Sunday, January 8, 2012


I’m the type of person who tries to avoid reading directions as hard as most people try to avoid mosquitos on a Kentucky July night. I like to dive into a project without considering if I have any skill whatsoever or even knowing if I have all the necessary tools (which I rarely do). But when I get excited about a project, I’m unstoppable. I’m a maniac with tunnel vision who can only tear myself away from it for necessities like… feeding my children or animals.

Maybe it’s due to the fact that I’m a part-time insomniac, or the extreme case of ADD that I surely have, or maybe it’s just that I’m a learn-by-doing-kinda-girl. Years ago when I learned to make jewelry, a rather tedious craft that takes a bit of skill to bend and twist thin wire into miniscule earring loops, I read zero instructions. Perhaps if had, I would’ve known that a pair of round nose pliers were essential to making perfect circles instead of the triangular-ish blobs that I was producing. No doubt, a little research would’ve saved me time, money, and frustration, but reading a complicated how-to instruction manual would’ve probably crushed my burning desire to make jewelry altogether.

The same is true with my writing. When I started writing my first YA novel, I jumped in before really studying the craft of novel-writing. Sure I had some experience writing children’s books, but it was quite different than keeping track of an entire novel.

My process was messy: a little handwriting, a lot of typing, an enormous amount of skipping around. I am the queen of cutting and pasting and I possibly hit the delete button more often than I write the word was. But eventually, after extensive hair pulling, cursing, and many, many potato chips later, I did manage to peace the puzzle into a readable novel. Even though I’m certain I took the long way around, my unorganized, chaotic process worked for me.

At least, it did until I started book two—when I tried to do things the conventional way—directions first. Seeing that organization and plotting were working wonderfully for my critique partner, I decided to give it a whirl. After arming myself with some crisp new writing books, I began the study of how one should actually go about writing a novel. It wasn’t long before I was completely overwhelmed by all the rules and information. I plowed through them anyway (mostly) and learned a ton--if only I could retain and apply it all.

And I tried--I really did, to plot it all out like a real writer before I started writing the actual book. But my characters seemed more like stick figures floating in space rather than multi-faceted characters in a story. The whole point was to save me time and headaches down the plot-hole road, right? So I forged ahead, convincing myself that I would indeed shape these eighty plus pages of storyline into something magical.

Here’s the crappy part; when I started writing the actual book, I was completely derailed on page freaking one by a character who was nowhere to be found within my mountain of plotted scribble. Dammit!

Now what? I had spent all that time and had really grown to like my story ideas. So naturally, the next step for me was brainwashing—myself. I desperately wanted to believe that the new random guy who showed up on page one was just that—some random guy. Only thing is, my instincts told me otherwise. When I called an emergency meeting with my crit partner to discuss my dilemma, she totally called me out on it. “No,” I insisted, “he’s not the guy”.

Her reply confirmed my worst fears; he was THE guy and not only that, I was writing two separate books. As much as I wanted it not to be true, I knew she was right and so were my instincts. After my initial oh-crap-what-now-moment, I eventually went back to my original process and let my characters lead me where they wanted to go instead of the other way around.

So my advice to those trying to maneuver this writing maze; by all means, study the rules and directions, but know that you don’t have to read them first. Stop fighting your process and do what works for you! In simpler terms: Stop trying to make yourself develop a taste for Uno’s deep dish if you secretly prefer Totino’s Party Pizzas!!

Embrace your taste!!


Katie McGarry said...

Yes!!!! I totally agree!!! Everyone has a different process and there is no right or wrong way!!!

Kristin Lenz said...

So true! I admire writers who start with an outline. A couple years ago, after following a messy path similar to yours, I read a convincing manual about outlining. I vowed to do that for my next book, but it didn't work for me. But I can still use some of those outlining/plotting tools after the first draft.

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Great post--what a fascinating process.

Kurt Hampe said...

To me, there is no different between outlining and seat of the pants writing. It's just a question of how you express your brainstorming.

And when you're done, you still have to do a revision. So no matter how you got there, the first draft is really just a detailed outline.

Lisa Tapp said...

Very true, Collette. I think I'm still trying to settle on my process. It seems to be different for every book.