Elspeth Cooper

Purveyor of fine fantasy adventures

Tag: writing process (Page 1 of 13)

Grey Chinese dragon on roof

New year news

I gave myself some time off over the holidays. As any writer will tell you, the holidays are an opportunity to get so much writing done, have this manuscript knocked into shape in no time. And then, well, The Holidays happen. There’s late nights and lie-ins and family stuff and all that delicious food won’t eat itself, right?

Anyway, I gave myself a pass, and promised I wouldn’t beat myself up if I didn’t get much done for a couple of weeks. Instead I would use the time to rest, recharge and refocus, so I could come out swinging in 2018.

First up, an update on where things stand with THE DRAGON HOUSE.

The headline figure is 120,000 words (so far) on what I hope is the final draft of the book. This is not the end, because I am re-re-re-x10n-writing the last act after realising I’d made a huge misstep. I thought I could write my way out of them, but it turns out I couldn’t, and I should have stopped trying some time ago. Sometimes it really is better to just accept you’ve goofed, tear it down and start again from a firm foundation.

Speaking of which, this 120k is pretty solid, I think. It’s the result of some tough love from my agent, a lot of work and me being in a better headspace. These last few years have not been great but I’ve said all I want to say about that for now.

So, 120k and moving forward. Beta-readers say it holds together, so all that remains is to take a deep breath, and nail the dismount. Wish me luck.

A note on process and progress

Some authors like to post progress meters or word-count totals for the books they are writing. If this works for them to inform their readers and hold themselves to account as deadlines approach, more power to them. That doesn’t work for me. I don’t like (and instinctively mistrust) raw word count alone as a metric for measuring my own progress.

Regular readers will know that my writing process is best described as organic, even free-range. It’s messy. There’s no formula or road map to get to the end, and the only GPS stands for Gut Plotting System. I tend to find out what my books are about by writing them. I also edit as I go, pruning and filling as needed. As the shape of the story comes into focus, I get a better idea of how much more work is required to adjust the lens, as it were.

Not all of this adjustment equals more words, of course. It might mean I need less, or a bit of both. It’s fluid. I do a lot of writing/editing by feel, which is why a hard, arbitrary figure like 186,048/200,000 is not a meaningful measure of progress to me. Nor is crossing things off lists, much as I like doing that. I’m not even disciplined enough to stick to a drafting schedule, except for the last one, where it counts.

So my writing process is linear, until it’s not. My word and character choices are deliberate, until they become instinctive. I know where I’m going but still surprise myself along the way. And I know that I’m done when I get there, because when it’s ready the work sings.

I never said it was a *good* process, did I?

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Photo of glasses and fountain pen on laptop keyboard

Getting out of my own way

Reading Twitter over breakfast recently*, as you do, I came across this piece of writing wisdom from Aliette de Bodard:

and it slapped me upside the head, because this happens to me with distressing regularity.

Like every writer, I have days when I’m just not feeling it, and grinding out the words can be more painful effort than pleasurable activity. But that’s the thing about this business: we might be doing what we love, but that doesn’t mean it’s always going to be easy. To borrow from Dorothy Parker, it is possible to hate writing, but love having written.

Sometimes, though, this feeling goes beyond a mere hard day in the word-mines. Sometimes a scene just will not flow, no matter what I do. I have a clear idea of what I want to achieve, but can’t seem to translate that into words. Character motivations feel off. Dialogue reads as unnatural or stilted. It’s almost as if the scene doesn’t want to be written.

Silly, right? A story isn’t sentient. It can’t defy me. My sandbox, my rules, yes?

Not so much, it turns out. Whodathunkit.

I’ve always had an unstructured, free-range sort of writing process. No real plans, just writing by the seat of my pants, in a single long document and editing as I went. Not ideal, maybe, but it worked for me.

Then I got published, and experienced a paradigm shift. I was a Proper Writer now, with a contract and everything. I started to think that maybe it’s undisciplined and amateurish to write books that way. That I needed to give more weight to My Responsibility To My Readers and how I ought to Be Professional About These Things.

When the writing is going well, I don’t think so much about what I’m doing. When I’m struggling, though, I immediately assume it is my process at fault. So I start looking closely at the nuts and bolts of the scene in question: pacing, word choice, action beats and pauses for the reader to catch their breath. I break it down and plan it all out, so nothing should go wrong.

Of course, having put so much work into the construction diagram, I then feel obliged to follow it rigidly. This results in a kind of tunnel vision. I can only see the road ahead, so I keep pushing and pushing in that direction. The longer it doesn’t give me the result I want, that I think I ought to get because I’ve planned it so carefully, the more stressed I become. Stress feeds anxiety, which feeds guilt, which kills creativity, which feeds more stress, and round and round we go.

To borrow from Dorothy Parker, it is possible to hate writing, but love having written

Eventually, something cracks. I cry/shout at the cat/snap at my spouse and in the hot, shame-filled silence that follows I hear Story!Brain clear its throat. The reason it has been such hard work, Story!Brain tells me, is not because I’m doing something technically wrong, I’m just using the Wrong Words. It’s the right sentiment in the wrong place, or I’m using the wrong framework in which to express it. Sometimes it’s just because I’ve taken a faulty approach to the whole scene. In trying to fix it, I’ve relied too much on structure and technique, and left no room for the story to breathe.

I’m not sure what Story!Brain is. It feels instinctual, but I dislike ‘instinct’ as a descriptor, because it sounds perilously like ‘inspiration’, and I don’t believe in that. Perhaps it’s a ‘feel’ for story that I’ve acquired osmotically from a lifetime of voracious reading? I honestly don’t know. The closest to an explanation that I can come is that Story!Brain is just another part of my subconscious – one that is crucially unencumbered by the chatter of what-ifs and self-doubt and imposter syndrome and sheer OMG WHAT I HAVE FORGOTTEN HOW TO WRITE that bedevil my Executive!Brain.

What I am sure of is that it’s not always rational, conscious choices that shape what I write. Something gives me this particularly felicitous turn of phrase, or that thematic element that stops me in my tracks when I’m proofreading and makes me go “I wrote that? Well, dayum.”

That’s Story!Brain at work. Often it knows better than Excutive!Brain what the story needs. I just need to listen to it more, so I don’t have to suffer the stress-spiral before I hear it, because man, that overthinking-it shit is exhausting. Costs me so much time, too, and wasted effort throwing words words words at the wall only for none of them to stick.

There’s probably a lesson in here. In times of writing difficulty I reach for structure, order, plans. Control, in other words. But for umpty-ump years I have been writing most easily and fluidly by letting go. It reminds me of Nynaeve in the Wheel of Time who needs to stop trying to wrestle the One Power to her will, and instead surrender to it. Perhaps Robert Jordan was onto something with that.

I need to work on recognising the stress-spiral before it gets a good grip. Prick the bubble, as it were. Collapse the waveform. Or Story!Brain needs to stop being so bloody British and SPEAK UP. Then I can get out of my own damn way.

 

*Yes, it’s taken me three weeks to get around to putting up this post. Guess what I got distracted by.

Featured image © Rido | ID 4493461 | Dreamstime Stock Photos

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