Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Making a Mess: Thoughts on Process

Photo by Ali West, via Flickr
I’ve never been a tidy person. My car, my bathroom counter, and my office all attest to how difficult it is for me to organize things and make choices between what to keep and what to throw away. I often don’t have the time or patience to deal with all those pesky tasks. Unfortunately, in my writing, it’s much the same. I’m fine with dumping down a long, rambling random draft, somehow finding a structure to hang it on, but I always seem to leave a lot of proverbial socks sticking out of my drawers. In writing, as in life, I can make a mess, no problem. What I struggle with is cleaning it up.

I’ve been working on a new project, one I’ve been thinking about for a couple of years. I started in earnest in October, and since it’s based on a true story, I have an overload of possible scenes and ideas. There’s probably no way it’s all going to fit into a cohesive, completed whole, but, since I believe in the method of making a mess and cleaning it up, I don’t ever restrict myself from writing down every stray thought that comes into my head, at least in the early stages.

I write a rough, loose outline, get the major plot points and characters solid in my mind, and then I let her rip with a random draft, writing as fast as I can, with no concern for mechanics, organization, or anything close to polished dialogue.

I often find the heart and soul of the piece in those drafts, but I also find an Amazon Rainforest of questions about how to give it a solid shape and structure, bring the characters to life in a meaningful way, and ultimately tell a good story.

In many ways, my writing process is similar to sculpting. After I finish plopping down my load of clay, I smooth down some places, bump out others, and cut away all the excess, leaving it all on the floor, splattered on the walls, and of course, all over myself. At that point, often what I have is an even bigger mess. It teeters on disaster, but somewhere deep inside, through this process, I’m developing a core knowledge of what it ultimately should be. So I keep going, sitting with it, staring at it, pushing forward page by page to make it just a little better every day.

My process is unwieldy and this is probably why it takes me so long to produce a marketable draft of anything. I use index cards, mind maps, outlines, journalling, and the scribbles I’ve put all over printed out versions to get through each draft. It’s a mixed up back and forth between the forest and the trees, and at a certain point there’s so much “rough draft” and “development” material I can’t even bear to look at it anymore.

If I’m lucky, though, I’m able to keep slogging through the muck of it, revising and updating my plans and ideas until they seem to form a viable story. The key here is staying true to the original vision, yet allowing it to change and grow at the same time. And then, finally, I’ll hit a day or two, or maybe even a whole week, where I actually know what I’m doing, and the vision of the completed manuscript crystalizes, and from there on the work gets easier, or at least more manageable.

There are many roads to a finished manuscript - some, like me, prefer to write the discovery draft first and then build on it; others labor over every chapter, making sure the character’s motivation, emotional arc, and conflict of every scene are all clearly decided upon before actually writing the pages.

Whatever the process is for a particular project, the key is in getting a clear vision of what the work should ultimately be. Only then can we figure out how to make it that way. Unfortunately, it’s easy to lose sight of that vision in the development process, as we take in feedback from others, get new ideas, and solve story problems. What was I doing here again? Who is the protagonist? I thought I knew, but now I’m not so sure…

If you’re like me, you struggle with finding a balance between making a mess, (generating your raw material) and cleaning it up (organizing and shaping it into something worthwhile.) It’s a dance we do, between the forest and the trees, and it’s so easy to get lost. But like a traveler in a thick forest, if we pay close attention and refuse to give up, usually finding our way out is just a matter of time.

Candace Kearns Read is the author of the memoir The Rope Swing (Eagle Wings Press, Sep 2016). She is a screenwriter who has also been a Hollywood script reader for actors and directors, including the likes of Anthony Hopkins and Michelle Pfeiffer. Her screenplays have been optioned by producers and developed with Fox, Disney, HBO, and Lifetime. She teaches creative writing for Antioch University and the Young Writers Program at Denver’s Lighthouse Writers Workshop. She’s the author of the screenwriting handbook Shaping True Story into Screenplay, and co-author of the memoir Bogie’s Bike. Her essays have appeared in, The Manifest-Station, and The Rumpus.


  1. We writers are all cut from different cloth, and the fabric of our stories is woven from a loom that is uniquely ours. Personally, I subscribe to your kind of organization, but I write differently. The editor in me has disabled the "just get it on the paper (or hard drive) mode and kicked in the OCD method of "fix it now while you're here." Of course it gets reworked again (often multiple times) when the self-editing begins. Then there are the uncooperative characters who insist on doing things their way. More lack of organization. But as you note, the end result can be surprisingly compelling and cohesive. Great post, Candace.

  2. I have come up with a new term for it: flow writing. It sounds so much better than pantser. :)

  3. Girl, you are speaking my language!

  4. Loved the post. I have always had a messy desk, a messy house, and a messy brain. LOL I agree with so many that it is important to just get the story down on paper and then fix the mechanics. But we who are tempted to flit to the next thing, find that pausing to fix a challenge.

    Hope you can get those socks back in the drawer. :-)

  5. I could have written this blog. I'm messy in both my office and my work. I used to be able to remember things I'd written in the front part of the book, but I see now that I have to make lots of notes and go back to previous copies of my series to make sure I have the right names, BECAUSE I DIDN'T KEEP MANY NOTES WHEN WRITING THEM. So it's a new method called the aging process. NOTES! NOTES! And lots of them. (except they're messy too.)


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. If a glitch is preventing you from commenting, visit our Facebook page and drop your wise words there: Blood-Red Pencil on Facebook