Just like every other reader, when I talk to an author, I want to know about her writing process. It’s a topic that comes up again and again in conversations, and that has been on the top of my mind since the most recent meeting of my critique group.
So when I woke up at 3:30am (or actually, when my dog Betty woke me up at 3:30am) and couldn’t get back to sleep, I started thinking about process, and what the different approaches are. I came up with a simile: Writing a novel is in many ways just like creating a work of visual art—at least in terms of approach. Just as different artists choose different media to work in, different writers need different paths to completing a novel. For my purposes, I’m using representational art as the example, since a narrative is more representational than abstract.
This is an elaboration on the duality that is usually put out there: plotter or pantser.
Bear with me for a moment as I explore this here. At the end, I’ll tell you which “artist” I am.
Writer type 1: The Painter
We all know the cliches, of course. But dig a little deeper and see that there is a process similarity that some writers cling to in creating their works of fiction.
For instance, a painter might start with a sketch. The outline of a subject that will ultimately tell the story of the work, that will lead the viewer’s eye to the right places to make a coherent, meaningful picture. The sketch is then filled in and amplified, adapted and colored. Light and shadow add depth and meaning.
The corresponding writerly process for me is someone who outlines, who has a relatively clear image of the structure of her novel before actually fleshing it out with characters and actions. The plot, the motivations, are carefully crafted to hang on the framework in the novelist’s mind, or even on paper.
I imagine that having this structure frees a writer to delve deeply into characters and subtleties. For some reason, I think that a lot of what you might call character-driven novels could start this way—unless they don’t. My caveat is that there are infinite ways to arrive at an end result, and I’m probably oversimplifying. But the mental exercise amused me and might be useful, so here it is.
Writer type 2: The Architect
To build a vast structure that holds up requires enormous planning ability. Even more than painting, a writer with an architectural view of her story I imagine must spend a great deal of time on the preliminary stage, building the foundations, so to speak, gathering the materials, testing them out.
Architectural writers (and I’d love to know if I’m even close to right about this) are people like Leon Uris, Edward Rutherford, Ken Follett. In fact, Follett’s Pillars of the Earth demonstrates an architectural approach both literally and figuratively.
That’s not to say that spontaneity is lacking in writers who take this approach. Just like house building, materials can surprise you. But to achieve a vast panorama that encompasses a time period, or a life, seems to me to take this kind of architectural planning.
Writer type 3: The Sculptor
There are two subgroups here: those who start with a solid material and carve away the excess to reveal a subject, and those who start with a lump of something malleable and manipulate it to reveal a subject.
The first kind fascinates me, because it’s so unlike me. The example I can think of is a fictionalized biography. There, something exists in its entirety, but perhaps its details are not apparent. I picture a writer using a pen like a chisel, digging away to get at a truth hidden inside the material.
Or perhaps even more broadly, this is the kind of writer who spews out a rough draft, and only starts to see what the story is as she goes back in and cuts and shapes and whittles. The end result may bear very little resemblance to the original draft, but wouldn’t exist unless that original draft had been created.
The other kind of sculptor is something I can relate to. It involves starting with an amorphous lump of something: a character, a setting, a historical event, then just going to work on it, pushing, prodding, adding more clay when it’s needed. The trouble with this is that I think it’s easy to end up with an incoherent mess. But that’s what editing is for. And for me, this approach permits a great degree of flexibility and spontaneity.
Writer type 4: Collage or Mosaic
A wonderful author friend, Kris Waldherr, recently described the way she starts a novel. She puts notes and scraps of ideas about characters, scenes etc. on pieces of paper, then posts these on a bulletin board or spreads them out on a surface. I love this idea, but I couldn’t imagine doing anything that way. Her method lets her assemble the narrative with a lot of fluidity of structure.
And like a mosaic, the story might not be truly visible until almost all the pieces are in place. This, I imagine, makes the gaps obvious, allowing a writer to knit scenes together where necessary.
I think this approach might work for writers who go around with a notebook and jot down conversations they hear, or describe things in the world. A lot of writers do that. I confess, I don’t.
I have no idea if this is just insanity on my part, but I’d love some reaction from writer friends about whether you relate to any of these “types” I’ve identified. As may be obvious above, I’m the sculptor with the lump of clay. It doesn’t always work out for me: my creations can crack in the firing/editing process and I can be left with nothing. But it’s what I do.