Some while back, I was talking with long-time writer friends about the good old days, and I had an epiphany. I was complaining about how The New Thing is refusing to go anywhere and various of my usual tricks and techniques weren’t working, and I realized that a whole lot of the things I spent years training myself to do and not do, back at the beginning of my career, have become counter-productive now that I’m thirty-plus years into it.
I’m not talking about writing specifics like dialog or characterization or syntax. I’m talking about process.
Let me explain.
Back when, I learned very quickly that if I took the attitude “I’ll fix it in the rewrite,” and simply plowed ahead as fast as I could without paying attention to the quality of my writing, my writing got sloppier and sloppier, until I wasn’t writing a first draft or even a zeroth draft, I was writing some semi-coherent notes that were hardly worth the time and energy spent on them. So I spent a lot of time learning not to get too far ahead of myself, and making it a habit to pay as much attention to how I was writing at any given moment as I paid to what I was writing.
Not that I give my Internal Editor free rein; far from it. But I found that some things were a lot easier to get right the first time than to hunt through the manuscript and fix later – things like unnecessary dialog tags, wordy or unclear sentences, descriptions that didn’t quite say what I wanted them to say.
Somewhere in the intervening thirty years, this way of working has…stopped working so well. Looking at it carefully, the problem appears to be that I got better at writing.
That sounds very odd, so let me unpack it a bit. The kinds of things I had to pay attention to, early on, were early-stage mistakes. As I got better at writing, getting those things right became a habit, and eventually almost automatic. Oh, my crit group still has to whop me upside the head every once in a while to remind me not to over/under-write, but it usually only takes one whop because it’s so obvious that all some has to do is say, “now, in this conversation here – ” and I interrupt with “Oh, rats, I did that thing again, didn’t I?” I also got enormously better at revising unsatisfactory stuff.
The combination means that slowly the kinds of things I need to pay attention to while writing changed. They got tinier and pickier on the sentence-by-sentence level, and larger and more sweeping on the structure level. A whole batch of new, not-possible-to-consider-until-a-draft-is-finished things cropped up in terms of plot flow and pacing and complications and balance, and I was still trying to get them right on the very first try.
The upshot is that, for quite a while now, there hasn’t been nearly as much payoff in paying attention to how I’m writing while I’m doing the writing. The things I most need to pay attention to have changed. I’m more interested in complicated plots and structures that require a lot of tinkering with after the first draft is done, because it’s impossible to tell on the first time through the manuscript what sorts of backfill will be needed and which scenes need to be added or deleted.
The other rather annoying change is that, due to the aforementioned complicated plots and structures, I need more pre-planning. My outlines are still all wrong, but they’re wrong in different ways from the way they used to be wrong. The characters are more likely to do what I thought they were going to do, but their reasons for doing it aren’t what I thought they would be, and this leads to needing more scenes on one side of the plot and fewer scenes on the other.
I’ve known since very early on that every book was at least slightly different in terms of the process it needed. Talking to Dragons and Sorcery and Cecelia were totally unplanned, sit-down-and-make-it-up stories; Snow White and Rose Red was much more constrained than usual both by the actual history I was playing off and by the fairy tale I was retelling; Mairelon the Magician had all sorts of charts of different characters’ relationships and position in the plot. Even so, I didn’t expect the particular change in process that’s crept up on me, especially since it’s a general change that appears to apply on a fundamental level to everything I write.
At least, it does right now. Ask me again in thirty years, and we’ll see how much else has changed.