Penning. The first step in publishing your novel. I’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about, writing about, and teaching the writing process in workshop formats. You’d think when given the opportunity to write about penning, the immediate image in my head would be that of a dedicated writer, sitting intently at her desk, pen in hand, or as it happens more often these days, fingers on keyboard.
That’s not the image that popped into my mind.
Instead, I saw a woman dressed in cowboy gear, lariat in hand, chasing down renegade words and outlaw sentences. Trying to herd them into a large corral where maybe, if she ever managed to get them contained, she could begin to put them together into some semblance of order and story.
For me, the very first step in writing involves finding a metaphor for my process. It shifts with each new book I write. While writing my first two novels I thought of myself as an archaeologist, carefully excavating my story layer by layer. Somewhere around the third I shifted my metaphor to that of diver, going deep into murky water, swimming back up to the surface with treasure I’d found in the depths.
Right now I’m working on a book set in the west, a young woman in a gritty, rural man’s world, and my writing process metaphor has followed me there.
Once I have that initial working metaphor in place, the real work begins. As writers, we have to find our story, discover our characters, and follow them into their world. We have to unleash our imaginations while at the very same time put some firm discipline into the seats of our pants.
Explore. Journey forth. Sit. Write.
There’s no way around it. We have to get good at doing two very different things at the same time.
There’s no way to fit all the tricks of the writing trade into one post, so I’ll say this: writing begins when you find your story and sit yourself in the chair to write it. Now I’ll leap ahead to something I think is very important.
Don’t bend; don’t water it down; don’t try to make it logical; don’t edit your own soul according to the fashion. Rather, follow your most intense obsessions mercilessly.
A lot of what we do as writers is try and try and try again to get ourselves in that “zone” where the words flow and we get so caught up in the story we tell it without thinking through every line. If we do this long enough, and enough times, we get to a deeper place – one where we find our unique voice. And then the challenge is to believe in it and trust it enough to leave it that way.
Every time a beta reader reads your story or novel, or you read it out loud in a writing group, you’ll get feedback. You need that feedback. You need the perspectives of readers/listeners who are outside the forest of the writing. Some of the feedback will be right on target. Some of it will be a very subjective reaction to your work. It’s important to learn to distinguish one from the other, or you’ll end up listening to every single thing and the final result will be a watered down, weak version of your own unique voice.
I don’t think the market needs thousands of bland, similar voices. If you like X, you’ll love Y. What I look for when I shop for a new book to read is one that has set out on a unique journey. Not necessarily to a new place – but from a new perspective, with some heart and soul in the telling, and with creative use of language and structure. And yet, as writers, we often get feedback that focuses us in on making our book more like the books that have come before ours.
We have to learn to listen to feedback and let it wash over us for a little while before leaping in and changing things. Take the notes and let them sit a few days. Then read them and mark those that seem to resonate. Sometimes we get feedback that seems crazy and we have an instant negative response. No way am I changing that. When you hear that instantaneous negative voice, jot that down too. Sometimes it shows us our weak spots and points the way to issues that do in fact need revision.
When we engage deeply with the writing process, and pay attention to our personal reactions as we write, we not only get a richer experience, we get a richer story. Look closely at the scenes you avoid writing. The ones that you can’t wait to write. The ones where you get caught up to the point you don’t want to move on. The ones that take you off on side paths – often these will either be your subconscious avoiding a difficult scene OR they will be ideas for new stories or novels.
What makes your voice unique is your own personal way of telling things. The way you see, via your characters, the world you have entered. The way you string words together, and describe landscapes, faces, movement, pauses in conversation. When you engage deeply, you get to the root of your distinct writing self. You tell a story that no one else can tell.
As a writer, as a reader, I think these are the most important, and most beautiful, stories in the world. It’s like finding treasure when I find a book where the writer took the time, and cared enough, to write from this very special place.
About Billie Hinton:
Billie Hinton is a writer, psychotherapist, and creative coach. She started November Hill Press in 2009 and publishes fiction, nonfiction, and photography. Billie lives on a small horse farm with three incredible horses, a perfectly painted pony, two amazing miniature donkeys, two cunning Corgis, and five felicitous felines. She sees magic happen every single day.