Wednesday, July 25, 2012

My Writing Process--When The Book Won't Wait

I was told an apocryphal story about someone asking Ernest Hemingway why he drank so much, to which he replied that he drank to get the voices to shut up.  I have no idea whether that really happened or, if it did, it was Hemingway who said it.  But today, in the wee hours of the morning, I got a little taste of what it's like not to be able to get the voices to shut up.  Well, actually it was only one voice.

I started a new book a few days ago.  The opening chapter was pretty decent and so, I thought, was the second.  But something happened last night that's never happened before, through an entire novel and the first chapter of a new one--I dreamed about the book.  Not the writing of the book.  I dreamed as if the story in the book were actually taking place.  I woke up at 4:00AM with the fully developed realization that my second chapter, in which my hero's new client tells her story, was woefully incomplete.  She was too frank too early.  There was no discomfort with telling about the twisted sexual preferences of her new husband.  She was flirting with Harry, the detective, while telling about the humiliation she'd experienced at the hands of her now missing husband.  The voice in my head had the exact way the chapter needed to sound.

I lay there for probably half an hour trying to tell the voice that if it shut up, I would fix the story later today when I was at the library actually writing (I mostly write at my local library during the summer.  But that's another entry.) but it simply wouldn't shut up and let me go back to sleep.  So there I was at 4:30AM, down in the basement rewriting the chapter.  I kept the bones of the story, but the entire tone was new.  It was correct.  It was sympathetic rather than inappropriately flirtatious.  The character was who she was supposed to be.

It was about 6:15 when I was finished.  I was completely exhausted, but ravenously hungry.  I tried to lie down, but it was like I'd run a half marathon and needed to re-fuel.  So I went upstairs, ate a big breakfast, including two cups of caffeinated coffee, and then slept the sleep of the dead for two solid hours.

I've never had that, or anything resembling it, happen before.  When I neared the end of my first book, I was excited to get to my writing time because the story was really flowing and I wanted to get it on paper, so to speak.  But I never dreamed about it and I never woke up in the middle of the night with literally no choice but to get up and write, or in this case re-write.  I'm not sure how I felt about it.  I guess it doesn't matter how I feel.  It will either happen again or it won't.  But I think I have an answer to the first question I posed in  the initial entry of this blog--how do I know I'm a writer?  I am a writer because I have no other choice but to write.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

My Writing Process: Proofreading

I'm a member of a fitness website, where seemingly endless arguments take place when it comes to how to lose weight.  People get angry when others suggest that there is any other way to eat healthfully than the exact way they do it.  I think, just like it is in many aspects of life, that the process that works best for you is specific to you. We can share ideas and try different tips we pick up from various sources, but it comes down to what works best for each of us.  That's what I've done and I would venture to guess that's what most people who are honest with themselves would say they do.  Some are more successful than others, but thoughtful people, I would hope, periodically reflect on their successes and failures and adjust accordingly.

Parallel to this, I've been reading on several forums and blogs about different processes people go through when writing.  Some folks are rather adamant that theirs is the correct way to go.  They argue that a book CAN'T be complete until it's gone through 2 or 3 or 4 complete re-writes (if that's true, I'm simply not interested in the job, thank you very much).  They feel this to the point that, when it is suggested that there are different methods for different people, they somehow twist that around to say that the writer who expressed that opinion is deriding their process.  In most cases, nothing could be further from the truth.  Generally, what is being said is that what works for one may not work for another and most certainly won't work for all.  The idea is that there are no hard and fast rules that MUST be followed when writing, revising, editing, and polishing a work.

So what is my process?   I'm glad you asked.  I'm not sure I can put it into a nice, neat package with bullet points, so I won't try.  Maybe someday, after thinking about it longer, I'll have a better handle on the actual step-by-step order of it, but I'm not sure I am even interested in knowing that at this point in my life.  What I'm going to do today, and in subsequent entries, is to discuss some element of the procedure I follow when writing.  I'm not going to try to do this in any order.  I'll just cover what strikes me on a given day. Today, what has struck me is proofreading.

Almost exclusively, my proofreading process doubles as preparation and inspiration for a day's writing session.  On a given day, the first step I take is not to start writing where I left off on the day before.  I almost always start by reading whatever I wrote most recently.  Sometimes, if I've been away from the book for a couple days for whatever reason, I'll go back another chapter (I usually try to write a chapter a day, which, for me, is somewhere between 1000 and 1250 words, or 5-6 pages.  Again, there are no hard and fast rules.  I've had chapters that were complete in less than 4 pages and others that needed as many as 10) and read with a couple of things in mind.  On an even more rare occasion, I'll start from the beginning and read the work as a whole.  I have to admit that this becomes less and less frequent as the story grows.  But at any rate, as I read, I'm asking myself some questions.  First, I'm looking for continuity.  Has this chapter flowed logically from previous ones and have I made any mistakes in story line?  Am I staying true to the voice of the narrator and characters? Second, I'm proofreading.  Have I made any grammatical or usage errors?  Are my thoughts clear?  Are there instances where I can find a better, more expressive and mature, word or phrase?  

Sometimes it's a simple matter of reading and making small corrections and additions/subtractions.  On days like this, I would guess (guess being the operative term here--I'm simply not OCD enough to have ever timed  myself) that this step is no more than, say  a half-hour and is followed by jumping into the next chapter.  Other times I find that this chapter is just dysfunctional and needs some major overhauling.  On days like this, I may not even get to the next chapter, or, if I do, it's only on a day when I work much longer than usual.  I can't think of a time when I've completely scrapped a chapter and gone an entirely different direction, but I've come close.  Occasionally, I'll read what I wrote yesterday and question what in the world I was thinking.  That character wouldn't do that.  My narrator doesn't ever sound like that.  That event doesn't fit into the arc of my story in any way.

When I get that last one, I have to decide between scrapping the event and considering the possibility of changing my story arc to fit it. It has happened that, in reading an event and considering the ramifications of it, I've altered my story arc from what was my original intent.  If I choose to do this, I have to look both forward and backward in the story line to keep continuity.  I'm reminded at times like this of Anne Bradstreet's "The Author To Her Book."  There are simply times when this brat of a book is going to do what it wants and I am probably better off not fighting it.  Other times, though, I decide that a little discipline is in order and the event is either altered or excised completely.

I must admit that this was a much longer entry than I expected.  And it's just the first one of, well, some.  Several?  I guess that depends on your definition of several.  I'll know when I get there.  Or not.  One thing that I do know is that I can proofread the heck out of whatever I'm writing, but if I suck at writing, the proofreading will only make the sucky (suckish?) writing more grammatically correct.  It won't make it good writing.  The hell of it is I don't know yet if I suck or not.

Monday, July 16, 2012

What Makes Someone an Author?

I've written a novel.  I think it's pretty good.  It's off being read by someone I trust and I think I'll be sending out queries to agents in the next couple weeks.  Does that make me an author?  Do I have to be published before I can say to people, "I'm an author."?  Or do I just not say that because it sounds priggish and egotistical?

I know I'm a teacher.  For one, I'm employed to be one.  But that's not the main reason I believe it of myself.  To be completely frank, there are people I know who are employed as teachers who are no more actual teachers than I'm a lumberjack (and I'm okay...).  They are, in many cases, assigners.  They assign reading or problems or tests or whatever.  But no real teaching goes on.  I know in my heart that I am a teacher.  It's baked right in.  I believe I would be a teacher even if I were employed as a ditch digger.  It's not what I do--it's what I am.  I teach because I'm a teacher, not the other way around. 

I guess the question is at what point I will feel like I'm a writer.  I guess writer is a more accurate word than author anyway.  Or is it?  I write.  But so does nearly everyone else in the world.  But what I wrote was a book.  Not many people (comparatively, at least) can say that.  So what is it about writing a book that makes me more of a writer than someone, say, who writes letters or writes down recipes, or whatever else people may write down?  So maybe author is the word I seek.  Is published author different from author?  Or is it like being a teacher?  Do I write because I'm a writer or am I a writer because I write?  Do these questions have any meaning?  Will knowing the answers change me in any real way?  I have no idea.  But I do ask them of myself and of anyone else who may stumble upon this entry.  If you consider yourself an author, what makes that word true in your mind?