Thursday, January 12, 2006

answering questions

Q: What is your writing process? I mean, what are the steps you take?

A: Here's my personal process. Caveat time again: by no means am I saying that my writing mechanicals are the best way or the only way or that people should do I as do. But my process (such as it is) works for me.

Concept/idea development

To begin writing a story, be it a piece of short fiction or something longer, I start with an idea or a notion. Sometimes, it’s a bit of dialogue (that’s the playwright in me) that triggers the process. Sometimes, it’s something visual that I can see in my mind’s eye. Sometimes, it’s purely an idea, something that comes in a flash of oh-my-god-I’m-brilliant. But most of the time it is deliberate focus and concentration, willing myself to work on a time schedule, whether the inspiration is present or not. In those cases, I dig up some older story idea or create one on the spot. If I need to do the latter, I seek out some quiet space and let my mind wander in the various places of my mind. Most of the time, I find a little something in some almost forgotten area that I can use.

To me, the quality of the initial conceit is not as important as the execution. The truth of the matter is that the story is an organic thing. As it is written, it will change; and that change can include its very basis or foundation idea. This happens, for example, when I set out to write about something specific, say a certain character performing a specific task. But in the course of writing, I discover that the events surrounding the character are more interesting, and that there is a more invigorating story to tell. This creates a choice for me: to pursue the initial idea or to walk down the new road.


Next thing I do is to outline or structure the piece. I do this mostly for plays but have also started to do a bit for my fiction pieces (with plays I’m stricter with myself because I’m conscious of the play’s running time). This process for fiction is fairly simple. In very general terms, I list down a sequence of events (if I’m working with plot) or focus characters (if a choreo-play). Sometimes, I break down the imagined narrative into discrete parts and, thinking musically, determine the tempo. Sometimes, the so-called “outline” is no more than a set of loglines. I really do not spend much time here because I suspect (at least for me) that it is really unnecessary. I tend to break whatever outline I create anyway.

What I do not do is to create a full blown written guide (or a “bible”). I write bibles only for work-for-hire.

Initial draft

I tend to write my first draft quickly. Depending on the length of the piece, this can take anywhere from a few hours to a few days for short fiction. In the case of Salamanca, I used a personal quota system – X number of words per day, but the new novel I’m starting is structured into chapters, so I’m writing by chapters. In the case of a play, I finish the first draft in a couple of days.

The quality of my initial drafts vary. For plays, I tend to write quicker and let the dialogue flow. The draft is usually sprawling and improves during the next steps in the process. I usually think of my play drafts as ugly and unwieldy, nothing I care to show anyone.

For fiction, I’ve found that as I grow as writer I’m more able to imbue texture on the first pass (character touches, dialogue, descriptors, and insight). I’m nowhere near where I’d like to be in terms of being able to write as precisely as I can on the first pass, but I tend to generate very little that I cannot later use, reuse or abuse.

Since I do not write in a linear fashion (beginning-middle-end, in sequence), I am able to write bits and pieces here and there as my mood permits (for me, it’s okay to be moody as long as I’m actually being productive). Ideas continue to be developed as the first draft is written because you cannot write a one-idea story (you can have a focus, yes, but you need to build texture and other interesting things around the main idea). When I write short fiction, I tend to jump around a lot, writing this then going back to that before suddenly deleting an entire section because it simply doesn’t work anymore. I try not to edit during the draft process but do a bit of it anyway – because while I am in the zone, my tolerance for what-the-fuck-is-this is very very low.

During this step of the process, I try to write uninterrupted, to preserve momentum. Nothing irks me more than sudden conversation, music, a phone call, any sound or movement at all. I’m like a foul-tempered beast forcing blood from a stone.

This is the part of the writing process that I enjoy the most, when all my creative juices are flowing and I am only dimly aware of the physical act of writing (when I am aware, I’m dismayed that I think faster than I can actually type).

Walk away

When I’m finished, I leave the text alone. We need time apart. I need a clear head the next time we meet.

Rewrites and revisions

When I return to the text, it is not as a lover. I rewrite the parts that do not work or are not true or are simply out of place. I check for flow and pacing and texture, for the quality of language and agonize over paragraphs or even word choice. At this point, it is still possible for the entire story to be changed or at least vast parts of it.

This stage takes as long as it needs to take. However, if there is an actually deadline, then I make sure that I actually have time to perform this step. I usually end up unhappy with anything I’ve written anyway.

This is the second best part of the writing process for me.


This is the homestretch when I harvest the errant commas and replace the hyphens with em dashes. This is when I clip run-on sentences that are just too long, even for me. I go over the text and change certain words for better, more precise (or vague, as the case may be) ones. “Find and replace” lets me change character names if I choose to.

Final manuscript

I format the final text for submission or publication and send it off.

And I inevitably think I’ve written the most terrible thing in the world, but move on to next story anyway.


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