I’m in my office while writing this. I can’t get any music to play, which is a bit of an annoyance, but I’ve got the room cooled to a tolerable temperature, which in this hotbox of a building is no small feat. I just put on some water to make myself some tea. Usually when I start to work on the podcast, I am kind of curled up on the couch at home with a cup of coffee within reach and my laptop balanced precariously on my knees.
The kettle just beeped so I pour some hot water over a lightly flavored bag of black tea. I decided to go for some afternoon caffeine today. It’s not exactly a cozy or comfortable set-up but it’s a common enough scenario for people every day who sit down to get some writing done.
And that’s what I’m thinking about – the writing process. It may not seem like a big deal to you if you aren’t in a position where writing is an important part of your world, but for me and for many people like me, the writing process is essential to who we are and what we do. So I wanted to think out loud for a few minutes about writing – who does it, and how they do it, and why they do it, and what good comes of any of it.
Ursula K. Le Guin was an American author best known for her works of speculative fiction. She was first published in 1959, and her literary career spanned nearly sixty years, producing more than twenty novels and over a hundred short stories, in addition to poetry, literary criticism, translations, and children’s books. Frequently described as sci-fi writer, Le Guin has also been called a “major voice in American Letters”.
Le Guin’s daily schedule has become rather notorious in certain corners of the web. She was apparently pretty regular and, at least in some ways, disciplined.
At 5:30am she would wake up and lie there and think.
At 6:15 she would get up and eat breakfast (lots).
At 7:15 she would get to work writing, writing, writing
At noon she would have lunch
From 1-3 was reading and music
From 3-5 was correspondence, and maybe housecleaning.
From 5-8 she would make dinner and eat it
And after 8 she said, “I tend to be very stupid and we won’t talk about this.”
It’s that 7-noon block that is mind-blowing. Five solid hours of writing. Every day. I can’t imagine the mental strength and stamina that takes. But that’s probably why she’s one of the most important sci-fi writers of the 20th century and so many other people are not.
But plenty of people write, in any number of capacities, who are not Ursula K. Le Guin. And they are myriad.
First off, who writes?
That’s a more complicated question than it seems at first blush.
Certainly, academics write. We write because we have to. Many people fail to understand that publishing is a huge part of academic work and depending on what kind of school you are at can be as big a part of your job as teaching is. I, for example, work at a teaching school, but I had to publish four peer-reviewed (and peer-reviewing is its own ball of wax) articles to get tenure. Peer review, if you’re not familiar, is no joke. It can take years sometimes for an article to go from inception to publication, and the places you publish in often have acceptance rates of 12-15% percent. So you have to be the best of the best and have to go through multiple cycles of revisions to please reviewers and editors for articles that often took you a year or more to research and write. So while four doesn’t sound like a lot, and it isn’t compared to what is required at research universities, that’s a lot of work when you have over 100 students every semester and lots of service work every year, as well. Schools try to balance it out. If you are expected to teach more, you have less required in the way of publication. If you are required to do more research, you don’t have to teach as much.
But academics aren’t the only ones who write. Journalists obviously write, and they are faced with the pressures of deadlines and ethics guidelines. Lawyers write all the time. I myself have availed myself of legal briefs and articles in my own academic research! Marketers and those in PR write constantly, looking for the perfect turn of phrase that will get you to part with your money. Scientists and doctors write studies and reports. Countless people have to write to make the world turn.
But that’s a very short-sighted way of asking “who writes?” Because the truth is, countless people write. For all manner of reasons. Yes, many people do for their jobs. But many people write for reasons other than, you know, capitalism.
Some people write love-letters. It’s a dying art to be sure, but there are people who still write letters to their sweethearts so their lover has something they can turn to when they aren’t there. Some people write letters to their grandkids or their grandparents. These are the letters that someday somebody will keep long after someone has passed on. They are the ties between one generation and another.
Maybe your dental hygienist is writing the next big romance novel, or maybe your 8th grade history teacher is writing a great work historical fiction. People from all walks of life write.
If you spend any time on reddit you know there are about a gajillion subreddits. But there are some that are specifically devoted to the craft of writing and to writers. And the people active on those threads are from all corners of the world, all education levels, all backgrounds, and have all kinds of interests. But what they have in common is that they all just want to get something down on the page.
These people come from everywhere, celebrating each other’s successes, sharing their insights and offering advice, asking for tips on how to fix a problem with their project, or just looking for somebody who understands what it is like to struggle to get the words out. They help each other with query letters and dialogue tags. They suggest style guides and writing podcasts. They lead each other to writing groups and helpful online resources for wherever a writer is in their process.
And this is at once thrilling and sad. It is thrilling because there are so many people who are excited about writing. And I think that is great. As somebody who loves the written word, I think people should be excited about writing. Good writing means we have good things to read. And I’ve devoted whole podcasts to how important I think it is to read. So all of these people determined to share their stories is exciting, be it a screenplay, a comic book, nonfiction, or a novel.
But it is sad, too, because the truth is most of these stories will never be heard. The publishing industry is brutal and competitive and not exactly daring. The chances that YOU, dear writer, will be one of these thousands of voices chosen for amplification is slim-to-none. People who want to share their stories have to be ready for a life of rejection. Because most books, scripts, television pilots, or whatever you’re selling, don’t get picked up. Certainly, there’s the prospect of self-publication, but the chances of success with that are marginal at best. There are all these stories clamoring to be told. And most of them just won’t be.
I had a writing professor in college who told us a story of a writer who died and went to heaven. When he got there, he had one question for God: “Who is the greatest writer who has ever lived? Is it Shakespeare? It must be Shakespeare.” And God shook his head and said, “No, child, it’s not Shakespeare.” “Then Gabriel-Garcia Marquez! Or Hemingway! Or Steinbeck!” And God smiled and said, “They were all very good writers. But they were not the best.” And the writer said, “Dickenson! Emily Dickenson. Surely she must have been the best!” And God laughed and said, “No, I liked her work, but she paled in comparison to the best.” So the writer said, “Then who was the best?” And God said with some seriousness, “Asalee McMurtry from Ottawa, Canada. She died in 1874. She’s here. You can talk to her. She’s the single greatest writer to have ever lived.” The writer threw his hands into the air. “But how can that be! I’ve never heard of her!” “Well,” said God, “she never published anything.”
That story was meant to be a warning to us. The best writers are struggling. The most talented and most skilled writers out there are dealing with rejection. We don’t know who the best are because we might not have heard from them yet.
That is the question of who is writing. Then there is the question of how they are writing.
In creative writing circles outside of MFA programs people identify themselves as two types: pantsers or plotters. And honestly this is probably an approach to life as much as it is an approach to writing.
Plotters are outliners. They plan everything out to the last detail. They are meticulous. They have it all figured out. Before they write they have everything organized and ready to be filled in. The framework, and much of the support is there – when they write they are just filling in the details. These folks do a lot of work up front to have good drafts in the beginning so the editing and revising process is (hopefully) a little less painful.
Pantsers are the exact opposite. They go charging in without any real plan and let the story just go where it leads them. They don’t outline or organize they just write in a frenzy and hope to edit it into something passable later. These folks are just spitting words onto a page knowing full well that the actual work happens in the editing and revising process.
And these folks have various methods they use for approaching their process, as well.
Some swear by the “Save the Cat” method, which puts emphasis on the importance of structure of a work. This method organizes a story around Beat Sheets, or the “BS2” which includes the 15 essential “beats” or plot points that all stories should contain.
The Save the Cat method expanded the 15 beats further into 40 beats, which are laid out on “The Board.” The Board is divided into 4 rows, with each row representing a quarter of the story, namely the 1st Act, the 1st half of the 2nd Act, the 2nd half of the 2nd Act, and the 3rd Act.
There is some criticism that this method produces formulaic stories. But, as we know, formulaic sells.
Another method that is popular is the “snowflake” method.
Gary Smailes explains this complicated 10-step process:
1.Write a one-sentence summary of your novel.
2., Expand the sentence to a paragraph describing the story narrative, any major events, and the ending.
There’s a simple formula you can use to expand your sentence to a full paragraph.
A good novel will consist of the following:
- A setup.
- Three key turning points, which the main character must overcome (this is best seen in the three-act structure).
- A conclusion.
Using this formula, we can expand the sentence to a full paragraph.
- The first sentence sets up the story.
- The second, third and fourth sentences cover each of the three turning points.
- The final sentence is the conclusion.
These first two points will help you define the structure of the story. You must now consider the role of the characters.
- Now consider the main character and write a one-page summary for each, considering the following points:
- A one-sentence summary of the character’s storyline.
- The character’s motivation (what does he/she want abstractly?).
- The character’s goal (what does he/she want concretely?).
- The character’s conflict (what prevents him/her from reaching this goal?).
- The character’s epiphany (what will he/she learn, how will he/she change?
- A one-paragraph summary of the character’s storyline.
This is a vital step in the process, and you should be spending between one and six hours for this step.
Character development is an essential element of your novel and any time invested now will pay off in the future.
4.Then go back to the summary you wrote in 2 and expand each sentence into a paragraph.
The next step is to take each of the sentences from Step 2 and expand them into paragraphs.
This is not a quick process, but it will form the foundation of your story and the novel you will write.
- Then write a one-page description for each major character, which tells the story from their point of view.
You will now add depth to your characters.
Go back to Step 3 and write at least one page for each character. You should include as much information as possible. The better you ‘know’ these characters, the better the final novel will read.
- Then expand your one-page plot synopsis into a four-page plot synopsis.
Return to the synopsis you write in Step 4 and look to build this into a more substantial synopsis.
Take each of the paragraphs and expand them into at least one page.
This is the time to address any major plot issues and get the whole story flowing.
- Expand your character descriptions from 3 into full ‘character charts’.
Time to go back to your characters. For each major character, you need to create a ‘character chart’.
This should be an outline of the character and their lives. You can’t have too much detail. .
- Using the expanded synopsis, make a list of every scene you will need to write to complete the novel.
You are now in a position to plot out the scenes for your novel.
Go back to your expanded synopsis and break the story down into scenes.
At this point, you just need to give each scene a one-line description.
A scene will normally occur in one location and will see the characters changing or learning something new.
- Using the scene list, write a multi-paragraph narrative description of each scene.
Once you have a list of scenes, you can now write a description for each scene.
Include a list of characters and a description of what happens in the scene.
These descriptions should be about one paragraph in length.
- Then, you can Write your first draft.
That is a LOT. But some people swear that this is the way to get your story grounded and moving.
There are many other methods to writing, these are just some of the more popular. And many people don’t have a method. And then there are those who aren’t writing creatively – they’re writing for academic purposes or for work or marketing and their process is a matter of lots of reading, to come up with an idea or thesis, and then more reading to support that idea.
As for why people write, the answers are all over the place. For self-fulfillment, for glory, for pleasure, for their job requirements, for love of the art – it’s impossible to pinpoint why people write.
And the fruits of their efforts are just as different.
I know people who struggle with writing. Really struggle. For a long time I really struggled with it. It seemed like I was never going to figure out the publication game. But after a few years, and just in time for tenure I might add, something clicked.
Then there are people like my friend and colleague Dr. Veronica Droser. She’s a superstar. I think every time I talk to her, she has a new publication coming out. She is well on her way to becoming a very important scholar in interpersonal and family studies because she is a brilliant researcher. It seems everything she writes is golden. I’m not jealous or anything.
I have a friend named Amy who is a great writer. I know she is because she did the impossible and landed an agent who absolutely believes in her and supports her work and is actively trying to sell her novel to publishers. Amy is prolific and dedicated to her art. I am absolutely impressed by her discipline.
THEN there is my friend Masha Shukovick. I went to grad school with Masha for our PhDs, and after that she went back for an MFA. Her literary fiction/magical realism novel-in-progress The Taste of Names was shortlisted for the 2021 First Pages Prize, which supports emerging, unagented writers worldwide with an annual prize for the first 5 pages of a longer work of fiction or creative non-fiction.
Excerpts and stand-alone pieces from The Taste of Names were also selected as:
- Winner of the 2017 San Francisco Writing Contest in the Adult Fiction Category
- Finalist for the 2017 Writers’ League of Texas Manuscript Contest
- Finalist for the 2017 International Literary Awards Reynolds Price Award in Fiction
- Shortlist Winner Nominee of the Adelaide Literary Award for Best Short Story for 2017
- Semi-finalist for the 2017 Francine Ringold Awards for New Writers, Nimrod International Journal
Masha’s other work has won a whole host of awards, as well. She is making her way in the creative writing world.
But what about the folks who write editorials for the newspaper? Or write poetry for themselves? What about the folks who craft helpful and concise memos that actually ACCOMPLISH something and that we can all understand? Those are valuable, let me tell you.
All of this is valuable writing. Because there are different things that make writing valuable. Certainly, its commercial success. Its professional importance. But also, just what it means to you, personally.
And if you don’t think you can write, that’s okay. You can support those who write by reading. Just read broadly and widely. Remember, the greatest writer in the world is out there, somewhere. Wouldn’t it be remarkable if you found them?
Music in this episode is “Fearless First” by Kevin MacLeod at https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3742-fearless-first.