How We Write: Living the Book…

What challenges us emotionally in life, challenges our novel writing. What we’re best at in life, becomes what we look forward to most in our writing process. I teach this dynamic all the time–and I live it. If you’re a seat-of-the-pants writer, it wouldn’t be a coincidence if you’re not a list maker or a planner in the “real” world.” If you LOVE to revise (like me), it’s likely that analyzing things and breaking them into their orderly parts is you everyday zen (at least it’s something that doesnt’ drive you nuts the way it seems to for everybody else).


Flip that around. If the unknown scares you, and you tend to plan for likely outcomes before you embark on a journey, drafting a new novel won’t make you warm and fuzzy (I tend to call the feeling a blank Page 1  invokes in me abject terror, but that might be a bit extreme for the rest of you.)

 But if you’re the wanderer, dreaming of a backpacking trip through Europe where you merely have a start point and a destination and you’ll figure out pesky details like lodging and food and transpo along the way, well…you’re nuts! Eh-hem. What I meant to say is that I suspect writing blind into a new story is a mighty lovely place for you. Until you hit The End, and have to go back and break things down into their parts, rework your rough draft pieces into a better whole, then knit everything back together (which anal retentive, geeky analytical girls like me tend to think of as Nirvana ;o).

My point to my students is never that either one or the other of these approahces is bad, in either life or writing. But that it’s best to know your strengths and weaknesses and to play one up, while compensating for the other. If it takes you forever to write a draft (to the point that you revise and revise and revise your first 100 pages while never writing the rest of the novel), take a look at why. If you can’t “make” yourself go back and revise a first draft because all the fun’s gone out of the story for you now that you know how it ends, and the idea of working with it anymore makes you nauseous, take a look at why.

rock bottom

We make excuses for the broken parts of our writing processes. Excuses that in everyday life would impact our ability to do our jobs or run or families or keep our friends. In the “real” world, we learn to correct the personality traits (and control the emotions) that get in our way, so we can live better. Why, then, aren’t most of us doing the same thing in our writing lives?

How to draft can be taught to any writer with a true gift for telling story through the written world. How to revise and deconstruct story and analyze its parts can be taught to any writer with the desire to actually publish the beautiful creation that is their rough draft.

The only real unknown is, how hard do you want to work on the internal life of your writing process? How honestly can you look at your strengths and weaknesses as a person, and the emotions that always come with challenging those weaknesses, no matter what you’re doing? How determined are you to make your writing work and sellable, not just fun.

The fun will always be there–the part of this writing journey that you love best. So will the challenges. But once you decide to combine the two into whole–a well-rounded writer who’s the entire package that a publisher, agent and reader are looking for–nothing can hold you back.

promise land

We live our books. We live our writing process. Our minds are creative, yes, and the artist’s heart within us must be protected. But the writer’s mind is also a tool that can be trained to overcome any challenge it faces–including the parts of us we don’t like to look at any more closely in our writing than we do in our other lives.

“Look,” I tell my students. “See what you are and what you’re doing. Keep what works, fix the rest.”

Life’s just that simple.

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4 Responses to “How We Write: Living the Book…”

  1. Jamie DeBree says:

    This is very logical…and it’s exactly the opposite for me. :-) I’m very analytical, very list and routine oriented, and I don’t deal well even with small changes to my daily routine. I love to break things down and experiment to find the most efficient way of dealing with them. You would think that would make me nearly obsessive when it comes to planning & revising stories. I’ve recently become enamored of writing software that is an insanely organized way to keep track of the pieces/parts of a story when writing – totally in love.

    But for the writing itself – outlining kills the story for me, and I would rather be tasered repeatedly than have to do big revisions after “The End”. I *adore* the first draft, and the discovery of the story as it unfolds, and though I’ve tried to turn myself into more of a planner/outliner/researcher (it’s my basic personality in all other areas, after all), I have never been able to do that with writing. Odd, I know.

    Everything started working much better when I stopped trying to force myself into a method of story planning that went against what my mind wanted to do. And I’ve developed ways to compensate for the parts of the process I hate, working them into the parts I love so that they still get done.

    Which is your point, of course…and a fabulous one – we all need to figure out how we naturally work, and use that to find and refine the process that works best for us.

    Great advice…as always! :-)

  2. Jen Talty says:

    You are so right. Life’s just that simple. FYI, Love the cat and mouse pic!

  3. I’ve been told that no matter what our process, if we write long enough, we’re going to come to a book for which that tried and true, know it by heart, approach will not work. Then it’s grow (productive suffering) or stagnate (unproductive suffering). I’m hoping that by stumbling and lurching my way through each book, I’m paying as I go, so to speak, learning my craft, and learning myself as a writer.

    Great post. Makes you think, makes you write.

  4. My process has been different with each book, but I end up being a hybrid plotter/pantser every time. This makes sense since I’m super structured in my work life (as “Dr. C”) and resist too many time restrictions in my personal life. With my writing life, I’m in the middle and still figuring it out. :)


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