My writing process.

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.

21 thoughts on “My writing process.

  1. A former long-hander! I totally agree with your rules, Sean, and I just might tape them to my tattered notebook:
    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.
    Words to write by. Thanks for sharing your process!

  2. This would drive me nuts, and in fact, this is EXACTLY the process I used in all the WIPs that were bitterly abandoned in Chapter Three.
    But it obviously works for you — your writing shows that. I’m so happy when writers keep digging until they find THEIR processes — and I can’t WAIT for NUMB to come out!
    Off to check the rest of the posts!

  3. Sean, this is EXCELLENT stuff. Gratitude to you and the rest of the gang for a brilliant idea.
    “Better to have something come out half right than have all of it perfectly in my skull.”
    For me, these are the words to write by. I was midway through a novel when a second one starting taking form. The characters keep talking to me, but I find myself struggling to finish it because I can’t let go of the opening scene. Keep tweaking, changing, starting over until it’s perfect. I’ve been literally forcing myself to leave the scene alone and move on.
    It helps to hear the great ones do this.
    Off to read the others’ posts.
    Thanks again.

  4. Love this! It’s so fun to get a glimpse into the heads of different authors (though in your case, Sean, the glimpse is a little disturbing 🙂
    Thanks for doing this!

  5. Well, foof. I wrote a long response with virtually no snark and it got eaten by the intertoobs. Something about a post error. Doh.
    Now I have to dash, so I’ll summarize: eerily similar to my own process, except not train ride and never wrote by longhand; yes; yes; yes; hear, hear. Thank you for sharing!

  6. Ha-ha, Bill! It was probably the LACK of snark that spelled disaster! Let your inner snark loose (you can do that on my blog, since Sean probably wouldn’t appreciate me inviting you to snark on his. Or maybe he would?)

  7. I came to this through Tawna and Kiersten. My process is a mix of the long-thinking of Tawna and the fast-paced first drafting of Kiersten. I was surprised to find that even though you’re a fellow seat of the pantser, we were so different.
    One thing you said really rang true for me though.
    “The story is its own.”

  8. This is fascinating! What I got from this–well I got lots of things, but the biggest–is that you trust yourself when you write. That you follow the writing, the characters, and know they are leading you where you need to go. Thanks!!

  9. “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?”
    I feel the same way. Which worries me, because writers have to talk about their new ideas with people all the time. At readings, with agents, editors, etc. I’ve gotten a lot better about it, but sometimes I still wish I could keep my writing all to myself, like a firefly in a mason jar, until I’m ready to let it out for the whole world to ooh and ahh at.

  10. Hey Sean,
    I just came from Cynthia’s blog and I’m loving the tour of processes.
    I hear them and write them similar to the way you do but it was a calming thing to hear ‘just go with them and it’ll be fine’. The toughest part is that trust sometimes.
    For me, it is like launching your kid off on his bike and hoping to God he knows what the hell he’s doing. ‘Cause if he doesn’t, you know there’s gonna be a mess to clean up and a lot of faith to rebuild. But, by the time you give him that finally push, you pretty much KNOW that he’s capable. If you grab the seat again, you’ll throw off the balance and, well, you know. Your post is a lullabye, Sean. Thanks for singing.

  11. I loved this post. Everything about it is so interesting, including how easy it is to tell you’re a wonderful writer from reading a blog.
    My own process is similar except, like Bill, no train. Thanks for doing this post. I’m off to read the others!

  12. I’ve just hopped over from Janet Reid’s blog and oh, do I wish I’d found you sooner! That there is someone else who sees an image and writes toward it, who believes in neither outlining nor over-analyzing, who doesn’t talk about his writing… well, all I can say is, “Hooray”, and head off to read some more of your posts.
    Congrats on the upcoming release of “Numb”. I’m going to want to read it.

  13. Last comment, I swear, then I’m done creeping around your site for the night. You say you write everyday, but you listen to your characters while you go about your daily life, right? So does that mean you like to listen to your characters first and get a clear sense of who they are, and then write, or you write right away even if the characters are still not fully developed? Basically, I guess I’m asking how soon you start writing. Thank youuuuuuu

  14. Oh my, disregard my question. You said, “Better to have something come out half right than have all of it perfectly in my skull.” So that answers my question. I’m sorry!!

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