Thursday, January 12, 2012

Cause, Effect, and Process

I recently read about a writer who started her novel in January 2011, was querying agents for that same novel by September, and signed with someone in November. Wow, I thought. That is fast. It made me think about my process. Which is s-l-o-w, and also doesn't include much in the way of advance plotting. Oh, I may have Point A and Point B, but the specifics of getting from one to another are sketchy at best.

Why is this? What is it about my approach to writing a story that determines I will feel my way along at snail-speed? I believe it's this: concentration on cause and effect.

Every step of the way, I want my character to do next that which is believable for this person in these circumstances. That means staying deeply in character at all times, and staying aware of all the little mental and emotional changes and increments that drive her to say this, or do that. It means I let the character build the plot as I go, and most of what happens is a surprise to me. Not a surprise at the moment it happens -- because cause and effect has led up to it -- but a surprise in that I couldn't have predicted it before I started the book. Now, I'm not saying that writers who write fast aren't paying attention to cause and effect. I'm just saying that this concentration results in pretty slow writing for me. Writing with cause and effect as a foundation also prompts me to revise as I go, because cause and effect will lead me astray if a link in the chain is faulty. Revising while drafting is another recipe for slow writing, although I have the advantage that by the time I finish a first draft, it's the equivalent of about eight.

Concentrating on cause and effect improves storytelling by keeping readers continously in the character's emotions. If Nelly picks up her doll, screams "I'm going home," and stomps out of the tea party, but we don't know already know why -- in other words, if the effect precedes the cause -- it means we were at least momentarily detached from Nelly's POV, and we feel more distant from her than we should. That can be enough to disengage readers from the story.

Example: Nelly picked up her doll, screamed, "I'm going home!" and stomped out of the tea party. If Mabel was going to keep wiping her nose on her sleeve, Nelly wasn't going to play with her anymore.

Better: Mabel lifted her arm and wiped a long stripe of snot down her sleeve. Nelly's stomach lurched. She picked up her doll, screamed, "I'm going home!" and stomped out of the tea party.

The second version keeps cause and effect in their proper order. We're never asking ourselves why Nelly stomped out, because we experience the cause of that action right along with Nelly. Cause and effect, I've found, doesn't only improve storytelling. It improves the prose itself.

Concentrating on cause and effect is just plain interesting, too. You never know where you might end up. Or where thinking about a writer who started a book in January and signed with her agent only ten months later can lead. :)

21 comments:

Faith E. Hough said...

I'm somewhere in between S-L-O-W and average on the quick writing scale... I do outline before I begin, keeping cause and effect (scene-wise, not dialogue-wise) in mind, which saves me a lot of time. When I try to think of that at the same time as I'm thinking of creating good prose, it slows me down incredibly by making me second guess every decision.
And I'm with you about revising as you go...I know the sloppy first drafts work for a lot of people, but I'm too obsessive, I guess. The only problem this has presented for me is that it's sometimes harder when a large scale revision needs to be done, because it seems like I'm tearing apart a finished scene!

Andrea Mack said...

I think through almost every line, choice, or action as I write to make sure it's believeable for the character, whether drafting or revising. It does make my process very slow. I always hope that with more practice and experience, my process will speed up a little, but perhaps not and it's just the way I work.

Barbara Watson said...

Such a great point about cause and effect, Marcia. I think about it in terms of my storyline but putting that thought into immediate action of the characters is something altogether different.

Bish Denham said...

I'm slow too. And though I've not been conscious of it, I think I may tend to write the cause and effect way as well. I have a general idea wanting to get from point A to point B but the how of getting there is always a mystery, a surprise. It's the part of writing that I love best, that I'm not always sure where my characters are going to take me.

TerryLynnJohnson said...

Every writer has different methods, and speeds! I think you should keep doing what works best for you - and this cause and effect method sounds great.

Marcia said...

Faith -- That's true -- it can be harder to revise when what you already have "feels" finished, or at least well done. I guess I just have to take a deep breath and tear.

Andrea -- My process sped up a little when I was on deadline, but it didn't actually change. In fact, I tried to "fix" it and be more like people who outlined a little more and went a little faster. But I couldn't complete another ms. until I went back to the way I wrote my published stuff.

Barbara -- Exactly! There's macro and micro, and we sometimes think of the former but not the latter.

Bish -- With you 100%.

Terry -- As I said to Andrea, I did once try to "fix" my process and it didn't work. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. :)

cleemckenzie said...

Yes to keeping cause and effect in that order. It's logical and it makes reading a story so much more enjoyable.

As to speed . . . HA! I'm in the slow but sure category and I like it that way.

Vijaya said...

Well, you're talking about two thigns here and I don't think they necessarily correlate. I know lots of fast writers who have the whole cause/effect down pat. I'm slow because I'm slow. Gah. But I would love to write and polish a novel within a year or two. Definitely something to aspire for. Many genre-fiction writers write 2-3 books/year. This is why they are not starving. LOL.

I find that my best stories literally wrote themselves (and fairly quickly) and I had to do one round of revision to get them polished. I wish that happened more often, and it'd be even better if it happened with a novel.

As for process, I outline and revise as I write, and I like to think that's what slows me down.

Medeia Sharif said...

Cool method. I also want to stay with the characters' emotions, whether I'm reading or writing. That's a great demo when you made that excerpt better.

I consider my writing speed average, but some of us will go fast while others slow, whatever works for us.

Mirka Breen said...

I'm a slow reader, and an average pace (but pretty prolific) writer. No need to compare to anyone, lest I give up and move to the Galapagos islands.
Understand and respect YOUR way. The novel written in September, agented in October, sold in November and out in December-(sort of reminds me of Solomon Grundy :) ) is what it is. But it isn't yours.

Sharon K. Mayhew said...

Great point! One of the workshops I went to last year had us use different colored markers to mark dialogue, action, setting and inner thoughts in our manuscripts. You could do the same thing with cause and effect. Thanks for making me think, Marcia.

Have a great weekend!

Joyce Moyer Hostetter said...

Some projects move more quickly for me than others. My WIP seems to be taking forever. But I think that is because I simply needed to live longer to find inspiration.

I'm not sure I think so directly about cause and effect when I am writing although that element is surely there. I like hearing you articulate it this way. Will keep this idea in mind as I write.

Kelly Hashway said...

Cause and effect is definitely important. I've heard agents say all the time at conferences, "A character can't react before the action occurs." It's very true.

I am a fast writer, but I did not write my book and sign with my agent in the same year. Wow!

inluvwithwords said...

I follow that recipe for slow writing as well, and I agree, it saves a lot in the way of revisions later on. You always hear people say "just get it all down, don't stop to revise," (and I know that works for many) but I just can't work like that. Until I get things "right" I don't know where they're leading me.

Marcia said...

Lee -- Yeah, I'm pretty happy in the slow but sure category too. Fast makes me feel reckless. :)

Vijaya -- Yup, I outline and revise as I write, too. When I was writing series fiction on deadline, I had to put out a book in 6 months or so. One slow-ish write and one rewrite was all there was time for. And, frankly, I thought I did better work in that timespan than some of the stuff I saw. But getting into ABA hardcover is just so much more demanding.

Medeia -- I know speed can be tweaked to some extent; deadlines will light a fire under one. But I do think most writers have a ballpark speed that works for them.

Mirka -- As I probably mentioned someplace, once I tried to fix myself by writing faster and doing more prior planning. I didn't get very far. Fortunately, I went back to what worked when I got published. :)

Sharon -- Right, that WOULD work with cause and effect. I've never sat down and tried this marker method, but I do love color-coded things. :)

Joyce -- I guess mine are all slow. Because I keep thinking of what has to come first, I really do think cause and effect is a factor for me. I could never try to write scenes out of order, for example. How would I know that the scene would happen that way until I know all the causes, things I won't know are going to happen till I write them? Haha, I guess I can't write out of order any more than I can live out of order.

Kelly -- "Wow" is right. She had prior writing experience (though this was her first novel), but still.

inluv -- Very well said!

Cynthia Chapman Willis said...

Wonderful post with an excellent example of cause and effect. And I am always amazed by the stories of people who write novels in just months.

Christina Farley said...

I got great advice from Stephen Malk saying make sure what I get published is what I'm remembered by. That stuck with me. I'd rather wait until my writing was something I could be proud of than just published the first thing I could. Sounds like you are on the right track.

Marcia said...

Cynthia -- I know, right? I've done it on deadline -- one draft, one rewrite, full time -- but when we're talking trade hardbacks and making the story all it can be, I don't know how it happens in such little time, especially if they have anything else to do!

Christina -- That's so true. I'm sure there are many of us, myself certainly included, who are just as glad their earlier stuff didn't get published.

Mary Witzl said...

When I first started writing, I was fast, and felt that everything I wrote was golden. The more I write, and the more I learn about writing, the slower I get. Now I constantly think about what my characters are going to do next and why -- and whether I'm not just pushing them through paces because I want to get to the end quicker. It's a good way to keep your characters down to an essential number too, if you happen to be a cast-of-thousands offender.

I love that second example you gave on several levels: I almost retched and got up to leave with Nelly.

Marcia said...

Mary -- That's how I wrote when I was a teen -- fast and golden. :) When I found out this was work, I got slow.

Sara Hill said...

Please forgive all my late comments on your posts. This one is so helpful to me. I'm working on a first novel. I'm slow too and I edit as I go. I thought something was wrong with me or that the editing was just an excuse not to continue. I think you're saying ... maybe everything's fine.