In general, there are two kinds of writers, planned writers and spontaneous writers. I used to joke and say that my writing process is that I have no process. After all, I’m a naturalist to the grave; I wouldn’t know process even if I had to sleep with it like Ishmael Queequeg.
I believe that process leads to processed writing. If you know what’s coming next, so will the reader. Furthermore, I think in the 21st century readers are more sophisticated than ever before; they have more than ever to choose from, and more ways than ever to choose it. If a story doesn’t have a unique, genuine flow to it, that’s just another reason for them to close the book. Even worse, formulaic novels may have trouble standing out above the crowd. I want my readers to remember my books. In the end, legacy trumps book sales. But that’s just me.
By the same token, I could hardly say I have no process at all. Now that’s just going too far. Take Captain Shelby, for example. The novel was very planned in my mind; it was a logical historical and thematic extension of my bestselling novel, Pelican Bay. But a well-mapped premise, or mental outline, is as far as I’ll go. Once I sat down to write Captain Shelby, the novel took on a life of its own.
And that’s good.
So what do I mean by a life of its own? It’s much like planning a wedding. I’m also a musician (singer/songwriter) and I’ve performed at ceremonies and weddings for almost as long as I can remember. I’ve made many wedding agendas with brides, and if I’ve noticed one thing, it’s that no wedding has ever gone to plan. This doesn’t mean having a direction isn’t good; let’s face it, without a schedule, the wild thing known as a wedding reception may just run off into the woods, howling at the moon, its guests perhaps running off themselves, eventually becoming too drunk to notice they’re being bad wedding guests (bad for the bride and groom … and readers who like this little thing called plot).
But I guess I’ve cornered myself a tad though, haven’t I? If every writer has some process, what is mine?
My mind is ready with a general outline when I sit down; I have a premise big enough to carry me at least 60,000 words, and sexy enough to maybe get me published. My exciting idea sprouts endless arms and legs in my thoughts like a small garden made of seeds borrowed from the big garden of destiny. I can see all the exits on the highway going this way and that, I just don’t know how the road trip’s going to turn out.
Captain Shelby, the biggest character of my writing career to date—the reason I’m published today—was not planned in any way whatsoever. He was born out of the novel Pelican Bay (Book 1 in the Captain Shelby Trilogy) after I sat down to write a story on a snow day while my neighbor’s kids raced up and down the street on snowmobiles (yes, I had to wear earplugs in order to write). Pelican Bay was the result of a bizarre dream the night before about an undersea graveyard and the ex-girlfriend from hell (say hello to Morgan, why don’t you). Captain Shelby came out of nowhere by the end of chapter one.
And the old fisherman has always made me so glad I’m not a planned writer.
After I sit down, I say my own writer prayer to the Muse.
Please let these words come directly from my soul to the white electronic paper before me. Please help me to be the gifted writer I believe myself to be. Please reduce all the distractions about me, both internal and external, to a pleasant ambiance.
When the words come out, they are either novel-worthy, and I keep going, or I rest and try again tomorrow.
Yours in literature,
Jesse Giles Christiansen.