My Literary Process

As an unpublished author, I try to refrain from talking about my process publicly because the lack of publication always felt to me a condemnation. The truth is that my obsessiveness and perfectionism have prevented publication in the sense that I have never pursued it for fear that I know my writing is not good enough. The funny thing is that despite such a harsh view of my writing, I have a lot of faith in my process.

Writers love to ask that sort of question of one another. Some writers are trying to figure out their process and want genuine guidance on the matter. Other writers have established theirs well and just like to know what other writers do. I’m in the latter category where even if I have no intention of using someone’s process, I still like to hear it and share the journey with them.

For today, I thought I would document the broad strokes of my process for readers of either category.

  1. Read. This seems like a given but I think writers can get so focused on wanting to create content that they forget to consume it. Keep reading what other writers put forth and do so critically. What did they do that worked? What did they do that you do not like? It’s possible to enjoy a writer and dislike a good deal of the “how” (for example – I love Cormac McCarthy but I find the lack of quotation when dealing with dialogue distracting.
  2. Assess. Beyond the initial reading, figure out what you enjoy. Personally, I feel that too many writers fall in love with a character and then rush to throw them into a story (more on that later). It’s important to know what kind of stories you enjoy and why you enjoy them. They might be stories with similar characters, but don’t stop there. Why do you enjoy them? Understand that so when it’s time to write you understand your writing better.
  3. Audience. You have probably heard some version of, “There are only 12 types of story” or “there are only 3 types of story” and so forth. The idea behind all of those statements is that stories follow a pattern regardless of subject, length, genre, tone, or anything else. Within that framework, however, are endless ways to tell the story. And as much as you are writing what you enjoy, the idea is for someone else to read it. So, before I even start drafting or storyboarding, I think about my audience. In my case, I write for one person. I imagine I’m sitting down with a cup of coffee or tea and telling the story to one person in a way that will entertain and engage them.
  4. Theme. Now this is where the conversation I have with other writers starts to get interesting. As I said before, a lot of writers seem to fall in love with characters even before they have a story (which I understand), but I actively work against that. This part of the process is what the story is about, not who. It’s an important distinction necessary so readers care about the who when the time comes. I also find it necessary to avoid problems in the writing. Fiction is a contrivance, and the challenge is there is that each new part of the contrivance reveals something about what is already known. If you place the wrong character in your story, the story will eventually fail. Even if it does not stop completely, this is where you see writers resort to unforgiveable, blatant contrivance like deus ex machina or simply leaving suspension-of-disbelief-ruining plot holes. This brings us to:
  5. Character. Once the theme is there, then determine what characters are necessary to tell the story. The protagonist must move the action forward and cannot be allowed an early escape. When you arrive at those critical decision points in the story, you need a character who must take the path that forwards the story – that is the art of the protagonist and what makes it a story. If the character might choose any of the options that would exit the story, you need to throw up insurmountable obstacles to them and I find no better way to do that than make it an intrinsic part of who they are. Could another character simply walk away? Sure. Not your character. Who they are compels them to take a particular course.
  6. Outline. Before I draft, I start an outline of the major plot markers. I know the story I am telling and by now have an idea of some of the key characters. “This is who they are at the start of the story. Now I need to toss them into the action – something needs to knock them from stasis and into the story.” This is where the last step is immediately important. Either the plot or the character has to make this inevitable, not a choice. Then perhaps I outline some key points that I know will also need to happen – checkpoints that I will need to hit. Once I have those, I take a step back and look at the gaps: “What must necessarily happen between those two points?” If there is no natural path because the protagonist has an out, I check to see whether the checkpoint or the character is wrong. I see what additional characters are necessary to assist the story.
  7. Draft. This was the most unusual part of the process for me. Some writers like to jump in and start writing. I think that process is more than fine…for the right writer. For me, because of my outlook on the personal step, it would require an inordinate amount of work to achieve too little. I would (and have in the past) disregard sizeable manuscripts because something I learned later in the story would require a fundamental change at the beginning, and that change at the beginning would throw off all of the subsequent events. That would bring me to the same spot where I had previously stopped, only now that was also different and could result in the same upheaval.
  8. Revise and Edit. The key to the draft stage is that I do begin to write though. Throw words down on the paper. Did the point-of-view have a weird shift? Is my grammar and use of verb tense a little erratic? Is the characterisation wanting? Am I doing too much telling instead of showing? Does not matter. Get it down on paper and then in this step go back to clean up all of those details. Step 6 is the block of clay. Step 7 lops off most of the excess and provides a general shape. Step 8 is where all of the detail work occurs that makes it a finished piece.

That is how I approach my writing. One of the big distinctions I make is that my writing tends to lean towards the philosophical (lots of symbolism, metaphor, and allegory) that I try to dress up as entertaining. The process I just described might not work all that well for a writer who wants primarily to entertain readers (I imagine jumping straight into the writing stage would be a better approach then).

A popular example of this is the disagreement that occurred between Harold Ramis and Bill Murray while making “Groundhog Day.” Murray reportedly wanted the film to have a more philosophical angle, while Ramis wanted it to be funny. There’s a scene between Murray and Andie MacDowell in the cafe where she wonders if he’s using tricks to pretend that he’s omniscient after claiming he’s a god. Murray replies, “Maybe the real God uses tricks. You know, maybe he’s not omniscient but he’s just been around so long he knows everything.” There is a creative discussion to have there about, “Do we make the joke and move on, or do we stay here and examine the philosophical ramifications of the situation.

My process as it relates to the story would start with the premise of a man forced to relive the same day until he learned to live well. Bill’s character is perfect – you can force anyone into that time loop, but you need someone who is going to resist change and then, once he realises that change is necessary, not fully understand how or what to change. That is the examination of the thematic point about what it means to live well.

When it comes to that particular scene, I tend to agree with Murray over Ramis. if we are going to introduce a religious aspect to the story, we need to give it due time and not use it as a punchline. It’s Chekov’s gun. If we aren’t going to spend time with, then don’t bring it into the story in the first place.

This is not to say that Ramis was wrong – I am referring to the different approaches. If you wanted to entertain readers as your primary task, then just start writing the story. There is a funny punchline there. Hit and move on to the next. It’s what I love about Monty Python and Seinfeld.

If you are writing with another purpose and the entertainment is more an ancillary thing, I find my process more useful. It brings you to the part of the story where Bill’s character wonders, “Am I a god now with this…power?” Then they explore what the role of God might be in the phenomenon. If it makes no sense for the character to question that, if you have to force the plot down that road rather than arrive there naturally, or if you are not prepared to give the due attention, then it’s time to re-examine whether you have the right characters telling the story.

Drop your process or thoughts on process below!

1 Comment

  1. You are right to say that writers do indeed like to ask these sorts of questions. I myself am very interested in other writers’ processes, because when it comes to my own process, it’s just a constant game of avoiding procrastination. Thanks for sharing, James!

    Liked by 1 person

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