Steve Liskow  

Finding Your Process

A captive English class of twenty-five kids is not the ideal way to learn to write. Not everyone learns the same skills in the same way in the same order or at the same rate, but that's what those classes demand. I'll bet that many people still try to write as they were taught in school. If it doesn't work or they hate writing, they suspect that they themselves are to blame, but the problem may be that they bought the myth of The One Right Way.

Does your writing process really fit you? Take a few days and a few chances to see if there's a better way out there.

Grad school rekindled my long submerged urge to write. Over the next nine years, I wrote five unpublished novels, one of which became my sixth-year thesis. The others were terrible and I knew it, but they helped me learn how I actually write.

The thesis, my fourth novel, was the first time I'd used an outline. Now, I always use one even though I know it will change many times before I complete the first draft. It helps me.

Do you outline just because your teacher told you to do it in school? If you do, have you found a more flexible method than Roman numerals and capital letters? If you do some kind of pre- writing, is it words, diagrams, phrases, or something else? What really works best for you?

Do you write at a particular time of day because you need to get to work or the kids have to be in school? If not, try earlier or later. Try in a different room. Walk around outside before you write, or go to the gym, or jog first to get your brain working.

If you like outlines, write a scene or two with no preparation and see what happens.

Try doing character bios for your main characters before telling the story. It may drive you crazy at first, but take some time and figure out how your character will change. Figure out what's at stake, or what that character's weakness is.

Try writing in pencil or roller ball or ballpoint or fountain pen or even crayon instead of at the keyboard. I do my preliminary character and scene planning on wide-ruled notebook paper so I can spread pages all over the floor and see how they look. And I draw lots of arrows and lines to different pages. If you already write in pencil or pen, try composing at the keyboard.

Do you write a few pages then go back and revise them before going on? Try writing the whole work before you go back. If you usually avoid revising until the very end, do it in sections.

Do you have a word or page goal for the day? What happens if you change it to more or fewer? What happens if you say you will write a SCENE a day instead? If one scene is four pages and another is ten, can you still do it?

I always write a complete scene by the end of the day because I need to find the rhythm, and it won't sustain overnight. Who cares if it's awful? Once it exists, I can fix it later.

That's a major difference between "school" writing and "real" writing. Standardized tests promote the myth of the Perfect First Draft. Some pieces need three drafts, some need ten, and some need even more. It depends on the writer and the piece, but you always have to revise.

I won't start writing a novel until I have at least fifty scenes in what I think is the correct order. I know who the POV character is (I tend to use close third POV), the basic event and how the situation or character changes in each scene. Then I save every scene as a separate word document. That's so I can change the order later if I want to. Scene 7-A may become 12-B. Later, I may make it Scene 47-G or cut it completely.

The character and plot preparation usually takes me about three months. That's how I learn where I need to do research, which I try to avoid unless it involves interviewing people.

After that preparation, I write the first draft in six to eight weeks, one scene a day. I don't worry about anything except getting from beginning to end. I find the rhythm and where scenes need to move or go away or where I left something out. As I find the rhythm, I may complete two or even three scenes a day, and may write the last scenes in one huge outburst.

The second draft adds description and more texture. By about the fifth draft, I've found most of the character's voices for dialogue and the scenes in their point of view.

I don't print anything out until the sixth or seventh draft because it takes me that long to get the ideas in the right order and find most of the details. Then I cut, add, move, and eventually correct spelling, grammar, and punctuation.

Once I've printed out the scene, I read EVERY WORD aloud while walking around the room. That's when I hear all the repetitions and awkward sentences. I fix those. Then I put everything together into one document for the first time so I can write the transitions.

One last question:

Do you write EVERYTHING (novels, blogs, essays, short stories, poems, memoirs, etc.) with the same tools and in the same way? Why? Do you write some things more easily than others? Could you use that technique on other kinds of writing?

Right now, I work as hard writing a short story as I do completing the first draft of a novel. I'm still looking for a better way to do it.

I know there is one.


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