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I write novels for teens and adults. Visit me here & on my website http://www.jenniferarcher.net

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Writing Class Wednesday: There Is No Right or Wrong Way to Write!

Yesterday I had my first official meeting with my new intern/mentee. Allison is a high school senior who contacted me to be her mentor through the PRO Program at her school. As a PRO student, she had to find a mentor or mentors that work in the profession she's considering pursuing, and meet with them each week. My fab intern last year, Summer, also came to me through PRO. I'm excited to get to know Allison over the months ahead and to talk to her about the writing profession. I can already tell that she's a smart young woman and eager to talk about books and the craft of wiriting and the crazy publishing world. I have a feeling I'll end up learning as much from her as she does from me, as was the case with Summer!

I thought it might be fun to blog once a week about the writing topics Allison and I discuss since I'm pretty sure some of you who visit my blog are studying and practicing writing with the hopes of not only improving and learning the craft, but also of getting published. Let me say first, however, that I am by no means an expert on this subject! Even after publishing many books, I often continue to feel as if I'm swimming blindly through the murky waters of the writing/publishing world. Occasionally, though, the waters have cleared to allow me a glimpse of insight. So that's what I'll share with you here each Wednesday -- those snippets of information I've learned along the way that have been helpful and/or enlightening to me. 

Yesterday, Allison and I discussed this Rumer Godden quote:

"No one else can teach a writer how to write or how to use imagination; only life and experience can teach that, but he or she can and should be taught technique.” 

I don't know who Rumer Godden is, but I agree with him (her?) wholeheartedly. No one can teach us how to write, and by the same token, there is no right or wrong way to write. However, there are techniques we can learn, and then decide which among them work for us. The techniques that work for me might not work for you, and vice versa. So the key, I think, is to try many different approaches until you find the one(s) that is right for you, then adopt it as your own by applying it to your writing process. 

Don't believe any teacher or published writer, no matter how successful he or she might be, if they say that you must approach your writing in a particular way. For instance, I've read and heard numerous times that the "best way" to write the first draft of a novel is to vomit it onto the page (excuse that gross analogy!) In other words, write it really fast without doing any revising along the way. Apparently, this is the preferred method for the majority of published novelists. But I’ve tried it, and while it might very well be be best for the majority, it’s not the best method for me. I feel overwhelmed with the mess I have on my hands when I reach the end. Through trial and error, I’ve learned that a "three steps forward, one step back" approach works better for me when tackling the first draft. By this I mean that I write my pages for the day without revising, and then the next writing day, I lightly revise the previous day's work before moving on to new writing. Repeating that process each day, I work my way through the story, and when I reach the end, I have a slightly more polished “rough” draft of my manuscript than I would if I used the "vomit" method. And I don’t feel quite so overwhelmed when working on draft two.

The danger inherit in my method of writing a first draft is that you can get stuck in the reworking of the early part of a book and never push forward. If you try it and find that this is the case with you -- that you can't seem to say to yourself, okay that's enough, and move on -- then you might be in that majority that is better off writing the first draft quickly without stopping to revise. I know a lot of writers who have started several novels and never finished them because they've gotten stuck in the revising stage during the early chapters of the book. Frustrated, they gave up and started something new. Again and again. For whatever reason, I've been able to avoid that trap. I allow myself a certain amount of time to revise each day, and then I know it's time to write new material. And I do.

Trying different writing exercises to jog your creativity or help you work out a problem in your story is also beneficial. For example, I use what I refer to as "freewriting" to accomplish both of these things. Using a pen and paper rather than the computer, I write without stopping for a set amount of time -- say fifteen minutes -- about whatever has me stumped. The key is to not stop, to keep your hand moving by writing down whatever is going through your mind. If I suddenly can't think of anything to say, that's what I write down . . .  I can't think of anything to say, my mind is blank. What's up with that? I'm hungry. I don't want to do this. I'm braindead. I'm a dufus, whatever made me think I could write, I'm a hack, etc. etc.. . . until finally my mind clicks in again on the topic at hand. This is stream of consciousness writing, and inevitably it leads to an answer to my question about the story or brings up new ideas. However, some people are more visually inclined and prefer an exercise I call "clustering" that tends to achieve the same results for them. This process is sometimes referred to as "mind-mapping." You draw a circle in the middle of a piece of paper or on a marker board, write your problem or issue or idea in the circle and then, quickly, draw lines off that circle, and on the lines write whatever words or thoughts pop into your head. Google 'mind-mapping' and 'clustering' and you will likely find a better explanation of this exercise and its benefits than I have to offer. I've tried it, but it's not for me. I get far better results from freewriting.

How about you? Have you found your best method for writing a rough draft, and exercises that help you get unstuck or come up with a new idea? Perhaps something different than I've mentioned? I'd like to hear what works for you, so share! Or if you're still looking and haven't tried the things I've mentioned in this post, why don't you, then let me know what you think.


Tammy Jones said...

I'm a lot like your three steps forward method. I call it doing my dailies. When I sit down to write, I go over yesterday's words (and only yesterday's) fixing only what leaps out at me, then move forward until that day's words are done. Then the next session, I go over just the day before's words.

I don't get caught in the endless revision trap because I don't review or revise anything earlier than what I wrote the day before. (I do have to admit, though, that if there's a big change later on - say a character name or location shift, for example - I *will* go back and make those corrections, I just don't look at anything else.

It keeps me moving forward, but it also means I'm polishing the previous day's work so my line and story edits are pretty minimal on the second draft. :)

Jennifer said...

Tammy, I do this, too! It sounds as if we approach our writing in the exact same way.

Anonymous said...

Jennifer, first time to read your blog. I found it interesting as one (very published) writer insisted no one writes without an outline, regardless of what they say. Do you outline? I finished my memoir, "The Well" and have started a novel - my first. My genre for 30 plus years has been poetry because I had a full time very stressful job as a commercial loan officer, so starting a novel during that time was daunting. Now retired, I feel free to move forward with a longer work. So far I am letting the characters lead me. This may or may not work until the end. (BTW my memoir is very Texas - you can check out my website at www.audreystreetman.com.

Jennifer said...

Hi Audrey,

I wonder how that published author knows what everyone does?! :-) No, I don't outline. My mind doesn't work that way. I am a more "fly by the seat of my pants" writer, and I know plenty of other (published) writers who are the same. HOwever, I do always have at least a bare bones synopsis written before I start a book. It's not an outline, just a brief summary of the characters, their motivations, and what happens in the book. I wouldn't even do this if it wasn't required by my editor! I'll go check out your site!

Travis Erwin said...

Great post.

dee said...

This was a great post! I work with character outlines and then a basic synopsis - like the ten major scenes in a movie....we teach this in our novel writing classes - not because everyone should do it that way, but because that is what works for me! And I think its a good point you make. No one has the one final 'best' way to write, its what works for you.....

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure how I write. I get an idea then I write the story then revise like crazy. Everyone has a different method.

Anita said...

Hey Jenny! As you know, I write just like you. Three steps forward, and one back. For some reason, it gets me "in voice" and in the mindset of the story again. It's almost like warming up with stretches for a marathon.

As for the brainstorming or getting unstuck methods, I'm VERY visual, so I prefer the clustering to the freewriting. That's the one way we differ. But yet you and I both churn out a finished product, so we're both right. I think that's the real proof in the pudding, if you can complete a MS using your technique, then you know it's right for you. ;-)

Great post! Sorry it took me so long to drop by for this one...