway.

  14. Julianne Single says:

    Love hearing from you Michelle, thank you for the updates. I just made my own happy squeal when I noticed that Amazon is now showing cover art for Deception. I think it’s my favorite cover so far, though some of it may be anticipation! Of course I always wonder if Kaylin will EVER dress in the little sleeveless leather jacket she often sports on the covers. Well I guess the artist doesn’t know how uncomfortable Kaylin is exposing her marks. I suppose I can forgive them bUT I will admit to being sad Hope hasn’t made it into yet another cover except in his shell. He is after all Kaylin’s permanent shoulder ornament I feel like he deserves a place on the cover. Plus, Dragon’s are just cool, in any size.

  15. Melissa says:

    Your post was exactly what I needed. It arrived at the perfect time. I was getting a little frantic/ panicky, as I prepare for this monster hurricane that’s about to reek havoc (I live in Central Florida). When I saw you had posted a new message, I had to sit down to read it immediately. It was the perfect distraction and it helped me get my head on straight again. So, thanks!

  16. @Peter: Yes, it was the eighth in the world – but the sixth when writing Valerian :). I knew–when I started Hunter’s Death–where certain character arcs were heading. There were a few that were up in the air; they could go in multiple directions. Jewel’s was one of those. I had intended to write HOUSE WAR–a single volume, note–sometime after I started the End of Days arc, but that didn’t work for me.

    I *can* make an intellectual decision. I *could* make the choice–off the page–and write forward having made that choice. But in the end it seemed important enough to me to write through Jewel’s arc to the end point of it because I was uncertain; her choice, her decision, would be made as an accretion of small choices and events (or large ones, as it turns out).

    This is not, on the other hand, a terribly professional approach–and if you love the books that resulted, send email to DAW and thank them for allowing it in the first place :).

  17. @Tchula: my husband laughed out loud when I told him about it, as well. Well, no, he laughed out loud when my writer friend asked “and what *else* are you thinking?”. But it mirrors discussions in our early marriage, so there’s some nostalgia factor :)

  18. @everyone: So, now I have to ask a question. As a writer, I find process fascinating, even when — or perhaps especially when — it is nothing like my own. I think of writing a novel as something similar to the blind men and the elephant; we’re all struggling to understand the entirety of the narrative flow and structure, and we’re trying to grab a piece of that and make it our own in some fashion. But we’re essentially working with the same base; it’s just that some of us have grabbed the trunk, and some the ear or tail, or etc.

    Some process metaphors have come to me through other writers, and I find the metaphors very useful to better understand my own process, even when the writers in question work very, very differently from me.

    That was a digression. My question would be: what makes the discussion of (often bumbling) process interesting to you? I admit that sometimes I think that readers will find it less innately interesting than writers, so I don’t write as much about process as I otherwise might.

  19. Zia says:

    I find these types of discussions interesting for a few reasons. I’ll try (pretend?) to explain the reasons behind my personal interest.

    1: I’m still somehow curious about a lot of things, so extra information about topics related to/on things I enjoy (like reading/books) immediately catch my attention. I’m less open than I was about “learning establishments” because I had enough negative experiences with them to have been burnt out, but I do still love learning things.

    All of my bosses have commented on my interest in learning things, because compared to my various coworkers, I apparently take it to the extreme. Don’t know how to do something? I’ll ask for someone’s thoughts/opinions on the matter at hand, and if they don’t know how to do/fix/explain things…I’ll find out. And I won’t just watch/read one process from one source – I’ll try to find about 5 or 6 decent or professional sources and view all the different paths (if they exist) to get from solution/project point A to point M. I can then either find a solid path to take for myself by following someone else’s explanation, or, depending on the project, have the courage to deviate from the exact instruction of any one person/manual if its been proven it’s one of those highly flexible things.

    On the down and plus side, I get counted on for random projects I probably shouldn’t because of this. About a month ago, my had to clean out a shed at the barn and made the mistake of personally cataloging the inventory I found inside that was utterly random, like quick mix concrete. My boss, to my immediate concern, decided that the concrete mix meant we could fix the giants holes in the concrete by the far indoor arena gate. So she asked me if I could fix the giant holes, and while I’m pretty sure my face had the usual “deer-in-the-headlights/why-are-you-asking-me-that?” look, I politely told her to give me 24 hours to do research, and then I’d tackle the holes.

    So, I did, and the giant holes are in fact fixed, and thankfully look amazing to both my paranoid self, and (most importantly) my very specific boss.

    2: I find other people’s thought process intriguing. Even if I don’t agree with anything they said, (and, for the record, so not the case here) I do like to know how the dots/information got connected in their mind because sometimes that method may be better/more correct/more relatable than my own, or it may be easier to explain.

    My younger sister, for example, is blind and deaf among other things, so explaining things to her while we were growing up took a lot of time, and very creative explanations because how we experience the world as a whole is completely different, and find some way to overlap/share experiences in a fashion is an incredible feeling.

    When we were both very young (I want to say I was at the most 8 and she was 6) she was petrified of escalators. As an “adult” looking back, this makes sense: a floor that moves on its own would be terrifying if you couldn’t see it and then all of a sudden you were on it. As a child, the situation was more embarrassing, because my sister would literary scream bloody murder in the middle of a mall if our babysitter would try and force her onto the thing regardless of how many times I insisted we needed to find an elevator because my sister actually liked those at the time. Whatever my age, I was never believed, and the whole mall staring while your sister is inconsolably screaming was something that sent me into an anxiety attack. So, I spent two months trying different methods of how to explain the escalator to my sister so she didn’t think it was going to eat her, me, our older sister, or the world. I honestly don’t remember how I finally managed it, but eventually during that summer we did start taking the escalator, and my job was simply to tell her when to step on/off, and reassure her we were all alive on the other side.

    But the process itself, not the details, still sticks with me because of how many different methods of explanations I had to go through. With someone who can see…you can explain it a little easier, watch people safely board/exit the machine, and to a point safely touch the railing, but for my sister…she had to blindly (literary) trust my explanation, my timing, and my intentions even though she wasn’t aware at the time that is what she was doing.

    3: I find discussions about your writing process incredible because your explanations make me feel like the books and the characters are important to you. I’ve run across writers who have stated that they write just to make money, and they write just well enough to keep their readers hooked, and they don’t really care about the end product so long as it sells.

    I don’t personally read any authors (that I know of) with that mindset, but it’s slightly depressing to me that something that feels so magical to a fan (at least on my end) could be seen as something so unimportant or so…practical? to the author. I love authors who get involved with their works. It shows up in the writing, you can feel it ring throughout the story as you’re reading it, and it makes the magic behind the books/worlds/characters so much more incredible for me as a reader.

    4: A lot of things can be applied to other situations. I’ve said this before, and I still firmly believe it, so this is another reason I try to listen/watch how people do things. Insight on how your write may apply to how some people write, but it could also apply to drawing, playing an instrument, and even things unrelated to any art or craft at all like just bridging the gaps between people in life. It’s a reminder that there is not one correct path, or a few, and that possibly walking on a path with no clear destination is okay sometimes too.

    5: I find your openness/willingness to share your thoughts and experiences inspiring. You’re explaining your process to a group of some/mostly strangers, and I love that. Especially since some of us may seem a bit weird.

    The internet is both a blessing and a curse in this manner because it can bring people closer together, or drive them further apart, so every time someone posts something…it’s almost a 50/50 chance, and posts like this, posts made to explain/connect rather than upset/push away/degrade, are something I find refreshing.

  20. Tchula says:

    For me, I have always been interested in learning about what motivates people, and how people think. This translates to an interest in how particularly skilled people do their jobs. It can be something as simple as watching shows like “Dirty Jobs” or “Ice Road Truckers”, to learning how a video game designer approaches a new title, to my favorite author’s writing process. (Yes, Michelle, I mean you just so you know, lol…)

    I enjoy that small window into lives I don’t have, and I feel it really helps me to connect with other people, too. I always want to know the “why?” of people doing the things they do. Some of that is understanding where they come from, but in cases where I don’t have that information, how they go about their job or daily life can provide some insight. I guess it really just comes down to finding people fascinating and wanting to understand them better.

  21. Chaelyn says:

    Love your new cover! Cannot wait for the book… thanks for not giving up. We love you just the way you are.

  22. Tyronne Hodgins says:

    Wow! There are other people like me out there and you’re one of them!!! I get were you’re coming from – completely, totally, thoroughly. That’s okay – it really is. I was really hoping to have either of these books for my upcoming camping trip but that’s okay too. I can wait – sort of. You’re stories have always been well worth the wait!!!

  23. Tyronne Hodgins says:

    Really need to read over my comment before posting: “were” should be “where” and “You’re” should be “your”. It is always interesting to learn how others think – the process that produces the thought as it were. Sometimes, we learn from others how to think about something in a different fashion than we usually would. Sometimes, we learn that a thought process we had was actually completely different from another person even though we both reached the same conclusion. We are, in the end, all unique individuals.

  24. Daniel catudal says:

    Michelle, again you seem to be in the brightest of mood and I am very glad this world is fitting again for you. This means that we will enjoy your work soon, which is most appreciated. Thks for this review of your process, as many commentators pointed out, it really partakes much of yourself in its description and continues to endear you as the writer to us all as your fans. Have a great sunshiny day.

  25. Mel says:

    This, this, this is why I return again and again to your books. To the worlds you create. To the places I get to go, the emotions I feel and the dreams I have. Take as long as needed, because the results are wonderful.

  26. Peter Moore says:

    I’m a creative person. At various points in my life I’ve been a professional musician and a pro chef. I’m an avid amateur photographer, and I dabble in calligraphy and graphic arts. I have learned that for me personally it is better if I separated out my creative endeavors from my money making endeavors. That said I’ve always been fascinated with the creative process and how others approach their ‘art’ and how it differs from mine. Writers, being writers, tend to explain their approaches more than other artists (duh!). But it still fascinates me. I will say that I’ve read stuff about the writing process that gets so far into the minutia of the process that it loses me but your less detailed descriptions I find interesting. Keep it up. And I will e-mail DAW about how much I’ve enjoyed reading the same story twice!

  27. Debbie H says:

    I just love reading, anything. How you explain your thought process gives me an idea of how your brain works. It is interesting, I have very little creativity, and really admire it in others especially the great ones, such as yourself. I am sitting here listening to Cast in Peril during the hurricane in Florida, The eye wall just passed by us about an hour ago by only a few miles, now waiting to see it we get hit with storm surge. I will cry like a baby if all your wonderful books I have drown. I am very close to the coast in southwest Florida. Hopefully if needed I can find replacements. Please keep your posts coming, they are like getting a present.

  28. DeDe says:

    I can’t speak for anyone else, but I enjoy the blogs simply because they are more of your writing. Instead of a character’s story – they tell your story – and your voice, like that of your characters’ comes across so clearly. (esp love the wry humor.)

    In fact, the blog maybe be the shortest of the ‘short stories’ you write… :-)

  29. Tyronne Hodgins says:

    So, I’ve been rereading the whole Elantra series just before I go on vacation tomorrow. I have a small favour to ask – would you please let Kaylin be promoted to Corporal? I’m sure it will happen, I’d just like it to happen sooner. By the way – I love Kaylin’s interaction with the Emperor and I’m killing myself laughing over the dinner scene in Cast in Flight!!!

  30. Daniel catudal says:

    Tyronne, my own feeling about your request is that she really eaned it BUT since she does risk demotion almost every turn she takes, this could not be a positive option for her; it would only add to the existing hurdles she has to jump over… Just saying…

  31. @DebbieH: I hope you, and everyone you know, are now fine in Florida.

    @Peter: It’s the same for me – I’m interested in the creative process and how it overlaps or differs from others.

    @Tyrone: don’t worry about typos :).

  32. Christina says:

    I don’t mean to sound as if I’m rushing you, but I’ve finished rereading Oracle and I’m wondering if you have a release date for War yet? And, after War, are you going to start The Black Gauntlet?? Thank you so much for your beautiful worlds, and I hope this fall season is good to you.

  33. Wendy S says:

    I find comfort and solace in being able to totally immerse myself in your worlds. Your blogs give a glimpse of your life and your joys and struggles and make you more “real” than just a name on a cover. Please keep it up.

  34. Tyronne Hodgins says:

    Daniel – true enough – it will no doubt be a problem for Kaylin and create new problems but even she has to learn how to act with a modicum of manners so that she can actually appear before the Emperor and his Court (someday as opposed to in her home) hence the etiquette lessons. Besides – think of how much fun Michelle can have writing about it :)

    Michelle – Had a great camping trip – read the Sunsword series along with Skirmish and Battle while I was in Grundy Provincial Park. Still reading Oracle. Looking so forward to War and Cast in Deception. Thank you again for being sooooo creative!!!!!

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