Where do writers “write?”

Jill Jaynes

I’d like to talk about this in terms of writing process, as in “Where is the story created- in my head, or on the page?”

Do I think up sentences and clever things for my characters to say, and save them up to dump onto the page later? I know some people who do. Does the writing take place in my head long before I set words to page? How much of the writing is planned and how much is spontaneous? Where does the story take shape- in my head or on paper, and how much of a shape must it have before I set it to words?

Not as simple as you thought, is it?

My husband, (a recent addition in my life- for which I am daily grateful) is not an avid fiction reader, nor a reader of Romance (at least he wasn’t before meeting me -more on that in future blogs I’m sure), but he has confessed to being somewhat disillusioned, or rather dispossessed of certain assumptions he’d held about how writers actually produced books. “I thought they just sat down and wrote it, beginning to end, the same way that I read it,” he confessed. “I never knew there was so much uncertainty in the process.”

I have to insert the disclaimer here that THERE IS NO ONE RIGHT WAY TO WRITE. Every writer has their own process and all of them are right. “Right” is what works for you, whoever you are.

That being said, it is a fact widely acknowledged that writers come in two stripes- Plotters and Pantsters.
Plotters are considered to live almost exclusively in the left side of their brains, compelled to spend hours deciding and detailing the plot of their story and characters, usually using outlines and other “pre-writing” tools long before they ever set story-word “one” to the page. They cannot begin until they know how the story begins, middles and ends.
Pantsters, or those who write “By the Seat of Their Pants,” live in the right sides of their brains, and prefer to just begin writing their story, much as my husband’s imaginary writer works, beginning to end, without knowing much about it at all except for the beginning that begs to be put to paper. They have no idea what is going to happen next when they start, let alone what will happen at the end. (An astonishing number of mystery authors have confessed to working this way). Some of them claim to even lose interest in the story once they figure out what the ending is.

I like to think I live on a continuum between the two, closer to the Plotter end of things. Here is what I need to start a story:
1) I need a spark- usually the serendipitous convergence of two or more previously unrelated ideas.
2) I like to have a clear idea of my total story, at least a starting framework of beginning, middle and end that may change as I get further down the road. I will usually write a simple outline.
3) I like to know basically who my characters are- what they want, why they want it and what is standing in their way (why don’t they have it now?) and what is the conflict between them?(This is Romance, after all). I will usually write this down. I will play with some names for my characters- they usually jump out at me, clear and obvious, for this character in this story.

Now, those parts actually involve a lot of creativity. I’m creating a world and people in it. Takes a little imagination, I’d say.

Once I have that, I can pretty much start putting words to the page.

I’ll start writing a scene. I know where the scene starts and what must happen by the end of it.

And this is the part that is a little bit magical.

I usually have no idea how this is going to go. I don’t know what my characters are going to say or how they are going to respond to each other. There is no rehearsal, I don’t give them their lines. They walk onto the page and off they go- hopefully headed off in the direction I intended.

I don’t save up clever things for them to say that I think of while I’m driving in the car. I don’t make lists of really cool words I want to make sure and use. I don’t write practice conversations between my characters that don’t have anything to do with my story. I don’t “pre-write” in that way.

What I do, is rely on a surprisingly deep well of past experiences, people, emotions, smells, tastes and sounds that inhabits the border of my consciousness. Stephen King calls it “the boys in the basement.” It’s really the subconscious, storing up all that seemingly useless clutter you’ll never forget, especially the emotionally charged stuff. Whatever I need, it’s somehow right there when I reach for it. Kind of amazing, really.

Writing, when it’s really good, is like watching a movie play in my head, but more intense because I am submerged not only in the scene but in the character and their emotions. When I’m writing, it’s hard to say exactly where I am. I think my body is sitting where I left it, but I’m long gone, the vacancy sign hung around my neck. If it goes well, I will have written something that reproduces that experience for the reader.

I recently spent an afternoon writing a scene in which my characters are caught in a violent island storm. When I finished, I emerged, blinking, from my writing coma to find myself in the middle of a beautiful Tuscon afternoon with cactus waving at me from the other side of my hotel window.

Mission accomplished.

Jill Jaynes

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