Thursday, March 15, 2012

Has the Writing Process Changed You?

I've been in the writing business a long time. Before I was a published author, I was an editor at a publishing company, and before that I was writing papers and building lesson plans for my English teaching degree. I feel like I've taken part in a lot of aspects of the business of writing. I also feel like I've changed dramatically from when I first started.

As all of you know, I've been purging my paper piles this year and last week I came across the first full-length fiction novel I'd ever written. I skimmed through it and chuckled a bit, realizing how dramatic I sounded and how many mistakes I'd made (like starting out the first chapter with weather. It had a sort of dark and stormy night feel to it.) It was so fun and a bit cringe-worthy to read through that manuscript.

I also came across letters from students I'd been student-teaching, thanking me for motivating them to be better writers. I am so glad I kept those letters because they are worth their weight in gold to me. Not because I was being thanked, but because it made me feel like I'd helped someone and made a difference. Those things are crucial to have on hand when you feel like you suck as a writer, believe me.

But after looking at my humble beginnings, I realized how much my priorities in the writing process have changed. I used to be more of a pantser, writing whatever struck me, letting my characters take me wherever they cared to, but this book I've been working on has been completely different for me. I think it would have been done about four months ago if I'd been my previous self. This time around, I've plotted, I've outlined, I've done the character bible, and I've gotten myself three critique types---an in-person critique group, an online critique partner, and my trusty alpha, beta and sigma readers. I honestly feel like this is my strongest novel yet because I've learned so much from the previous seven books I've written and I've taken so much time to revise my current one and make it stronger. And I'm not saying my previous books are bad, I'm just saying I've learned. A lot.

Brandon Sanderson once said that he'd written thirteen novels before his first one was accepted. When I heard this I thought to myself, boy, if I'd written thirteen novels before one was accepted I probably would have given up. But I'd missed his point. He was learning the craft, honing his art, and climbing a curve in his quest to be a good writer with the first thirteen. I think I finally get it now.

I'm interested to see how my readers respond to my new novel. I wonder if they'll see the subtle difference in tone and writing, in my characters and plot. Will they see the sub-plots and shades of gray throughout? Or will it just be another Bellon suspense with a dash of romance to cuddle up with on a cold winter night?

I know I've heard other writers say that with every novel they learn something new. Have you found that? If so, what things have you learned? Have you changed your writing process over it or do you feel like your writer's formula is working for you? I'm really interested to know how it is for other writers.


Debra Erfert said...

Every once in a while I'll run across an old manuscript that I wrote almost 10 years ago. I too, will smile at how much I've grown as a writer, how much I've learned since then. I didn't know I had so much in common with Brandon Sanderson. I've written 10 novels now, started on the 11th one this past week, and I haven't sold any of them. I do have two out on submission, but really, hope is getting a little thin after this long and no word.

But it doesn't stop me from writing another novel. Only this time I taped four sheets of typing paper end-to-end and tacked it up on the wall behind my desk chair. I've plotted a timeline for my character, where I will outline every aspect of this book. I used a different color highlighter for each main character, too, to show major turning points and plot turns, and such. The end will be written in advance, as well. Very different from my usual "pantser" writing.

I hope you are feeling a little better. You "sound" like it.

Jon Spell said...

That's Pants! ;) You guys distress me. I heard Brandon Sanderson say that, and thought, Crap, I don't want to write 13 novels until I get one published. I can't even finish my first one! Then you have others (Jon glares at Robison and Jeff) who publish their very first one. I get it, though, Julie, practice makes perfect.

From all the writing books I've read, that's the one thing that has really sunk in : I can't compare my first drafts (no matter how hard I work on it) against a published work. It was really an eye opener. I mean, yes, it makes sense, but it's not really apparent at first. (I wonder how many drafts Twilight went through to get published...)

I have a novella I wrote in high school. It makes me cringe to read it now, but I pull it out every now and then to see how far I've come. (Or how my sense of humor has pretty much stayed the same)

Rebecca Belliston said...

I plot more and wander less. I'm hoping that's a good thing. I guess only time will tell. But I'm still a newbie in a lot of ways. Lots to learn.

Jordan McCollum said...

I think the pantser-to-plotter journey is one a LOT of writers make. (Me too!)

One thing that is REALLY important to note: Brandon Sanderson wrote 13 novels before he sold one, but the one he sold wasn't his 13th—I think it was somewhere in like #4-7, and he's sold many (all?) of the ones he wrote after that, too.

I was starting my seventh novel when I sold my third one. Not sure how many of the ones in between will see the light of day (but #1 and #2 definitely won't).

It's funny, though, when I look back at some of the stuff I wrote like 12-14 years ago, I see a few of the same problems I'm still fighting (underusing speech attributions, clarity, etc.). I guess some things never change!

(Deb—sometimes no news is good news, especially if you're waiting at an LDS publisher. I've heard of people getting accepted after 13-14 months. Eesh.)

Michael Offutt, Tebow Cult Initiate said...

Publishing is such a slow journey for most of us. It's only fast if you are a celebrity.

Debra Erfert said...

@Jordan --Noooooooooooooooo!!!!!

Noble M Standing said...

I look back at my old stuff and cringe. It's so amateurish.

When I finally sat down and decided to write, I think I wrote nine "rough drafts" before I really learned what I was doing. Then I took #2 which was yelling the loudest and re-wrote it after learning about the Hero's Journey. Then I had a friend point me toward Brook's Story Structure and I was miraculously and forever transformed from a panster to a structure gal.

It is the re-write of that book that is getting full requests and lots of attention. I guess it is working.

Julie Coulter Bellon said...

You guys are right---it's such an individual journey for everyone. But at least we can go through it together and commisserate, right? :)

Thanks everyone!

Sarah Pearson said...

The first one was full of backstory, the second full of 'tell'. The third one, well, let's not go there!

Each one gets a little bit better though :-)