Tawna Fenske invited me to be a part of a series of connected posts today on the writing process. Her point was simple and brilliant, and one I have long promoted: what works for one person may not work for another. Sharing how I do my writing is not a problem for me, but it is important for everyone to find their own path, try different things, and trust their instincts.
In the interest of showing multiple approaches to writing, several phenomenally talented authors agreed to share theirs. When you’re done with me, be sure to visit Tawna Fenske, Linda Grimes, Cynthia Reese, Nelsa Roberto, and Kiersten White to learn what works for them.
For me, my process is that of a witness trying to remember the details.
I remember voices. I see images. For Numb it was a man nailed to a bar, a man in a lion’s cage, a man on fire. Characters talk to me. I heard Numb talking about his day: he had scars he had to tend to, accidental injuries he didn’t mind but dealt with. Ointments and adhesive bandages. I needed to figure out who he was and what he wanted.
I write toward the images. The voice is usually there on its own. First person, third person, the book will figure that out when its ready. The protagonist will usually make an early appearance. I don’t worry about those things.
Plot. Plot? As long as I have a character the plot will take care of itself.
I write on the train, on my way to work, whenever I get a seat. I struggle to get those seats. My apologies to those in distress who needed a seat and didn’t get mine. Apologies too to those who know me, tried to get my attention, were met with blank stares and watched me return to my laptop. I used to write longhand. Not anymore: I don’t have time to transcribe. I wrote two novels longhand and in three years have typed one of them. I have typed a third during that time, directly into the computer and it’s in final revisions. Uber Agent’s first rule for me: She will have me lobotomized if I ever try to write a novel by hand again.
I write what I hear in me. If I’m in the middle of a novel it is usually that novel that I hear. Not always. Sometimes another voice will start talking and I’ve learned to trust what shows up. A couple of years ago, I was halfway done with one novel when another showed up. I wrote the second one, then returned to and finished the first. Dogmatically forcing myself to work on one thing while another is talking would kill both. The work that is supposed to be finished will be. The work that isn’t meant to be…
I write every day. Especially when I don’t feel like it. Especially when it’s not working. I can always choose to not use something that I wrote and that I realize later is the wrong tone, doesn’t fit, contradicts other parts. I can’t decide to use something that isn’t written. I can’t use something that is still in my head. Better to have something come out half right than have all of it perfectly in my skull.
I don’t outline. Why make a roadmap I’ll forget to follow. I know this scene, that image, this voice, that character who might (or might not) be critical. These things take care of themselves. I’m just there to get the words in the right order. The story is its own. I’m just the witness. I’m grilled by the prosecution: what color shirt, what sort of attitude, what happened after that, and after that, and that, and on and on.
Outlines make sense if you can stick to them. I can’t. I get twenty pages off course and then remember to check my notes. Instead, I write notes directly into the manuscript [[LIKE THIS]] and then I can go back during revisions, search for all the [[brackets]], copy and paste them into one place, read through them, see how mid-novel I suggested a change of direction, then thirty pages later suggested a second direction only to later see that I followed a third. Revision is where I find that I have some contradictions, conflicts that aren’t resolved. I prune, I smooth. One novel involved a whole complicated set of crossing characters and surprisingly I knew where all the threads went, there was little heavy revision despite a complicated plot. For Numb, a fairly straightforward plot, I had massive changes, huge sections lifted and thrown. At one point I had the entire novel printed out, pages laid out on the floor of my apartment so I could move entire sections, see the whole thing. I didn’t map it out. It mapped itself. I’m just the witness.
Rules for Sean: Plot shapes character; character drives plot. Two sides, same coin. Pay attention to one and let it shape the other. Don’t over think. Don’t over analyze. Don’t think about what you’re trying to say. Don’t think about your audience.
Revise, prune. Make what isn’t consistent consistent. Is the voice even? Is the dead man in chapter two still dead in three? Four? Did a building burn down that needs to stay ashes? Has a heart been broken, a wound healed, a tiger fed? Make sure they stay that way. Or explain why they don’t.
I think about scenes when I walk. I listen constantly to my iPod. I play with my son. I talk to my wife. I watch rude television shows (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia keeps me sane). I watch movies, I read read read. I hear the voices when I walk. I let them rattle on. The ones that are supposed to be there always come back to get written. My wife knows when I’m thinking about my writing. I don’t talk about what I’m working on. Talking about it saps its energy. It wants to be told. If I tell it with my mouth then why bother typing it out?
When I get to the point where I know that I’m either done or nuts I am usually done. I push through and make sure to iron out major issues, contradictions, errors. Thanks to an embarrassing go around on my recent WIP I now remember to run spell check and give a proofing edit (Uber Agent’s second rule for me: thou shalt proof and spell check). I don’t have a critique partner. I love to critique, love getting feedback, but I usually just hold onto it and make sure it is start to finish a thing and then I send it to my agent.
I received a lovely voice mail yesterday from Janet Reid. She sang “Happy Birthday” to me, and though I could post the audio, I feared that she would have my arms removed if I did so. Instead, I’ll share that best of old standbys, the Google Voice Transcription:
Happy Birthday to You. Happy Birthday to You. Happy Birthday Dear Sean, Ferrell happy birthday to you. I’m told it’s your birthday. My guess is the Jeff Services making this all up but maybe not. Later gator.
As you can see, Google Voice did a pretty good job this time around. I think this was because Janet was singing, slowly (she knows that when you speak to me it is best to do it very slowly, with long pauses between words). Also note that “Jeff Somers” became “Jeff Services” which should obviously be (and probably is) Jeff’s porn name.
I heard whispering in the hallway and opened my eyes. He tip-toed into the room, came round to my side of the bed. In keeping with how the instructions were delivered, he whispered into my ear.
“Happy birthday, Daddy.”
He gave me a hug and a kiss and tried unsuccessfully to pull himself up onto me using my arm and ear for leverage. This brought me out of bed. As I stood at the foot of the bed he scrambled up, rushed to stand on the bed behind me and barely gave me any time between his warning, “I want to jump on your back,” and leaping off for me to catch him with one arm behind me.
Into my ear, “Mommy and I are going to make you a cake.”
“Oh, that sounds good.”
“Is it a surprise?”
“Yum. I look forward to being surprised by it.”
My wife, from the hall, “It was going to be a surprise.”
Another whisper, into my ear, “Can I have a piece when it is done?”
“Yes, I think you can.”
He squealed a bit, happy that someone, anyone he knew was having a birthday and that cake would follow. His happiness made me happy for that too.
We’re gonna need a bigger blog.
Sure you leave the latest so and and I wanted to let that hi and this is Jane good of the on with go out and it’s going on i, to, i, who went into and then you room Hi, My and see lower phone. You can always is me saying in is some though, who show me the lady going home home film, shoney as a way to go home Beaumont ad and I want to go to bed. Hi, I had to live, Think about an hour ago and I will be ready to mad. Glad of a May roam. I am and see if Hugh can always hand me saying in this. I’ll shark.
Everyone get their appetite hats on, because the delicious Bill Cameron left me he delicioso recipe for baked beans on Google Voice! Take it away, Bill:
Shaun, hey bill here. Sorry, I will call her, where, but I’m dyslexic and so I was successfully failing to reach you by successfully reaching someone else. So here’s the deal on the dates you need a pound of dry Great Northern Beans. I had a time, so come over night and cold water. You’re leaving for me. It’s about 5 or 6 cups depending on the B’s. Sometimes they absorb a little bit more. The critical point is to make sure that there’s plenty of water so that they don’t, so good. All up and and that would be a sort of swell up some work on. That’s the in the bottom of the ball on the day you wanna take a pound of bacon chop it up and have a good size. Onion about 50 size of chop it up and couple. Alessino some shop them up the star key keep those in the Dutch oven about meeting he doesn’t have to be too hot. We’re trying to do is get just enough for the fat surrender out for the the i mean starts gets off. I was going on. You can get the Of in preheating and about 215. Once the onions are soft, 5 minutes or so. Ads all cleaned do 3 to 5 clothes of chopped garlic depends on how much I’ll go out to you like it if you like more. You can you get a little bit more than that, start all in until you start to get that walked of garlic up into who knows. Yeah if you want to add a quarter cup, it’s me. In case you can be aggressive and I have an entire vote and what’re usually fix cos i think now for a I don’t know. Anyways, I should just go ahead and add of 4 PM. The original recipe that I saw said quarter cup, but I got an attic and also we’re couple molasses and a quarter cup of dark brown sugar, mister all that in until it’s you know. Well next, and you left that he’s a little bit while. Well that’s starting to you know, sort of summer into us to drain the beans reserve is much of the soaking liquid as you can give me at the drain beans and with into the Dutch oven with everything’s cook and then at 2 cups of either vengeful her chicken broth, depending on what you like at this point I’m going lo, studying because. And let’s face it, you’ve got a pound of bacon and her. Otherwise, you know if you know whatever you’ve got on hand, and then 2 cups of, so if you liquid. So the Jennifer forceful cups of liquid and mister that all together and bring it to a boil over high heat Binney at about quarter teaspoon cayenne pepper. Maybe I have 2 teaspoon ground Corey endure black pepper to the extent like that sort of thing. Billy again. Yes I do you have a Rhonda Night, but we’re almost done, see you’ve got out. You know all this evening’s in maybe a little bit. Salt feel like you need to add some salt. It’s true, it all up, put a lid on it and then put the Dutch oven you know into the into your point, and let the Cook’s 68. You know we can go 10 hours. If you’ve got it, no more than 2 and 50 degrees, so it’s kind of thing we can sort of put it in all day and least. Very, very important live with your legs not with your back, i i rafters disc in my back putting the baked beans, and the 11th. You’re gonna january and Welch just this is only for everybody and then that you know when are all done. You could maybe put a little bit of grated cheese on the top looped all of us are cream if you like Saturday. CNN’s is will be marvelous. Anyways, enjoy share. Talk to you soon man. Take it easy. Bye.
One of these is an actual quote:
“Get off my lawn.” – J.D. Salinger (obtained early last year).
“That boy’s not right.” – My grandmother, after seeing my “dismount” from imaginary parallel bars.
Update: It occurs to me now that based on the comments I’ve received so far that this should be a contest. Here’s how this will work: enter your suggested cover blurb in the comments below. The blurb can be from you or from someone else (see J.D. Salinger’s blurb above). All blurbs attributed to someone else should be labeled as “true fake” blurbs. The contest will be open until 6PM Wednesday evening at which time Jeffrey Somers will read them and pick a winner. His decision will be final. (Please keep in mind that his decision will be made over drinks.)
The winner will receive one of the following (their choice):
A) A piece of original artwork by me.
B) A picture of me in my goggles, suitable for framing.
or C) A copy of Robin Becker’s Brains.
Comments below are already entered.
Have at it.
Update update: We have a winner. Over drinks last night, the harsh, judgmental eyes of Jeff Somers lit upon the entries. Was he pleased with what he saw? No. Was he in a foul mood? Yes. Was he being pursued by police dogs? Perhaps. Whatever else was happening, when I pinned him beneath a table and forced him to look at the entries he was as swift and certain as a … a … as something that is both swift and certain. An arrow? Maybe. What’s that bird? A hawk. A falcon! He was as swift can certain as a falcon honing in on prey.
Our winner: Carrie Kei Heim Binas
“I will destroy you.”
Not only does it have that old world “Cold War” charm, it also has the advantage of being short enough to fit on a cover. Well done, Carrie. And, yes, I’m sure you will. Carrie, e-mail me your address and pick your prize.
Thanks to everyone who entered.
The poetic Elisabeth Black tested out Google Voice’s ear for music. First, she played a song by Mister Mister (that’s Mr. Mister Mister to you!), and then said, “Okay, enough. You get the idea. Ha ha. Bye.”
But was that all she said? Let’s go the text:
“She” by Elisabeth Black
Hey, yeah, yeah.
Yes this like Hello Sean, Hello.
Hey, what’s up.
Then by, but we can do film and I think the yes bye okay.
Hey, yeah yeah hey hey hey hi, hello hey we.
The incorrigibly cute and angry Jeff Somers was kind enough to curse me out in a voicemail. Trust me, what he said would curl a dead man’s toes. Of course, what I did was… oh, nevermind.
But that’s not how Google Voice heard it:
“Mother Farrell” by Jeff Somers
in in my calling you on that too so I can.
This is on the believable you.
God damn cock sucker cheeses each price.
I cannot believe this that I have to do this for you.
Jeff has since canceled on suggested whiskey outings. Twice.
The dirty limerick, about that gentleman from Nantucket.
Once was Indian food and talk to you to stick with the wants to talk to you. He said the Siegfried if you wanna talk to chat with your with the content.
Many thanks to my nemesis, Carrie Kei Heim Binas, for the suggestion. You’ll rue the day you messed with me.