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I started writing about my process about a year ago (and have been telling people I was going to write about it in more detail ever since)...

But meanwhile, it's been a year, and during that time I've been writing, working on various projects, and my way of thinking about writing has definitely changed, though I'm not entirely sure just how much. So instead of just writing about "my process", I'm going to take a look at what I wrote about it last year (and never completed), and at what I've done in the year since then, and see how much of the theory and ideas I had still makes sense to me, and whether I have any better ideas based on what I've been doing for the last year.

I think it might turn out that the process I came up with and was working from last year is going to turn out to be too heavy weight. In my first post about process, I talked about trying to make a process that made each step easier, like switchbacks when going up a mountain. It takes longer, but it's a steady progression of things that are completely do-able.

Now, looking back, I wonder just how much my year-ago idea of "easy" is going to map to "useful" and how much it's going to map to "but way too much work". (Which is, nevertheless, far better than "produces stuff that can't be used", just to note.)

I've noticed that no matter what kind of process I use, there are certain stages to writing.

There's a generating ideas stage (and this is something that long, long ago, before I started thinking about having a process at all, I used to do entirely in my head...which is nice but you can only write something fairly short that way. About 3,000 words, give or take, which is about how long chapters tend to be when I write them. I don't think that's a coincidence).

And there's a sorting and winnowing stage.

Obviously, this is not unique to my process, everyone has to do these things when writing, whether in their head or on a page. I think that differences in writing processes have a lot to do with how long a writer spends doing one before doing the other. (As well as what kind of ideas come first, i.e. plot first, characters first, etc.)

For example, NaNoWriMo-style writing says "generate ideas first, don't sort and winnow at all until you have a complete draft". NaNoWriMo-style writing has the virtue of being very easy to generate a first draft, and the disadvantage that you might end up with something that's practically impossible to edit, because it wasn't put together with the idea of editing in mind. And if you notice what a problem you're setting up for yourself, you might end up not being happy doing NaNoWriMo, whether you "win" or not. (The one time I tried it, years ago, I ended up with a mess that I haven't dared to go back to look at since, though I think there are some good ideas in it ... somewhere.)

On the opposite extreme, there's writer's block, which I think is basically a situation where a writer can't generate any ideas because they're pre-winnowing as they come up with ideas in their head and perfection hasn't occurred yet, so they refuse to commit to putting anything down. (At least, I think this is one variety of writer's block. There may be others.)

But in between the extremes, there are a lot of ways to have a cycle of brainstorming followed by structuring/winnowing of material. I find that the important thing for me is not to create too much of a backlog of unstructured stuff that needs to be sorted, because I can only hold so much in my head (and I only have so much patience for structuring, which I find hard).

On the other hand, I need to have a certain amount of material to work with when I sit down to put something together (a draft of a scene or a draft of an outline, it works fairly similarly), because otherwise I will probably end up stuck (and then I just have to go back to brainstorming to fill in the holes).

So my ideal process breaks things into chunks that are not too much bigger than what I can hold in my head. I've also found that I work better if I write down all my brainstorming and then extract the good ideas from it, instead of trying to do the winnowing in my head and only write down good ideas. My head is just not big enough to hold it all simultaneously, and a "good idea" depends on context and the surrounding ideas. Some of my favorite ideas just haven't fit the story, and that's sad, but it's also impossible to see until I have all the ideas written down and can see what doesn't belong.

(In a way, it's wasteful, but it seems to be inevitable, at least for now, and at least with stories that are long or that require research. I think I consider story to be what you have when you take away everything that's not story...but this can't be seen without generating some amount of both story and not-story.)

My old process covered some of this, but it also had some ideas that I don't think scale -- like writing each pass from beginning to end. This was great in the early stages, but for big projects I ended up mired in details and unable to see the big picture as I got further and further down into the the story. (I failed to take into account just how much the big picture has to change as the story develops, it doesn't actually develop totally top down even if that's the plan.)

I have some ideas about expanding from the early stages of a large project via subplot instead of via expanding each section into more and more detail, which I will try to talk about in later posts.

I also want to think about and explore the idea of what order to do things in, not just subplots but also things like character and structure and also storytelling things like tension...

I'm also not so sure about the idea of always working from start to finish. On the one hand, you do have to work in some order and start to finish is the really obvious way to do this. On the other hand, I seem to tend toward tangents when moving from beginning to end (though that might be because my endings so far haven't been strong enough to be a sufficient story-magnet). But I also really prefer to see a story as a whole rather than taking it on linearly, so a process that always goes through the story from beginning to end might not fit me that well? It's something to think about.

I also need to think more about how to deal with being wrong. Though perhaps "wrong" is the wrong word... But it always happens, at some point I realize that I've done something that doesn't work and needs to be changed. Not (always) because there's something wrong with it, but just because it doesn't fit...

When this happens, I generally have a very strong "I can fix that" instinct that kicks in the instant I realize that something is not working...but it might be worth stepping back and developing some ideas about what I want to do when I realized that something isn't working to avoid just going with the first fix that occurs to me.

I mean, if you have a process, but then you bypass the process every time something triggers your "wrong" "must fix now" instinct, then in some ways you don't have a process. I don't think there's any way to avoid being wrong every now and then, but maybe I need some things to always think about to evaluate potential fixes?

Focus and size is another problem that...I probably need tons more experience before tackling. It would probably help to have satisfactorily finished one or two novels. The problem is that (despite having read thousands of novels) I have no idea how to make sure I have a novel-sized idea when I decide to write a novel. (The problem is probably more that I don't know what size my novels will be. I'm developing my own ideas about what I want my novels to be about, which is not exactly the same as anyone else, so I guess I won't know what my novels are like until I finish one. Or two, for comparison purposes.)

Anyway. Next post will be looking at what I'd written about my old process and thinking about whether I think it does the things a process needs to do, and whether it does them in efficiently. Or at least that's the plan. Hopefully this year I'll get to a little more of this than I did last year :)

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