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October 28, 2009

My Writing Process

One of the things I’m asked about most is my writing process. So, while it feels a little bit like I’m gazing at my navel - here we go.

When I’m writing the first draft, I operate from the ‘let it all hang out’ position. I use every character idea, every plot twist (silly or not), every last drop of emotion, and all of the worst and most violent scenarios I can conceive of. I don’t censor myself on a first draft in any way, shape or form. It’s kind of like taking a digital photograph: you can always make a big photo smaller, but you can’t make a small photo bigger (well, you can, but it looks like crap).

There are things that I’ve written in some first drafts that will never see the light of day, and that’s as it should be. There have been at least two violent passages in my novels that were deleted forever from my harddrive. I mentioned this once to a reader in Germany, who told me: ‘Oh, no, you should keep those! Maybe one day you can put out an ‘unabridged’ version with all the gory parts intact.’ I explained to him that I wasn’t interested in writing books that get burned, nor was I interested in being hung in effigy.

Yeah, they were that bad.

There have been plot twists that went beyond the ridiculous, and plenty of stilted, awful dialogue that I am actually ashamed to have written.

All of that’s okay, because it works for me. I basically give myself a pass to create a mental environment where anything goes, where anything can be imagined or said. The result is the first draft - an obese, possibly obscene, probably monstrous thing. Kind of like Jabba the Hut.

Then I set it aside and wait a week.

The next draft is where I break out the carving knife. I read and cut, read and cut. I get rid of the overly gratuitous, the stupid, the unnecessary. Because I didn’t censor myself, I am usually left with a lot of good stuff. More importantly, I generally end up writing a book that pushes my own boundaries, because I gave myself no limits on the first draft.

William Blake’s famous paragraph: “The path of excess leads to the tower of wisdom. The pleasure of satisfying a savage instinct, undomesticated by the ego is incomparably much more intense than the one of satisfying a tame instinct.”

I don’t necessarily agree with this in life, but I absolutely agree with it when it comes to first drafts.

Every writer has their own way of doing things. For me, every book is a war. A knock-down, drag-out, Fight Club kind of thing. I get obsessed when I’m writing, and every book takes its toll. I go into some dark, messed-up places, and it’s not always a day at the races. Sometimes it’s banging on a piñata made of meat. A piñata that squeals at you. But I digress…

Once the second draft is done, and I’m satisfied with it, then the time comes to let someone else read the book. I will generally send it to my agent, as she used to be an editor, and I trust her insight. She’ll read it over and give me her notes. I’ll consider what she’s said and dive back down the rabbit hole to revise. This is generally the last big struggle, the final battleground for the most major revisions. After this revision and a final re-read by my agent, I send it on to my editor.

The editor/writer relationship is incredibly important and unbelievably valuable. I’ve heard stories (haven’t we all) about eccentric (or cranky) famous authors who refuse editorial collaboration. This mystifies me. Every book of mine that’s been published became a much better book as a direct result of the editorial process. All writers have tics and blind spots. You need a second set of eyes to make sure yours have been discovered and dealt with.

Once all of the above is done, and the book has been officially put to bed, I put it out of my mind and try not to think about it again. I’ve never gone back to re-read a book once it’s been put through the above process. It becomes the past.

I immerse myself, instead, into all the things that’ll get those creative wheels turning; books, movies, music, the good, the bad and the hideous. All to get myself ready for that next first draft and the war that comes with it.

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