Tuesday, August 18, 2015

The Writing Process: Your Mileage May Vary (Or Why Breaking the Rules is Okay)

By Deanna Raybourn, @deannaraybourn

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: It's always been my belief that there's no right way to write. So it delighted me when I heard the always-amazing Deanna Raybourn say the same thing at the Dahlonega Literary Festival a few years ago. Naturally, I had to invite her to the lecture hall to share her thoughts, and she graciously accepted (I'm pretty sure she does everything graciously). Please give her a warm welcome and enjoy her thoughts on breaking the writing rules and finding your own writing process.

A sixth-generation native Texan, New York Times bestselling author Deanna Raybourn graduated from the University of Texas at San Antonio with a double major in English and history and an emphasis on Shakespearean studies. She taught high school English for three years in San Antonio before leaving education to pursue a career as a novelist. She makes her home in Virginia, where she lives with her husband and daughter. Deanna’s upcoming release is A CURIOUS BEGINNING, the first installment in a new series featuring Victorian sleuth Veronica Speedwell (Sept. 1) in which Deanna promises not to kill the dog.

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Take it away Deanna...

One of the things I enjoy most about being published is getting to talk about the writing process. It is also one of the things I enjoy least. Every time I am asked about how I work, I try to preface my remarks with a caveat: this is my process and mine alone. Your mileage may—and probably will, and definitely SHOULD—vary. It can be wildly helpful to hear how other people work to glean tips to apply to your own methods, but I try to offer something else: friendly, informal absolution. Whatever process you work out for yourself is valid. Whichever rules you break were rules not meant for you in the first place. Here are my favorite rules to break:

Write what you know.

I loathe this piece of advice because it’s just too glib. (It is also alarming if, like me, you write about murderers…) One of the things I love to do best is make like a Kipling mongoose and “go and find out” what I don’t know. There are few pleasures as sublime as immersing yourself completely in a new subject, ferreting out details and concepts and facts you never knew before. I think a far better piece of advice is “write what you’d like to know.”

A writer writes every day.

This one causes more angst than any other dictum I know. I am acquainted with a lot of writers who struggle with depression, whose daily battle is not with the page but in simply getting out of bed. Feeling pressured to write every single day is a burden for them, pushing them into a cycle of self-recrimination and guilt each time they fall short.

Better advice? Work consistently.

This might mean reading when you don’t feel like writing; it might mean brainstorming or mind-mapping or collaging when you’re trying to work through a sticking point. And it doesn’t have to mean every day. I prefer to write every day when I’m drafting or revising, but that’s all it is—a preference. And every once in a while I hit a day where I wake up and know it’s simply not happening. So I take the time off to refuel, watching films or documentaries, reading, skimming over notes or articles, and sometimes leaving the house altogether to hang out with actual people. Without fail, when I return to my desk, I am refreshed for having taken the time off—and usually full of ideas I might not have had otherwise. That time away invariably leads to new connections I didn’t expect. Never underestimate the power of serendipity.

Your grammar must be perfect.

No. Language is a living thing; it evolves; it reinvents itself. Many of the rules we were taught are obsolete or at least inapplicable to vibrant prose. Twisting a sentence into a Möbius strip to accommodate an unsplit infinitive or a mid-sentence preposition is awkward and silly. For inspiration, I turn to poets. They often mangle grammar in the service of their verse and it works. You will also seldom find writers who are more accomplished at conveying mood, atmosphere, character, or tension in a limited number of words than poets.

And all of this leads me to my one inviolable rule: NEVER KILL THE DOG.

In the past year I have read two different books where the authors killed off beloved pets for no good reason. The books were parts of series I might have continued to read faithfully for years to come, but not with the possibility of dead dogs around the corner. As a writer, I will happily kill off suspected murderers, sidekicks, servants, even elderly and delightfully dotty relatives, but not the dog.

When all else fails, I fall back on the wisdom of G.K. Chesterton: “I owe my success to having listened respectfully to the very best advice, and then going away and doing the exact opposite.”

About A Curious Beginning

London, 1887.

As the city prepares to celebrate Queen Victoria's golden jubilee, Veronica Speedwell is marking a milestone of her own. After burying her spinster aunt, the orphaned Veronica is free to resume her world travels in pursuit of scientific inquiry—and the occasional romantic dalliance. As familiar with hunting butterflies as she is fending off admirers, Veronica wields her butterfly net and a sharpened hatpin with equal aplomb, and with her last connection to England now gone, she intends to embark upon the journey of a lifetime.

But fate has other plans, as Veronica discovers when she thwarts her own abduction with the help of an enigmatic German baron with ties to her mysterious past. Promising to reveal in time what he knows of the plot against her, the baron offers her temporary sanctuary in the care of his friend Stoker—a reclusive natural historian as intriguing as he is bad-tempered. But before the baron can deliver on his tantalizing vow to reveal the secrets he has concealed for decades, he is found murdered. Suddenly Veronica and Stoker are forced to go on the run from an elusive assailant, wary partners in search of the villainous truth.

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  1. Great advice all around--I always tell people to do what works for them--but I especially love the part about not killing the dog. I could not agree more. If there's the slightest chance something bad will happen to an animal, I won't read the book.

    1. Yes. I couldn't agree more about animals! People, no worries, but pets!

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  3. Thank you!

    This is exactly what I needed. Such good advice. I've been doing a lot of this already and I've felt bad because it wasn't what I was 'supposed' to be doing.

  4. Great advice. I find that drive time on the interstate is often best used by brainstorming. Away from writing. But still writing.

  5. Oh gosh, no, never ever kill the pets. Just not necessary. Great advice!

  6. I am also a firm believer in not killing a dog in a story.
    As for writing, I agree it's all about finding the right rhythm and process for you.

  7. Never kill the dog! YES! I couldn't agree more. One of my biggest peeves -- especially in movies -- is gratuitous dog deaths.

    Excellent post, Deanna. I think breaking these rules can alleviate a lot of unnecessary anxiety. :-)

  8. Okay, I get the sentiment in the "don't kill dogs or other animals/pets" thing. But I think we have to remember that not all death is senseless slaughter.

    Whether the characters are human or not, I don't it's wise to make light out death, just because it's part of life, doesn't we should make light of it, and I sometimes fear crime writers can make light.

    Look, I'm a dog lover, and the first week after my dog, Pepper, died in June 2014 at 13, was the hardest. I still miss him now, but I'm at peace knowing he lived the majority of his life happy and healthy until almost the end. So, I "Get it." Really.

    But dogs, like people and plants, do die, and I don't think "Old Yeller", whether we're talking the book or the Disney film, it wouldn't be as poignant a story as it is had the story side-stepped the matter of death.

    As I had to make a similar choice with my dog (though thankfully he didn't contract rabies, his declining health in final months were digestive issues)

    So while I get the sentiment with not wanting to see animals suffer needlessly or, but if our stories are going to "keep it real" readers, we can't p

    Death of pets (through health, abuse, or it just being their time) are often the first experiences kids have with losing someone, and to pretend they don't happen in kidlit especially is neither honest nor

    Unless we're writing a fantasy novel where we play by a different world's rules and take certain liberties.

    I'm not in any way saying characters (human or otherwise) have to die to be real, I'm just saying to see this on a book by book basis.

    That said, I didn't finish Jennifer L. Holm's novel "Our Only May Amelia" because a family member dies (not saying who to avoid spoilers for those who haven't read it yet) and I took that hard.

    But I don't at all take issue with the author for it, especially as given the time the book was set in, times were tough, and dying young was more common in general than it is now, not counting those born with a considerable mental and or physical challenge.

    That said, we shouldn't condemn the dogs in fiction where the author didn't use the death as a cheap way to manipulate readers, or exploit death for the sake of it. That I'm certainly not for, as both and author myself, avid dog lover and former pet parent of one.

    To Be Continued...

    1. EDIT: "So while I get the sentiment with not wanting to see animals suffer needlessly, if our stories are going to "keep it real" readers, we can't pretend death is nonexistent unless our characters are immortal."

    2. The "All Dogs Go To Heaven" movies hinge on the fact that dogs eventually die, but both films in different ways touch on how to not take your mortality for granted, it's also about living through, and believing it's never to late to choose nobility over narcissism.

      Charlie (the MC of both films) went from a hard-living, conniving mutt from the streets with a chip on his shoulder, to a more open-hearted chap with a new understanding of life.

      He's still no saint by any means, but he finds both redemption and attains a level of happiness (outlined in the second film) he had to earn.

      I know a pet peeve of many readers is the "tortured hero" (or anti-hero) who. ADH doesn't do that, but sometimes characters have to face a fall from grace (no pun intended) before they can be a better version of themselves, which is an ongoing practice and process. Again, something I struggle to do myself, so I have some room to talk here.

      Both films, in a non-preachy way, shows the viewer that we should do the best we can to make the most of the mortal life we've been given. While sometimes the "Life is short" lesson can be overzealous to the point where it cripples our capacity for patience, but making peace with "Right now!" versus "Years from now" isn't easy for anyone.

      I've certainly struggled with learning this lesson in recent years.

      In Lynn Johnston's iconic "For Better Or Worse" comic strip, the Patterson family lost their beloved dog, Farley, who saved youngest daughter April's life at the cost of his own, I'm sure there are many who are still saddened by that lost, but given recent animal abuse stories in the news, most recently the "Cecil The Lion" incident, there are worse ways to bid farewell the the proverbial mortal plane.

      Yes, they eventually had Edgar (one of Farley's offspring if I'm remembering right) but like people, every dog is different, and

      Okay, rant over. I agree with Deanna's other points, especially the "grammar" one.

    3. I just heard from Deanna on Twitter and realized I mistook her last
      But many in the comments before mine seemed to have taken Deanna's hyperbole too literally, and I include me here.

      Sorry again for the misunderstanding, Deanna, this isn't the first time I mistook hyperbole as taking a hardline stance on a topic.

      Plus, with all the animal abuse stories in the news lately (pre and post the #CecilTheLion incident) I got a little more emotional than I otherwise would.

      But I still thought offering tangible examples of when the death of animals is not misused as a cheap tactic to feign reader sympathy and to put the topic of animals dying (of all kinds, not just dogs, and not just our pets, but also our wilder neighbors both in captivity and in nature)

  9. Or as the late Blake Snyder the screenwriter used to say, 'Save the cat!'

  10. Reading this post was very empowering.
    One of the rules that I regularly break is: Wait until you're finished writing the first draft and then and only then edit.
    Hmm... Nope.

    1. Me too, Leanne, especially when it will effect what I'm about to write next when drafting, it will bother me until I address that, especially since I'm likely to forget to do it later (until a beta-reader points it out).

  11. Thank you, Deanna. Any time a successful author does not go in for the pull yourself up by your boot straps, just do it mentality ... it's another stone off my shoulder!
    Really, this was very sweet.