Monday, September 6, 2010

Think It Up, Write It Up, Fix It Up

Two years ago, after having published over forty books, I took my first-ever writing course, a terrific online writing course from writing guru Dennis Foley. One of Dennis's pieces of wisdom was that there are three stages of writing: think it up, write it up, fix it up. He said that writers should spend VASTLY more time on the first and third than on the second. Indeed, he said that if writers were spending enough time on "think it up," they should be able to "write it up" lickety-split: in short, intense fifteen-minute bursts.

I think Dennis is brilliant, but this is one piece of advice I've been unable to take (I also can't take his advice to turn off my computer monitor screen as I type!). The truth is that I'm just not able to do "think it up" AT ALL. I really do my thinking only when I have pen in hand. Alas, I can't think about my characters and the challenges they face as I walk to work, or knit, or sit on the bus. They are real for me only when I'm actually writing. I don't know what they are going to do until THEY do it, what they are going to say until THEY say it. I do have some vague idea, of course, dictated by the constraints given by the form of a novel: for example, if I'm writing Mason Dixon: Basketball Disasters, I know that Mason's team can't win their first game, and then their second game, and then their third game, and then the championship game. I do know that much! But how exactly they are going to lose the preliminary games, and how each game is going to advance the overall story, I don't know until I am IN the game myself.

This makes writing sessions exhilarating, but also fraught with terror. What if NOTHING happens? What if the magic doesn't appear, if the characters don't come alive and take over? Fortunately, they always do. But what if THIS TIME they don't? But they do.

I just finished the final chapter of the first full draft of Mason Dixon: Basketball Disasters this morning, the rematch game between the Fighting Bulldogs (Mason's hitherto doomed team) and the Killer Whales (the team of Mason's nemesis, Dunk Duncan). I knew the Bulldogs had to win - of course they did, or it wouldn't be a satisfying story. And I knew that there would have to be some moment of connection/reconciliation between Mason and Dunk - but how?

Oh, if only I could think it up first, writing would be easier. But at least, I knew that Mason and Dunk would make it happen somehow.

And they did.


  1. Some people seem to compose everything in their heads beforehand, and then when they write it all just comes out in a flash. But I'm with you -- writing is thinking and thinking is writing.
    By the way, we're finally old enough -- and have discovered -- Gus and Grandpa! We are in love. We have four volumes and have been clamoring to have them read to us repeatedly. We're very happy that there are more.

  2. I do a lot of thinking and dreaming before I write, but as soon as I sit down to write, everything seems to change. I love the complete surprises that pop up in the story as I'm writing along. So much more fun than being a Know it All!