January 20th, 2011

A recent thread on a writer’s list, about being busy and handling all of one’s projects, started by asking, “Do you write one story or book at a time, finish it, and then begin another; or do you have several concurrent projects?”

As is the way with such threads, the responses addressed the question but also various side topics, including multitasking and whether or not such a thing is truly possible. One person who said it wasn’t observed, “You can’t write and do laundry at the same time.”

That remark struck me because my immediate reaction was, “But I do that all the time.” I don’t actually handle many household chores, but laundry is one of them, and it takes some time, especially the folding and sorting and putting away, and it is one of my prime opportunities for writing fiction. When I said so, though, the person was confused. It simply wasn’t possible, she said. If you are picking up a shirt and folding it, you are not holding a pencil and moving it across paper, nor are you typing.

Well, I’m not going to argue with that. But I am going to argue that there is far, far more to “writing” than typing. Now, different people write in different ways, and I certainly can agree that for some people, writing is mostly (I can’t quite say entirely, but I can say mostly) a matter of sitting down at the keyboard and doing it. However, for me, most of my writing is not this stage of transcription.

First, I need an idea. It needn’t be a fully formed idea; it could be a plot line (or a piece of a plot line), it could be a compelling character, it could be an interesting setting, it could be a theme. Staring at a computer screen or a blank sheet of paper does not bring this idea to me. Ideas come when and where they will — but most often when I am doing something completely different. I could be talking to someone, or engaging in sport, or watching a movie, or listening to music, or wandering through a museum, or reading a call for submissions. Ideas are a bit like love, though, in that the harder you chase them, the faster they run; and it’s often best to simply live your life and wait for them to come and find you.

Once I have an idea, that idea must be expanded into a full story that includes a complete (or complete enough, if it’s a short story) plot, with characters, setting, and all that. That too is a mental stage, not a typing stage, and again, I carry out this planning while engaged in other things.

I also need language — each individual sentence. This, for me, is still a mental stage. I arrange words into sentences, and sentences into paragraphs, and I go back and change words and rearrange sentences all in my head. The shower is an excellent place to do this; I also do it while I’m walking, and of course while doing the laundry.

Now, I can’t do two mental things at the same time, or at least, not successfully. I can’t talk on the phone to a friend and revise a paragraph. I can’t be checking my Facebook, or singing a song, or answering email. It’s best if I’m not cooking dinner (best for the dinner, I mean, not for the writing). But a rote physical activity, like laundry, or weeding, I can certainly do while working on a paragraph or a page.

Once I have the story more or less written in my head, at that point I sit down with my laptop and type it out. Now, once it’s written, I still play with it; I’ll still go back and add sections and delete sentences and change words. I might show it to someone and revise it based on his or her comments. But really, the bulk of the work is done. From typing on, it’s more polishing than constructing.

Because I can’t possibly have a story unless I do all of the thinking — there simply wouldn’t be anything to type — I call this thinking “writing.”

Does it matter? I mean, does it matter if I call my thinking “writing”? Yes, I think it does, and here’s why. I don’t think I’m alone in this. Even if other writers do less of the writing in their heads, I’m pretty sure most writers do some planning in their heads.

The point of recognizing this is that you can then consciously plan this time, and you can respect this time.

For example, say you see a call for submissions with a due date a month away. Do you have a month in which you could write? Perhaps not, if you are looking only at typing time. But perhaps you do, if you are aware of how much of the work you can do even when you don’t have typing time.

The other side of that coin is someone who thinks perhaps that having a block of six hours in front of the computer is enough time to finish a certain amount of writing, and then feels frustrated when it isn’t — because the necessary groundwork wasn’t done. Without that idea-gathering, many writers stare at the screen and panic because they assume they must have “writer’s block” when the words don’t come.

I’ve seen writers beat themselves up over “not having done anything all week” because they don’t have a Word file or a printout; and yet, they have been writing, and furthermore, making progress. They don’t give themselves credit for the work because it’s mental.

For me, a turning point in how I view the creative process came when I took on a large editing project for a publisher that involved some significant re-writing. I negotiated an hourly rate for my work, and then the project manager said, “Don’t forget to charge us for the time you spend thinking.” Oh? Wow. Because if she hadn’t said that, no, I would not have billed for that. I would have spent hours on my own, solving problems and moving words and pages around in my head, and then billed for the time I spent sitting at the computer. Once someone offers you money for something, it must be “real work.” That, for me, was the moment when I accepted thinking as “real work,” and began to examine, and accept, the significance of this step in my writing.

Folks of a certain age (and nationality) might remember the snarky comment of US President Lyndon Johnson, who said of Congressman Gerald Ford that he was so dumb he couldn’t fart and chew gum at the same time (this remark made it to the popular press in the milder form of his not being able to walk down the street and chew gum at the same time). Clearly, not everyone can multitask, and some tasks go better together than others. I’m curious, though, about how others write. Do you consider planning a part of “writing”? How do you do your brainstorming and drafting — in your head? on paper? At what point do you move to the computer (or paper)? How well do you know (and respect) your own writing process?

Free image courtesy of graur razvan ionu.
Image: graur razvan ionut / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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This entry was posted on Thursday, January 20th, 2011 at 10:35 pm and is filed under • What is "Writing"?. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

12 Responses to “What is “Writing”?”

Fulani Says:

A science fiction author I know wrote the first couple of thousand words of a novel, gave up and worked in an office for about eight years, then finally finished the book and took another two years to get it published. He says that in retrospect, those eight years were the ones in which things happened at work that fed into the original couple of thousand words, fleshed them out, developed them, and enabled the book to get finished. So from that perspective, he was ‘writing’ for the whole time even though he didn’t actually add any length to the manuscript at all.

Personally I do a lot of working out of plots while sitting at the computer and often write half a dozen pieces at the same time.

But either way, if you’re a writer, almost anything you do, really, counts as ‘writing’ if it’s feeding ideas that make it into the story or poem or novel at a later date, or even giving your subconscious time to process stuff – which is what doing the laundry can do for you.

V will say I need to do a bigger share of the laundry (and the vacuuming) and she’s probably right! But that’s my take on it anyway.

Jeremy Edwards Says:

I typically come up with the general idea for a story while away from the computer. And sometimes in mid-story I’ll brainstorm away from the computer to figure out what happens next or solve a problem. But the actual drafting, for the most part, happens with my typing fingers at the ready; and indeed much of the paragraph-to-paragraph story development happens as I’m typing, with sentence A sparking the idea for sentence B, and so on. Occasionally, though, a specific line of narrative or dialogue will come to me while I’m away from the computer–either while in plot-brainstorming mode or when my conscious mind is not focused on the story at all.

Willsin Rowe Says:

Very interesting post, ma’am. I feel I’m a little like you in that not all my writing is done at the keyboard. Unlike you, though, I don’t trust myself to remember any ideas I’ve come up with, and need to jot them down in some form. I also find that I’m terrible with time management, and a very good procrastinator. Whatever else I’m doing, I’m thinking about writing. And all the other creative endeavours I dabble in actually help. When I’m doing music (even on stage), there’s a different creative “pilot”. Similarly when I’m working on book covers. By freeing the “writer” from his responsibilities I can often make little steps, and sometimes large jumps, that I wouldn’t otherwise have made.

Kay Jaybee Says:

I write in two very different ways- I might get an idea for nowhere, and have to drop everything and scribble the sentences down as they land in my head that instant- if I don’t, that story will be lost forever- I simply cannot keep ideas in my head- they get shoved out by the next one! I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been frustrated by not being able to recall a good story plot I had in the bath etc
In contrast, I’ll maybe hear a line of conversation, see a location, or take in a song lyric, and sit and think about them until a plot forms in my head.
All this is done with pen and paper. None of my stories go anywhere near a screen until they are drafted at least twice.

Shar Says:

Kay, when you say you “draft,” what does that mean? Is that physically writing, but with pen/pencil and paper? I do that with non-fiction, but much more rarely with fiction or essays. Those I draft in my head. Other writing I often do still begin with paper and pencil. Probably just showing my age there, but it’s also a matter of being able to spread things out differently — I do a lot of horizontal planning (meaning, I lay pages out horizontally, not that I’m lying down when I write).

Savannah Chase Says:

I think that writing can be looked at in different ways. We don’t always have the time we need to write our book on the computer. I write on my phone, by hand, on laptop and I also plan and plot in my head when I am unable to write. I think as long as you are working on your story even if it is only plotting or thinking you are still writing.

Gregory Allen Says:

I agree, we spend a lot more time writing even than we realize. I think we’re subconsciously considering ideas and discarding them. Why else do writers almost universally seem to enjoy going on long walks? We’re not walking, we’re writing. Well, we’re doing both. My thing, though, and this is probably just my neurotic tendencies, but if I get to the stage where sentences are forming, I feel like I have to get them down. I don’t like to just play with them for too long, away from my computer or a paper and pen. I have before, by necessity, but then I’m like Guy Pearce from Memento, frantically rehearsing the string of sentences I need to get on paper before…what was I just talking about?

Jeremy Edwards Says:

I’m similar, Gregory: I can carry general ideas around in my head if they’re big enough that they won’t slip between the cracks in my mind; but specific images, specific sentences, and specific wording must be typed up or at least jotted down ASAP.

Shar Says:

I’m weirdly the opposite. I keep the words and sentences in my head, but if I get an actual plot, that I need to write down before I forget it. At one point I wondered if I just thought that I would forget plots, but actually didn’t. But no, I checked my file of notes, and sure enough, there were whole ideas that I’d entirely forgotten I’d once had. Whereas I’ve been carrying a certain opening line for a story around in my head for… let’s see… a little over two years now. But I won’t write it down until I know the whole story (I have that line, and a premise… but no ending).

Jeremy Edwards Says:

Oops: Slip through the cracks. (Or between the slats. Take your pick.)

Willsin Rowe Says:

Ooh! I have an ending!

“And then she woke up and it had all been a dream.”

That’s gold, Shar…GOLD! Money in the bank! It’s NEVER been done before! NEVER I tells ya…

Shar Says:

Yeah, Willsin, you hold that in your mind till the right story comes along for it. 😉

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