The Three Stages of Writing

Writing is fundamentally about the communication of ideas. Processes will vary from writer to writer, but, for professionals, it is imperative to follow these three main stages: prewriting, writing and rewriting. It’s also helpful to think of writing as a continuous process. A piece of professional writing is seldom accomplished in a single linear sitting; it is the result of much forethought and constant refinement.

Prewriting is the first step of the process and is defined as ‘a blanket term for a wide range of techniques designed to start a writer off on the right foot, both intellectually and psychologically’[1]. It refers to any preparatory work preceding the drafting process. Examples of prewriting range from the tangible – i.e. note-taking, listing, charting, plotting, free writing (where one writes continuously until they run out of associations), drawing or creating other visual delineations – to the intangible – i.e. daydreaming, imagining, theorising, visualising or empathising (when responding to external stimuli). Prewriting is designed to help writers familiarise with ideas, affording them greater understanding of their own fictional worlds. With this deeper conceptual intimacy, writers are able to draw richer, more convincing details. Work will theoretically flow better, too, as the writer will have a better semblance of what they’re working towards and will therefore be able to forge more organic connections between ideas.

PrewritingExcepting spontaneous prose writers and practitioners of trance or automatic writing (who write with deliberate detachment), all writers engage in prewriting. Daydreams, fantasies and moments spent questioning reality are examples of this. These can act as mental springboards, propelling writers towards the exploration of fictional ideas. In fitness terms, prewriting is like stretching; or, to use a culinary analogy, it can be thought of as preheating the oven. Either way, prewriting directly facilitates the proceeding stages of the writing process.

Plotting, a popular form of prewriting, is particularly useful for longer writing projects, as their inherent ambitiousness makes them susceptible to wayward deviations. Long fiction projects like novels can fall prey to pacing issues or become convoluted if not approached with diligence. Plans and formal structures aren’t essential, but serve as useful guides. However, some find preparation confining; therefore, individuals must decide how stringently they will adhere to plans.

Spontaneous fiction writing (colloquially known as ‘pantsing’) is, for many, an enjoyable and viable approach. It may seem bereft of forethought, and thus not prewriting in the conventional sense, but this is not necessarily so, as the unconscious mind is always ticking over, refilling the reserves so that they may be drawn upon during fiction writing. Scottish author Alexander McCall Smith, speaking to Otago Daily Times, claimed that the ideas for his popular No.1 Ladies Detective Agency novels poured out fully formed[2]. He does not write detailed plans; rather, he attributes his efficient plotting process to his subconscious mind.

Conversely, prolific sci-fi author Rachel Bach said on her blog[3] that detailed outlining has rejuvenated her writing process, allowing her to isolate the prewriting and drafting processes so that she may commit wholeheartedly to one at a time.

These contrasting examples illustrate how prewriting creates a smoother drafting experience, whether the writer commits to a tangible or intangible approach.

WritingThe second part of the fiction writing process is drafting. This is the real heavy lifting; unlike prewriting, which can take more abstract forms, drafting is the literal commitment of words to page. It is perhaps the most important part of the writing process; rewriting cannot even begin until the writer has put down actual content. Until drafting begins, projects can never really come to fruition and will instead remain ideas, an abstraction.

Perhaps because of this importance, the physical act of writing is wont to cause writers the most anxiety. In its worst form, this phenomenon is known as writer’s block, and can be paralysing. Les Zigomanis, Publications Editor for Busybird Publishing, says some writers defer writing because they fear they can’t effectively actualise their ideas. They fear their work will never reach the high standard of what they’ve idealised in their heads.[4] In the prewriting phase, ideas are vague and intangible; there are infinite possible approaches, and the possibilities seem endless. Ideas feel exciting, lightweight, because they aren’t bogged down with the specificities needed to make complex, engaging plots. Writing these ideas down means committing to a single approach – a single voice, perspective, prose style, etc – an act that sullies immeasurable perfection; it kills the prospect of what might’ve been. Unforeseen issues will inevitably arise during drafting, some of which may stem from the writer’s stylistic decisions. For example: in a story about a kidnapping, the writer must choose a particular point of view – the kidnapper; or, perhaps, the kidnappee. Decisions like these have massive repercussions and will greatly affect the narrative’s tone and direction.

It is, however, advisable not to become too preoccupied with the aforementioned factors. The writing process is for making progress, and analyses should be relegated to the prewriting and rewriting stages. As Anne Lamott writes in her bestselling writing guide Bird by Bird:

‘Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft.’

Of course, not all writers are so readily susceptible to writer’s block; for many, drafting is the most enjoyable part of the process. It is fair to say, for a working writer, that the drafting process, often full of discovery, is the most like play. In an article in Daily Nation[5], Waithaka Waihenya reflects on how exhilarating a productive writing session can be, drawing comparisons to other addictive (albeit unhealthier) habits, like smoking and drinking.

‘One thing about writing is that it is hugely exhilarating. … And, almost in revelatory productivity, the words start flowing. All of a sudden, it is like the beginning of weeping. The only difficult part is starting. The rest cascades down all too easily.’

As evident in the earlier quote, Anne Lamott champions writing what she calls ‘shitty first drafts’. She believes many writers aspire to produce perfect drafts from the onset because they mistakenly believe that is the practice of professional writers. This mindset trickles all the way down to the book-buying public, where a common perception is that writers are wordsmith magicians who effortlessly communicate without need for revision or collaboration. This is likely because, in publishing, authors are typically awarded the lion’s share of praise. Editors, whose specific contributions to the final product may be sizeable (see, for example, the relationship between American writer Raymond Carver and his editor, Gordon Lish[6]), seldom receive much fanfare. This perpetuates the notion that writers alone are responsible for the quality of their own work. But drafting is not the stage for fretting about quality. According to Lamott, having low expectations for first drafts is healthy, and helps alleviate pressure. Steven King shares a similar sentiment in his instructional craft book, On Writing.

RewritingThe third part of the writing process is arguably the most labour-intensive. Rewriting can be a long, arduous process, depending of course on the nature of the work and its issues, and the meticulousness of those working on it – the writer, editor/s and, sometimes, the publisher. A common misconception among newer writers and non-writers is that good fiction is produced in a single, linear process. In actuality, constructing genuinely good stories involves relentless rephrasing, reduction and reinterpretation. Good fiction seamlessly marries all the elements together – voice, character, style, etc – and it is extremely unlikely (almost a certifiable impossibility) this will occur in a first draft.

Although drafting is of utmost importance, rewriting is a close second. Rewriting is really the only way to ensure the work reaches a publishable standard. It is the stage where plot problems are addressed, inconsistencies are ironed out and characters are culled or amalgamated. Misspellings and other technical issues are also addressed during rewriting. This is crucial if writers wish to be taken seriously and effectively communicate their ideas.

In her immensely successful punctuation book, Eats, Shoots & Leaves, Lynne Truss stresses the importance of a steadfast command of grammar. The book’s opening chapter, ‘Introduction – The Seventh Sense’[7], is an extended meditation wherein she mourns her nation’s declining literacy rates and lampoons businesses and other so-called professionals for their amusing syntax errors. Truss represents those who wish to uphold the sanctity of correct grammar usage. For many, a book with mistakes or substandard writing is not worth reading. This is especially important with the advent of self-publishing, which commonly sees writers put their work out into the fray without adequate revision or guidance from a proficient editor. It can be difficult to identify errors during the drafting process, as one will be too close to the work, too emotionally invested in it. Therefore, rewriting is the crucial third stage of fiction writing.

Symbolism is another popular way to enhance a narrative’s effectiveness and is usually reverse engineered into a work (or at least its implementation is improved during rewrites). In his instructional craft book, On Writing[8], Stephen King stresses the importance of rewriting, and the beneficial factors of symbolism:

‘When you write a book, you spend day after day scanning and identifying the trees. When you’re done, you have to step back and look at the forest. Not every book has to be loaded with symbolism, irony or musical language … but it seems to me that every book – at least every one worth reading – is about something. Your job during or just after the first draft is to decide what something or somethings yours is about. Your job in the second draft – one of them, anyway – is to make that something even more clear. This may necessitate some big changes and revisions. The benefits to you and your reader will be clearer focus and a more unified story.’

Rewriting arguably trumps prewriting in importance, as a fiction project can theoretically be embarked upon without any planning at all. It can also make up for any planning deficiencies; with time, talent and drive, there are no narrative problems that can’t be fixed. According to Dr. Marc D. Baldwin, owner of Edit 911, a business staffed entirely by PhD-holding editors, rewriting is crucial for chipping away extraneous details and strengthening constructions.[9]

Busybird Publications Editor Les Zigomanis wrote in his article ‘Writers Write: The Ten Commandments of Writing (Maybe)’[10]:

‘If there’s one nifty comparison [to writing], it’s more like sculpting. The shape’s in the stone. It’s about chiselling to get that shape as right as you can.’

Stephen King shared a similar belief in an interview with Writer’s Digest:

‘When the story is ready for rewrite, cut it to the bone. Get rid of every ounce of excess fat. This is going to hurt; revising a story down to the bare essentials is always a little like murdering children, but it must be done.’[11]

To summarise: rewriting is the stage where redundancies are removed; the writer scours their manuscript for anything problematic, and strengthens their ideas and communication in order to tell their tale in the most efficient and economic way.

Prewriting, writing and rewriting are hugely beneficial steps to good fiction writing. Writers would do well to implement all three into their working process.


Bibliography

  • King, S 2000, On Writing, Scribner, New York.
  • Lamott, A 2008, Bird by Bird, Scribe Publishing, Carlton North.
  • Truss, L 2003, Eats, Shoots & Leaves, Profile Books Ltd, Great Britain.
  • Zigomanis, L 2011, ‘Writers Write: The Ten Commandments of Writing (Maybe)’, Page Seventeen, 9, June 2011, pp. 25–30.

Sources

[1] ‘Prewriting’ n.d., Thompson Writing Program, Duke University

[2] Smith, C 2014, ‘Novel Ideas: Alexander McCall Smith Interview’, Otago Daily Times

[3] Aaron, R 2011, ‘How I Went from Writing 2,000 to 10,000 Words a Day’, Pretentious Title

[4] Zigomanis, L 2014, ‘Ten Excuses’, Busybird Publishing

[5] Waihenya, W 2013, ‘One thing about writing is that it is hugely exhilarating’, Daily Nation

[6] Wood, G 2009, ‘Raymond Carver: the kindest cut’, The Guardian

[7] Truss, L 2003, ‘Introduction – The Seventh Sense’, Eats, Shoots & Leaves

[8] King, S 2000, On Writing, Scribner

[9] Baldwin, Dr. M n.d., ‘Book Editing by Published Authors’, Edit911.com

[10] Zigomanis, L 2011, ‘Writers Write: The Ten Commandments of Writing (Maybe)’, Page Seventeen

[11] Petit, Z 2012, ‘13 Stephen King Quotes on Writing’, Writer’s Digest

Review: ‘Pet Sematary’

pet-sematary-coverThis book, alongside a discouraging handful of other King novels, begins with great promise, drawing the reader in with the kind of three-dimensional characters King does best. Unfortunately, it hits a slump halfway, from which it cannot recover, and meanders its way to a predictable conclusion.

The plot deals with grief, obsession and reincarnation. The Creed family (Doctor Louis, Rachel, and two children Ellie and Gage) move to backwater Ludlow, a small town in – you guessed it – Maine. Ludlow’s a dandy slice of American pie. It’s also the halfway point between two large townships and is frequented by huge trucks on shipping runs … See where this is going?

So, protagonist Louis strikes up a friendship with local old-timer, Jud, and learns about a makeshift cemetery that is situated near the Creed’s new home. Apparently generations of residents have used this ground to bury their beloved pets, and it’s become a sort of eerie community tradition. But this ain’t your grandpappy’s cemetery; the titular Pet Sematary is actually a front for ancient Micmac burial grounds. It’s a spiritual place with deep historic roots – generations of teenagers have fooled around here. Burying your pet here is said to bring about reincarnation, which is handy because, after some whacky hijinks, Louis ends up home alone with the still-fresh corpse of family cat, Church. Ruh-Roh!

So Louis is faced with that classic parental dilemma: tell Ellie (his daughter/Church superfan) the truth, or dabble blindly in the dark arts. The choice is clear; anyone who’s seen the Arnie classic Jingle All the Way knows only deadbeats disappoint their kids.isc080booklet.inddAnd so Church comes back — albeit a little dopier than before. His movements are sluggish and he permanently smells of the earth, which was admittedly cool. The prospect of a reanimated cat – possibly infused with a sinister Micmac spirit – is great horror fodder, but, in King’s hands, it amounts to nothing. The cover and blurb allude to some terrifying developments; a murderous four-legged zombie that perfectly resembles your beloved Mr Whiskers would make for an excellent monster, but nothing like this eventuates. The whole concept of the Pet Sematary is severely underutilised – unless your secret fear is slow, dim-witted cats that lumber around not hurting anyone.

Nice Churchy!

Nice Churchy!

Pet Sematary has a strong premise and solid opening. It’s great to see King sink into teeth into some serious subject matter and, as usual, he excels at inhabiting his characters. Rachel and Louis are particularly compelling (as luck would have it, Rachel has a debilitating fear of death – guess who’s confronting their fears tonight?), and it’s a pleasure to discover the intricacies of their marriage. Louis is a bog-standard King everyman; however, his profession does distinguish him (slightly) from others of this mould. Doctors are logically minded and less inclined to buy into supernatural mumbo jumbo. I enjoyed Louis’ early scepticism and stoic nature, but grew frustrated with the irrational behaviour he exhibits later on.

Pet Sematary also suffers serious pacing issues. It takes three quarters of the book for all the (obvious) set-pieces to come together (believe me: the signposts are as big as Maine itself). You know the Pet Sematary will cause major complications, yet it goes damn near unmentioned for the first half of the book. Instead, the reader is dragged through family drama subplots that, while mildly interesting, add squat to the narrative.

My biggest issue with Pet Sematary is its conclusion, which unfolds like a slow train wreck. Despite being cautioned by Jud on the dangers of the Pet Sematary, and learning about how a reported case of human burial went horribly awry, logical, level-headed Dr Louis jettisons all common sense and tries it anyway.

A sizeable portion of the novel’s conclusion details Louis’s inner monologue as he climbs up to the haunted burial grounds, his child’s corpse in tow. He openly admits it’s not the answer, that he’s clinging to empty hope. He knows whatever emerges from the ground won’t be his loved one, no matter the resemblance. He knows his actions will cause grief and heartache, and that they will destroy his remaining family’s chance of moving on. He also knows his actions will place everyone in very real danger – yet he goes ahead and does it anyway.

The ensuing bloodshed was senseless, a chore to read, and was all so preventable. King spends so much of the novel (which, it’s worth noting, isn’t short) building rich characters and relationships, only to throw them to the wind in the last seventy pages.

I get the suggestion that grief supersedes rational thinking, and that the Micmac burial ground had some sort of supernatural pull of Louis, but that doesn’t justify this frustrating, limp-wristed ending. Here, King rejoices in kicking his readers in the teeth. The fact that Louis is aware what a dope he is adds insult to injury. God awful – and this is coming from someone who defends and understands Cujo‘s macabre ending.

Read The Shining instead.

Some Thoughts on Bird by Bird and Writing Advice

Bird_by_Bird_LR_titlecoverBestseller Bird by Bird is a quasi memoir and instructional craft book for budding writers. Alongside Stephen King’s On Writing, it’s the most lauded and cited book about writing. Anne Lamott trades in honesty and uses clear, tactile examples from her writing life to illustrate her points. There are some wonderfully evocative passages about human nature and the realities of life as a working writer.

I’ll give it this: Bird by Bird has personality, which, I suspect, is why it’s endured the way it has. Lamott has wit and a knack for metaphor. However, I’m in no hurry to investigate her fiction, as my reaction to Bird by Bird was largely negative. Frankly, I found Lamott unbearably smug. Am I alone in this? Did no one else find her faux self-deprecation a chore and her humour grating? (Just on this, her humour: It starts innocently enough, but morphs into this ugly, sarcastic crutch. How did no one else notice this?) Similarly, some of her admissions made me question her professionalism (see: the chapter ‘Jealousy’, which had me shaking my head in astonishment). When this happened, I could no longer respect her as a writing authority, rendering the book a failure.

Unsurprisingly, Bird by Bird took me an eternity to finish. I didn’t particularly enjoy it, though concede its uses. It was required reading for my course. Most of its advice was second nature to me, but it was nice to have it reaffirmed so eloquently.

A quick aside: I’ve always wondered why intermediate-level writers persist with reading craft books. Don’t get me wrong: studying the mechanics of writing is important. It’s just that, lately, I’m finding writing advice rote and tedious – which is maybe why I’ve ceased dispensing it on this blog. There are myriad resources available for those that need it, so my current view is why perpetuate a dialogue when the inevitable consensus will be ‘Don’t break rules unless with stylistic intent’.

Most professional writers discourage the romanticisation of writing, but breaking it down to bare mechanics feels equally reductive. Frankly, I don’t want to understand everything about creative practice. It’s like intellectualising faith, or watching one of those jerky, fun-spoiling, tell-all magicians. Continue reading

Doctor Sleep Induces Namesake: An Extended Diatribe on First-Ever King Sequel

Screen-Shot-2013-08-19-at-10.45.36In the Author Notes of Doctor Sleep, the extremely belated sequel to The Shining, Stephen King writes diplomatically about nostalgia, fan expectation and the legacy of his wildly successful third novel, The Shining (and its iconic Kubrick-helmed adaptation). King knew publishing Doctor Sleep would be a largely thankless job. The Shining holds a special place in many hearts. It’s an icon, a certifiable classic. Building on the momentum of his preceding novels, it cemented King’s reputation as a master of the genre and was revered by generations of readers.

Judging by his notes, King is acutely aware of what was at stake with this endeavour. He even expresses reservations. Appeasing everyone was inevitably impossible. That’s the case for any book, but it’s especially true for Doctor Sleep, a novel with so much baggage it’d go bankrupt with extra airport charges. Yet King, who is well past having to prove anything, rose to the challenge, breaking his unwritten rule about follow-ups and putting himself in an unenviable position. Why? Apparently it’s because he’s always wondered what became of little Danny Torrance. Hard to fault someone who approaches projects with such sincerity.

Despite my forthcoming criticisms, I can say with conviction that I never doubted King had pure intentions with Doctor Sleep’s genesis. The Shining has a potent universe, so it’s not like there wasn’t room for additional stories. This is no cheap cash-in, and King emerges from the experiment with egg on his face, but his integrity intact. That said, Doctor Sleep is weak, half-baked, a disappointing composite of ideas. It shows King isn’t creatively bankrupt – this novel sparkles in places, and is enjoyable (though bereft of nourishment, like the literary equivalent of a Big Mac) – but its screams for an intervening editor are deafening.

As a late-career Stephen King book it’s serviceable, I suppose, but as a sequel to one of the most defining horror novels of all time? Piss-poor. There are some commendable ideas at play here, but, despite King’s aforementioned admission, I don’t believe the necessary care and attention went into this. I can say with surety that this is not King firing on all cylinders. This feels like just another of the four-a-year novels he routinely churns out. Nothing more or less. The Shining, and its fans, deserve better.

* * *

Doctor Sleep opens with remaining Torrances, Danny and Wendy, grappling with everything that occurred at the Overlook Hotel. Danny, now a couple of years older, is still meek in personality and blessed – or, as this book reveals, burdened – with the ability to shine. Wendy, on the other hand, has all but shutdown after the breakdown and subsequent death of her husband, Jack Torrance, (immortalised in a manic Jack Nicholson performance). Telepathic chef Dick Hallorann also cameos early on to teach Danny his ‘mental lockbox’ trick, used to trap negative spirits.
Jack Nicholson
Continue reading

An Update (Inc. News of Recent Publishing Successes)

Just an update on what my last few months have been like, writing-wise.

Study

In late November, I completed my third year of study and attained an Associate Degree in Writing and Publishing. This was my first year at a new campus, and I only knew one other person going into it. (Ever the introvert, I know about three–four coming out of it.) Overall, a valuable way to spend my year. The course has helped me further refine my writing, editing and publishing skills. The highlights were the fantastic lecturers and the guest speakers, who came from all walks of the industry. I’m looking forward to 2014, the year I commence working towards a Bachelor of Writing and Publishing. (This will also be my final year of study, unless I go on to do a PhD.)

Published Work

I’ve been a little lax about sending work out this year. Although I came away with a string of rejections (mostly the encouraging, personalised kind), the string was not as long as 2012’s. Nevertheless, here are my two recent publishing successes.

  • The first was in the ninetieth issue of American literary journal, Crack the Spine. This story, ‘The Wall’ (found here), and I have been through a lot together; it had been knocked back – always with positive comments – and subsequently redrafted many, many times. I always believed in this one, so the fact that I was eventually able to place it feels like a lesson in perseverance. Notably, this marks my first international publishing credit. (Unless I count Vine Leaves – a journal that operates from Greece, but is run by two Australians.) Continue reading

Review: ‘Things We Didn’t See Coming’

thingsI would say Steven Amsterdam is one of my favourite Australian writers, but he was born and raised in America and I’m not sure which country he prefers to align himself with. Nevertheless, he shot up my list of favourite contemporary authors on the strength of his – in my opinion, criminally underrated – second novel, What the Family Needed, (my review of which can be found here). Continue reading

Flash! Friday #42 Story – ‘The New Caretaker’

ImageMy response to Flash! Friday’s forty-second prompt (the above picture). Three hundred words was the limit (with a ten-word leeway). Fantasy has been courting me lately, so I wanted to turn in something a little more grounded. This week, I was more interested in character than concept.

Have said that, though, there was also a moment when I flirted with writing a ghost story. See, the first thing this prompt brought to mind was Stephen King’s The Shining and, although this doesn’t really venture too explicitly into that territory, that book was certainly at the forefront of my mind when I started writing. A possible interpretation is that this little exchange between newlyweds foreshadows a later, Amityville Horror-style unravelling. Unfortunately, this piece got a little short-changed by the word count. There’s something faintly undeveloped about it. However, on the whole, I’m happy with it. It evolved organically and, as a quiet little moment, nicely juxtaposes my recent flashier flash.

* * *

‘The New Caretaker’ (309 words)

Erin stood at her husband’s side, arms akimbo, and took it all in.

‘Nuh-uh,’ she said. ‘Too much like the Overlook Hotel.’

Julian frowned. ‘I thought you were going to be supportive about this. Or, at the very least, show some maturity.’

Erin looked away. It took a moment, but eventually she swallowed her laughter. She cleared her throat, set her tone to sincerity.

‘I’m sorry, baby; I do support you.’

Like everything about him, Julian’s smile was ineffectual. But all, it seemed, was forgiven. Erin wasn’t surprised; Julian hadn’t the capacity for anger. Even Erin’s mother had remarked how bland he was.

Truly, she had said, the only remarkable thing about that man is how very unremarkable he is!

Erin couldn’t deny it: her mother’s disapproval had been a contributing factor when she’d accepted Julian’s proposal. But he was a nice man – honest, dependable, guaranteed never to lay a hand on her. Those were rare qualities. They counted.

In an uncharacteristic display, Julian drew Erin in near. His hands rested upon her hips. His grip was so gentle it was near-apologetic. They stood together at the mouth of Gretchen Lake. Behind them, a thick fog rolled by.

Julian looked at his wife. ‘I know being here … Me taking this job … It’s not exactly what you pictured for our honeymoon …’

‘Not what I—!?’

Julian silenced her with a raised finger. ‘It’s not the Bahamas,’ he explained. Julian fell silent. His head bowed. Then, as if coming back from the dead, he gestured grandly to the building. ‘What I’m trying to say is … will you help make this place home for the next three months?’

Erin smiled. The moment was charged with romance. She had to dispel it.

‘Only,’ she said with a nervous laugh, ‘if you refrain from going all Jack Nicholson on me.’