What I learned from the processes of my favorite authors
Last April I started writing fiction. I have burned out on other modes of art before, so I knew getting my process right—right as in yielding improvement but also enjoyable and sustainable over many years—was essential to achieving any long-term goals. I had questions. Do I write every day? When I start a second draft, do I start with another blank page? How do I know when it's time to move on from the story?
I began by looking up the processes of my favorite authors. First, I queried about Yukio Mishima (who I wrote about in another article, if you're curious, but all you need to know about him to follow along here is that he's as good at writing drama as we are at respiration). The only piece of information available in English about his process is this tidbit from an old NYT article.
Writing was easy for Mishima, who could not understand why it took his translators so long to render his works into English. He wrote every night from midnight to dawn.a
“Just being good at it” was not a process I could expect to replicate. And, while in my extensive reading life I've never come across anyone with skill comparable to Mishima for writing profound endings, he had a bad habit of dumping long chapters in the middle of his books where a character reads and ponders Buddhist scripture by themselves, chapters that begged to be edited down. I endured these stretches of indulgent philosophizing because I needed to know how the stories ended. Maybe a process he found harder would have improved his work.
I looked up Ottessa Moshfegh, whose novel My Year of Rest and Relaxation, about a sad woman being sad, still echoes in my head months after reading it. Just for a taste of her skill with English, consider the first sentence.
Whenever I woke up, night or day, I’d shuffle through the bright marble foyer of my building and go up the block and around the corner where there was a bodega that never closed. (My Year of Rest and Relaxation, p. 1)
This one sentence packs so many propositions into it, and has such flow, that I knew I was going to read the entire book that weekend. These are just some of the propositions contained:
- Narrator has erratic sleep schedule, likely not integrated with 9-5 society.
- Narrator lives in an apartment, and the building foyer features marble so they're probably rich or at least not struggling.
- Narrator doesn't cook for themselves.
- Narrator has a conservative approach to their own life (they always go to the bodega; they never explore).
The voice this information is communicated through sounds like someone who's detached from anyone else's expectations. I could praise this sentence further, but the moral is she can write good. So I looked up what she has to say about writing, and found out she doesn't like to talk about it.
I don’t like talking about “how to write fiction.” I don’t like “craft” terms. Discussions about craft reinforce what feels to me to be an institutionalized paradigm for fiction dictated by the publishing industry.b
Her brief autobiographical history with writing is: she wrote an oeuvre of weird narratives that were too weird and people didn't want to read them. Then she goes almost-broke and says, hey, I gotta make some money, so she picks up a copy of The 90-Day Novel and works within its commercial-oriented constraints to write Eileen.c
A few years ago, when I was very broke, I made up my mind to write a novel that would appeal to a greater audience than my previous work. I deliberately embraced the conventional narrative structure in order to reach the mainstream. I pictured a plausible audience of avid readers as people who live vicariously through books—in other words, people with boring lives. I considered the personal paradigm of a bored, imaginatively escapist person. Boredom is a symptom of denial, I thought. A bored person is a coward, essentially. So I conceived of a character trapped by social mores, who plumbs the depths of her own delusions and does something incredibly brave; I thought that would be fun for the kind of audience I was writing to. Thus Eileen was born. And I did make a little money. I’m telling you this because many of my creative decisions were motivated by the emptiness of my bank account. I looked at the dominating paradigm and I abused it.b
I haven't read Eileen, so I'm not sure how much her attitude changed before she wrote My Year of Rest and Relaxation, but this whole scheme, with its certainty of working out, like, “Ok, this is what you dipshits will pay for? Fine, have it,” is hilarious. Her open contempt for her readers (see: me) endears her to me for some reason.
Ottessa's strategy suggests something I'd suspected but hadn't seen an author come out and say yet: that the process determines the character of the work it produces. In Yukio's works, which were written late in the night in manic periods of drafting, you can feel that they were written without a plan. His is discursive, romantic prose, eager to wander off into many-leveled abstractions about conflicting emotions. It would be impossible to plot them in advance. Ottessa's commercial books on the other hand are tethered to the fiction dream, playing in your head like a movie, every scene concrete and full of sensory detail. It's possible to imagine she had a storyboard going in.
Around this time in my research I was still focused on the macro stuff like story and character arcs. Then I discovered a writer who made the physical act of reading beautiful. Look at these words. Just, I mean, look at these words:
Two late-stage terminal drug addicts sat up against an alley’s wall with nothing to inject and no means and nowhere to go or be. (Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, p. 52)
This is the first sentence of David Foster Wallace's short story Octet. In just 24 words it sets up characters, setting, and an urgent conflict, and on top of all that it's funny and deviates from conventional English just enough that when it fits together after the n-microsecond delay, you get this hit of strange neurological satisfaction.
DFW is well-known for writing stem winders, but I chose this sentence as an example because I don't think it's the length of his sentences that makes them unique, rather it's their efficiency and plays on common language (such as the use of the verb “be” here at the end of a coordinated predicate) that gives them character.
After discovering a new dimension to writing, I took a side-road to look at the micro-level skills in writing. First I read DFW's own advice. Because he taught creative writing, he's said plenty on the topic, but this is in my opinion the core of it:
[...] you take a book you really like, you read a page of it three, four times, put it down, and then try to imitate it word for word so that you can feel your own muscles trying to achieve some of the effects that the page of text you like did. If you’re like me, it will be in your failure to be able to duplicate it that you’ll actually learn what’s going on.d
I do this exercise sometimes. By attempting to imitate other authors, longhand and slow, I built some muscle memory that triggers while I'm writing my own prose. In total I've done this exercise three times with different authors, and stolen one grammatical construction from each.
- I stole a flavor of “not only, but also” constructions from Ted Chiang by studying Stories of Your Life and Others.
- I stole a flavor of predicate asyndeton from Pamela Erens by studying The Virgins.
- I stole a style of cumulative sentence, building suspense with a sequence of participle phrases, from Ray Bradbury by studying Fahrenheit 451.
As an aside, another way I improved my sentences was by working through Building Great Sentences by Brooks Landon.
Back to the macro-level stuff. The two best story tellers I've ever read—in terms of, “Did I have an emotional experience reading this? Am I changed?“—are Ted Chiang and Chanel Miller. The latter hasn't written anything about her process that I can find, but before we move on I can't resist another brief tangent to geek on her writing.
Her memoir Know My Name is, in on-screen terms, about phone calls and reading internet comments and other everyday situations. But the emotional story is turbulent with mortal stakes. One way to tell this kind of story is to venture off into abstractions, but she doesn't do that. Read how she describes learning over the phone that her opponent in court, her violent assailant, was going to employ considerable resources to persuade the public and the courts that she was the errant one:
But as she spoke, her reasoning hit me with horrifying clarity: his only way out is through you. It was like watching wolves being clipped off their leashes while someone whispered in your ear that meat has been sown into your pockets. (Know My Name, p. 53)
I.o.w. she's good with metaphors. Real good.
Ok, now to the other storyteller with some behind-the-scenes comments, Ted Chiang. Ted Chiang is not a controversial nominee for best storyteller alive. When reading his stories, e.g. Hell Is the Absence of God, The Lifecycle of Software Objects, The Tower of Babylon, you can feel that every thread of the story races toward the end, has some effect on the end. No word is wasted. It's airtight. You buckle in, you're on the ride.
When I read about his writing process, that's when pieces of the puzzle started fitting together. Here's the tl;dre:
- He writes the ending first.
- He doesn't write often.
- He only writes about ideas that interest him.
- He doesn't revise dramatically but does take lots of notes beforehand, and sits on stories to tweak them for a long time before sharing them.
Of the stories that stick out in my reading life—A Sea of Fertility, Infinite Jest, The Merchant at the Alchemist's Gate, Know My Name—what's common between them all is a long period during which the ideas bounce around in the author's head and stew, marinate, into something so overwhelming it has to go on paper and take a physical shape. It has to. They're dying to make sense of the ideas and communicate them. Maybe the suffering is what distinguishes the art from the commercial.
But—there is a but—all of the authors also have a long history of honing their craft, whether through other stories or writing in another medium or journaling. The magic combination that creates art is both the passion and the sharp pen, both the ideas and the command of language to organize those ideas.
So far the ideal writing process looks like: years of intentional practice to develop the craft, years of brewing an all-consuming idea in one's head, and then breeding the two. The latter aspect, I don't know if it can be contrived. I think it just has to be in your fate. But as to the former aspect, the pure craft side, I want to introduce a complicating factor: Dean Wesley Smith.
DWS is a prolific writer. He's published—and this isn't a lie—almost two hundred novels.f His work, in my opinion, is not great. I've never been able to get past his first pages. But, he raises two profound points about process in his book Writing Into The Dark.
- If whatever you're doing right now in your writing career is so unfun—e.g. rewrites, getting your feelings hurt by harsh critiques, a developmental editor stealing your sleep—that you can't imagine yourself doing it five years, you need to change the process or you'll quit.
- Literary analysis tools, and the analytical mindset in general, the mindset you might apply to arithmetic problems or choices between competing consumer products, needs to be set aside while you're writing. Not just while you're drafting—there is no “drafting”—but while you're writing, like as in until you're done.
Point 1 is self-evident. Point 2 shocked me at first because it runs counter to the shibboleths about revision: get something sloppy down, scrutinize it, devise a treatment plan, perform surgery. Add to that that I couldn't read his books and my dubious alarms were ringing loud.
But then I encountered a similar statement from Robert Olen Butler, whose writing I've enjoyed. He states it differently. He doesn't hate revision, but he doesn't redraft from scratch either. What he describes is like “hanging out in the draft.” All parts of the draft are eligible for revision at all times. All parts of the draft are eligible for writing at all times, including scenes well ahead of the linear process, maybe even the end. Scenes may be rewritten, dropped, added, etc but it's never conscious and analytical. He gets in touch with his trance-like, uncritical writing mind and hangs out in the draft until it's done.h
Then to convince me at last, I encountered a similar statement from Neil Gaimang, whose writing in American Gods is a modern benchmark. Neil says he writes first drafts longhand, and then revises on that draft, i.e. doesn't start over.
All this information digested, I've come up with my own personal process I describe below.
- Do not plan. Start writing.
- When I don't know where to go, set the story down for a few days and work on another. Or for a bigger project, write another part like the end or a different POV.
- Revisit the draft, see the story hiding in the writing so far, revise until I feel like it's a solid foundation for more narrative.
- Write forward, repeat step 2.
- When finished, let it sit for a few weeks.
- After letting it sit, enter the draft, hang out in it and coax the story out. Repeat step 5 and this one again until satisfied—beware perfectionism.
- Submit the story.
- Get rejected. Repeat this step a lot.