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Jul. 12th, 2004

Something sartorias is discussing made me think of something vis a vis writing and process. I started to post this in response to her comment about narrator and voice, and then realized that it was a digression, and off topic. So I'm posting it here.

I find process discussions fascinating precisely because no two writers I've ever met have the same process, although there's overlap.


Susan Musgrave once came to one of my University classes as a guest lecturer. She spoke, of course, about her own writing processes, and her own approach to poetry, and (this is paraphrased, because I don't have eidetic memory) she said if the -initial- attempt to write something didn't work with a minimal amount of editing, she threw it away. All of the power, in her opinion and at that time was in the initial rush to paper, and losing that in heavy revision killed the poem, for her.

I often find that that's how I approach novels/novel chapters or sections. I've thrown away as much as 600 pages before, to start over, rather than revise heavily, once I've realized what the issues are. It's not that I think all 600 pages are -- or were -- garbage; it's just that the revisions would have been so surgical it would have been more an act of vivisection than an act of organic creation.

Okay, that sounded pretentious. I'll stop now.

Well, almost. I started to wonder, in the discussion about voice, whether or not dissection & understanding of a particular style can be subsumed into one's own process and made part of it -- especially for people who tend to write with a more heavy reliance on the sub-conscious than is probably wise (I include myself in that number).

I know it helps when I review; I know it helps when I critique. I know that I can do this with my work much after the fact, when I've forgotten the initial, blind impulse and emotionality that drove the writing in the first place. But I also know that I live in a jungle, and writing is like hacking a path through dense growth with a machete (I borrowed this analogy from kateelliott, who used it to describe the writing of one of my favourite of her books <wry g>.)

Comments

( 29 comments — Leave a comment )
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msagara
Jul. 11th, 2004 10:57 pm (UTC)
"What do you mean, you don't -know-?" he cries in frustration.

LOL! My mother (not that she's in any other way like your husband) says this all the time. She also says this when my characters bank left when I was depending on a solid right. I've tried to explain the process to her, but in her opinion, it's -my- book, so I should, of course, know and control -everything-, all the time.

I've had some success in pointing out that novels are not entirely unlike children that way -- you do your best, but really, you're never going to be 100%.

I have a lot of sympathy with the writing-in-installments feeling, though.

Oddly enough, HOUSE WAR -- at least the beginning -- doesn't feel like a continuation or an installment so much as a New Book. Which, for me, means that it's very slow <wry g>.
janni
Jul. 11th, 2004 09:47 pm (UTC)
I need the initial blind emotionality to get started; but then I need something by steps more distant in order to revise.

But writing for me is a series of successive approximations. Getting things down is only step one; revising what's in front of my is more than half my process.

Which isn't to say I won't throw out large chunks if I need to--I've thrown out more than half a book at times. But that's more if the large scale issues are problematic.

What works, works, and all that.
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msagara
Jul. 11th, 2004 10:53 pm (UTC)
Sure.

I love process, and I love analysis of text; I love figuring out why something works, which I find much harder than pointing out why something -didn't- <wry g>. But I'm not entirely certain that, after all is said and done, I can put the knowledge to -practical- use when it comes to my own books. I know that I try different things; I know that there are some mistakes I've made that I would avoid in future -- but I'm not entirely certain that these attempts and these failures (leaving out the question of what was a success in one's own work) aren't a by-product of just continuing to write, to tell more complicated stories.

I know writers who would die before they started to talk about process in any critical fashion -- but they've also improved structurally and tonally with time.

So I guess what I mean by that question is: Do people feel that the knowledge gained from the making of charts, graphs, and pointed observations about the work of other people become so much a part of your own writing process that it's useful?

It's useful to me as a -reviewer-. It's useful to me when I attempt to critique other people's writing (although I find, often, that knowing the writer fairly well helps a great deal in this regard, because although I -should- be considering only text, I often find that knowing on some intuitive level what the text was -trying- to do makes anything I say more accessible to the person I'm talking to). But I can't see, while floundering my way through the process of writing a lengthy novel, that it's helpful in a way I can pinpoint.

I wouldn't stop, though; I find it all fascinating.

I think I mostly hope that -something- will take; that my subconscious will some get smarter behind my back <wry g>. But for people who are capable of being more intellectual about their work in progress -while- working (and believe that I envy you more than I can possibly say, and I'm supposed to use words for a living), I'm wondering if there's a more resounding "yes!" it's all useful response.

Oh, and lnhammer? The difficulty I was having with my novel in progress was, in fact, a structural difficulty not entirely unlike the one you mentioned on your LJ yesterday. So, umm, thank you <g>.
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msagara
Jul. 12th, 2004 07:21 am (UTC)
Errr, not quite...

andpuff, how is it possible that bobafet is actually still alive after all these years? Not, of course, that this is a threat because I would never threaten someone with violence in a public forum.
andpuff
Jul. 12th, 2004 09:42 am (UTC)
Well, two reasons. One, there's usually a three hour drive between us and two, he's awfully cute. Cute excuses a lot.
msagara
Jul. 14th, 2004 08:14 pm (UTC)
and two, he's awfully cute. Cute excuses a lot.

I have two small, cute children who don't try to add new scratches to my face when I'm not feeding them on their schedule, so oddly enough, I've developed a bit of an immunity to cute. And he's -certainly- not a three hour drive away; he might be about ten minutes away if things work out...
andpuff
Jul. 15th, 2004 10:44 am (UTC)
he might be about ten minutes away if things work out...

He's moving?
andpuff
Jul. 12th, 2004 09:43 am (UTC)
I know writers who would die before they started to talk about process in any critical fashion...

Would not.

Well, maybe...

:)
msagara
Jul. 14th, 2004 08:15 pm (UTC)
Okay. I admit that I -was- thinking of you. That was my sole attempt at subtlety for the month of July, and you blew it <g>.

I particular like the way you say "I just tell the story" in slowly freezing degrees when people ask you questions about the process; I know we're on really shaky ground when you finally get to "I just tell the damn story."
lnhammer
Jul. 12th, 2004 12:47 pm (UTC)
De nada. I think. (As it was, I had to back up one more stanza, only reworking it instead of throwing it out. Because, of course, I'd set up the transition to the wrong POV, and had set up a different one.)

I find conscious thinking about anything but the mechanics of form pretty much useless for what anything I'm drafting, but essential for revisions. I find discussions about them only marginally more useful than reading other works and figuring out how the authors did that, however. That it's any more at all is because they get me thinking about things in ways I hadn't thought of.

---L.
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artbeco
Jul. 12th, 2004 11:09 am (UTC)
Parallels...
Well, I don't consider myself a writer, though my sister is one, and I've watched her struggle with her process (her characters certainly take on a life of their own and wrest the reins of the story off in their own directions!). It's interesting to me to note the parallels with creating art, though. There's a fine balance between planning out an illustration (composition, color, values, getting all the required elements in, etc.) and keeping the initial idea fresh. I find there's a frustration in creating a carefully planned illustration versus a quick sketch because of course there's such a problem with losing the fresh spontaneity in the final piece. Different purposes demand different methods, really.

But I have managed to evolve a kind of work-around with time and experience where I end up doing roughs first, then let I try to let go and just draw the finish, and thus maintain a kind of freshness. It doesn't always work, of course, and lord knows there have been many times where I threw away the first (few) attempts and started over, because reworking is so deadly to an illustration. And some pieces flow so easily and are so fun, while other pieces just fight from the beginning, never really work and end up looking like (and go in the) garbage.

I end up throwing away parts of a picture that I love in the concept phase because those parts don't end up contributing to the whole piece, and letting go of them can be painful (I tell myself I'm putting them up for adoption). If I discover some part into the finished illustration that major parts just don't work, it means I have to start over from scratch, which strikes me as analogous to your description of vivisection versus organic creation.

And no, none of what you said sounded pretentious. :) I think the whole process of getting better with practice, finding your own unique voice or style is fascinating. Practice on all of those mechanical skills is part of what enables a good writer or artist to create a good story and make it appear effortless, even though there's such a dichotomy between the artificiality of the skills themselves versus the organic flow of a good story.

One of my own pet fixations is the desire to make the actual _method_ of creation almost invisible to the viewer so that the overall piece can impact the viewer and stand on its own; otherwise it lacks substance. I find I want this in writing, too: I want the story to flow into my brain without bludgeoning me with a heavy-handed style that interferes or intrudes too much. Don't get me wrong; I really enjoy reading well-written prose and poetry, where the flavor and quality of the words feels like a gourmet meal. And though for any message the style of art or writing certainly helps create the mood and all, I find personally I get impatient with having to work through a pretentious 'style' in order to get to the meat of the story. But maybe that's just me. I never managed to plow through James Joyce because his style was so intrusive that I found it intensely irritating. It seemed so self-indulgent somehow...

Erm, didn't mean to go on so long, and apologies if I come across as spouting obnoxious or obvious things to the writers' crowd, it isn't my intention! ;)
msagara
Jul. 14th, 2004 08:23 pm (UTC)
Re: Parallels...
Erm, didn't mean to go on so long, and apologies if I come across as spouting obnoxious or obvious things to the writers' crowd, it isn't my intention! ;)

Not being a hypocrite, the -last- thing I am every going to criticize someone for is the length of their posts <wry g>. And I find the reply interesting because if you cut certain words, it could just as easily be a discussion about your writing process; it's all creative.

When I was talking with one of my cover artists on the phone, she said that she works out the details in the colour sketches, and also works out the flaws, sometimes changing the picture as she goes -- the painters version of first draft, in which something that seemed like a great idea in conception just doesn't work with the -words-. Well, not words in her case <g>.

But I also remember, during our first conversation, that the artist said she was never going to be try to do a photo-realistic type of painting because to her it didn't look like a painting; it looked like a photo.

As for invisible methods of creation ... :/. One of the things that I often hear complaints about -is- my prose, or the difficulty of getting around my prose to the story beneath it.

I think my favourite usenet post, way back (which someone kindly emailed me, because I would have missed it otherwise) was written by someone who almost -loathed- my word-for-word style. Why was it my favourite? Because he'd clearly read every word I'd written to that point, and I think more than once, and while he jumped up and down about the style, he said that the characters were interesting enough -- barely -- that he could keep going. He was, I think, the only poster in that thread who -had- read everything. So it tickled my funny bone.

I kind of like words. If I have to work at them, if I'm aware of them, I still like them -- it changes the texture of the story for me, that's all. I do understand that in the interest of accessibility, the less visible the prose, the better.

But I don't write convoluted sentences on purpose, and even in editing, they seem perfectly natural -to me- <rueful g>.
artbeco
Jul. 15th, 2004 09:54 pm (UTC)
Parallels...
Yes, your cover artist's description is quite a similar process to what I go through too. :)

And I really didn't mean to say by talking about making the style or method invisible that I meant doing photorealism; that's yet another style in itself, and is frequently quite intrusive on its own. I didn't express myself very well there, perhaps. What I meant more to say was that there are any number of unique styles of both writing and art; ideally everyone finds their own unique style or voice. But I wish for myself, is to find the best way to express that style so that it is inseparable, seamless with the intent of the story or image; so the two aspects are melded so flawlessly that you couldn't imagine the story being told in quite that way or painted the same way by anyone else. Or even having the story or image possibly told by anyone else; the overall result stands as such a unified creation that concept and execution are inseparable. Of course different people would tell the same basic story in different ways or paint the same subject in different ways and that's all good.

I guess I just want a story or image presented in a gutsy genuine way, from the heart, rather than filtered through some trendy facade as I have seen so many artists do. This is not to say _I'm_ any great shakes, mind you, just expressing my own craving for better quality out of myself, which is a very different thing from the more painful realities I face in my own efforts. :/

And I also didn't meant to imply that you yourself write convoluted or confusing prose; I don't find that true at all. (This from me, who started crying on... what was it? page 5 or 11? of The Broken Crown. Had to put the book down because I was in a restaurant and was getting all emotional). Good god, I said to myself, this is definitiely a woman writer, she has kids and she writes from the gut. I LIKE that, and it seems to be darned hard to find. :)
dancinghorse
Jul. 12th, 2004 11:44 am (UTC)
If I think too much about process I can't do it. Can only really do that when I'm teaching--when I've switched sides of the brain and am approaching it analytically. I'm writing intuitively and if I pull back and get analytical, it kills the book.

And yet I outline especially with historicals, because events have to happen in a set order. However an intuitive thing often happens--something I'll add because it works turns out to have happened that way in reality, or else a character appears just when I need her and turns out to be just what she needs to be. (Happened in the mip in fact--thank goodness, too, because I needed to shift to female POV and, well, there she was, right in that abbey seven miles from Stonehenge.)

I tend to write tight--sometimes overly so--and have never had to cut. Always have to add. Scenes come through sharp and clear for the most part, and develop through dialogue, with bits of description--then the rest fits itself in. I have an awful time with exposition and time-setting and such--I mean who cares how many days went by between the last scene and this one? (My editor, of course. Aargh.) In a way it's odd I never got into play- or screenwriting.

kateelliott's first novel was a revelation to me--a completely different way of approaching the process. I well remember all that undergrowth, and the experience of hacking through it. 8)
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lnhammer
Jul. 12th, 2004 12:40 pm (UTC)
It's a coding thing: type <lj user="aireon"> and what displays is kateelliott.

---L.
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dancinghorse
Jul. 14th, 2004 11:02 am (UTC)
I figure as long as we know our bad habits, we can always fix them in the second draft. I try to make sure I fill out the text a bit. And yes, Larry, I do try to get the chronology sorted out.

The name thing is done like so: [lj user=username] only you use pointy html brackets <> instead.
lnhammer
Jul. 12th, 2004 12:42 pm (UTC)
I mean who cares how many days went by between the last scene and this one?

Um — me? It makes a difference in how I expect characters to react if they've had two weeks to come to terms with what just happened, or it's later that day.

---L.
msagara
Jul. 14th, 2004 08:28 pm (UTC)
I mean who cares how many days went by between the last scene and this one?

Um — me? It makes a difference in how I expect characters to react if they've had two weeks to come to terms with what just happened, or it's later that day.


Ayup. I actually had one person email me with a request for my calendar, which hasn't ever made it into the front matter because, um, there's never been enough room for it. I tend to map out days, and geography is a part of that -- but I hate maps, and mine all look like big blobs with things jutting out of them that are just as blobby.

Otoh, as a reader I don't care. And was told by many editors that that was my perogative as a reader -- but that as a writer, I had to do the work for those readers who did care.

Not, of course, that I hold this against you. Much <g>.
msagara
Jul. 14th, 2004 08:25 pm (UTC)
If I think too much about process I can't do it. Can only really do that when I'm teaching--when I've switched sides of the brain and am approaching it analytically. I'm writing intuitively and if I pull back and get analytical, it kills the book.

This happens for me, as well. But I'm not sure that I write tight in the same way you do -- yours is a more elegant, compact prose. I've never been asked to -cut-, though.
dancinghorse
Jul. 15th, 2004 10:51 am (UTC)
Sometimes I think it's too compact and needs to be opened up so it's more accessible. Bearing in mind that really great-selling fiction tends to be considerably more floppy--you can skim large chunks and still get the story.

Or, to put it another way, when it comes to the large majority of readers, do the words get in the way? Is a writer better off with less craft, more story, and more transparency in the style?
msagara
Jul. 15th, 2004 12:55 pm (UTC)
Or, to put it another way, when it comes to the large majority of readers, do the words get in the way? Is a writer better off with less craft, more story, and more transparency in the style?

If we define better off as selling, then for the most part -- at least from observations in genre, and recently -- one is better off. Writers, and people who would be writers, are the readers who most often care.

I have mixed feelings about this, because I have a bit of the word fetishist in me. Also, as a reader, I seldom find -anyone's- prose to be so difficult that I have trouble parsing story. I can point to a piece of writing and say "you will lose people with this", but it doesn't lose me, and from a purely selfish standpoint, I don't necessarily encourage people to change their style.
dancinghorse
Jul. 15th, 2004 08:25 pm (UTC)
What I'm trying to figure out is a sort of unified field theory of writing well but still selling well. There has to be a way. Transparency is an art in itself, and clarity can be extremely highly crafted.
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