The best writing happens when you back the (bleep) off

I've been gone a long time. Intentionally. Sometimes writers have to stop and live a little, to refresh, renew, replenish.
But today I received a link to an article ( by article by Andre Dubus III,  author of The House of Sand and Fog and more, that contained the best description of my writing process--one many writers share--EVER. And I will save and love it forever because it explains, once and for all, the thought processes of those of us who do not outline our works extensively before writing.
There have always been two "camps" of writers, or some insist there are--I think we switch back and forth depending on what we're writing or where we are in the process. But there are long, LOUD arguments on many sites and in many books about this.
I have had two brilliant mentor/friends, both of whom ironically left this world too soon. One was Roger Ebert, as many of you know, who could write a review off the top of his head, minutes before the deadline back in my Sun Times years, and hit "send" confident that it would need no rewriting.  The copy desk loved that man. I envied him.
Blake "Blank Check/Save the Cat" Snyder on the other hand,  was absolutely adamant that writers outline, and created his famous "beat sheet" to help them "beat out" screenplays that would sell. Some have cursed him for it, others have blessed him for it. And for better or worse, most Hollywood script readers use it as a guideline that helps them decide whether to "pass," "consider," or "recommend." 
As much as I adored the man, I was the one mentee who proved the exception to his rules. I could use the beat sheet, but whenever we did, I lost interest in the project quickly. I had "killed" the thing by planning it in too much detail before I wrote it.
I can still remember the coaching session that ended with him sitting there, totally stunned, and saying, "Why isn't this working?!"  He had met his match. A drafter who forced him to realize there might be another way.
My way is a bear, that's no lie. As Dubus said, I'm always rewriting, because if one sentence or scene rings false, and I don't fix it, I'll probably wind up throwing away everything that came after that sooner or later.
We work by "feel." We work by intuition and "listening to the voices" and letting the characters lead us. And if the voices are talkin' a lotta crap that day, or the characters are on strike or not feeling particularly communicative that day...we're dead.
We write the whole damned thing, using that first draft as our outline, which we refine and refine and refine like a diamond cutter trying to make that sucker shine just right.
And we're never satisfied. Never. I've never published an article or book that I thought was totally reader ready. Editors had to almost come to the house and hit "send" for me. 
Open Salon and Our Salon helped me tighten up my writing considerably, but I am still a drafter. Today...I wrote this quickly, because I couldn't wait to share that article with you. Normally, I would rewrite a few dozen times before I posted. Today...I'm going to be daring and post it as soon as its finished.
It's that important to me--I want all the drafters out there to have it to turn to when their characters lose their way for a day or two. Or to rekindle that "fire in the belly" we drafters need to keep it real.
So here I go. Clicking "Update" now. No rewrite. Cross fingers... 

Views: 198

Comment by Lyle Elmgren on October 24, 2013 at 12:59pm

I understand your dilemma. Well done.  Good luck.

I am writing and commenting very little these days since I am recovering from a heart attack and changing my residence (much planning and work). Hope to start writing in mid-November.

Comment by JMac1949 Today on October 24, 2013 at 6:07pm

I love the characters that come out of nowhere, sneak up on you and damn near create themselves from whole cloth...usually they're the best part of the story. R&L ;-)

Comment by Arthur James on October 24, 2013 at 9:49pm


I'll 'Hit' the link tomorrow.

Jake Hitt might like this:

Jack Hitt is on You Tube.


mary grafitt


I prefer hand written carried notes.

The thoughts are more guarded.

We can write with pauses.

Then, we sit and wait.

She read slowly,

tears up note,

and calls 9-11.


I often consider getting off blogs.

I'll write thoughts in my PU cab.

I like the black & white lined

Kindergarden ` Wide-Ruled

Composition ` Mead note

book. I miss ` Hand

Written letters.

Digits cause

too rapid









I leave

PO Box



Comment by Jonathan Wolfman on October 24, 2013 at 11:30pm

I saw Mr. Dubus III in Cambridge once. He was a remarkable writer. 

Comment by Keka on October 25, 2013 at 6:16pm

I love coming back here to see what's goin' on with our "other" Salon space. The current one seems to be gradually shutting down, from what people tell me when they try to sign up. Lyle...take very good care--I had no idea!  Don't be like soooooo many Americans and rush back from that heart attack. Be good to yourself. And I'm so tickled that you took a little of that precious time to come by and comment!

Jmac, we've been in touch on the other you know I'm stunned by what you've been up to. Jonathan, I only know Dubus from the film of "Sand and Fog." But that alone is enough to tell me he's got some serious "chops."

And Art...I still, to this day, buy those little funky notebooks when I can find them. They're the ones I dreamt into, like John Boy, who I also wrote about not long ago. Hiding in a closet, under the back stairs...anywhere I could find where others wouldn't find me for a while. Ah...yes...

Comment by Lyle Elmgren on October 25, 2013 at 6:31pm

Keka. I will try to follow your advise. My recovery is progressing reasonably well. When I get tired I rest or at least slow down. This move well be a stressor.

All the best.

Comment by Boanerges on October 26, 2013 at 12:10pm

This was well-done Keka. And thanks for the link.

I'm with you. I've never been satisfied with anything I've written. Ever. In fact, if one was to look at what should be the same post on here, Open and Fictionique, they're all subtly different, since I inevitably rewrite before I repost. Even if it's on the same day. That's because I look at stuff I wrote for newspapers or magazines in the past and wince in shame.

Comment by Keka on October 26, 2013 at 7:20pm

Boanerges...the most embarassing thing I've ever done was re-read some of my early Sun Times reviews from 'way back when I was just getting started. I thought, "My GOD! I'm surprised they didn't fire me!" But I used to rewrite even more then, and I think that's what may have gone wrong in some cases. I fixed things that weren't broken, and didn't trust myself enough. Today, after years of practice, I'm able to trust myself a bit more. But we all do things the way they feel best to us. On Open, I explained that when I have to write a "report" or some other formal piece, I do outline, at least a bit. I've got shortcuts that make that easier and less time consuming, but I do it. So...we do what we need to do, each time.

But gosh those early pieces made me say, "Ouch!"

Comment by Arthur James on October 27, 2013 at 12:17am


Keka. The Link is Great. 

That's where bloggers Go?

If Readers Do Leave Here:


Those deleted go to The Atlantic.

James Fallows witnessed awful war.

One Veterans Day, in the eighties,

I spoke at ` The War Memorial

Park, in Martinsburg, (Wild

and Wonderful West



I quoted James Fallows . . .


I agree with Andre Dubus 111


"Do not Think, Dream" 


( I am a A.V.L.J. 111 )

I met the Atlantic Editor.

I met at the ` near the

White House Market.


He eats mild ` French

Breakfast Radishes

and he eats leaves

of radishes too.


I guess You ` Keka

sent Readers to:


The Atlantic 


The editor was

trying to get




write . . .

True Story.

I go to

read magazine

at` The Atlantic


Good Morning

I sleep like baby

I drunk raw milk


Wadel's Dairy 

Raw Milk, and 

good milk can

cause a mild

burp if sipped

with red and

white radishes.

Add salt and

pepper with

goat cheese.

Eat at the


Listen to

sea waves.

I Love this

Autumn Light.


*** Darn it ***

Keys to comment

broke. I'll backtrack

Comment by Poor Woman on December 7, 2013 at 11:17am

I really enjoyed this piece, Keka.

And I think it is possible to redo things until they don't shine anymore.

Sometimes we have to let our characters take their next "breath" before we can describe what they may be up to or feeling/thinking/etc.

The characters in a recent collaborative effort dislike it if my partner and I try and rename any of them. I think a plot takes flight only after it's been allowed enough room to breathe. If a character's name keeps coming out the wrong way, things can get progressively weaker, including plot. Or else they may become less and less believable.

I've thought about this a lot. What's in a name? Shakespeare had his thoughts on the subject, I'm sure. I am no Shakespeare (obviously), but through this project my fellow author and I began to see why names can be so particularly nourishing or deflating to the process of writing. And stories either fly or fall along with each character they portray.

Allowing the characters to tell the story, too, because we left them alone long enough to be able to do so helps me tremendously at times. Plus, I hate to outline. Too much pre-planning makes me headachy.



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