How We Write: Crunchy

Heads down in a three-quarters completed draft, I’m also coaching an author preparing for the same creative battle: making story and characters come alive by force of will and your imagination alone. My first comment to her–it’s going to get crunchy. Don’t expect a cake walk. In fact if it’s not an all-out battle, you’re not challenging yourself enough.

Angry woman

That’s right. We write uneven and clunky and, yes, crunchy stuff when we’re slogging through the draft. And for most of us, even those of us who’ve published novels into the double digits, it gets harder the more stories we challenge, not easier. That’s the way it works. The more you learn about story, the more you decide to do with it, the less intuitive it can sometimes be to create what appears to be an effortless journey to the reader.

Several things cause the anxiety and mind-numbing tangents we encounter when we draft:

  1. No planning. As I’ve explained to countless freelance clients, authors I’m editing, and those I’ve worked with through workshops, etc., the less planning you do before you write, the more you do WHILE you write. The result of the latter? Logic errors. Writing yourself into corners that you can’t write out of. Crafting reactions or decisions that fit your plot but not your characters, or vise versa.
  2. Inconsistent drafting schedule. If you don’t stay in your evolving story (and I mean every day, writing as much as you can, even if it’s only a few paragraphs that take you further than the day before), you forget where the last story element left off. You don’t remember the character arc you were riffing on. You start something new, in the midst of something else, in the midst of something else… Until you finally realize that your draft now resembles the pattern of a hyperactive grade schooler, ping-ponging all over the place, having fun here and there, with no overall direction whatsoever.
  3. Premature revision anxiety. What you’re writing isn’t the way you want it, it’s not the way you want anyone to read it, so you’re not going to move on until it’s perfect. Because that’s what disciplined writers do. Actually, in my experience, that’s what most writers do when they have years and years to write books. They stop and start, robbing their creativity of discovering what comes next in the flow and rhythm of the forward-moving story plot, so they can do the easier work of prettying up what they’ve already written. Because that feels safer for some of us. It certainly feels better than tackling another blank page. Except that new page might hold the answers you’ll never know to the puzzle you’ve left to solve in the crunchy story behind you.

There are more stumbling blocks, but these are the high points I’ve seen in my own and others’ processes over and over again.

stumbling block

Bottom line, we don’t like things unresolved. Some of us have a much lower tolerance for it than others. Like me:

  • So, I developed a process of planning (through character) that better prepared me for the darkness of drafting, shining light into cobwebbed corners so I could see a bit more clearly as I slogged about.
  • And I taught myself over the years to trust my rewriting skills as one of my greatest strengths. The anxiety of whether or not I can rework a draft into something I’m not ashamed to share with an editor, let alone a reader, is long gone (well, not gone, but contained now without the need of mind-altering pharmaceuticals).
  • Finally, I hold myself to a work strict ethic when I’m drafting. I write forward. I don’t write back. I can look back to get my barings and to make notes of things that need to be attended to once I’m done, because of changes I’m making in the overall character/story arcs as I move forward. But I do not, no exception, stop writing the next page because I can’t stop myself from fiddling with the last one.

I’ve accepted that draft writing is just one of the three phases of the writing journey. For me, it’s the shortest of the three. I plan and rewrite more than I draft.

Drafting for me is getting the bones of my plan fleshed out and on the page and realized in the living, breathing lives of my characters and plot turning points, so I can actually see what is is I’ve only been invisioning so far. Then I dig into all that crunchy stuff, once I’ve reached The End, and let loose the best of my creativity with every tool I have in my took belt: a solid plan, a solid (if imperfect) draft, and kick-butt revision technique.

kick butt

But more importantly, how do you write crunchy?

How do you keep creating, when the doubt takes hold that what you’ve already done isn’t good enough?

What’s your process for staring into the eye of your weakest skill set and forcing yourself to not only do it until the job is done, but to work with the kind of enthusiasm that will make you grow as writer, no matter how uncomfortable it feels?

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6 Responses to “How We Write: Crunchy”

  1. Cathy Tully says:

    I just keep telling myself that with every book I write, I become a better writer. I used to go back and re-edit what I’d already written. Now, I no longer do that. I just keep on trying to plod on through the story line and finish. Not as easy as it sounds, I know.

    In the past, I’ve had two projects going at the same time in two different genres. When I grew dry with one I moved to the other, but I’m tired of working that way. I want a more organized way of plotting through my characters that allows me the freedom to get the draft done with the knowledge that I stayed pretty much on track.

    • You do become better with each project. Each success and failure. And you become more intuitive about your own strengths and weaknesses as you go–your own process.

      And the more you learn…the more you realize how much else there is out there to tackle ;o)

  2. Anna, I think we all find our own pattern to weave. I have an idea of the plot, the setting, the main characters, the time line. I use a separate NOTE.doc to keep on track with when who was born, etc. I compare to other files to be sure I don’t use the same names. Then I do the panster things and write through the first draft. After that the fun starts and I begin the first revision. What had me stuck on one mystery were two questions I didn’t ask before I started and at about 60K words it became important to know. Why did the first murder happen? What manner of puzzle … it has the word puzzle in the title. I mean real puzzles, like codes, hiding in plain sight. Until I solved the first murder and set up the solution to the puzzle I couldn’t go ahead.

    I’ll have to do the first 60K over to make sure it all fits. Yikes, what a pain.

    EAch story and each genre requires a certain set of patterns we need to weave. Drop the damn thread and the whole cloth unravels. Love you posts by the way :)

    • I absolutely agree that there are writers for whom planning as much as I do would shut down their creativity. True pantsers are marvels to me ;o) I wish I was one, but each time I’ve tried to write completely blind, it’s been a disaster.

      That said, I’ve learned to trust my voice and creativity over the years, and not to hold so tightly to “knowing” in advance. I’ve learned to merge my need to analyze with the discovery that writing is for me, into a process that’s uniquely my own.

      And that’s the key. Finding your own way, and giving each story your all–not stopping until you know it’s the best you can make it. However you make it. Then if you want to become more prolific, tweaking that “way” to give your business the best shot it has to grow.

      Simple, right?

      I like your “weaving” analogy! We’re all different, but we all have patterns that can be followed and refined/improved.

      And thanks, Florence ;o) Glad you’re enjoying the series.

  3. Melba says:

    Anna, this was very encouraging. I am still rewriting the story you critiqued last year in the Gin Ellis workshop, your suggestions helped me to find my way. I’ve entered the revised first chapter this year, so we’ll see if I’ve solved the pacing problem you pointed out. Thanks again for the critique and for your wonderful blog.

    • Melba, how exciting, that you have the revisions to enter again and get another author’s take on. Good luck at the March workshop–let me know you your critique goes ;o)

      And you’re so welcome. I was just telling someone the other day that this blog series, and the teaching/writing coaching I get to do as the “other” part of my publishing career, is the fun stuff for me. Feels like playing (you know, when I can talk with you about your story for a while, INSTEAD of having to work on mine!).

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