Evolving as a writer

Just finished up with my weekly Writers Gone Wild blog post, and thought this might be of interest to y’all.




Evolving As A Writer by Maree Anderson (for Writers Gone Wild)

It’s interesting — well, I find it interesting so I hope you will, too — to take a look at something you’ve been doing for a long time, and see how your process has evolved. How you went about it then, compared with how you go about it now.

If it’s a “good” evolution — something that’s more efficient and works better for you — then you might want to chart the course of that change, and analyze what motivated you to evolve your original process.

Why would you want to do that? Well, because you’d be surprised how you can “map” successful processes across from one task to another. What I mean by that is analyzing your process for doing something that you’re really good at, and applying the same techniques you use for that process to something you struggle with.

For example, take a kid who’s a pretty good artist, but is never happy with her artwork projects, and inevitably ends up being pressed for time and running close to deadline. Maybe the composition isn’t quite right — it kinda looks like she’s crammed everything on the page to make it fit. Maybe there’s too much going on in the picture, meaning the main focus of the concept is lost. Or maybe it’s a great piece of artwork if you take it at face value, but it doesn’t adhere to the parameters that have been set for the project, so it doesn’t “work”.

Okay, so here’s when mapping across could help.

What is she really good at? Writing stories. She doesn’t have to work so hard at those. Creative writing is easy for her.

So let’s take a look at a story she wrote for a school magazine that she’s particularly proud of, and analyze what she did when she wrote that story. She had a concept. She knew her two main characters. She had a setting. She had a beginning scene, a middle, and an end scene in mind. She knew the limits, in this case word length so it would fit on X number of magazine pages. She’d unknowingly planned it all in her head before she even started, so when she sat down to write it, the story just flowed and needed very little polishing or tweaking afterward.

Apply that to her artwork projects:

What she’s doing now is jumping in the deep end with only a vague idea of what she wants to draw, and nothing much else. She’s getting all excited about her idea, and cutting straight to the final stage because she’s eager to apply all the colors and textures and every other technique she’s learned.

What she needs to do is plan the drawing/poster/collage or whatever first. Come up with a concept. Choose the materials. Decide the main focus of the drawing. Sketch it out on the page. Tweak it to make sure the composition works and fits the paper. Take a step back and check whether it fits the parameters that have been set for the project. Then go for it.

An owl collage she did is an excellent example. The owl was her “high concept”. It was “colored in” with a whole heap of words and phrases that she thought represented her as a person. But it didn’t fill the page she had to use, and she had no idea how to use the owl based on the strict parameters the teacher had set for the project. Cue one really frustrated kid, who’s running out of time to pull the project together to her own very high standards by the project deadline.

Rather than discarding hours and hours of painstaking work and starting all over from scratch, we got her to think about the owl as a character in a story. What would be the setting? What would the owl be doing? What other characters would be in that story?

She came up with the idea of an owl perched in a tree, watching over a nest of eggs. The tree represented her potential for growth. The eggs represented the things that she loved, things that made her feel safe and happy, and things that she needed to nurture so she could reach her full potential. Once she came up with the “story” for her owl, the rest of the collage came together very quickly. And standing up in English class to talk about her collage was a breeze.

Looking at the “Bio Shock” inspired painting she’s doing for her brother’s bedroom wall right now, I think she’s learned from that collage, and evolved her process. It’s looking pretty darned awesome. And, more importantly, she’s having fun with it!

Now this isn’t some poorly disguised analogy to suggest that writers “must” plot their stories first. Nyah uh. I know better than that!

I used to believe I was incapable of plotting. It was like having my teeth pulled. Without an anesthetic. By a bad-tempered, sleep-deprived dentist with a huge grudge. I used to believe plotting sucked all the fun out of writing a story. Then I got “stuck” about 1/4 of the way into a manuscript. And after many abortive attempts to “write through the block”, my only way forward was to write paragraph-long summaries of scenes, thus plotting the rest of the story. Which made me realize the story so far hadn’t been working, and I’d gotten stuck because some of my already written scenes needed to be further along in the story. Shuffle them round a bit and voila! It flowed and as an added bonus, the pace was much, much faster. Then all I had to do was write to fill the gaps between scenes. Not as fun as complete pantsering, perhaps, but a valuable lesson that allowed me to finish writing the damn story.

I’ve since used that kind of plotting technique to help me in the revision process, too. A chunk of the story wasn’t working but at that late stage of the process — deadlines! *shudder* — I couldn’t toss it and completely rewrite the story. So I cut out four or five chapters, and saved them to another file. Then I plotted scene by scene what needed to happen within the already set structure and parameters of the original story. Funnily enough, a large proportion of those cut scenes ended up pasted back in with very little tweaking — just not in the places I’d expected!

But all this doesn’t mean I’ve embraced the evil ‘P’ word. Plotting is just another technique in my writers toolbox and I use it when I need to. Still, I’ve been looking at my process lately, and discovered I’ve evolved from the dedicated pantser I used to be. With my current manuscript, I’ve morphed into what my good friend author Helene Young terms a “scener” – I imagine a scene, and when it’s fully realized in my mind, I sit down and write it.

So pantser, plotter, scener, that’s me — for now, anyway. Nothing like being flexible, right?

And that’s what evolving as a writer is all about. Being flexible. Being open to trying something different if what you’re currently doing isn’t working. Perhaps looking at something totally unrelated that produced a result you’re really proud of, and “mapping across” your process for that to your current manuscript.


Maree Anderson

(NOTE: This article originally appeared on Writers Gone Wild)

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