Friday, July 6, 2012
The Writing Process in 5 Stages
The concept of writing or "creating" can be intimidating for the beginning writer, (more on that next week) so let's break it down. There are 5 smaller, more manageable stages in the writing process: Observing, Gathering, Recording, Organizing, and Touching Up. Some of these stages have "professional" names, which I'll use later, but the names I've used here describe what the writer actually does during each stage.
This process may sound less romantic and flowery than what novelists like to say: if you write stories, you add in imaginative elements to your information; you may rephrase your words into story arcs and metaphors to make the message more accessible. However, it is the same essential process.
The first stage, Observation, is fun and inspiring. It doesn't feel like work. Rather, it makes a writer feel...well, writerly! You carry around a notebook, and people wonder why you are always pulling it out and scribbling something down. You may not even be thinking about writing: you may have just been walking around town, or reading a book or hanging out with a friend. Little and big truths come to us in the form of observations like, "A strong wind blows, but only one of the many trees dances in it." From there, you can go a thousand directions. What kind of tree is it? Why does only that one dance? I strongly suggest writing your observations down in a notebook; it's been one of the most useful tools for me. Observations don't all get used--in fact, most won't--but they're a great jumping-off point. The great children's author Lois Lowry said in this fabulous interview that a writer who has lived in a small town for 50 years can get as much great content as they need, as long as they are observant. I have to firmly believe that, because as far as I know, I'll be living in Lake County for a loooong time! :)
The second stage, Gathering, a.k.a. Researching, often stems from a writer's Observation. You take it a step further. First you see, hear or even smell something that interests you--a news cast, the strange new style of dress these days, the strong smell of curry from that restaurant across the street--and you may want to research it a little. You pursue what you've observed. You buy a fashion magazine and laugh at the outrageous getups; you go ask the owner of the restaurant where he moved from, and pick up a menu; you check internet articles or read books. Often, more interesting tidbits will show up. Last week's post discussed how research helps engage reader interest through specific details. This is a great time to find specific details. This second stage of the writing process is ongoing--even while you record (Stage 3), organize (Stage 4), and touch-up (Stage 5), you might still be snooping around for more interesting tidbits to liven up your story.
The third stage is Recording, a.k.a. First-Drafting. Really, you begin recording in the observation stage, but once you begin writing the first draft, you've stepped into the third stage officially. For NaNoWriMo writers, this begins strictly on November first.* Although there is some organization (Stage 4) involved in this stage, mostly you are throwing your research and ideas and truths and metaphors onto a page. You are making characters out of one-liners and internet images. There are many different methods to this stage: some writers take months or years, organizing as they go, and others do it extremely quickly. I prefer the quicker version, because the first draft nearly always morphs dramatically during the next stage. Lately, however, I've been leaning towards taking more time on the first-draft. Your preferences will change the more you write.
For me, Stage 4, Organizing, a.k.a Revision, is the biggest, scariest of the all the processes. The biggest difference between this stage and stage four is the pace of the writing. Stage 4 takes up the most time out of all three processes. It consists of making decisions about content: keep this, toss it, or save it for later? What else needs to happen? Organization is overhauling the mad dash of Stage 3, and figuring out what unanticipated-but-lovely metaphors and themes showed up. Here, you have to shove all the parts of your story into a story arc. You plot. Let nothing go untouched or unquestioned in this stage--yes, question everything, even your inspiration. Deepen your characters--here, they should become more real. They should make decisions, like real people, and change your plot in unexpected ways. You can create a setting using details you've researched, and from your imagination. During this stage, it's important to remember that nothing is permanent. You can change or rewrite ANYTHING. Don't get too attached! Your specific details and research (which is still ongoing and getting deeper) might stick, but most of your first draft from Stage 3 will be revised away. Don't start "touching up" (Stage 5) yet. If you want some other great articles on revision, check out these two written by published authors: Mary Kole on Revision, and Nathan Bransford's Editing Strategies.
Stage 5 is Touching Up, or Editing. This is my favorite part! Fun, fun, fun. Here, we play with the small picture, and make the words prettier. Grammar, sentence structure, specific images, snappy dialogue, etc. This is the part where you make the story beautiful--not just presentable, or even just passionate, but gleaming and sharp and delicate and strong. I recommend staying away from editing and touching up before your manuscript is in stage 5, because if you spend days on a passage, you won't want to let it be revised away...even if it really needs to be.
Every writer goes through these stages a little differently. The best way to figure it out is to try it! Good luck, friends.
*Revised on 3/14/13: I've discovered that some writer prefer to outline using chapter summaries and scene lists instead of writing out their whole first draft. They do this because it saves them from writing out so many unusable scenes. For more information on this process, see the book Outlining Your Novel by K. M. Weiland. The Kindle version is only $4 books, and it's totally worth it to see examples of outlining.