Susanne Dunlap

Process

In The writing life on June 24, 2010 at 9:06 am

I thought I’d give a rest to talking about myself today 🙂 and talk about writing instead. Well, I guess talking about writing also involves talking about myself. What can I do? Whenever I get together with other writers, or read other writers’ blogs, certain things always seem to come up. Things like writer’s block, getting in the zone, whether you outline or not. So I thought I’d share a few that are not just my own, but things I’ve heard.

Inspiration vs. perspiration

OK, so it’s a cliche. This is a blog post, not a novel! But the reason sayings get to be cliches is because there’s some universal truth embedded in them. My wonderful editor recently asked me if I ever get writer’s block. I hadn’t really thought about it, and my answer was that I don’t really understand what writer’s block is. Everyone gets stuck in a story or novel, and there are periods of furious writing alternating with days when getting the words on the screen feels like trying to get the last bit out of an almost-empty tube of toothpaste. But to me, that just means I have to take a different approach. I either work on something else, or I do some research, or I just take a break and think. It’s not a block, it’s a new problem to solve, and that means going at it from a different direction.

The working writers I know approach their days as regular work days. Writing is a job. You have to have discipline to do it. Even if you disregard deadlines, or have a publisher who is willing to wait years for your next book, that book doesn’t get written unless you obey the rule I heard articulated by the amazing Jane Yolen at the SCBWI conference in New York: B.I.C. Butt In Chair.

Outlining vs. freewheeling

I have a confession to make. I don’t outline. I’ve tried it, but every time I make an outline, within about a day I deviate from it, and then have to rework the outline. I realized then that my energy was better spent actually writing.

But there are many writers who outline as a way to keep their thoughts straight and work out plot. I think it can be very useful. It would also be useful to be able to flip back to an outline and see what you called that random character you introduced in chapter two (you think) rather than having to search through a hundred pages of manuscript.

Writers use all sorts of tools to keep their thinking straight. I know several who put post-it notes up and move them around as their plots change. Using timelines is another tool, especially for historical novelists like me. I have had to use timelines for a couple of books I’ve written, just to keep historical events straight against the action of my book.

But outlines—for me, part of the magic of writing is those stretches where you start writing and you’re not sure what’s going to happen, except you have a vague idea that the plot has to move forward and there’s a conflict. You put yourself at the service of your characters and watch what happens. It’s absolutely true that sometimes they surprise you. It’s one of my favorite parts about being a writer, feeling as though you’re not just giving free rein to your imagination, but you’re creating a world full of real people, with motives, sorrow, joy, love, hate and all the rest, and they just get to act it out through your fingers.

Silence vs. music

You’d think because I’m a musician at heart that I’d love a soundtrack for my writing. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Any music with a text gets me listening and singing along. Any music I’m familiar with makes me focus on the music not the page.

But I don’t need absolute silence either. I can tune out ambient noise quite easily. The subway is one of my favorite places to work. The act of tuning out seems to focus me on the laptop screen even better, and I’ve been known to miss my stop because I’ve been so deeply engrossed in writing.

Here, there are about as many different environmental stimuli or distractions as there are writers. One I met recently said she not only needs complete silence, but she turns off all the lights, lowers the lid of her laptop so she can’t see what’s coming up on the screen, putting her hands in a sort of “laptop muff”, closes her eyes and writes, feeling the words onto the page.

Others need to write in a space away from home, because those dust bunnies or that pile of dishes in the sink keep calling out for attention. I don’t have that problem.

My sister-in-law, the fabulous thriller writer Jenny Siler, has to write in her office at home. Plenty of writers sit in cafes, cushioning themselves from the distraction of email and the Internet. I sometimes turn off my email program so I don’t keep seeing those little messages pop up on the screen.

So, I guess the net-net is that whatever works for you is good. Writing is hard work. I suppose that’s my ultimate take-away. If you’re not agonizing over it, even if you’re a fast writer capable of achieving two books a year, you’re not pushing yourself to the next level.

And to do that, you should do whatever it takes. Outline, music, research, timelines, post-its. These are tools. Use the ones that work for the task at hand.

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