Thursday, July 30, 2009

Process Is Not Content

I'm the sort of person who plans out my errands based on distance from home. I go to the farthest point and work my way back. One of my prouder moments of efficiency comes from a Christmas shopping expedition where I went to two malls and two big box stores a week before Christmas, got everything I wanted on a long list of gifts, and did it in under 3 hours including parking. Each gift had a note about which stores to search and where those stores were located. Then I arranged the list by....

Don't look at me like that. There are some of you going "Yeah, that's how I shop!"

I also like it when I can perform a specific process that will give me a predictable result. Flip a switch and fill a room with light. Predictability is comforting in a world gone postal. The downside is it's boring as hell creatively and not conducive to writing.

I spent a lot of money on books about writing in search of this all-encompassing process. I was sure every writer who ever got published knew how to 'do it'. I was a mullet-less Robert Langdon*, hunting for the secret knowledge that would provide illumination.

I mistook the process for the content.

It took me a while to figure out there was no 'correct' way of writing a novel. Writing a novel is messy, unique, heartrending and exhilarating. There are some universal constants that every writer worth their salt follows:

  • Write every day
  • Practice by writing every day so you can get better at your craft
  • Use proper grammar and punctuation
  • Read the submission guidelines and follow them

This won't automatically get you published but it will put you a leg up on a lot of folks. The realization that the rest of the process was a matter of what worked best for the individual was at once frightening and freeing for me.

Some people outline their stories. Some people dive in the deep end and swim around with no idea where they're going. Some people have a beginning and know where they want to wind up but don't need to know more than that to get started. Some people have an idea and have to do the research before they feel like they can start. Some people say screw the research, they'll deal with it once the story is drafted.

I once heard an author on a panel call their first draft their 'vomit draft' because no matter what they came up with it all went on the page. No idea was too stupid, there weren't too many adjectives. I liked that. The beauty of the first draft is there's a second, and a third, etc.

The more I write the more I learn about what works for me. The result is wildly unpredictable (and not always in a good way), but knowing what works best for me frees up my mind to get creative and weird, to throw stuff at a page and see what sticks. The process provides comfort and the comfort provides the freedom to imagine. I finally figured out that it's the imagination that makes the content interesting to read, not how I get there in the first place.

*I've never read the books. I am embarrassed to admit I've seen both movies, at the behest of others I hasten to add. First and second time in my life I've napped in a movie theater.

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