Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Three Steps Forward, One Step Back by Jennifer Archer

I used to teach a creative writing course at my local community college. The first thing I told my students at the beginning of the very first class each term was that I can’t teach them how to write – nobody can. What I can do is introduce them to certain practices that I and other writers use to work our way through a book. I suggest they try these and find which ones work best for them. Or perhaps even pull from some or all of the many tried and true methods to create their own unique process. 

Those of you starting out on your writing journey and quest to get published will undoubtedly hear and/or read all kinds of advice you "must" follow if you want to finish a book, get it published, and continue to publish. If this advice is spoken by someone who has walked the road you want to travel, pay close attention. However, keep this firmly in mind: The simple fact is, there is no right or wrong way to write a book – no process (as long as you keep moving forward) that will prevent you from getting published.

Don’t get me wrong – I'm not implying that any advice is bad advice. Much of what you'll hear/read is good. You should definitely listen to the suggestions of other writers and give them a try.  All I'm saying is that writing a book is not a one-size-fits-all endeavor. I’ll use myself as an example. Repeatedly, I’ve been told that writers should push through a first draft without revising. Vomit all of the words onto the page, so to speak, before we go back and clean them up. This is fine advice, and my own personal observation tells me that for most writers, it works quite well. For one thing, it does away with the risk of never finishing the book because you’re hung up on making Chapter One perfect and can’t move past that. However, while this might be the right process for most writers, it’s the wrong process for me. I’ve written one novel in this manner, and when I reached the end of the first draft, I had such an overwhelming mess on my hands I didn’t know how to begin to go back and “fix” it. Eventually, I threw it out and started over, using the process that has seen me through to “The End” with ten published novels, three novellas, two personal histories, and one non-fiction book. I call it the ‘Three Steps Forward, One Step Back’ method. Here’s how it works:

Each day when I sit down at my computer, I read over and revise the new material I wrote the day before. Then I write more new material. A scene, a chapter, or more, depending on the circumstances. The only rule to this process – and it’s self-made – is that I produce new material in each writing session. This ensures that I continue to move forward in the storyline rather than getting stuck  revising Chapter One, again and again. Does it take me longer to reach the end of the first draft than it would if I used the traditional “vomit” method most writers swear by? Probably. But I also end up with a much more polished first draft and a better chance of keeping my sanity intact when I start to work my way through Draft #2. 

Let me assure you that I’m not an anomaly when it comes to breaking this writing "rule." Dean Koontz has written and published dozens of novels by taking this approach to an even greater extreme than I do. In an interview at books.gather.com (read the rest of the interview at this link)  Mr. Koontz says, "I work only on the computer and I do one page at a time. I work on a page 20, 30, 40 drafts, whatever it takes, before I move on to the next page. That way I feel that I've done as much as I can on that page and have nothing left to correct later. So that when I get a draft done, it has so much reworking during the course of it that I don't need to go back and revisit things." 

So if the most common approaches to writing a book feel wrong to you, don't despair! Try something else, and something else again, until you find the way that works best for you. As long as you continue to move forward in the story with each writing session, you're doing fine! 

Through Her Eyes is my latest book written using the Three Steps Forward, One Step Back method. It's also my debut Young Adult novel! If you haven’t already, I hope you’ll check it out. It’s currently available in hardback and for Kindle and Nook.  

 Happy 2012, and Happy Reading!


Jordan Dane said...

LOL...I don't like cleaning up vomit either. Gawd, I loved this post. So very true. Amazing stuff on Koontz too. I love him. Can't believe he's as prolific as he is doing all those page by page edits, but who can argue with his success?

I do your method too. After reading your beautiful book THROUGH HER EYES, I feel in very good company. Your world building & strong smart characters were standouts. Well done!

Like you & Koontz, I like to edit as I go & often revise until I have nothing more to add, but keep moving/writing forward. When I am done, I make one final read thru that's quick, but that's it. I'm finished. No vomit drafts to fix. And once I'm finished with a story, I'm ready to think about the next one, another reason that rehashing drafts would be a nightmare for me.

Thx, Jenny. Kiss..kiss.

Jennifer Archer said...

Thanks, Jordan. Good to know that Koontz and I aren't the only rebels out there!

Linda Castillo/ said...

Excellent post, Jennifer. I can't tell you how many times, when I first began writing, that people would tell me I was doing it wrong. There is no "right or wrong" and every writer is differet. (except for you and Mr. Koontz) :-) The key is to find what works best for you.

Michelle said...

I'm a proud vomiter myself--don't edit at all until I've finished a rough draft in its entirety, otherwise chances are I'd still be working on my first book :)
I also don't outline--I'm a "pantser," in that I start out with an idea, then proceed to fly by the seat of my pants. It's always interesting to hear how other writers work, everyone is so different!

Jordan Dane said...

I laughed reading Michelle is a proud vomiter. Ha! I'll have to work that image out of my brain.

And how cool is it that the wonderfully talented Linda Castillo stopped by. Wow. Banner day. Nice way to launch our blog.

Anita Grace Howard said...

EXCELLENT post Jenny!! And as you well know, I have the exact same writing process as you.

Yet still I've been told by some (you know who you are O.o) that I'm a fast writer. So even going back and tweaking every day before starting fresh(I mainly do it to get back into the mindset of the scene/character), I can still turn out a pretty quick first draft, AND a very polished one to boot. :)

Like you said, how we write is as individual as what we write. There's no wrong way, as long as you're always moving forward! What is it the tortoise said to the hare again??? ;)

Jennifer Archer said...

Michelle, I'm also a panster by nature. Really cramps my style to have to write a synopsis prior to writing the book in order to sell it!