Okay, so there’s this thing going around, a #MyWritingProcessTour thing, and you know how these memes work – someone nominates you to answer a bunch of questions, you nominate a few other people to do the same, and so on. I’ve written a lot about process here, and I talked about it in an interview last year, but the tools always slightly change, and so does the writing structure, so maybe it’s a good time to visit the topic again.
What Am I Working On?
I just published Atmospheres in the beginning of March, and I should be publicizing that, but that didn’t work out and I fell into a deep post-partum depression, like I always do. I stumbled with writing something similar, which started to catch, but it’s hard to plod forward on a book that’s essentially the same as one you just wrote that didn’t sell. (And I know this isn’t about how many books I sell, but it wouldn’t be bad if a few people actually read them.)
Anyway, I sat around the house watching old movies and taking notes. Even though I’ve burned a lot of cycles writing about how books don’t need plot and we’re all fucked because plot is a crutch for dumb readers and eventually all novelists will be doing nothing more than writing the book equivalent of stupid half-hour sitcoms, I still have this sick desire to write a well-crafted, heavily-plotted novel. About once a year, I get this bug stuck in my ass and come up with a half-baked idea and start writing it and then flame out after 50,000 words, a solid Act 1, a broken Act 2, and 17 words of an outline of an Act 3.
(I don’t know what the desire is on doing this. I think part of it is that I get so much shit for writing “plotless” books, as if that’s a pejorative term, and I think it isn’t. But every time I get that, I feel like writing a heavily plotted book as a big fuck-you to show that I can do it, and then I’d write another ten books that didn’t do this. Because I can; it’s just I feel like I’m not pushing the envelope when I do.)
Well, right now I have an 80%-baked idea, and just started work on it, and have a much more solid outline and the first 10,000 on it. That’s about all I can say about it right now, but if it still has momentum in a month, it could be good.
How Does My Work Differ From Others of its Genre?
I don’t really fit into any particular genre, so I don’t know how to answer this. I can probably answer by saying why my work doesn’t fit into specific genres or communities, and that would define the differences in my writing. So:
- I don’t write genre fiction, so I don’t write high-concept stuff that can easily be pitched.
- I feel like most experimental writing is an academic study in form, and not necessarily written to be entertaining. While I think that kind of writing is important, I’m not an academic, and I write to entertain, so I think the readability level is much higher in my work.
- I’m often called an absurdist, but there’s a fine line between satirists and absurdism (i.e. Vonnegut, Heller, Tom Robbins, etc.) and I think when people think of absurdism, they’re really thinking satire. I think more of the Dada and surrealism movements in art, but the word surrealism has been overloaded and destroyed in modern culture to the point of meaningless, and I think any time someone sees something weird or freaky or psychedelic, they call it surreal, (i.e. locking a bunch of has-been celebrities in a house and making a reality TV show is “surreal” now.)
- I’m often lumped into the Bizarro fiction world, but I haven’t published anything with Eraserhead or their imprints, which is the difference between bizarro and Bizarro. I also feel like at this point, half of bizarro is horror fiction with a certain Troma-esque sense of humor, or it’s a very set form of “let’s take Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and make Tom Sawyer a talking anthropomorphic penis, and it’s set in Nazi Germany” and that’s that. There are exceptions to the rule, but I’ve never fell into the groove with that, and I don’t write horror.
Why Do I Write What I Do?
I wrote a big post called Why I Write, which partially answers this. If I were to riff on this for a minute, I’d give the stock answer of “I write what I would want to read” which is a bit of a cop-out, but is true. I mean, when I read or re-read a classic book like Naked Lunch or a more contemporary one like any of Mark Leyner’s stuff, I always think “I really like this — who is writing more stuff like this?” and the answer is nobody. So, that’s what I need to write.
How Does My Writing Process Work?
Okay, here is the rundown, 2014 edition.
First, I write here and write on Facebook and twitter, and those don’t really feed into my actual writing; they are just distractions. I also keep a personal journal, handwritten in little moleskine books, and I try to write in that every single day, but it’s mostly just about day-to-day happenings and not about writing, except maybe how much I did or did not do.
I use a MacBook Pro, iPhone, and iPad, and I use the Notes app to keep track of ideas or write down things as they happen in the wild, like little phrases or title ideas or things to research later. These sync across all of the devices, and I currently sync them through Gmail, which means in theory I can access them even if I’m somehow away from all three things but still at a computer. (I might research how to change this to iCloud, because every time I rely on a Google service for something, they decide to cancel it.)
I use Scrivener for everything. So I have a big Scrivener catch-all project that contains nothing but bits and pieces, leftovers from published books and ideas for characters and lists of random objects and places and little phrases I want somebody to say at some point and title ideas. It’s basically a hoarder’s house of words. Every month or so, I scoop out the running Notes file of ideas and drop it in there. When I have time, I sometimes move the pieces into the proper places, and if I was smart, I’d do that religiously. But I’m not. I am about 17% confident that the best ideas float back out of the scratch project when I skim it looking for things to rip off in a current project. And I’m learning that not every idea that comes out of my head is golden and 90% of them should probably die. But that’s always a struggle.
For writing plotted stuff: I will probably go into this in greater detail after the book is done. But I’m using a program called Scapple, which is by the same company as Scrivener, and it’s a sort of mind mapping thing. You draw little circles on a big blank canvas and put text in them and connect them together and shuffle them around. Once you get the order correct, you can either export it into OPML, or just drag and drop it into Scrivener.
Scrivener uses this concept of scrivenings, which are little chunks of text. You can view all of the scrivs sequentially, like a big, flat file. You can then create folders and a hierarchy and move them all around and give each one a cute title and have them be your chapters or parts of chapters or scenes or whatever. You can also switch to an outline mode, or to an index card mode, that uses a different piece of text per scriv (a short description) so you can plot your story and move things around. It’s confusing until you get the hang of it, and then you never want to go back.
For plotted stuff, I moved the Scapple map I plotted out and dropped it into Scrivener, where each little scene bubble became a scriv. Then I organized things by Act and got the order all correct, and started writing from page one, sequentially. When I get done, I can shoot the whole thing out in .DOC format or whatever. I use Apple Pages instead of Word for layout, because I hate word. And Scrivener is able to output eBooks pretty much perfectly, so that’s what I do.
When I do the more non-linear writing, I typically have a project and I free-write every day, 500 or 1000 words. When I wrote Atmospheres, I would listen to the Sleep album Dopesmoker all the way through every day, and write, with my only rule being that I couldn’t write about not writing. I mix in pieces that are in that scratch project, and I later cut out bits and pieces and split things up. Sometimes, I’ll write for a given day, and I’ll split out a single paragraph or even sentence from that entry, and create a new scriv from it, maybe gluing in pieces from another one, and eventually fill it out until it’s a longer piece. It’s like songwriting, collecting riffs and eventually gluing them together and smoothing them out until something larger appears. This takes forever, but it would take longer if I was doing it in another program.
I usually have a hair-brained scheme involving color tags on the project outline that determines what’s part-done and what’s almost-done and what needs a total redo. I also set up a NO folder outside the project and start chucking things into it that I can’t look at anymore. Eventually it comes down to PDFs that are printed and red-penned and mailed to readers for comments.
Okay, I’m supposed to tag a bunch of people here to answer the same questions. I have not asked any of them to do it, so they probably won’t but here you go:
- Ryan Werner was already tagged but I will tag him again. Werner runs Passenger Side Books, plays guitar in 17 different bands, and writes Terry Funk fan fiction.
- David S. Atkinson is the author of The Garden of Good and Evil Pancakes and Bones Buried in the Dirt.
- Fiona Helmsley has written a bunch of stuff everywhere, and I publish her a lot at Paragraph Line.