Sunday, October 11, 2009
The Writing Process (Part 1)
Adults often ask me how I write--they want to know what the process is. Kids just want to know, "How do you think up this stuff?" That's probably because inside every adult is a story wanting to be written, and inside every kid is an assignment having to be written. My process is probably very normal, but it still feels a little odd to me. Like I'm always about to run off the rails. It's a little like getting in a car of questionable reliability and saying, I think I'll drive across the country. I know there'll be breakdowns (both mechanical and emotional), but I leave the driveway with a good dose of optimism (and a prayer for good luck) that I'll be able to dig through the trunk for appropriate tools when things go wrong. Anyway, depending on its length, since a novel takes between six months and a year of solid commitment to research, write and re-re-re-re-rewrite, I have to be really smitten by the idea of the story to embark on the journey. It's not something I enter into lightly, and once I begin I am determined to make it to my destination. There's no turning back for me, or quitting. Usually the idea for a story comes to me all at once. BAM! I blink a bunch out the plane window, or sit straight up in bed, or drop the laundry basket in the middle of the hallway. Sometimes, as in the case of Runaway or Swear to Howdy or the project I've just finished, I tell myself, No...you cannot write that story. You don't know enough about the subject...it will take up WAY too much time...you have other commitments...there's too much else going on. But the thought persists and I finally give in and say, Well maybe...let me think about it. Then I spend shower time, drive time, running time, vacuum time, floor-scrubbing time, plant-watering time, (well, you get the idea) thinking about this story idea; forming characters; locations; plot threads; sub-plot threads. And when I'm fully obsessed with the idea (which, obviously, at this point has won the battle), I sit down and write the first few scenes. At this point it's all over--I'm hooked. And completely obsessed. I play through scenes in my head, then type them at the computer. (If I had to write longhand I would definitely not be a novelist.) When I had a full time job teaching high school, I'd get up at 5:00 AM to write for an hour before beginning my day. Now that I'm a full time writer, I have the luxury of sleeping in until 6:00. I get the kids to school, and once I'm home, I'm at my desk, writing. Now, I can't write for a solid 8 hours. I need think time. Stew time. Because once a scene is typed, it's always a little different than I'd expect. Things happen. Like, pigs appear. Who knew the little old lady walking down the road would be walking a pig? And that the pig would be wearing a big black bow tie? Not me. But suddenly there's the pig. And I say to myself, A pig? Why? But the pig insists it's needed and necessary and before long the pig is named Penny. Now, it may very well be that this pig will cause me nothing but trouble; that it doesn't really need to be in the story; that it does nothing to further the plot or contribute to character development. Which means that I'll have to get rid of the pig later on. But for now, I go with the pig. Especially since the pig makes me laugh. But back to the process: Since a pig has appeared in the story, I must stew some more, considering the new twists and turns caused by the pork-bellied intruder. And, of course, a little old lady that has a pet pig is a different woman than the one I'd originally envisioned, so I need to spend some more mental time with my character, getting to the bottom of why she owns the pig in the first place. This is where the refrigerator comes in. Such a handy appliance. I open it up, gaze upon it's varied contents, and think about my story. Maybe I'm hungry, but for what, I'm not quite sure. All I know is there's a comfort to hanging one arm on the open door and gazing inside this box of coolness. Sometimes I don't even rummage. I just hang there, looking. And sometimes I'll get a brilliant idea for what to do next with the story, close the door and leave the kitchen without taking a bite. The refrigerator really works for me. You should try it. The couch does too. I'll lie back on the couch, close my eyes, and play through the scene in my mind. I go different directions with it--sort of like trying on different outfits. Of course, sometimes I just fall asleep. When he sees me on the couch with my eyes closed, my husband will whisper, "Are you plotting or napping?" Good question. Sometimes it's something somewhere in between. The alpha state, where your mind is freed from the box of restrictive thought. The alpha state is an awesome place to plot. Wow. This is already long. And all I've done, really, is tell you to check out your fridge (only don't eat anything) and take a quasi-nap. But I need to stop, so practice the fridge thing and the couch thing. Really. Consider it homework. Then come back next week--I'll see if I can't get us a little farther down this writing road.