When my grandmother gave me a typewriter in the days of yore, I never thought of writing as a process. In fact, I never considered writing as an element in a process called authoring. Who would, until you’ve done it? I was always amazed by the authors who wrote complex stories; journeys to the ends of the earth, with hundreds of characters and locations and subplots, and still managed to see clear to a cogent, comprehensive work. How did all that genius spill out of quills into the world’s libraries and collective imaginations? The answer I only discovered now, after authoring three epic works (with plenty left in the pipeline). In the doing is the learning. The PROCESS.
I also learned that every author develops their own process. These processes are all akin, but cleave to personal temperaments, craft proficiency, schedules and styles. Some are free form and flimsy. Others are nattered and painterly. All depend on one thing: dedication to writing daily.
My process begins with several weeks (sometimes months) of thinking about a subject. THE RULE BOOKS say: write it down or you’ll forget it. Carry a notepad around. That doesn’t work for me. If a subject is forgotten, it was forgettable. If it comes back a few times, its worthy of consideration. There are many things the BOOKS say that I disregard, but what surprises me is that many writers fail in their novelizations because they don’t really know what a novel is. My definition is: A Novel is a story that starts in the author’s imagination and takes seed in the reader’s imagination, germinating into a complete and satisfying experience for both. Of course, this definition depends on a corollary definition. What is a story? Well, here’s what I’ve come to learn. A story is a reflection of character reactions and development to setting, organics and a series of events. That covers all the main elements of a novel, but as a reflection, it places the one element that many writers omit-the reader’s imagination and participation in the realization of the piece. Many authors forget this. They chug out a plot like the little engine that couldn’t-cars filled with places and characters, who are all aboard for the ride, but never are given the chance to drive the train.
I digress . . .
Once the subject is decided upon, I structure the overall contour of the work (happy, sad, flamboyant . . . protagonist does this, a character does that . . . there’s a scene in such a place, a dark corner exploding with fire, a flood, a train chase . . . and so on). Nothing on paper! I mull this over while driving to work, or in bed at night, or in the shower, or daydreaming (hopefully not while driving).
Once the contour is formed, I nail the ending. All stories need a beginning, middle and end. I start with the end. Not the details of how the story is resolved. No one, not even I, know that. That’s up to my characters. I mean, the last scene . . . the one that leaves the most lasting impression on the reader. That complete, I nail the opening. This is trickier, because the opening must capture the reader’s interest and suck them in, committing them to continue reading the work. It must also serve the work; that is, it shouldn’t prostitute the work for the sake of a catchy opening sentence or paragraph. (It was a dark and stormy night!). None of that. Once that’s settled, I start the BLUEPRINT.
I don’t use outlines. Outlines are death to a novel. They tend to work out details long before they should be details. They tend to pigeonhole characters into behaviors they wouldn’t take if they had their own way. Instead, I use a Blueprint. I start with little love notes to myself (confidence builders, reasons for the work and what I want HERE-what I’d like THERE). Not the theme. Themes are grafted onto novels after the fact. Never let a novelist tell you he had a specific theme in mind at the start. Remember, Novelists are professional liars. I then follow my love notes with THE PITCH. This is three or four paragraphs dumping the contour, major plot items, character development suggestions and high points into a reference form. It’s fun to compare this PITCH, after the fact, to the final work. They are always light years apart, but I think of it as the meristem. The flower can only blossom if a bud exists.
Next, I high-level (sketch) the first four or five chapters, followed by a paragraph or two of directions for the next stages of the work. The blueprint grows with the writing. It will change. I like to use strikethroughs for things I change, to both track my original thinking and watch it evolve. I don’t know why I do this, but I do. To me it’s not a working blueprint unless I can look backwards and forwards.
Then the first draft happens. And it . . . happens. I read my blueprint for the chapter. I beef it up a bit, and then think about it. I test it for logic and flow, and then write. I try to write the chapter straight through, not worrying about anything but telling the story and seeding the initial imagery. This is the best time for writing. I write in either one of two places (I’m specific about this), and once I’m writing, I’M IN THE ZONE. Some day I expect to come out of the zone and find that we’ve had a nuclear war and I’ve missed it.
If I finish a chapter and still have some forward motion, I will seed the next chapter with bulldonk, but I never exceed 4,000 words per sitting. My creative energy flags after 4,000 words. However, laying down parts of the next chapter prevents the dreaded writer’s block. Sometimes I stop short of a full chapter (especially when it’s split in subchapters), to reset the creative energy. ALWAYS I try to defy the blueprint. For example, I recently wrote a scene, which the blueprint calls for a moonlight dialog session inside a bedroom on a clear night. Instead I wrote (the same material) outside on a balcony in a fog. I didn’t know I was going to do that, but the characters dictated it; and the dialog session was curtailed adding more action.
I never know what direction the session will take before I write. That’s a good reason to have a fluid blueprint instead of a rigid outline. I finish a session with a computerized spell check and an aloud read (or 2). This catches errors, omissions, and sloop, but it is not a true revision. It’s just an effort to have the best material possible to scorch and burn in the revision. I sometimes will re-read and make changes after a major sub division, mostly to help guide my continuity and make mental notes of possible hot spots (places that might be too much, or indeed too little).
I do this for 3 or 4 months until I have a novel draft. The draft MUST impress me (and only me). I lose little sleep over the condition of the draft in detail. The only thing I require is that it be hefty enough to inflict cuts and be a valid expression of art. It should be nowhere near publishable, although some false birdie will sit on my shoulder and say it’s good. The work then is put in the can and forgotten for 7 to 10 weeks (longer if need be). It’s not like bread. It doesn’t rise and double in the dark, but the time is needed to distance myself from the material and cleanse my palette of my deepest creative muse. Revision work requires a different set of writing skills than writing the original material.
When I crack the work open for revision, I first read it ALOUD (reading aloud is essential for pace, sound and sense), and make notes. These are structural notes. I make a list of problem scenes and cuttable materials. I’m always surprised at how the draft is less pleasing to me after these 7-10 weeks. However, I wear a different set of eyes now, and the toolbox that’s out is not the artist’s, but the artisan’s. The thousands of tricks, twists, touches and rules that I hone as my craft now come into play. All those things like: cutting all adverbs, what motivates character A to do that? The word smile is used 25 times in the spans of five pages. Yikes! The Soup-I can see it, touch it, taste it, but can I smell it? All the things I need to assure that the novel is a valid experience. No, a great experience for the reader is accomplished in the second revision. Dialog, Descriptive, Narrative, and texture must all be brought into balance. That’s why I need to complete the work before revising it. You can’t tell what needs revising until the entire work is complete in draft. I also pay attention to redundancy and overstatement (methinks she protests too much).
The above is an excerpt from Mr. Patterson’s book, Are You Still Submitting Your Work to a Traditional Publisher?