Saturday, July 24, 2010

How I Write, and Why

My writing process has evolved over the years, but when I first got some ideas that turned into novels, I had an experience I didn't expect. With every novel I've written (6 so far) each one starts with characters and a vague plot line, and then as I'm thinking about how the story will unfold, a scene flashes in my head - sometimes with dialogue, sometimes not - and I quickly write it down before I lose it. In each case, this scene has become the pivot point in the story, and then a more specific plot line begins to fall into place. I write this down and weave it together with a time line so I know the exact sequence of events. For this reason, I don't think in terms of chapters. I think in terms of events that happen in a character's life on a particular day. That helps me determine what led up to that moment in the story and what consequences will come after that moment. If I know what's going to happen in a scene, I write that scene, but if I need to think about it a while or do research to add authenticity and believability to the scene, I might put it off until I have the other scenes written that are still bouncing around in my brain. As a sort of 'place holder,' I write notes in the manuscript of what will need to happen in this yet-to-be-written scene so I can go back and fill it in later. Fortunately, I'm at a place in my life where I can write all day and all night if I need to get essential scenes on paper, and then ponder and brood over scenes that need more careful attention.

Sometimes some of my best ideas come when I'm in church. Insights and ideas in a talk or lesson relate to something my characters are experiencing, so I make notes and add those ideas later. I don't expect inspiration to plant something in my brain without effort on my part. I seek inspiration and expect it to poke and prod and move forward ideas that have already been generated. If no inspiration comes, I take that to mean the idea isn't worth following. This whole process is a fascinating exercise in the way the right brain (creativity) coordinates with the left brain (analytical). When I'm writing it's all right brain all the time, and when I'm revising, it's left brain.

Once a rough draft is on paper, I start combing through the tangles to smooth it out, making sure the sequence of events is accurate. My goal is polished brevity - saying the most in the fewest words. One of the things I comb out is sentences written in passive voice unless there's a particular plot- or character-driven reason for keeping it passive. I also comb through and revise all sentences that start with 'the.' That sounds quirky, but it makes the prose really sing with a brighter, tighter, more readable way of saying something.

Also, I'm the queen of tweak, and the longer the plot and characters "brew" in my brain, and the longer the manuscript remains in my possession unsold, the more subtleties and refinements I find that add richness to the story and the people.

While writing, I also listen to good music - without words - that stimulates my brain. I pray my way through every project. Above all, it's essential to have readers who will tell you the truth. In my previous writers group, everyone loved me and everything I wrote was wonderful, just wonderful, so I didn't get the feedback I really needed. Now I have several good critics who love me enough to tell me the truth.

A few years ago I interviewed with an editor who asked me why I write and who my audience is. I told him I can't NOT write, but apparently that wasn't good enough. I guess he expected me to say, "LDS women between the ages of 24 and 65 who have a college education and always get their Visiting Teaching done." I can't think in such marketing terms. My mindset comes from what a college professor once told me: "If what you write is good enough, your work will find an audience." I write because it appeals to the crusader in me. I write because I see things being ignored or swept under the rug in our LDS subculture that we ought to be discussing openly among ourselves. If the emperor is naked, I notice and I tend to mention it, and that makes some people uncomfortable, but very often those are the problems we've been in denial about. I write because lives and marriages are falling apart and not very many writers are addressing those issues in fiction. A writer's responsibility is to shine a light, and sometimes that light illuminates dark corners. I write because characters come alive in my brain and won't go away until I've written their story. I write because I have a talent and not to use it would be disrespectful and disappointing to the Creator who gave it to me. Even if I never get published, this exercise enriches my spirit.

For probably 25 or 30 years I've avoided reading fiction by LDS writers because most of it didn't have substance or depth, which left me still hungry. I know other LDS women with that same complaint. So I decided to write for people like me, who are looking for soul-satisfying, sink-your-teeth-into stories that touch our common core values. For that reason, I haven't written fantasy or escape so far. In the last six months, however, since I've started reading more contemporary LDS writers, I'm finding quite a few that I like very much, and I'm recommending them to those friends who gave up on finding good LDS-written fiction. We've come a long way, baby, and that's good.

That's my writing process and my philosophy. All I can say to recommend it is that I have a manuscript pending with a publisher. Talking about this reminds me how very much I miss teaching writing!


jww said...

I wonder if there's a creative writing class at a community college with your name on it. I know how much you enjoy it.

I always feel like writing, for me, satisfies MY soul and it's all so very personal to me that it's nearly impossible to share it. I think it's great you can do both.

Mary said...

I'm so glad I finally got to read this post. I've been eying it in my Google Reader "New Items" box for a couple weeks now, knowing I would enjoy it when I got a minute.

Thank you for recording your process as well as the other gems you've shared with me before. I'm sure I'll come back to this post in the future.

I feel a lot freer to work on my novel now that I know there are other approaches beside writing the whole thing in sequence. Thanks!