A while ago, I said I would discuss Touch, and why it was the book from hell, for me.
So, this is that post, and if you are not interested in the nuts and bolts of it, I urge you to close the browser window, because: long.
I don’t talk as much about the process of writing here as I do in real life. I don’t think it would be possible — I think my fingers would fall off first.
But in part I don’t write about it often because I am very, very aware that no two writers work the same way. Ever. Even when I’m talking with another writer and we’re using the same process words, we’re not actually using them in the same way. I don’t want people who love my books to come here and assume that this means they should work the way I work when they’re trying to write their own book, because often, it won’t help.
All of writing is discovering the process by which you can write your story. Some people outline extensively. Some people don’t. Some people come up with character studies and sketches, some don’t. Some people write blazingly fast first drafts, and then revise wholesale. Some don’t. (I’m not, for instance, a “get some words down and then you can work on them later” writer, because the words are part of the whole, and if the words are wrong, the story is wrong. This is not true of everyone, and it doesn’t have to be; some of my favorite writers are very much ‘get any words down and fix them in iterative revisions’) The only thing that matters, in the end, is the finished book or story. Getting to that point is entirely individual.
So: again. No two writers work the same way and nothing I say here is meant to be proscriptive. This is not about the Right Way to write a novel (in point of fact, it’s about Touch, which…was not the smoothest of books for me, and therefore could be considered the exact opposite). What works for me — or what doesn’t work for me — may well fail to work for you, or conversely, it may be a raging success.
Part of the reason I am being so emphatic is: writer. I understand how easy it is to look at other people’s processes and … want somehow to be able to write like that. Even now. I have type‑A tendencies in real life, and my process does not mesh well with those — if I could outline everything and make it work, I would be in control of so much more. There are structurally very clever things I could do on purpose.
Most of the time, I don’t feel like this, because most of the time I remember that this doesn’t work. And yes, this is relevant.
I am not an outliner.
A discussion with someone who is an outliner made clear to me why I can’t: an outline, when written down, is a commitment. It’s a plan. Having committed a plan to paper, I feel bound to and by it, and it becomes completely restrictive. The people who can work with outlines use them as guidelines. If, when they’re writing, they diverge from the outline as a natural outcome of what they’ve written, they go with the book they’re writing.
Me? I get ulcers. This is clearly a function of the way I view plans — but, regardless, in my internal process, outlines are anathema. This does not mean, if you outline, that you are doing it wrong. There is no wrong in writing process.
When forced to come up with plot information about a book that I haven’t written yet, I punt; I generally describe the forces arrayed against the protagonists, and then add a little bit of “and the character has to survive” at the end, which is very hand-wavey. I write briefly about what I think the book will be about, because I know the plot on the surface of things. I am often, but not always, wrong. This causes my mother deep confusion, since I’m writing the book and creating the characters — but there you have it.
There is an alchemy for me, in actually writing the characters and their interactions, and their interactions often cause sudden lane changes. Character is plot, when I write. I don’t always understand the question: “What’s more important, Character or Plot?” because in my process, they can’t be separated. (And, again, this is one process. The fact that I do it this way does not mean that everyone has to do it this way, or that there is something intrinsically wrong with books written by authors who don’t. I’m sorry if I repeat this “no right way” a lot, but it is really necessary. You can write a fabulous book doing the exact opposite of what I do. You can write a fabulous book doing half of what I do and half of what would kill me to do.)
When I start, I know the end of the book, and I know the tone or voice of the book; I know who the main character is, or who the main characters are. I will do non-page words for world-building, etc.; things characters know, names of organizations, bits about the economics. Unfortunately, I will write this all down and then I will sometimes fail to check. I fail because when I’m writing, I’m certain I do know, and, well. The worldbuilding also evolves. Everything that isn’t on the printed, public page can. It’s only truly embarrassing when I forget that I have, in fact, stated something before.
I had a really clever 3 book structural plan for Queen of the Dead. Everyone who writes talks about 3 act plays and the structure of 3 act plays — and most hollywood movies are, in fact, 3 act plays. It’s clearly a narrative structure that works for the majority of readers. And I have never been able to consciously utilize it.
And of course, because so many people I admire do work this way, even though I know better, I feel as if I should be smarter. I should have it figured out. Yes, this is stupid. Sadly, I am frequently stupid in this way.
I started Touch. I knew what I wanted to do with the book. I knew where it had to go and how it had to end, because I know how grief works. I was — dare I say it? — pleased because I thought I had finally figured it out. I knew what had to happen.
And I started to write Touch. I knew the elements that would come into play, I knew how, and I knew the effect they would have on Emma. For instance: Mercy Hall’s new boyfriend. Grief and loss are the things Emma feels they have in common. Her mother’s new boyfriend is proof to Emma that … they don’t.
But I wrote 55k words and realized that the book was not, in fact, going to go where it needed to go. I could write the plot that I had in my head — but it wouldn’t work. It would be a series of events that made logical sense. It wouldn’t have the resonances that would make those events work. And. Fine. I’ve thrown out 600 pages before, when I realized that what I was doing was simply never going to work.
But… every other time I’ve done that, it’s because I knew exactly what had gone wrong. And this time, what I knew was: to get the ending I had outlined and planned, I had to start again. Since the story itself hadn’t worked, I started it again — but from Nathan’s point of view. (And with a different ghost, and a different plot framework.)
I wrote 30k words and realized that this completely different book would still not, emotionally, get me to the ending I had planned. I kept the prologue of that attempt. I started the book again. But this time, I decided that the problem with my plot, or at least its presentation, was the viewpoint.
Grief is always difficult when seen entirely from the inside. So…I started the book from a different viewpoint. And — that didn’t work, either.
I have never, in the 25+ novels I’ve written, started a book more than twice. This book, the shortest book I owed anyone, was, in terms of wordcounts needed to reach the actual end, one of the longer books I’ve written.
It wasn’t until the fourth iteration that I finally understood what the problem I was having actually was. The characters themselves were never going to go to that ending. Unless I broke them or ignored their voices entirely, the story was never going to go to the end of my conceived second act. The epiphany was the small scene in the published book in which Emma phones her mother to tell her that she was mistaken about the library/study date, and that she’ll be home for dinner after all.
Genna Warner has said, elsewhere, that she almost didn’t finish Touch because she knew where it was going: she was certain that Emma was going to bring Nathan back to life. And I will now confess that that is, in fact, where I had intended to take the book, because: I have been a teenage girl in love. I personally believed that Emma could make this decision when I came up with my 3 act play structure. I thought she would feel isolated, that the mother’s new boyfriend would cause a break because, of course, if her mother could find someone else, it must mean that her mother had never really loved her father (and this so not true). I knew that Mark’s situation – being abandoned to die by his own mother – would outrage Emma. Risking her life for the sake of Andrew Copis was entirely different; it was cleaner and clearer.
I knew that Allison would not be happy about Nathan’s return — worry for Emma, mostly — and that Emma could choose this one, true love in a moment of pain and loss.
I’ve said, often, that character defines story, for me. Characters do things I didn’t expect and couldn’t predict while outlining. I can outline. I can plot. I can come up with very, very solid synopses. But — they’re not the book, because it’s the actual writing that defines the book itself. And it took me four iterations of clinging to the idea of the 3 act structure before I remembered and accepted that: this is not how I write books.
And then, I wrote the book. I accepted that nothing I could do to Emma was ever going to produce a book that ended in the second act of the 3‑act structure, because that’s not actually who Emma — as already written in Silence — is. And I understood, the moment Mark’s mother opened the door, what Emma had to learn, and why, heading into Grave.
And if you have read this far, and you’re curious, I’ve included the 30k words of attempt 2. (The other iterations have information that would be considered serious spoilers for Grave). Since most of my structures tend to be emotional and tonal, the base events of this particular set of words is nothing at all like the published book.