Jessica Faust's post about writing processes couldn't have come at a better time for me. I was planning to do a few posts about my own writing, which I've mentioned here quite a bit without ever quite explaining much about it.
My own process, if you'll forgive the overstatement, changes a lot. Usually an idea has to percolate in my head for a long time. The setting and characters grow from a shady outline into something more detailed. I do sit down to write very early, though - at best, I might have one or two characters, a setting and the start of a plot. Then I hope for the best.
For my current novel, I did very little advance plotting. I knew that I had two timelines, one in the present and one in the 1940s, and I had two main settings, one urban and one rural. I knew the main turning point in the book was section that took place in neither of my settings, and I knew that it was critically important to get as much of the historical stuff right as possible because it's just about within living memory and it's a senstive topic, especially in Ireland. I also knew thematically what I was going for (although I hate the word 'thematically'). What I mean is, I knew the feeling I wanted my story to have. It was to be about the stories that aren't told.
I started by writing about the present. It appealed to me more and seemed easier - the present-heroine belonged to the same city and time as I did, so the writing flowed more freely. I didn't need to research anything about her.
Then I switched to the past. And when I did, something strange happened. Rosie Martin, the best friend of my eight year old past-heroine, suddenly became the most interesting thing on the page. She took over my book until I liked the past sections more than the present. She became my point of view character for almost all of the chapters in the past. I even started to refer to the book as 'Rosie' when I spoke about it (as we have seen, I am crap at titles).
Writers often talk about when characters start doing things of their own accord. Yes, it is strange, but it is wonderful and great fun. Whatever happens to this novel, I'll like Rosie forever.
Once Rosie came alive and started doing her thang (and if I have ever created a character who could do thangs, it's Rosie), I started to try and impose control. An outline suggested itself. This isn't how I usually work, but Rosie's story had to span about sixty years so it helped to know how old she was and what she was doing when I faded in and out. I do feel it paralysed me a little bit, though, and it's a lesson I'll take with me into the next book - as Natalie Goldberg would say, I do better with a big field to wander in. I can see the next scenes, or the next chapters, in vivid detail, too vivid for any real discoveries to happen (like my discovery that Rosie was more interesting than her best friend). And I can see the rest of the book as an outline.
I have come up with a cure for this, though. I think writing faster will solve a lot of it. I joke here about being a slow writer (Sherry Thomas is a slow writer and she jokes about it, so that means it's OK) but as I'm still working on my first book, it has more to do with the fact that I'm easily intimidated and easily derailed (I also have difficulty saying 'no' when invited to things I want to go to, but that's another story). I often take breaks from writing for a week or more, but I don't take breaks from thinking or talking about the book, so it takes shape in my head and the words remain stubbornly unwritten. If I could write faster than I ponder, I think that would help a lot.
I'm working hard at the moment on finishing this book. I'm a member of a new writing group starting in January and I want a shiny new project to start then. I'll be sure to keep posting progress reports to shame myself into achievement :)