In my entire life, my writing process was based on inspiration. I wrote when I was in that mindset, when I felt the book. I took that knowledge of my process and chalked it up to artistry. But, with the exception of To Dangle Upside Down, I would eventually get bored and stop writing. And, hell, Dangle took me four years to finish.
I have read plenty of books by authors on their style of writing and they all seem to contradict because everyone has their own views. Their own magic formula, if you will. I think I’ve finally figured out mine.
Stephen King, in On Writing, said that he starts every book with a What if?. He doesn’t really plan his books, he just creates a character that leads this journey. He believes that if the character is good enough, they will tell the story on their own.
I started Cinders with a pretty stupid sounding what if. In all honesty, it was meant as a joke. Julia was quoting an article mocking The Hunger Games and the genre preceding it. I don’t know the article or the guy being quoted (sorry!) but it said something to the effect of ‘you might as well write about magic kids in a concentration camp.’ And that struck me. In the next few days, I was amazed because I started seeing this stupid sounding mockery becoming an actual idea that had form.
Terry Brooks, in Sometimes the Magic Works says that he plans everything to the most minute detail. He charts out every possible route the characters can take so that he’s sure he’s found the best one. And that makes sense because most of his stories span 1500-2000 pages over the course of three books.
Jodi Picoult hasn’t written a book about writing but I follow everything she does and she says over and over that she researches the topics of her book so that she’s well informed about both sides of the story. She spends months researching her topic before she starts writing and her characters often form in her mind based on things she’s learned and wants to get across.
I’m somewhere in between all of these in terms of planning. I have tried planning things out in their every intricacy and researching every detail I can find. But, the truth is, if I can’t start writing on days one or two, I’m bored. And if I’m bored, I don’t pick up my pen or go to my keyboard.
But, at the same time, when I make a character and give them a what if and just go without thinking, I hit so many road blocks and walls where my storyline and plot don’t make sense or don’t seem realistic. In Wildflower, I knew what I wanted to happen but then I realized that it just wasn’t realistic. In Violet I knew how I wanted it to end and I knew where I was but I saw no way to bridge the gap.
Cinders is that happy medium. In the first week before I actually decided to start writing the story, my scant little vision started jumping leaps and bounds between characters and location and problems and vision. And, when it comes to research, I took a class in university on Hitler and Nazi Germany for fun because I’ve always been interested in The Holocaust. So between that pre-knowledge, my Erudite tendencies, and some Googling here and there, I’ve got that part down without the tedium.
I know exactly what I want to happen and a good charted plan of what I want to happen in each chapter. But, at the same time, I get new ideas every chapter that add new dimensions to the story to give it volume. Luke from Chapter 11 was meant to be a one chapter character but I decided somewhere between then and now that he’s going to be a regular secondary character. I have a plan, unlike Stephen King usually does, but I let my story evolve and get brainstorms that I run with, unlike Terry Brooks.
Mary Higgins Clark, in Kitchen Privileges told that before she was famous and when she was a single working mother, she would schedule writing time. She would get up earlier than everyone else and sit at her kitchen table writing every morning. Jodi Picoult has said much the same. Whether what you write is amazing or trash, you write and fix it later.
I’ve never been able to do that before but I have with Cinders. I write on my 15 minute breaks at work. I write in the afternoons after work. I write in the waiting room when I take my stepmom for her transplant appointments. Handwritten or keyboard typed, I write.
I’ve also been learning so much about technique while writing Cinders. Things that I never really considered with my other stories, I’ve focussed on.
In Drama back in high school we had to fill out questionaires about our characters because, even if you never tell the audience about something, you know one more facet about that person and you can use that to fill the role. I’ve been trying to do that with my characters. I don’t want some flat cardboard cutouts.
Details. My biggest lack has always been sensory details. I can do it when I think about it but it doesn’t come naturally. That and emotion. Terry Brooks says, very clearly over and over: Show, Don’t Tell. And while that seems like a pretty big duh!, you don’t realize how difficult it is until you face it. Body language, context clues, description, action, can all tell things more vibrantly than statements.
For example, when I handwrite my chapters my mind is going so much faster than my hand can move so I tend to tell more than I show. I fix that when I type. In chapter 12, the simple: “By midday, everyone is on edge.” became a full paragraph showing the attributes these people have that make Peony realize that they are on edge, and why.
And, even though I didn’t mention it in this post, I still have found the knowledge inside very useful (and have said that repeatedly with Dangle: Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird.