Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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July 22, 2016

Fog and Headlights and Process

Laura Spinella

Things that are never the same: snowflakes, fingerprints, and a writer’s process. While surely there are more one-of-kind instances, process is the topic I’ve popped in to chat about today. It’s a good choice, since I flunked meteorology back in the eighth grade and my fingerprint knowledge is limited to a thorough Google search.

Right or wrong, I know a little about how to get words on a page—or not. And I’d love to hear your wordsmith habits at the end of this post.

Process, like those snowflakes and fingerprints, is individual to each writer. The sphere of process encompasses everything, from the cup you take your coffee in to things more specific to writing, like editing—or maybe that’s the other way around. I bet more writers would be willing to toy with their editing process than how many cups of courage it takes to get going on any given morning.

cup2Here’s difference number one—I don’t drink coffee. And while you might call it crazy, I can promise that I’m off to a better start if that simple Tetley brew is served in the ugly blue cup from Pier One. I think I paid $2.50 for it about a dozen years ago. It has a nasty chip in the side, and those who live here know never to touch it, unless unloading it from the dishwasher, in which case it’s handled with the care given to heirloom china or fairies’ wings.

Before starting this post, I perused my Facebook newsfeed. (How else would I procrastinate?) It didn’t take long for spillover process to turn up, writing triumphs and tragedies: “OMG, I hit 100K mark! This book is officially done!” “Kill me now. Without a doubt, this draft is the worst POS I’ve ever written!”  Somewhere in between kvetching and celebrating, fill the blanks with writer-rich thoughts and you’ve got process.

Are most writers morning people? Show of hands, please. For me, it’s a rare day that a decent sentence shows up after lunchtime. I’m more flexible about where I write. I prefer my dedicated desk in my dedicated writing room, but I’ve been known to work well in crowded airports and other bustling venues. In fact, I wrote most of my first book sitting on the floor of Children’s Hospital in Boston. My middle daughter was ill for a long time, which turned out to be a lot of down time—sitting, waiting, if you’ve ever been in that boat. Sometimes I imagine if I were to journey back to Longwood Ave., I’d find the characters from Beautiful Disaster wandering the halls.

Whether you are a multi-published author or cranking out the first draft of your first novel, we’ve all read books on craft. Important stuff, like double-space your manuscript and how to make those first five pages work the room. Many offer common sense advice and some (quite successfully) offer detailed blueprints for penning the perfect novel.

I’ve indulged in process improvement concepts over the years. For Unstrung (out February 2017) I produced the much touted index card outline. For this book, the methodology worked. Unstrung was on a tight deadline and I had no idea where the story was going or how I would get there. The self-supplied prompts proved invaluable to the process, and I thought I’d found the Holy Grail of book writing.

Not so fast. Enter Ghost Gifts II, which I literally started the day after turning in Unstrung. Not my ideal scenario for book writing, but tick-tock, deadline looms. I quickly found the index card system wasn’t working. Then I compared the two set of index cards and realized why—Unstrung notes were about characters I didn’t know, a story that had no roots. These cards were a roadmap to hardcore facts that already exist in Ghost Gifts, the mother ship to what will be book two in a trilogy. So, aside from spit and a prayer, how will I write this book?

Default to the ill-organized notebook with diagrams that could pass for medieval witchcraft rituals and the scribbling of thoughts that, hopefully, will result in just one “ah-ha” moment. In the end, perhaps all this handwringing over expert advice on how to write a book only leads back to Stephen King’s thoughts in On Writing: “This is a short book because most books about writing are filled with bullshit.” In the wake of my near manic book-writing rituals, I have to agree.

Editing is the final piece of process I want to expound on today. How do you edit? I know the drill—get the story on paper, go back and fix it all later. I’ve battled bad habits on this front for years. I’m a serial editor. Not long ago, it dawned on me: editing is my process. That’s how I write. Getting the story down isn’t my key step; it’s the one I fumble through, all fog and headlights. Massaging what’s there is how I push a story forward. I know. It sounds completely counterintuitive. But so far, it really is how I’ve gotten six books to publication. As for number seven … Well, I’m off to procrastinate a bit more, log my Facebook post on the gut-wrenching stops and starts, highs and lows of the writing process.

What's your process? Has it worked from book to book? 

About Laura

Photo by Jaclyn L Photography.

Photo by Jaclyn L Photography.

Laura Spinella is the author of the #1 bestselling novel, Ghost Gifts, soon to be trilogy. Her other titles include the RITA nominated Beautiful Disaster and Perfecting Timing, as well as the Clairmont Series Novels written as L. J. Wilson. Her next Laura Spinella title, Unstrung, is out February 2017.

Find Laura online ...

19 comments on “Fog and Headlights and Process”

  1. I'm lucky enough to be reading Unstrung now - OMG, people, THE best character evah! Love that book. And SO different than Ghost Gifts! Okay, I'm stopping fan-girling - just know that I could continue...

    Oh! Someone else who writing=editing! I edit as I go, and when I'm done, I'm done. Linda Howard was the only other one I know who has that process (we're in good company, no?)

    And because of the above, I'm willing to overlook your fatal flaw of not drinking coffee....

    Hey, we all have them. 😉

    Thanks for blogging with us, Laura!

  2. Love having you on WITS, Laura!

    Process fascinates me. I'm always amazed at how others do this crazy writing thing. I'm the exact opposite of you - drink tons of coffee and my first drafts are messy, hairy, seat-of-the-pants, get-words down. I don't edit until I'm completely done with the first draft. That's when the pants come off (not literally) and I get all plotty, organized. Fun times. 🙂

    I can't wait to read Unstrung!!!!

  3. When I finish a chapter, I print it out and read it in bed (more like a 'book' than when it's on screen). I make general notes, circling repeated words, writing things like "FIX!" or "T" (needs transition), etc. That's where I'll start the next day, so by the time I get to the end, it's already had at least 1 editing pass. When my crit partners comment, I'll fix again, so that's two passes before I consider the manuscript "done" and ready for edits. Then I print it out again (in columns in a different font to fool the brain) and read it aloud for the next pass. Then I run it through SmartEdit which will flag the overused words, phrases, and adverbs that managed to reinsert themselves when I wasn't looking. I'm not as talented as Linda Howard, but I don't normally go through the entire manuscript more than twice before my editor gets it.

    1. I print as I go as well and mark changes I know will need to happen. My second pass through the manuscript I print in a different font. I also save it as a pdf and read it on my iPad, jotting notes like I would for any beta read.

  4. Yeah! A fellow tea drinker 😉 I'm a mid-day writer, but I'm of the whatever works club. As long as you're writing, thinking about writing, or planning writing, you're gold. I'm a experiment, play, pants writer for the most part. Though, to be honest only book 1 is finished and polished. I might have to work on that someday if I have...er...deadlines...

  5. THANK YOU for the " edit as you go" reinforcement ...it's been my dirty little secret in my writers group but that's my process, too. I can't push past what needs changing and move forward until I back up, rearrange, add, change, dump, add.... do whatever it takes to make the flow kick back in, and then resume full speed ahead, and for me that works. It was reassuring and vindicating to my writing mind to know a published successful writer uses the same process and it works for her, too. I use whatever works when I get stuck, but edit on the fly is always my most successful fall back. I don't want to get too far downline in the piece of work on a crumbling path before I have to retrace my steps and start fixing...I want it right for me before I commit any more time and development. Thanks for sharing your work process so openly.

  6. Loved reading this. Thanks for sharing your process, Laura. I have 3 books out (nonfiction, traditionally published). I wrote the 1st one while earning my living as a firefighter/medic. I had a piece of crap laptop and wrote in between responding to emergency calls while trying to ignore the rowdy, boisterous activity of the station and the dispatch radio blaring the alarms and chatter of the entire district. But write, I did. Things are much more civilized now. I write in a converted nook of our kitchen, sitting at my much loved desk (which was plucked from a junk shop) where I procrastinate by watching the grazing horses who reside at our sanctuary. I love the smell of coffee, but can't stand the taste. Decaf green tea, please. And I, too, edit as I go. I couldn't move on until I've edited what I'd written the previous day if my life depended on it. There are times I'll mess with the structure of one sentence, over and over, before completing the paragraph where it lives. I'm currently querying a completed work of women's fiction, and just finishing up another ms.

    Terry: I love your idea about using a different font to fool the eye during proof reading. Excellent.

  7. Thanks for the invite, ladies, and all the kind words. Laura Drake, you just keep drinkin' the Kool-Aid... I, um, mean reading that book! 😉

    Seriously, it's so wonderful hear all the routes writers take to get their story on paper--some similar and those that are different. Great writing tips are everywhere! Also very glad to hear I'm not alone in my passive-aggressive, somewhat questionable method of writing.

    It makes me brave enough to do a future post on the positives of flashback chapters! Cheers! (Yes. Tea in the cup) Thank you for all the thoughtful comments!

  8. Enjoyed this post. It's fascinating reading everyone's processes. Mine changes with every book also, but even though I'm a morning person (up with the sun, which this time of year is generally before 5), I write best between the hours of 1-3 pm. This is because for way too many years that was the only time I had - nap time. Now the nappers are not always even out of bed by 1, but that's still my best writing time.

  9. We change as a writer as we learn our craft, and the tools (read process) that we use should change as well. After 8 fiction novels and 3 non-fiction histories, some things remain constant. I still edit as I write. And I still use a storyboard approach. Sometimes composing on paper, sometimes on labtop. A change is that the number of fields in each scene box is reduced with each book and more text appears so that for most scenes its now only a one line header of setting description, 5 bullet points, and the rest is the actual first draft.

  10. Thanks for sharing. My process is also editing as I write. A perfectionist, I can't bear to leave it until later. Then printing and reading, making notes. I keep a notebook on each story I'm working on to add ideas and thoughts as I go along.

  11. Thank you so much for this post, Laura! I've connected with you online. For me, it's trying to get the blasted story down. Then, I toy with it...perhaps too much. It's tough for me to leave it alone and send it out. All the best everyone.

  12. "I’m a serial editor," you said. And now, because of your admission, I've found the courage to come out of the closet---ME, TOO!!! I'M A SERIAL EDITING WRITER, TOO!!! 🙂 THANK YOU!!! 🙂

    1. You're most welcome, Roxann! I think many of us are "serial editors." But I think writers are so in search of the "perfect" way to pen a novel, we think whatever we must be doing is surely wrong--especially if it goes against basic novel writing advice.
      I say keep right on editing--the writing part will have to happen if you're going to have something to edit! It's kind of a no-brainer.
      It also seems odd to me that a formula should be applied to something that is among the most individualistic artistic endeavors a person could pursue.

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