The Write Process

There are thirteen writers' processes that I want to explore today. I've studied more, but I find these thirteen to be revealing and interesting. One thing that I've noticed as I've been doing this studying, and you may too, is that there are no rules in writing other than two.

The first rule in writing is don't bore the reader. The second rule in writing is don't confuse the reader. Other than that, do whatever you want. This has some bearing on the process of writing too. You will probably be surprised at the wide variety of processes that are employed, I was.

I traditionally thought of writing as something akin to reading. Writing is needed for reading, but they are somewhat less related than they at first appear. When you read, especially a work of fiction, you start at the beginning and read forward one sentence at a time with the unknown slowly being revealed to you until you're at the end, or until the writer bores or confuses you, at which point you stop. You can write that way, but you don't have to at all. You could start at the end and write backwards. John Irving writes the end of the story before he works on anything else. You could start in the middle and move out. Basically, no rules.

The relationship seems somewhat similar to that of a painter and an admirer of paintings. Looking at a painting has very little to do with painting it. Now, if you're going to paint paintings then you will probably want to look at paintings, you will probably want to look at a lot of paintings. And, perhaps, if you like looking at a lot of paintings then you will want to paint paintings. And, you can probably learn a few things by looking at a lot of paintings. But, looking at paintings is not the same as painting paintings. The skill dispersal seems similar as well. Everyone can paint, but almost no one can paint well. The same goes for writing. Some who can paint well choose not to, look at Picasso (his work in his teens is wonderful, in the later years his work is disturbed, and I understand the philosophical underpinnings of what he was doing). Anyway...

Here we go.

The most straightforward approach to the writing process is exemplified by Stephen King. He basically writes like you read. He starts at the beginning with a specific situation that has intrigued him for some reason, usually a rather disturbing situation for King, and then he moves forward into the unknown being surprised at the discoveries that he makes about the characters as he goes. This is sometimes called discovery writing. It is about as close to reading as writing can get.

He writes the first draft as fast as he can so he doesn't get bogged down. Then, he puts the manuscript away in a drawer for a few months. When he takes it out he reads it like a reader. He tries to discover what the story is really about, then he rewrites it with that in mind. It's an interesting process. "On Writing" by Stephen King is a wonderful book, and his Foreward to "The Gunslinger" from 2003 is a wonderful insight into his thoughts on writing and how they've changed over the years.

George R. R. Martin is one of my favorite authors. "A Song of Ice and Fire," the first book of which is "A Game of Thrones," is great. "Fevre Dream" is also wonderful. Martin discovery writes, but with a little bit more of a plan in his head than King. He has a vague idea of where he is going. The thing with Martin is that he's meticulous, he edits and rewrites as he goes, and he doesn't have a plan. That combines to make him a very slow writer. He's writing the most epic fantasy series of all time. He's trying to hold all of these events and characters in his head and decide what a logical yet surprising next step would be. I believe he is somewhere over 900 characters now. That's insane. It doesn't even seem possible that the human brain could do that, which I believe is part of the reason that he has been bogged down in his writing process.

As an example of this clunky, yet amazingly high quality, writing process we can take one chapter he did, well... kind of. He wrote the chapter. Then he decided that maybe it would be better to take these plot points and spread them through something like 7 other chapters. So he took apart the chapter and broke it into 7 pieces. He integrated these 7 pieces into the other 7 chapters. Then, he decided that he didn't like it that way. He took the 7 pieces out and put them back together into 1 chapter. Then he decided that he wasn't going to use that chapter yet. Maybe he would put it later in the book. Then he didn't use that chapter in that book and thought that he might use it later in the series. That's insane. Amazing quality at a super slow pace.

J. R. R. Tolkien wrote a short story called "Leaf by Niggle" that's great. It provides a nice insight into Tolkien's writing process. He was a constant tinkerer, always changing this, adjusting that. We also have quite a number of letters between him and his son about the books. From those we know that Tolkien had a plan for the end of "The Lord of the Rings," but he changed it part of the way through. (Christopher Tolkien also wrote a series of books about the writing of "The Lord of the Rings.") Yes, it could have ended with Frodo and Sam fighting a Nazgul in Mount Doom. The ending that it has is much better. Tolkien was a slow writer, especially juxtaposed to his friend, writing group partner, and fellow Oxford professor C. S. Lewis. This tendency to tinker and continually adjust and revise shows up in three of the best authors on this list: J. R. R. Tolkien, George R. R. Martin, and Patrick Rothfuss. There are a lot of "r's" in those names.

J. K. Rowling worked on "Harry Potter" for at least 5 years before she started writing the first book. That's right, 5 years. She was building the world and working out the outline. She knew how the last book was going to end before she started writing the first book. That's basically the opposite process of Stephen King. For King that would kill the joy of discovering the story. For Rowling that lets her live in the fantasy world, to inhabit it in her mind. You can easily find a little sample of part of the outline Rowling used in "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix." It's very logical, as are her books.

When Rowling started writing she stopped doing basically anything else for a year. She dedicated that year to writing the first book. She really dove into it too. She rewrote the first chapter 15 times. So even with an extensive and detailed outline in a very well developed world she was still meticulous about reworking the material. Rowling loves that world so much, as she should, that she seems incapable of not writing about it. I think she is going to be writing stories in the Harry Potter universe for the rest of her life. Actually, after she finished book 7 she had so much momentum she kept going for a little while just for herself. She just couldn't stop herself.

Diana Gabaldon wrote/is writing the "Outlander" series. She is one of three authors on this list that I haven't read. I have watched the first season of Outlander, and I've read pieces to get a feel for her style, and I've read what she's written on her writing process. It's all on her website. I heard about her odd process from a class Brandon Mull was teaching. I haven't heard a name for it so I've been calling it mosaic writing. She has a story idea in her head, then she just writes whatever scene she wants to write whenever she wants to write it. It seems crazy, and crazy hard to think about. I've heard of scriptwriters doing something similar, writing scenes on index cards and then moving them around on boards so that they are in an order that they like. I believe David Mamet and Aaron Sorkin both do this somewhat, but I've never heard of a novel writer doing it before. It's amazing to think about, but I still have a bit of a hard time conceptualizing it.

L. Ron Hubbard is best known for founding Scientology, but he's also one of the most successful science fiction writers in history. A few weeks ago I read an article by him titled "Magic Out of a Hat." The article was an interesting story, but there was something else in it. Because Hubbard had to reduce the story to make it fit in the article, but he needed to cover those parts as well, he essentially skimmed the less important parts at a highly abstract level and then delved deeper and more concretely into the important scenes. I don't believe that this is how Hubbard wrote, it was just necessary for this article, but wow. I really like that approach. It's a type of discovery writing and kind of an outline. It's like a long outlining process that is discovery written, or a short discovery writing that becomes an outline. Either way, I like the idea. It was a pretty good story too.

I'm currently working through "The Raven" by Edgar Allan Poe with one of my students. It's a very interesting process. Poe wrote an essay on how he wrote "The Raven" titled "The Philosophy of Composition." It's an amazing work. Poe was so analytical. First he decided what the feel of the poem was going to be, then he decided the length, then he decided the poetic structure, and he kept just going on and on like that in a very analytical and matter of fact way. It is an amazing glimpse into a unique mind that felt comfortable in that unique space of genius between sanity and insanity.

"Elantris" by Brandon Sanderson is wonderful. He also has a great class he teaches at Brigham Young University on writing. His writing process is an interesting mix of discovery writing and outlining. Sanderson is an extensive world builder who is known for his intricate magic systems. There is something called Sanderson's Laws of Magic. Those are laws pertaining to the writing of magic systems, and they're good. He is also an extensive outliner, but as he's writing the book his outline will keep changing and adjusting. That's a bit like we saw with Tolkien. He also discovery writes his characters. This means that he writes pieces about them, stories, until they become real to him. He doesn't have a plan when he starts that. He's also talked about a friend of his that has his characters give a monologue where they lay out their beliefs and viewpoints. Sanderson doesn't do that, but it seems somewhat similar.

Patrick Rothfuss is one of my favorite writers right now. I'm reading "The Name of the Wind" and it's incredible. Patrick Rothfuss reminds me quite a bit of George Martin. They are both slow writers. "The Name of the Wind" was Rothfuss's first book and it took him 14 years to write. Yeah, that's right, 14 years. His publisher has called him a compulsive rewriter. Even after she decided to publish his book he did 9 major rewrites, and that's after about 13 years of writing it.

Rothfuss and Martin have another similarity, they both bought a separate house just for writing. Obviously this was later in both of their careers after they had some money, but it's interesting. Many writers like having a secluded place. King highly emphasizes that you need a room where you can close the door and block out the world. Sanderson is the opposite, he likes to write with his laptop on his couch, even with his kids in the living room. Just an observation of another major difference among writers.

James Patterson writes like he's a bookmaking factory. He had an entire career as an advertising executive before he started writing, and he doesn't write for himself, he writes to entertain readers and he tracks how well he's doing at that by sales. That's different than a lot of people that like to focus on that art. That difference is part of why there's an antagonism between Patterson and King.

Patterson writes extensive outlines, we're talking something like 50 page outlines here. That's a small book in itself. Then he hands that outline off to a co-author. He almost always writes with a co-author. The co-author fleshes that outline out chapter by chapter and sends them to Patterson. Patterson looks it over, adjusts it, and talks to the co-author. When this whole process is finished Patterson gets the whole manuscript back and goes over it. Then, it's published (which is a huge process in itself).

Robert Louis Stevenson is one of my greatest sources of hope in this world. He had major health issues for his whole life, published his first book "Treasure Island" when he was 31, and died when he was 44. I relate to him well. (Nietzsche was also very sickly, but that's not as encouraging for me because his IQ was probably something like 260, so it's hard for mortals to reach that level.) Stevenson on the other hand was just smart, and we're probably at about the same level, so I can still hold out hope of writing something worthwhile in this lifetime.

Stevenson made a map with his stepson for fun while in Scotland. Stories developed from that map, and that's how "Treasure Island" was born. Orson Scott Card has mentioned that he also likes to make maps before he starts writing a story, and in a similar fashion often makes a map before he even has an idea for a story.

"The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" was also born of an interesting process. Stevenson had a dream of it. Then, even though he was not physically well, he wrote the entire story in 3 days. He was reading the manuscript to his wife in front of the fireplace and she told him that he had taken a good idea and made a bad story. He threw the manuscript into the fire and went back into his room. In 3 more days he emerged with another complete manuscript. She liked that one. He made a copy on his typewriter over the next two days and sent it out to the publisher on the third. It's amazing! It sounds like the origin story of a religious revelatory text.

Mark Twain is incredibly famous. For instance, he's one of the few (only?) American novelists taught in schools in China. And, he's weird. As an example, when he was writing "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" he got stuck around page 400. So, he just put it away for two years. One day he felt like taking it out again and finished it. He wrote purely subconsciously. If material didn't want to come out, then he didn't force it, he just went with it. He always had two or three or four novels in that state. He died with a bunch of novels half written that were destroyed. He wrote "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" from the perspective of Huck Finn, he finished the manuscript, then he burned it.

I really like "The Death Wafer" by Mark Twain. It is an excellent short story, although I wish the ending was the opposite. He worked on the story for 12 years. He started writing it 6 times. Finally, he gave up. He told a publisher that he should get someone else to write it because it was a good idea. Obviously he had to tell the publisher the story and the publisher told him to just go write it the way he explained it. He did. It took him 4 hours. So, Twain used to say that that short story took him 12 years and 4 hours to write.

Dean Koontz has a very odd process, and he has a well documented history of his thoughts on writing. Early in his career he was an outliner. When he abandoned outlining he went from barely making a living to being a bestseller, which doesn't always pay that great either, but it pays much better. Koontz always wanted to and always has written popular genre fiction. He started writing books on writing in the 1970's, and they are good. But, he won't write about writing anymore because he basically doubts everything now having seen how his own processes have evolved. Anyway...

Koontz discovery writes page by page. I don't know what to call this. He writes the page he's working on, then he rewrites it, then he rewrites it, then he rewrites it, then he rewrites it, sometimes up to 15 or 16 times. But, when he's done with that page, he's done with it. When he gets to the end of the book he's finished. He's the only person I've ever heard of that has that process. He also puts in ridiculous hours, something like 16 hours a day of writing. He's unique, to say the least.

That's right, we are going into overtime. C. S. Lewis had a pretty fast pace as a writer. He wrote the 7 "Narnia" books in 7 years. Compared to his friend Tolkien that's like lightspeed. There are a couple of quotes from Lewis that need to be in this article:

" must not believe all that authors tell you about how they wrote their books."

"One thing I am sure of. All my seven Narnian books, and my three science-fiction books, began with seeing pictures in my head. At first they were not a story, just pictures."

I think that gives us some great insight. Those science fiction books were supposed to be part of a deal he made with Tolkien. Lewis was going to write 3 space travel books, which he did, and Tolkien was going to write 3 time travel books, which he didn't get to. This saddens me.

Dorothea Brande highly recommends that you don't read anything while you're writing a book. I understand the logic behind it and it makes sense, but I don't think I can do it. It's something I've been thinking about lately. I have been not allowing myself to read until I write 1000 words that day, wow, that is a strong dose of motivation.

Harlan Ellison is a legend in the science fiction world. The most interesting thing about him, well one of the most interesting things about him, is that he did a lot of live or naked writing. That means that he would travel to bookstores and sit at a typewriter in their display window and write stories in real time for anyone to watch. He would just make them up then. When a page was finished he would take it out of the typewriter and tape it up on the display window for people to read. People thought he must already have the ideas in his head so later he would take suggestions from people at the time on what to write a story about. It's an amazing skill. I've tried doing video recordings of me writing twice, I've posted them on the blog, but man is that odd. I still think it's an interesting idea though.


There are many more writers that we could draw wisdom from, such as Kurt Vonnegut, Ayn Rand, Ray Bradbury, or Orson Scott Card, but I'm happy with the lesson drawn from these 16. Let's do a little ruminating.

Who are my favorites?

It's something like this (with one caveat):
George R. R. Martin
Patrick Rothfuss
J. K. Rowling
J. R. R. Tolkien
C. S. Lewis
Robert Louis Stevenson
Brandon Sanderson

That's something like my favorite list of authors in order, approximately. The one caveat is "Replay" by Ken Grimwood. I consider that to be the greatest novel ever written bar none. But, I know basically nothing about Ken Grimwood's writing process and I haven't been able to find much, so I left him off the list here.

There are a number of dimensions that we could look at here, but three jump out at me. 1- I really like fantasy. 2- I like epic stories. ("Replay" by Grimwood is epic too, read it.) 3- My top four writers on this list were/are not fast writers. The last three writers are fast writers though, and I feel most closely connected to Stevenson on a personal level. Just some observations, I'm not sure if they really mean anything other than a revealing of my tastes. What does the future hold? We shall see...

I've written two fictional pieces that I like so far. Let me know what you think of them.

"The City of Peace" - A future science fiction utopia/dystopia action adventure in a framed story of a father telling his son a story about the child's grandfather.

"The Birth of Hanniba'al" - A dark, somewhat alternative, historical origin story for the Carthage General Hannibal.

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