The Writing Life

Many writers are often asked about their “writing process,” or from whence they get their ideas. I have never been asked either of these questions, and so, in answer to these, and other questions no one has ever asked me, I offer a description of my own “process.”

I almost never make use of outlines, and certainly never when embarking upon a novel. I am not a plotter, nor do I like to fly by the seat of my pants. The full shape of a narrative very rarely presents itself to me. I prefer to think of myself as more of a “puzzler,” meaning that a narrative idea will normally present itself to my brain like a box full of puzzle pieces being spilled onto a tabletop. I see the pieces, but I have to go through them, turning them over, and this way and that, and try to piece them together until they start forming a picture I can recognize.

I never begin with world-building, or settings, or events, or even characters. When I begin to compose a narrative, I always begin with dialogues. And as the dialogues progress, they flesh out for me the characters participating in it, and the situations about which they are talking. This method helps me to understand my characters, and how they want to be written, and the settings in which they find themselves.

I try never to fully describe my characters physically, because I prefer to leave most of that work to the reader. I might note one or two distinguishing characteristics, but otherwise, I think the readers’ imaginations can do a much better job. For example, if I describe someone as beautiful or handsome, well, everyone has their own idea of what they consider attractive. And besides; whenever I have tried to describe a character in detail, they almost never get psychologically fleshed out, nor even earn any significance for the plot of the narrative in which I’d hoped to place them.

I never use the computer to compose anything. My first drafts and their notes are all done with pen and ink, on paper. I find myself unable to create anything on the keyboard. I will also often do my initial revisions with pen and paper as well. Once I have a serviceable first draft that hits all the major plot points I have envisioned, then I will transcribe everything onto the computer, whence I can then edit. For my second and third drafts, I like to use a program called Scrivener, as it makes editing and organizing easy and efficient. Once I have a serviceable draft with which I am satisfied, I then compile a word doc from the Scrivener file, and I then have a proper text to edit.

I am remarkably undisciplined. My inspirational flashes normally compel me to a mere five or ten minutes of solid work at a time. Perhaps half an hour, if I am really lucky. So I tend to write in bursts, and I am easily distracted besides—unless I am particularly focused on a particular task, in which case I can work away for hours without even noticing.

Another fault of mine is impatience with the whole process, being eager to get down on paper what I want to say. And the modern process of independent publishing does me no favors here. There was a time in which I might write a single page, stop, and go back over to edit. And then, in the middle of that edit, I would stop, go back to the beginning, and start re-editing the edit. And then, stopping during that edit, and—well, you get the idea. I actually only learned when working on my first novel, to force myself to vomit up as much as I can onto the page before going back to edit, re-write, and polish my stories. But due to my lingering remnants of my lack of focus, I have easily gone through six revisions/editions of my first novel, Medousa.

Sometimes, it was a matter of correcting simple errors that more thorough copyediting would have found. Sometimes, it was more a matter of correcting thematic and developmental errors. I have learned through this to invest in good editors, formatters, and beta readers. The making of a good book is in large part down to the editing.

That said, I have become somewhat leery of editors lately. Not that one can ever afford to forego this part of the process; but one should be careful to select a good editor who will not simply take your money and say “Yeah, it’s good,” without actually giving you anything of substance for your book If you can’t afford a professional editor, at the very least, you’ll need to find a merciless critical reader.

Once you receive your feedback, it’s up to you how you want to use it. As Neil Gaiman once said, “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.

And that, dear readers, is my “process!”

About Michael Butchin

I was born, according to the official records, in the Year of the Ram, under the Element of Fire, when Johnson ruled the land with a heavy heart; in the Cradle of Liberty, to a family of bohemians. I studied Chinese language and literature at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. I spent some years in Taiwan teaching kindergarten during the day, and ESOL during the evenings. I currently work as a high school ESOL teacher, and am an unlikely martial artist. I have spent much of my life amongst actors, singers, movie stars, beautiful cultists, Taoist immortals, renegade monks, and at least one martial arts tzaddik. I currently reside in Beijing's Dongcheng district
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1 Response to The Writing Life

  1. I love reading about other writers’ creative processes, so this was a treat. I myself don’t really plan much when going into novels, but I feel like I’m a pantser through and through. Anyway, thanks for this post!

    Like

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