18 May 2014

The Mother of all Writing Processes, Pt. 2

In my previous blog-type posting, I devoted almost all of my monthly allotment of blogging chutzpah in fulfilling my assignment to write about my writing process. Being a hot topic for me (i.e., the English teacher role-playing game I'm currently winning), I waxed poetic ad nauseam on this crucial subject. 

However, I secretly know that many readers gave up reading before reaching the middle of the lecture blog post. No problem. I can give you the second half here. It's like Mother's Day all over again. Baby steps, they say. Then bigger steps.

To Recap: In the previous post I began with discussion of the Writing Process in the most general sense. Then I went on to describe in more detail how I got the particular ideas for each of my novels. I also gave my answer to the blog-tour-required question of why I write what I write.

This brings us up to the Writing Process step where we actually do the writing:


What I briefly described as the writing process I promulgate to my students (see previous blog post) holds true for any writing task. Even for fiction. However, fiction is more delicate, more fragile, and the idea of a story is subject to so many more mini-steps than some academic essay. I would need to address "my" personal writing process in light of each book, requiring about a year's worth of blogging. I've described the "getting ideas" step. The next step, drafting, usually requires me to craft scenes. I began using this approach when writing A BEAUTIFUL CHILL and have employed it ever since.

The one great thing I learned in my MFA program came from a visiting writer-in-residence one semester. David Huddle, whom I'd never heard of prior to his arrival, taught the formula which I've come to call the Aria - Recitativo structure. I forget what he called it, but we read many examples of this two-pronged attack strategy. Rather than get bogged down thinking of a whole story, focus on one scene. A scene is a moment in time, written and read in real time, moment by moment. It shows characters acting, speaking, living--which moves the story along. Between the scenes is what is called exposition. It is a compression of time and events, because they are not so interesting in themselves and they are of little consequence. We need them to get from one scene to the next, so we tell something to bridge the gap. We could say that the scene is the "showing" while the exposition is the "telling" part of the story.

So we have two parts of a story: the scenes and the exposition. In operatic terms, these are the Aria and the Recitativo. The Aria is a set-piece where the actors/singers stop the story and sing a song about how they feel or what the problem is or anything else that reveals something of the central issues of the story separate from the story line itself. Then we are into Recitativo ("recitation"), which is simply the information we need to move us on to the next Aria. People don't go to opera for the recitativo, nor do readers buy a book for the exposition passages. But they are necessary for tying aria to aria and scene to scene.

Granted, this is a simplification of both the opera structure and the structure of a novel, but if you examine contemporary novels, you are likely to see this structure. I've also heard it said that this writing style, this system in particular, has come about in parallel with the film industry. Younger writers write prose as though they are seeing the action in a movie. Readers, experienced with shorter, more succinct and set narrative patterns of television and film, seem to prefer this structure, as well.

So that is the bulk of my process of drafting. I seldom create a full outline but rough it ahead a few chapters or scenes. For example, I need a scene to show X or a scene where Protagonist realizes Y or decides Z. Often I begin in the middle of a scene and fill in what-happened-before as I go on with the scene. I try to avoid starting a scene with a setting description, at least not a long one. Knowing I have a tendency to wax poetic with wonderfully adroit metaphors, I try to keep the writing as lean as I can. Once in a while, especially where characters emotions are revealed, I allow myself a worthwhile indulgence of verbosity. Editors hate me for that, of course.

At each writing session (that is, when I have no particular schedule that would limit my efforts), I begin by reading what I previously wrote and editing as appropriate. That activity gets me into the story once more and when I have arrived at the point where I stopped previously, I am ready to charge ahead into new territory. Occasionally, I may awaken with a new scene in my head and I will write it out before determining where it should go in the story. Sometimes, I wake up and write the scene that is in my head without editing the previous section first. Sometimes, I just stare at the computer screen waiting for the muse to whisper into my ear. While waiting, I drink a lot of coffee.

I also like to play "soundtrack" music which sets the mood for the scene, or for the story in general. For example, as I write my vampire book, I dare play music from the films of Twilight, although it does not cause me to borrow anything else. The music must be without English lyrics because that distracts me from the words in my head. While writing Book III of THE DREAM LAND trilogy, a fine collection of "Epic" music, typical of video games and sci-fi films, served me well. (See a sample here.)

I have two writing sessions: morning and night. Mornings are good for editing and building on previously written text. Night is best for fresh composition--providing I can get motivated. The irony is that I must be exhausted physically and mentally before the words come easily. Mornings, I tend to trudge in zombie-like to the computer and start typing without too much "waking up"--even as the coffee is being made. I think in both cases, my filters are down and that allows unobstructed creation. My typing is better in the mornings, for some reason. The more I awaken, the sloppier my typing becomes. Those muses! Such pranksters!


When I have finished a novel, I follow the usual protocol: give it some time to settle, then read it fresh from the top. I do a thorough edit, scene by scene, chapter by chapter. Because I think a lot and mull it over for sometimes quite a while before actually typing, and because I edit as I go, I am usually pleased with the initial result. THE DREAM LAND Book III was my "dream" project because it flowed so easily and smoothly that it came out nearly perfect (in my humble opinion). I blame years of training and lots of coffee and a summer free from distraction for that miracle. Only in a few scenes did I struggle to get it right, changing the words and then later changing them back several times until I said to myself "Enough!"

My current project, A DRY PATCH OF SKIN, flowed well from the start but bogged down when I had to pause to do research. Then I got it flowing again but once more had to pause to do research. I finally decided to just write it straight through to the end and go back later to add in researched information, in this case, medical data. Each project has its own writing process, obviously, and each kind of story may also have its own method of creation. I try not to judge, but go with the flow. My muses seem to know what's best, although they often trick me and laugh at the results.

I know some of my quirks in writing, the set phrases I seem to use over and over. I know I tend to overuse certain words. Therefore, as a final step, I usually run a check of those particular words and phrases and edit each one personally, according to the situation in the scene. It is a laborious process, but I am old-school and do not trust technology to do everything for me exactly as I wish it. I have been tricked before. So I take the time to look with my own eyes at every instance of imperfection and fix it myself. Yes, I do suffer for my art. It's also why I wear glasses.

So that is something about how my writing process works. In short, it's a rough process at best, and the devil is somewhere between the details, waiting for opportunities to thwart my good intentions. The other side of the writing process, as all writers know, is that without the writing we nearly cease to exist. I cannot go very long without having a project to work on, either writing something new or working on an existing or older project preparing it for publication, no matter how long that takes. Otherwise, I wither and die. Nothing keeps me alive like the desire to know what happens next. And I won't know until I write it.

I was supposed to introduce the next bloggers on this blog tour but none has yet come forth to carry the standard. We shall remain ready to bear them forward should such a standard-bearer be found! 

Should there be no one found for this bloggish endeavor, I shall be forced to compile a blog post featuring the cutest bunny pictures I have encountered during the preceding year.

 (C) Copyright 2010-2014 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

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