October 6th, 2011 / 11:54 am
Craft Notes

A Process Post

I’ve been thinking about length a lot. Or numbers, maybe. The number of words in something and how thinking of the number of words in something changes our entire approach to it. It’s just a number, the number of words you put down, and it shifts process. I don’t know why this seems like such a big deal to me, but it does.

When I approach the process of writing a novel, I am slow. It is slow. I take my time. After all, what should be the rush if it will take me months, if not years, to complete? Why hurry to write one page if this one page is a mere fraction of what there is to write? Why rush if this one page will likely be cut in the end? Novels require patience.

And yet, despite the overwhelming task of putting pages down that I know may or may not be used, creating characters who may or may not have any impact on the narrative, words and phrases that I love but must eventually be erased/deleted because of their preciousness, despite all of this, somehow, I keep on writing. You keep on writing. Sometimes, writing a novel feels like I’m Prometheus, not during the fire stealing phase but the eagle eating my liver every day phase. Or, maybe a better analogy is Penelope, weaving and unweaving. Because that’s what novel writing can feel like: a constant deletion.

But this is kind of a lie. This is what I hear other people say about writing novels. And sometimes I think their suffering is what my process should be like. Like maybe they’re more “legit” writers because they suffer while writing. It’s all part of the myth, right?

Because for me novel writing isn’t suffering like Prometheus or Penelope or any other dead Greek. When I write novels, I write daily. I know that over time, there will be an accumulation, and all I have to do is be diligent. For me, novel writing is about diligence. Diligence is actually more important than patience. You just have to keep on. The other trick: I only write for two hours a day. I don’t understand people who write for hours on end. After a certain period of time, it just comes out junk, and for me, that magic time is two hours.

But back to numbers: I’ve been thinking about numbers because I recently wrote a short story. I don’t really write short stories. It’s not a medium I find particularly comfortable. (This is funny because I just published a collection of short stories, by which I mean, I know how to write them, they’re just not my preferred form.) Short stories happen too quickly. Before I know it, it’s done.

Except unlike novels, stories don’t necessarily require diligence. They require patience. Stories do not require that constant returning-to that novels do. Sure, it can take a long time to write a story, yes, but if you sit with a story for long enough, it happens. You just have to be patient with it.

For me, short stories are painful. I am not very patient, apparently.

Maybe it’s because I write novels by hand and short stories by typing. Maybe that’s the difference, but whatever the reason, the number of words in short stories is too constricting. (Ha! This from a writer who’s all about constraint!) So what about the numbers makes it so difficult? I will sit in front of my screen for an hour, barely making a sentence appear. Nor is it that I don’t know what story I want to write.

And then I think maybe the sentence functions differently in a story than a novel. Does it?

Well, whatever, I’ll stop now. But I’ll ask you all this: Do you approach different forms differently? And how so? (I’d like specifics please.)

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  1. JScap

      I think it was Faulkner who, after being asked if he writes when inspired, said something like, “I’m inspired every morning at precisely 9:00.”
      Diligence.  I agree 100% with what you’re saying, Lily.

      When I write short pieces, they almost always begin in a notebook.  Then I transfer them to the computer.  The tranfer itself is a revision, often the most significant one.  Then I work it and rework it on the computer until I think it’s done.

      When I write longer pieces, they almost always begin in a notebook.  Then I transfer them section-by-section to the computer.  But I never seem to be able to revise it completely on the computer alone — I’m much more likely to print out sections, mark them up/rewrite them by hand.  Maybe, for me, it’s as simple as this: a longer piece = a longer process.

      Natalie Goldberg says something about how tiny notebooks lend themselves to tinier thoughts, and bigger notebooks lend themselves to bigger thoughts.  I feel like the same might apply for processes.

  2. Kiki

      I write poems, and then I wrote a novel (Sleight).  Anything I wrote in between was painful.  The poems and the novel–they seemed to just arrive the ways they had to.  The novel was fits and spurts (“for interruptions there shall allways be” V.Woolf) and came out containing all sorts of forms but it is a (mostly) linear narrative about a series of events, atrocities, people, and an imaginary art form.  The conceptual work in the novel came in through the backdoor.  With poems, my conceptual work is the crux– and the imagery, language, etc. serves it.  So with a novel (and I am onto a second), I try to hold my philosophies to the side knowing they will creep in.  Whereas the poem takes them head on.  I imagine that seems backwards to people.  I imagine I am a bit backwards.  I think about this often.  I dance too, and choreography happens from a whole other direction (maybe below? volcanically? a la Lorca? I’ll have to think on that.)

  3. Christoffer Molnar

      I’m glad you posted this quote, which I like but have never been sure who said it.  For years, I’ve been misattributing it to Maupassant.  After a little googling, the consensus seems to be his alphabetical next door neighbor, Maugham: http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/show/302963

  4. Frank Tas, the Raptor

      I feel what you mean about writing novels v. short stories. If I’m sitting down to work on a novel, I like writing the first draft by hand, because I know it’s going to take long, and I will need to write every day, and if I don’t need to work with a computer, I have no excuses not to get my daily dosage of writing finished.

      Short stories I’ll either write or type. If I know enough about or am excited enough by an idea I tend to type it up as I can get a pretty solid draft finished in one sitting with only minor mark-ups on revision. If an idea is half-baked, I’ll write it out, and use transcribing as an opportunity to revisit and strengthen.

      I also find novel writing a lot less stressful than short story writing, and I think a lot of that has to do with personal deadline expectations. With a novel, I can say,

      “This will take two months to draft and one year to finish to my liking”

      and know that that big picture deadline is achievable. Furthermore, if I struggle with my big picture deadline, it doesn’t feel urgent; by the time I pass a deadline I am so in touch with what I’m writing that I do not feel pressured by arbitrary timelines made by a me who was only guesstimating. Writing feels like a steady relationship to me and gives me life some direction and sanity.

      Short stories, because they’re looked at on a much smaller scale, I cannot give myself realistic deadlines, and any time I stop working on one for a day I feel on edge because I know it’s waiting for me, waiting to be finished.

  5. Kevin Spaide

      After a couple of hours it’s usually diminishing returns for me too. Things slow right down. My mind wanders. Maybe I’ll get up and do the dishes or something, then come back to it and write a little more. Or do something like this – I just hit that two hour mark a few minutes ago. But this is only when I’m working on something long. A novel, or something that’s obviously not a short story. If I’m writing a short story, I can go on for longer. A few hours. Maybe because the end is in sight from the first line, or at least you can kind of smell it even if you can’t see it. It’s there somewhere, almost in the room already. And I always have this fear that if I stop halfway through a short story, I might not go back to it, so I want to get to the end. Which might explain why my short stories are getting shorter and shorter as I get older and have less time to write – and probably fewer functioning brain cells to work with. And less patience. But more diligence.
      I write everything on the computer though. I find it really weird and interesting that you write short stories on the computer and novels by hand.

  6. jtc

      I don’t think I was daily committed to my writing until I started working on a novel. Whatever happens with it, I’m at least grateful that it got me working. My startup was 1000 words a day with it. That changed occasionally, but I went with what Hemingway said about writers being wells, and not taking too much water out lest you drain the well dry.

      I didn’t start working on short stories again (and had no intention to) until I finished the first draft of the novel. Since then, I’ve been writing short stories with renewed vigor. It’s exciting, and somehow I think something has unlocked for me. I don’t view them the same way. They seem easier, maybe if only because I can see much easier now the range of the work. It’s cool.

      I’ve wanted to start doing some writing away from the computer, but the idea of revision seems so daunting without the computer to help me. Being able to copy and paste, to move quickly back and forth, to also quickly delete or add passages, pages upon pages–losing those seems like it would frustrate me when, a few pages into a hand-written piece, I realized I wanted to change something.I know i can just add it on a different page and incorporate it later, but it isn’t the same. How do you deal with that, with all that you sacrifice giving up the computer?

  7. werdfert

      i write with an idea of wholeness in my head, like putting the egg whole in my mouth.  it is easier for me to write stories because i can wrap my head around them and they can wrap themselves around me. whereas the novel has to be taken incrementally.

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