Questionables: The Writing Process (HaHaHaHa . . .)

Lakshmi wrote:
How do you come up with ideas for a new book? What is your writing process? Has it changed over the years? Do you have a daily word count? Any advice for beating writers block?  I can’t figure out how to plot or outline my WIP. I’ve read the 3 act structure and even tried beat sheets. It gets confusing.

I don’t come up with ideas, the ideas come up with me.  I will do damn near anything to avoid writing.  It’s hard.  I have to work.  I don’t like it.  But then a character starts talking about an idea that my subconscious glommed onto and I tell myself I’ll just write this one bit of dialogue down and pretty soon I’m up to my ass in demons.   Trust me, I don’t go LOOKING for work.  It’s just that sometimes a story grabs onto my leg and I can’t get it off.

At that point, however, I do not go near the three-act structure, or in my case the four-act structure.  I do not do beat sheets or outlines or character profiles.  I definitely do not do a daily word count, that would make me nuts. This is because in the beginning, it’s all discovery.  I don’t know what the book is really about until I see what I’ve written.  Structure is for revising, not for writing.  

I’d tell you what my writing process was if I had one.  Mostly I stagger around trying to find out what the story is about, figure it out, finish the first draft, discover it’s not that at all it’s something else, revise the whole thing multiple times, discover that the something else was wrong, too, and revise again.  My writing process is awful.  I do not recommend it.

Zeba asked:
I find big-scale editing really hard – e.g. ‘does this scene work, does this character work, what happens if I take this out, put this back in etc. So my question is what are good approaches with over-view style review, redraft and rewrites?

First, don’t edit a first draft/discovery draft until the whole thing is done.  

Then, once the whole thing is done, step back and ask yourself, “What is this book about?  The protagonist owns it, what is she pursuing that’s so important to her that it informs the meaning of the book?  How does her character arc inform that same meaning?  What kind of book is this?  Why the hell did I write this thing?”

Once you know the answers to those questions, you know how to rewrite the book to focus on that spine you’ve identified.  Then look at the act structure and the turning points and make sure that they connect to that spine.  Look at the character arcs and make sure they jive with the turning points and connect to that spine.  Look at the conflict and see how it illustrates that spine, especially how the climax reinforces that spine.  

Writing Nita, I got caught up in mysteries and my anger about what’s happening with immigration in this country and about greedy, selfish leaders, and breakfast food, but when I looked at the finished discovery draft, it was about outsiders trying to connect, about very different people becoming a family, and above all about two damaged people falling in love.  So that spine was about connection in a hostile world, about outsiders coming in from the cold.  That meant a lot of stuff could go, and some things I thought were just me having fun—all those breakfasts—were actually part of that people coming together in warmth. With eggs.  

Find the spine, but finish the discovery draft first.  You don’t know what it’s about until you see what you’ve written.  

40 thoughts on “Questionables: The Writing Process (HaHaHaHa . . .)

  1. Were you generalizing? Or does a character — say, Min Dobbs — start “talking about an idea that my subconscious glommed onto”? Like, “I’ll never meet a guy like Elvis. That’s a fairy tale.”

    And, continuing, does that initial line stay in the written piece right up to publication? In other words, I, like a lot of others reading arghink, am impressed by your ability to cut down your writing. At what point do you know the character, say, Min, so well that you can easily replace one thing she has said with something else?

    Thank you very much. Your post is terrific.

    1. Bet Me is a bad example here because I wrote it in the 90s and everybody rejected it, so I let it sit until it was the only book I’d never sold and my agent sold it and I looked at it and dear god it was terrible so I deleted about 95,000 words and basically started over because I had a contract and a deadline. Which I missed by a year. I have no idea what started the original story, but it was a complete misfire, and then Meg sold the book and there I was.

      So let’s see.
      Tell Me Lies started as a journal about my marriage disintegrating, which wasn’t interesting, so a decade later, I fictionalized it (my ex is still alive).
      Crazy for You started as a writing exercise in my MFA program about a teenager, Quinn, and her older sister, Zoe. I started thinking about what Quinn would be like when she grew up, and she had such a strong voice . . .
      Welcome to Temptation was another one I’d started about three college professors deciding to make vanilla porn. Yes, it changed radically.
      Fast Women happened because I wanted to look at the aftermath of divorce and what happens to women who have to start over at midlife, and because I’d read a book called Crazy Time that was so good, but I couldn’t get any traction on it and then Nell showed up destroying Gabe’s office with repressed anger and there I was.
      Faking It came about because Davy wouldn’t shut up in my head. That started out as an Eve and Davy book, but it wasn’t working, and then Davy met Tilda, a supporting character, and I said, “OH,” and the book took off from there. Only book that didn’t start with a female protagonist, although Tilda took possession pretty fast.
      Bet Me was a “crap, Meg sold this and it’s godawful, how can I save it?” book. The protagonist wasn’t even named Min in the first finished draft, she was Jane. And then for some reason I decided to make it a fairy tale and thought about an anti-princess and Min showed up with her swizzle stick and best friends . . .
      Maybe This Time actually started in grad school, too, when I was teaching Turn of the Screw, which I do love, and thought about how I’d fix it to be my kind of story. Ten years later, Andie said, “Yo, give me a name and get that jerk of a guardian down to the house” and there we were.
      The Devil in Nita Dodd is the only book where I actually (accidentally) documented my process that started with a rant about the Lucifer pilot. Many of you were here for that series of god-this-is-awful, here’s-how-I’d-fix-it posts that turned into just-hell-I’m-going-to-write-this-book. I think most of the struggle was finding Nita, but there was also the problem of Nick being the Devil (not going to work as a hero) and then I realize Nita wasn’t (spoilers) and after that, I had a book.

      As for the fiction that came before that, I wrote it decades ago and don’t actually remember most of it. What the Lady Wants (horrible title, not mine) was because I wanted to do a Sam Spade noir romance without the noir, so Mitch was easy, and then Maybelle was a snarky Dangerous Woman who just kicked Mitch’s ass at every opportunity, so that was fun. But no matter where the germ of the plot idea came from, the ideas went nowhere until I heard the protagonist talking. I have a ton of false starts–the romance set on Nantucket, the Charlotte romance about a seamstress, the one about the amnesiac who wakes up in a hospital with superpowers, etc.–and even though some of them had strong voices, they just never caught.

      You know it’s the right book when you have to write it. It’s not enough to want to write it, you have to feel that you must write it or it’ll haunt you past the grave.

      Lines. Faulkner (don’t get me started) said, “Kill your darlings,” and I think that’s wrong (we disagree on so much), but he’s right in that there is no one line that’s so good it can’t be cut to make the book better. The big determinant for me is “Does this tie the book to the spine that informs it?” Snappy patter is just annoying if it’s the writer showing off instead of telling story, and of course I’m the queen of snappy patter that’s just showing off, so I have to be savage. No cheap laughs. Does this line help tell the story? Then it stays. It doesn’t? Put it in the outtakes, and then delete the outtakes.

      My favorite line in Nita got to stay because I thought it characterized both Nick and Nita, and because it also showed how subconsciously she identified with him. It’s at breakfast, and he sits down, and she looks at him and wonders if he’d sent somebody to kill her the night before. Then she decides it’s not likely because “he looked like the kind of guy who’d do it himself.” I wrote that line and laughed, no idea where it came from, and then I looked at it again, and thought, “My god, I’m a genius.” Because Nita is the kind of woman who would do it herself, she admires a pro-active worker. She likes him even though she doesn’t trust him. And that the first step in the outsider-becomes-part-of-a-community spine. I thought it was great the first time because it’s a reversal line, you think she’s thinking he’s not a killer because he’s a good guy, but she’s actually thinking he is a killer he just wouldn’t contract out. (This is why you should never explain humor. It kills it.) But that’s just the clever part, and clever isn’t enough to make it a great line. It’s the layers underneath which readers should not get the first time that make that one a darling I will defend past the last draft.

      1. Hells bells, I can not “heart” this enough. Seriously, nobody bought Bet Me? I freaking love Bet Me. Well, who am I kidding. I love them all. But Bet Me is one of my favorites.

        I love to see how your mind works, Crusie. Even when it is scary 🙂

        1. The original Bet Me was godawful. I rewrote 95% of it. There was good reason nobody wanted it,.

          1. Bet Me is the book I hand people when they say, “Romance? Really?” I teach it again next spring!

  2. I think your writing process is perfect. Through it, you have produced many excellent books!

    I think we’ve let hyper-organized, process oriented people convince the rest of us that their way of doing things is the right way. Process and organization are helpful tools for people who like/need them, but they are not superior to any other system or lack of system.

    In reality, everyone is different and the right way to do anything is to do it in the way that works for you.

    Sorry to rant, this is a pet peeve of mine. It took me years to not feel morally compromised for not getting up a 5am so I could exercise, meditate, eat a healthful breakfast and iron something before starting my day. One of my favorite phrases now is “you do you”, which sounds much nicer than my earlier epiphany of “f@$k that!”

  3. Turning points! How could I forget those tent poles? This post came at perfect time for me as I just finished a shaggy first draft and need to revise. You provided the questions I needed to ask myself. Now I’m feeling far more confident and excited about this messy draft. Thank you.

    1. Turning points have helped me more with the structure than anything else I’ve studied. You can have as many or as few as you want (depending on the length of your story) as long as they escalate, and with them, you can save damn near any plot.

      1. Your turning points workshop at RWA (a hundred thousand years ago) took me from getting “so damned close” rejections from agents to getting an agent with the next book I wrote. Which, you know, sold a bunch of books later. But that’s publishing.

  4. This is a writing blog?! Huh.

    I just came here to tel Jessie that I’d answered her Working Wednesday question about seasonings. 🙂

    1. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. I have checked back several times since you are always excellent about answering questions. I thought life got in the way of our good times again. Thank you.

      1. 😍

        That’s the pick-me-up I needed today, I’ve been a grump all over twitter. If I were to have headstone, I’d ask for “she was always excellent about asking questions.” But I’m going to be cremated so 🤷🏻‍♀️ maybe save it for the obit? 😉

        1. That’s my problem, too. I want a headstone that says, “Nothing but good times ahead,” but I’m going to be cremated, so . . . maybe an engraved urn? Just what Mollie needs, her mother on the mantel.

          1. Perhaps Molly could have a ceramic donut made frosted with your ashes incorporated in the glaze in honor of Bet Me.

            I know a woman who made a small quasi-diorama for her fireplace mantel with salt and pepper shakers, which her mother had collected, with some of her mother’s ashes in one of the salt shakers and her father’s in the pepper. She really does think this is a witty and charming memorial to her parents. I on the other hand think she may need to be committed.

          2. I just found out they can make diamonds out of creaminess, so I told my mom I was going to make her into a gorgeous ring.

            She can relate to that. She loooooves diamonds.


          3. Oh, for Pete’s sake, “creaminess” was supposed to be “cremains”…

            Stupid autocorrect…. 🤬🤬🤬

          4. Because I am food-obsessed right now, I read that as “cremini” and thought you were making diamonds out of mushrooms. I’d rather have the mushrooms.

            I kind of like the idea of being a diamond.

          5. My grandfather and grandmother (maternal) were both cremated. My grandpa died first. One of their nephews (my grandparents were more like parents to him and his siblings than aunt and uncle) asked if he could have some of my grandfather’s ashes and my grandmother, never one to back down from anything, asked him if my grandfather hadn’t been cremated, would he want one of his fingers or toes? That shut that down in a hell of a hurry. When I see cremation urns, that’s what I think. Makes for quite a visual.

            This is the same woman who, when a telemarketer called and asked for my grandpa after he died, told the caller he was in the bedroom (true, that’s where his ashes were) and when the pushy salesman asked again if he could talk to him said “No. He’s dead.” and hung up. I think it’s probably a good thing that it was telemarketer and not someone local as the RCMP would have shown up looking for the crazy woman with the corpse.

          6. I have my stepdaugher’s mom (who I was caregiver for her last three years, when she was in a local nursing home and my kid was across the country) in a box on a shelf next to the couch. The bottom shelf, because, yeesh. The box is in a bag, but it has clear view to the TV and is often near a cat or a book, so I figure her ashes are happy.

            Death is so weird.

          7. My grandfather was cremated, but we wanted something in the world to commemorate a life well lived. We ended up donating a bench with a plaque along his favorite walking path.

            Something like that would might work for you and yours, too. It wasn’t so much about him as it was about us and having a physical representation of who we was to us out there.

          8. You would be welcome on my mantle – in fact, I’d buy a mantle for your urn. Your urn and a dueling pistol with “Checkov” engraved on the stock.

          9. I found someone on Etsy who takes ashes and mixes them with resin to make rings. When I lost my beloved Magic the Cat (Queen of the Universe), I had a heart-shaped ring made using her ashes so she’d always be with me. Supervising, as usual.

    2. It kind of started out as just something to put on the first page of the Jenny Crusie webpage, and then it got out of hand and there was a lot of writing stuff, and then . . .

      Actually, now it’s just where the Argh People hang out.

      1. And Thank God for that! After spending 2-3 hours not getting the help I needed on Google. a place where interesting people chat is just what I need.

  5. This is great description of your process. For me, think the important part of my writing process is trust.

    Even after writing a few books, there are days during the 1st draft phase where I have to remind myself to trust that what needs to come will come to me as I write. I know some writers rely on detailed outlines to guide their writing days, but that doesn’t work for me. I need to have a broad idea where I’m going, but then I need to go to the trust thing. And since it keeps working, I’m learning to have more trust in my trust method. This has been a big win for me.

    And so agree about revising time offering insights afterwards. Extra fun, too, to discover things about the book that came to light organically. It’s like a writer bonus every time:)

    1. This is so true. I start a book and think, “God this is terrible, it’s so THIN, there’s no there here,” and have to remind myself that most of the book is still down in the basement with the Girls and if I just keep going, the layers will be there.

      1. The analogy that finally worked for me, for how I write, was that it’s like crazy quilting – I get a scrap of dialogue or scene/fabric and put it down, and then get another unrelated scrap of scene, and another one… and I need to build up enough fabric on the base, and then I can see how the bits all fit together, and how to embroider them into a whole story and shape things. My problem was always that I was trying to shape the quilt before I had enough fabric scraps stitched down, so now I tell myself “Nope, not enough fabric yet. Keep going – you can’t start embroidering yet.” Which probably makes no sense to anyone else, but it was an epiphany for me.

        1. And crazy quilts look like a scrambled mess until the point when you’ve got enough down that you can start to see the shape it’s taking, and what colours and patterns you need to fill in the gaps.

  6. In the vein of everyone writing differently, I find that my own writing (writing my stories) differs greatly from ghostwriting novels. (I’m almost afraid to say I’m a ghostwriter after the recent plagiarism scandal in the romance writing world.)

    I’m more like Jenny when I write in my worlds. Although sometimes the story is more fully formed in my head. Sometimes.

    When I’m doing the story development and outline as well as the writing for a client, I have to actually spend a couple of hours creating the story outline for approval before I start. That’s a really different process because the story doesn’t really change much as I write. (Unlike my own novels.)

    When I write from someone else’s outline it’s very different. I read the entire outline, promptly forget the details and then just write a scene at a time and hope I don’t screw up the following scenes by going too far. But’s it’s just fleshing out someone else’s outline. I don’t worry too much that this could be an outline stolen from someone else, although perhaps I should. I think my writing is unique enough that it’s unlikely that it will even resemble someone else’s story.

    Also, when I write for other people I don’t revise. (I do grammar and spell check.) I’m not paid for that so I don’t do it. The client might revise, I don’t know. Not my business.

    So two different things, really, and I’m grateful that I’m able to squeeze out most of a living without having heart attack inducing employment.

  7. Thank you thank you thank you. This post confirmed to me my gut feeling. I’ve got a great story, and it has a natural structure but because I’m in discovery mode, all sorts of events and incidents are happening that I wasn’t expecting, and the structure is shot to hell. But if I turn this round and just write it all out, then I can go back and test the spine and that will work. The problem is that the setting and the situation of the MC is based (intentionally) on being a teenager at boarding school in the late 1970s. I chose this because I was a teenager then, and I knew that I could pick up on cultural references and atmosphere and slang in a way that would feel unnatural and also the premise of the story is based on what happens when someone is exploring gender/sexuality in a society where it is really proscribed at a time way earlier than our current more fluid and accepting (at least in some places) society. In my efforts to ensure heroine is not a Mary-Sue, I’m writing a lot more backstory than I expected, and all sorts of things that in my outline looked quite throw-away are much richer and more complex than I expected, so my structure is totally out the window. But that doesn’t matter. Write the discovery, then work back to the spine. That works for me.

    Even though I’m not a writer, and have no aspirations to be, I learn SO MUCH by reading these discussions on writing. This causes me to be a better reader, picking up and being able to understand why some books work and some just don’t. It also helps when I do have to write, even just for my own needs. So I can understand what I meant when I wrote that note or essay for later.

    THANKS to Jenny and all the ArghInk family!!

  9. Lol. Look at what I started. I meant to quote Jessi and say answering!

    Also, my ashes will be immersed in the ocean.

  10. So heartening — you’ve said some of these things before, but I need to hear them again — and I need to hear how other people have heard them and interpreted them. I had cobbled an analogy out about how the discovery process is like sawing logs to make timber — you make a lot of timber, figure out what part goes where, THEN you build your house.

    But the crazy quilt analogy works better for me, so Emily, I’m stealing it and transforming it.

    Tangential (but maybe not?), I bought a plastic hat form. It didn’t come with any instructions or other materials, but as soon as I saw it, I wanted it, and I wanted to make a hat. I could crazy-quilt over it, sure. But I think I’m going to crochet. One first wild idea was to simply put a crochet flower at every intersection of the hat net. But I’m afraid it’ll look like my head exploded (and be too heavy). I’ll figure something out. (It’s called a Hamanaka mesh hat.)

  11. Two questions: does your writing process change in your collaborations and even though you’ve collaborated with a few people more than once, (Kristie, Bob) was it a different process each time?

    (Okay, three – do you still do collages? Was there a collage for The Devil in Nita Dodd? Did I miss it?)

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