Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Writing: How-To

Okay, so the title is sort of misleading. I have no idea how to write; I'm learning as I go along. There is a pair of writers, however, who do seem to know how to write and are in the process of writing tutorials for other writers: Jenny Crusie and Bob Mayer. They are hosting an online writing workshop for the rest of us knuckle-dragging, arse-scratching hominids who are barely able to speak in comprehensible grunts much less write. Hey, don't get insulted, I'm referring to myself. I have no idea what you look like.

Anyway, Crusie and Mayer are doing a much better and more expert job at dispensing advice to writers than I ever could and I really, really encourage you to drop me like a slimy, rotten potato and rush on over to You don't even have to sign up, and if you're into RSS feeds, you can get their material force-fed to you that way. If you're puzzled about any aspect of the current lesson, you can e-mail them and perhaps get an answer posted to the site.

You can't say I never gave you anything. If you don't take this opportunity to learn something from two people who are undoubtedly experts in the field of writing, than shame on you.

The Crusie/Mayer workshop is also very interesting from a "how to go about starting" this writing gig. I've been struggling with trying to write more quickly and yet more better. (You see what I mean? More better?) Sorry. Anyway, I've worked with some writers--and have done this myself--who outline and then write. As they write, they are constantly going back to earlier chapters and smoothing them out. By the time they finish, their first draft is what for others might be the third or fourth draft.

On the other side of the fence are those who may or may not do a lot of up-front outlining and who rip through their first draft, just writing until it's done. Then they go back and smooth it out, juggle chapters around, and fix everything.

To use Mayer's summary: the first bunch frontloads the work and the second bunch backloads it. If you frontload, you work a lot of stuff out in the beginning and edit as you write so that by the end of the "draft" you have very little editing or rewriting to do. Most of the work is done in the beginning: up front. If you backload, you do very little work in the beginning and work on getting the story down on paper (or rather, into the computer). Then comes the massive editing, rewrites, etc, so most of the work is done on the back end of the process, after the first draft is done.

I've been trying to decide which technique results in the fastest production. After trying both, well, I think they both take just about the same amount of time. But there are pitfalls to each approach. Mayer didn't really go into the pitfalls, but I can tell you the following based upon my own experiences. Hopefully, this will "add value" to what you can learn from the Crusie and Mayer workshop.

Frontloading Your Work
  • For folks who are "pantsters" and like to write and discover their story along the way, trying to develop the outline, do all the research, etc, may kill the story for them. They may find by the time they finish the outline, they are no longer interested in actually writing it. For these folks, backloading may be the better solution.
  • If you are given to extreme fits of anal behavior, frontloading can be the La Brea Tar Pit of writing techniques. Consider:

    * You may spend far too much time on perfecting the outline, instead of just finishing the outline (which no one is going to see but you, anyway, so it doesn't have to be freakin' perfect) and actually starting to write the story itself.

    * You may spend far too much doing research because it's fun. Do only what is necessary for the book. Don't dive down rabbit holes just because they're there.

    * Even worse, when you do start writing and polishing as you're writing, remember that you actually do need to move on to page 2. Do not get caught in the trap of endlessly nit-picking and editing what you previously wrote so that you never write the next bit or finish the book. You do want to actually finish a first draft, and remember that this is a first draft and does not have to be p-e-r-f-e-c-t because you actually can edit it again when you are done with the first draft. No one is going to force you to immediately send it out to an agent/publisher (unless you have a contract and the manuscript is due tomorrow--in which case I wonder what you are doing here, reading this, when you should be working...).

There are probably many other cautions, but by now you ought to see the point. If you're inclined toward perfectionism, frontloading can be seductive and yet infected with all sorts of little hard-to-cure, easily transmitted nasties.

And yet, least you think backloading is a dream come true, let me enlighten you.

Backloading Your Work

  • For a "pantster" who wants the story to unfold from the mysterious depths of their mind, constantly delighting them with the brilliantly unexpected twists and turns, backloading may seem like The Answer. Sort of. It can also be the best way there is to write crap. Because if you're the sort of person who is over-taxed and in a hurry, you'll finish that draft and may be tempted to just do a few passes through to edit it, get tired of reading the blasted thing, and then send it out.
  • Because you've backloaded, you may not have thought out the plot and you may find there are major temporal holes in the thing or that you need to move chapters or chunks around or, gulp, delete entire sections. Some people cannot be ruthless with their own writing. Think about it. If you've written this absolutely amazing scene, but it actually is not needed by the story, are you able to cut it out? Even knowing that you'll never, ever be able to use it? Because let's face it, that scene was written for those two characters in this specific book, and it would never work with any other characters in any other book. So it's gone. Dust. History. Fried with Round-Up. Can you do that? Really?
  • In a similar vein, are you going to get bored with all the editing and end that phase too soon? Because remember, you were the one who got bored if you wrote an outline before you wrote the book. How many times can you go through the book to fix it, now that it's written? And now that your prose is down there on the paper (or computer screen) is it deathless or does it just seem that way? Are you able to overhaul it if it needs it?

I've outlined and then written stuff slowly, editing as I went and almost didn't finish the story because I kept going down rabbit-holes, so I know how that goes. In an effort to cure that, I've written from the seat of my pants, just blasting it out, and then faced the horrors of massive edits including cutting out my favorite scenes, and getting so tired of editing, editing, editing because of all the flaws in the first draft that I have been known to (gulp) send things to my agent prematurely just to get them out of my face.

I've been on both sides now. Neither is pretty or easy.

However. I have to agree with old Bob (sorry, Bob, I think I'm actually older than you are, so my apologies, old boy) that frontloading may actually, in the long run, be the most effective. Because it means less wasted effort, editing while material is fresh (as you write it) and if you can control yourself, you may actually finish. And what you end up with is pretty darn good so there are fewer rewrites at this point. There will, of course, be rewrites when your agent and editor get a-hold of it, but that's to be expected.

So, on the whole, I think frontloading may be marginally better. Maybe. The jury is sort of still out on that, though, and a lot depends upon you and what sort of weaknesses you have.

Now, the question is, what is your process going to look like?

1 comment:

Carol Burnside aka Annie Rayburn said...

Great post! I found your blog during a search for "backloading in writing". I think I'm a 1/2-and-1/2 writer. I like the discovery process, and have tried several ways of frontloading. But after a certain point, I begin to lose interest in writing the story. I've learned to recognize when I'm reaching that saturation point and begin the writing process there. At that point, I know quite a bit about my characters, less about the intricacies of how the plot unfolds.

I know the basics of their conflict, but there's still plenty of discovery and surprise in the writing--a necessary ingredient for me.

Still, in following the emotion (as Dwight Swain instructs us) of the story, I write pretty a pretty tight, clean draft which doesn't require extensive re-write.

Of course, I'm not published yet so it remains to be seen whether an editor would agree with my(completely unbiased, I'm SURE!) assessment of my own writing. LOL

Love your student mindset. Keep posting the revelations. You never know what might help someone else.

Happy writing!