Years ago, when I was in dance and working on choreography, I would arrive at the studio having a general idea of some things I wanted to try. But it was only in the act of moving that specific ideas, bits of movement, and whole phrases, often ones I hadn’t even contemplated, would emerge.
On the other hand, I had a good friend who would choreograph by lying on her bed, closing her eyes, and visualizing her dance creation. When I tried this method, not much happened except that I fell asleep. But the point is, it worked for her!
Now that I write novels, I’m finding that we writers all have different processes, and ultimately, what matters is what works. For example, I do a great deal of pre-writing, particularly about my characters. Before I start writing my first draft, I want to know as much as I can about what makes my characters tick. What are their hopes, dreams, foibles? What’s their back story?
But an award-winning writer in my writer’s group doesn’t bother with that at all. She explained that she gets to know her characters in the process of writing her story. And obviously, that works for her.
And truthfully, despite all that work I do before writing my first draft, once I’ve started working on a novel, the characters have a way of surprising me—as does the plot I’ve so carefully outlined after developing my characters. While I think of myself as a diehard planner as opposed to a seat-of-the-pants writer who jumps in without all those preliminary steps, the truth is that I’m really a hybrid. Because once I’m writing, things have a way of changing. And pretty soon, that outline I depended on so heavily is no longer that useful.
What I’ve found is that it’s important to trust your own individual process. Yesterday, for example, I needed to write an important scene near the end of my work-in-progress in which my protagonist discovers the identity of the person who framed her for murder. I knew in a general way what I wanted to have happen, but I sat there for a long time trying to figure out how to begin that scene. Finally, I wrote one sentence. And then another, and another. And as I put myself in the head of my protagonist and acted and reacted as I felt she would at such a significant moment in her life, the words came.
They’re not perfect, and I’m sure I’ll revise and even rewrite this scene many times. But I am reminded of E.L. Doctorow’s statement:
Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.
And as hard as I find it to make the trip, the journey always feels well worth it.