Discover more from Fiction Notes
The Three Stages Of Writing
How to practice at being a fiction writer, part II
Welcome to another edition of Fiction Notes. You can find previous essays here—topics range from idea generation to the importance of talent, to outlining a novel. If you like what you read, please hit reply or shoot me an email. And if you haven’t, please sign up!
The end of the year draws near—and what a year it has been... I hope y'all are doing well, that you're families and friends are well, and that you're wrapping up 2020 in the best way possible.
Anyways, since last week I went ultra-specific/craft-centric, this week I'm back at being a bit meta. Today, I'm exploring what writing is, and what writing is not, and why the word writing, at least in fiction, is so often misunderstood (and why that misunderstanding can lead to many a headache and frustration.)
So: What is writing? Everything. Yes, I know I'm being cheeky here, but bear with me.
For a writer (and you should see yourself as one if you want to write—please eliminate the word aspiring from your vocabulary), anything and everything is writing. An instant of bliss, check. Those 5 minutes you spaced out during your last conversation with your significant other, check. That darkness within you, the ink-black spot born of resentment and anger over that one mean girl that bullied you 'till you cried every day after school, check.
But that is too large a definition, isn't it? Let's narrow things down a bit. Writing, at least novel writing, can be divided into three stages, which I call:
Post-Drafting. (AKA Editing)
See how I didn't use the word writing to name any of those stages? That's because in our general imagination when we say writing we mean stage 2: Drafting. But that is a mistake. One that does nothing but harm.
Too often (still happens) I consider what I have to do for both the pre-drafting and post-drafting stage of writing a novel and hear a (not so) soft voice that tells me: Forget about that... That isn't important. That isn't writing! You don't need to think about your story before you write it and you don't have to edit if your first draft is just perfect!
That is yet another manifestation of The Resistance, as Steven Pressfield puts it, and should not be listened to. Or, in other words: It is pure bullshit.
I'll say it again, mostly to myself: pre-drafting is writing. Drafting is also writing. Post-drafting, or editing, too, is writing.
And that is why I've borrowed from my experience in Filmmaking to come up with my own terms. Because in filmmaking there is a saying:
Movies are created three times before they are shown to an audience: first, in pre-production; second, while they're shot; and third, in the editing room.
And so it is with novels (and articles, and blog posts, and essays, etc...)
Can Writing Be Taught?
One of my favorite internet-writers (and just writers in general) is Thomas J Bevan. His Sunday newsletter is a delight, and I encourage you to subscribe. A few weeks ago he tweeted something along the lines of:
Editing is the only part of writing that can be taught because it is the only one that can be summarised into bullet points.
(Tom, wisely, has since deleted his tweeter account to take a month off the internet, so I can't give you the exact tweet—If I am remembering said tweet incorrectly here, please don't hesitate to let me know.)
I am not sure whether I agree or disagree with that statement. I do believe that, to some people, writing can be taught. But not to all. What I know, though, is that writing can be practiced, and it can be practiced deliberately and that that practice involves way more than just putting words to paper.
How To Practice At Being A Fiction Writer — Part II
Let's analyze each of these stages, one by one.
is everything that comes before you actually sit down to put prose into paper (or computer screen.) It is the act of both finding and creating the puzzle pieces that will, someday, make up your story. It involves all things related to idea collection and organization, such as:
All your experiences up to this point.
Conceptualizing that one sequence you've always wanted to write, yet never found a story to fit it in.
In other words, you practice pre-drafting in two distinct ways:
Living your life, and living it well.
Practicing idea generation; and outlining (if you like doing that); and keeping a common-place book; and just living and breathing your story 'till it has crystallized into something that makes you think: yes, I know what this story is, I know who the characters are, I know what the beginning and/or ending is, and have a rough map on how to get there.
is editing. But I don't mean just proof-reading or making sure there are no inconsistencies in your story. I mean: re-creating, re-imagining your story, using the puzzle pieces you now have and have awkwardly arranged into something that looks like a puzzle, and trying to turn that puzzle into a work of art.
As Tom Bevan said, there is a wealth of information out there on the subject of practicing your editing skills. Go read those books, listen to those interviews. You can even take a couple of creative writing courses if you feel like it.
is, weirdly, both the most over-discussed and under-discussed stage of writing. Everyone talks about it—everyone says just write more, and keep doing it and doing it, and doing it until you get better. And that is true, sure, but plain-old-practice doesn't make perfect.
Perfect, deliberate practice makes perfect.
But still, it is tricky, very tricky, to go beyond just drafting (and reading) more to improve your drafting skills. And it's an issue I have been thinking about for a long time, and maybe I have an answer for, and maybe I don't. I'm honestly not sure.
What I do know, though, is that drafting, when done well, is dependant on ego-elimination or diminishment. The less active the writer part of the equation is, the better the drafting. In other words: drafting is the act of trusting your gut, your intuition, and letting your subconscious mind take the reigns as strongly and for as long as you possibly can.
And intuition we can train. We can sharpen.
Or you can get into better shape and, like Murakami, run marathons and eat healthily and in doing so improve your endurance and focus.
Or, as I am doing right now, you can start writing about writing.
If you enjoyed this edition of Fiction Notes, could you do me a favor & hit the like button below? And if you loved this edition—why not share it?