Discovering My Process
Updated: Jan 28, 2021
The Crimson Wraith: Legacy of the Hood is the first full-length novel I have completed, after making my first serious attempt about 15 years ago and attending a graduate program for creative writing in that time. And I’ve figured out some things about my process that I didn’t know before, things that I think helped me, which I’d like to share.
Step One: World-Building Notes
I can’t over-emphasize how useful these have been, just having a master document with a list of things like the dates different people were born and died and the names of locations. I wrote Legacy over about three years, and in that time, I would forget little details. Is it East Town or Easttown or Easttowne? How old would that character be at this part of the story? What was I going to call that minor villain I wanted for this scene?
It’s not extensive, nothing like Tolkien’s notes on the languages, weather patterns, and flora of Middle Earth, just a couple pages and a spreadsheet for character ages, and they have been invaluable.
What I have not done, which I had in previous attempts, was to outline the novel. I don’t think that helped me. If anything, it may have held me back by tying me to a structure that did not necessarily serve the organic flow of the narrative. Some scenes, I just had to feel my way through. Some moments I could not know I needed until they were there. Hell, I first thought this would be a much shorter story than it turned out to be, and all that good stuff came only because I approached it in a spirit of adventure.
Step Two: Just Get the Words Down
It seems the first draft is all about flow, and finding that flow involved more than just staring at a blank page. And it did not include creating a regular writing regimen to follow religiously. For so long, I struggled to stick to a structure, and when I couldn’t write at the same time every day for the same amount, week after week, my frustration with myself poisoned my progress and helped lead to abandoning the project.
Instead, I did best by embracing my irregularity with a series of writing dates in different locations, at different times, as I was able. A lot of my most fun writing involved taking myself out to a bar. Something about being out in public, having a couple of beers, even being occasionally interrupted by a server or other patrons kept the process from getting dull for me. They kept me stimulated, and I guess that’s why so many writers praise coffee for allowing them to stay focused on work. Also, I did a lot of pet-sitting over the past couple years, and I did some good work being away from my regular writing desk, having a kind of mini-retreat in between feedings, walkings, and litter scoopings. Looking back, I can now get nostalgic over where I was and what was happening around me when I wrote this or that scene.
And throughout the rough draft, I related my progress on social media. That has been a huge change. Writing can be a lonely art, and I deeply appreciate every single “like” I received from anyone on a post where I said something as little as, “I wrote 500 words today…” And while I made a weekly goal for myself, I learned more and more that I did not get a gold star for achieving that goal or a demerit for missing it. The most important thing was just continuing to engage in the process and share it in a way that encouraged me to keep at it.
Step Three: All the Pieces in Place
To be honest, my editing process is not heavily structured, but I did notice myself having different intentions as I took successive passes through the rough draft. They didn’t necessarily go through a set order, and I may have revisited any of them more than once. But the most essential element of editing used to be the only one I did, elevating a rough draft to a first draft.
Who was it that said something like, “All writing is re-writing”? That’s part of the first pass, but there is a little more to it than writing it again and writing it better. First and most importantly, I have to read the words out loud. My eyes get funny. They skip over things that I more readily catch when I’m making my mouth work too. But also, I need to hear the rhythmic flow. Good writing should play with sentence craft.
This is something I learned from transcribing interviews from my rambling Southern brethren for Wouldn’t Be Fittin’. Language doesn’t begin on the page. It ends up there. Speech is primary, and there are a lot of different ways to structure words in written form. Hearing them spoken out loud helps.
I also noticed myself going back in and adding details that did not make it into words before. Sometimes that included sensory details--colors, textures, smells--that I skipped over while narrating the action. Also, I found times where I wanted to step out of the action to say, “What does the character think about this?” Moving into their consciousness allow them a moment of reflection. Every time I did this, I realized after it was absolutely necessary for the story.
Step Four: Say what now?
This is the part I often didn’t do enough of or just focused all my frustrations on, correcting linguistic errors. So, yes, I misspell things. The fact that I hear words aloud as I write most clearly shows when I make a phonetic mistake. Sometimes “their” will be “there.” Is it because I do not know the differences between those two words? Of course, I do, but the fact is that my writing is me speaking words to myself in my brain, and sometimes I mishear myself when transcribing.
Also, I leave words out. And, especially after my first editing pass, I may try to change a sentence, but leave pieces of its previous incarnation scattered behind.
All this I could get really lost in and so frustrated by that I threw the writing down and didn’t want to come back to it. It is useful to have a second set of eyes here, and I have asked for editing help before. However, human editors get overtaxed. If I don’t remove as many errors as I can before passing it along, there will likely still be errors that end up in the final product.
So, I have found it incredibly useful to get editing assistance from electronic services like Grammarly. Now, it’s a dumb machine, and sometimes I have to ignore it’s suggestions when I am making a stylistic choice, but I will never again pass my writing on to a human without first going over it with a machine.
Step Five: Beta Readers
I used to want readers to be my editors. That had mixed results. Honestly, I just wanted to hand my first draft or rough draft to another person and say, “Here, make it good for me.” But that is a whole hell of a lot to ask. And the results aren’t always great.
Now, occasionally, a fellow writer has offered to read for me, but here’s the thing--they will probably want me to read what they wrote in return, and I’ve been trapped by that before. For one, I am a very, very, very slow reader. It’s apparently an OCD thing that I just have to accept about myself and work with. And if someone is writing Southern lit while I am writing cyberpunk, we aren’t necessarily going to tickle each other’s fancy. But more importantly, the feedback I get from a writer may be colored by how they would handle something in a way that isn’t what I was going for at all. I’ve had writers try to re-write my stuff in their style, and I’ve done that to others as well. It’s not helpful.
Writers can give good feedback on overarching narrative, I find, the big picture stuff. But to the extent they do that, they need to be reading as readers, and that’s where I get the most benefit. My beta readers have given me excellent feedback by letting me know which characters they find the most sympathetic, what parts of the story they get excited about, and which make them sad. I am telling a story to other human beings in order to elicit an emotional response, and hearing some initial reactions helps me gauge my effectiveness and fine-tune the delivery.
Legacy greatly benefited from reader comments that provided perspective I could not arrive at on my own. I was told when one part was slow, when another seemed like it needed more substance, and that I might want to avoid a term I used for ghost (“spook”) because it was sometimes used as an ethnic slur—something that never occurred to me since I would never use it that way. Only my beta readers could tell me if the resolution of my plot came off as satisfactory, that the mystery revealed its solution at the proper time, building upon clues distributed along the way without being obvious.
Step Six: Last Words
This step didn’t even exist with previous novel attempts. I never got far enough, finding myself too frustrated, too distracted along the way. But, I’m utilizing it now, and I feel like it’s bringing my writing to a new and more professional level.
After completing the rough draft, refining it to a first, plucking out errors, and getting reader feedback, I take one last pass through it all. And that’s the one where it really starts to sound good. That’s where I start to go, “You know, I think I might actually like this.” And I’ve discovered a new tool for it, without which I just did not have the energy to get through this step: text-to-speech.
By having the machine read my words out loud to me, I get a chance, one last time, to listen to their flow. I can catch some errors that I missed previously (pesky little bastards), but also, I can discover things that are not actually errors but just don’t sound as good as I would like.
Because this is a faster pass, I can notice if I am overusing certain linguistic elements. Going slowly, I may miss the same word or an almost identical turn of phrase a few pages apart, something that affects the reader’s experience even if they don’t consciously pick up on it.
I can also streamline the language, and maybe I don’t remove every unnecessary word. Maybe I don’t re-structure every sentence into active voice. But I do a hell of a lot more than I could at previous points in the process.
These varying tactics were things I was not taught in any writing class, nor did I read about them in any writing book, and I wish that I had. Yes, I was told to edit again and again, but not that there were different ways to approach each successive pass. Maybe that’s because this is an art, and artists have such individual processes. But I think it would have helped me to know that someone else’s process could look something like this, and I hope it may benefit other writers as well.