Pollocking

Black and white splatter painting

Process? – Allie Berg, 7/10/2015, created at www.jacksonpollock.org

Writers talk a lot about process. If you’ve been around here at all or you’ve met me, I tend toward two other P words in my writing: perfect and panic. Sure, in theory, I have a process, but mostly it’s “so and so says Scrivener is an excellent tool for keeping track of series stuff” or “oooh, Aeon Timeline looks neat!” and then I’m off and running trying out something new. (They are, actually, very neat and excellent tools.)

I’ve never written two projects using the same “process.” An early (and somewhat embarrassing) effort under a different penname was composed in one evening while super-high on Nyquil. Another was inspired by some hentai that I stumbled across on the Internet and evolved into an elaborate world-building effort–of which I kept exactly enough notes to know that no matter how awesome the world was, I can’t go back to it. I have no idea what I was doing.

A New Dawn  was written using Scrivener and Aeon Timeline in fits and spurts, but when it came right down to it, I basically used Scrivener as a word processing program. I got halfway through the novel, realized I hated the antagonists, created a completely new one and a new ‘threshold guardian‘, and rewrote about 2/3 of what I had so far. Then I realized that the heroine’s voice was flat and uneven. So I went back and rewrote all of her scenes. In the end, a projected 45,000 word story turned into 75,000+ words and I wrote most of it in the last two weeks before I turned it in.

To be fair, I spent a lot of the time before those two weeks oscillating between panicking and perfectionism. If there’s anything consistent about my writing process, it’s probably that, and maybe another two P words: pressure and potential. In my head, it looks something like:

Idea! Hello, idea! You’re pretty and shiny!

Ooooh. If I twist you this way and that way, and pull you like salt water taffy, I bet you’ll turn out PERFECT.

Oh. Oh no. No. Idea. You’ve turned into a story. But you’re not Dante’s Inferno.

Well, maybe if I work extra hard, and put lots of PRESSURE on myself, I can make you that good.

Nah, probably not. But at least I can make you into the PERFECT Platonic Form (there’s another P) of the story in my head.

And then everyone will love you!

Oh god. No. Everyone will hate you, Idea. What was I thinking? I can’t do this! PANIC!

Wait. Stop that. You’re a very good writer. Everyone always said you had the POTENTIAL to do anything you set your mind to.

FUCK.

FUCK.

ARGH. Idea-that-turned-into-a-story, why aren’t you the Platonic Form of you? You’re due in a month! PANIC.

Writing it out like that is sort of a revelation. I mean, it shouldn’t be, because if I’m honest about it, that’s exactly how I’ve written nearly everything I’ve ever written. Possibly since third grade. (Which is probably about when getting salt water taffy at Geauga Lake started being a ‘thing’, too. Hence the link. Dante…yeah, that’s a long story. Blame Ralph Williams.)

When I talk to other writers about it, they say, “Well, you’re a pantser. It’s just to be expected.” Then I tell them about how much effort I put into structuring the plot (The Writer’s Journey has long been a faithful companion; Writing the Breakout Novel is another), and they squirm and say, “Okay, maybe you’re a plotter, but you do it inside your head?” Usually, we come around to: I’m a little bit of both.

Fair. But not very helpful when it comes to settling down to write the next book.

I was telling a friend (not Lily), who wants to remain anonymous, that I always seem to get stuck somewhere between, “Hello, shiny new idea! Look at the pretty salt-water taffy story you want to make,” and putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard–usually because I’m worrying about plot, or obsessing about getting the perfect first sentence, paragraph, scene, and chapter. Since I’m going to talk about her a lot, we’ll call my friend… Supervisory Special Agent Clara. SSA Clara.

Anyway, SSA Clara asked me what it looked like if I tried to describe where I was right now. SSA Clara is very smart. Because I ended up piling a bunch of stuff on the table (you know, creamers, sugar, table tents; as you do) and then sat back and really looked at it. What I saw had something like flow.

I start with Shiny New Idea, spend a bunch of time playing with Structure, and I think I have a pretty solid sense of where I’m going. But then I start doing research and character development and my Structure goes flat. It’s just a puddle of muck with a few identifiable bits poking out. That’s about where I am now, and I start wishing for a magic wand. Ie, a Process.

The interesting thing that I and SSA Clara saw was that I’d managed to put my purse at the edge of my muck puddle, and it had a lot of the same colors as the stuff in the muck puddle, but there was a little abyss between them. And I said, “THAT. THAT RIGHT THERE IS MY PROBLEM.” (The Abyss.) “How do I get from Muck Puddle to The Little Mermaid?”

I know I can. Because I have. But there’s no Magic Process Wand. It’s just time, effort, throwing spaghetti against a wall…or maybe Faith. Like Indiana Jones’s invisible bridge.

I’m really not good at faith, though, and it doesn’t even start with a P. I told SSA Clara that it was less like stepping out onto an invisible bridge and more like flinging words Pollock-style and trusting they’ll turn into something. At the time, neither of us noticed that Pollock rhymes with Frolic which makes the whole thing a lot more fun.

It’s a pretty radical paradigm shift from the PERFECTIONISM-PRESSURE-POTENTIAL-PANIC-PLOTTER-PANTSER-PLATONIC FORM PROBLEM to admit that I don’t actually have a PROCESS that’s anything like anyone else’s PROCESS, and on top of that to admit that every story is a new enterprise, a new leap of faith, a new frolic. To keep it in my mind, and work with acceptance, I decided my writing needed a new word to replace the other Ps. From now on, or at least for as long as it sticks, I’m going to think of it as:

POLLOCKING

And, because I need to see a documentation of the Pollocking so I can learn to trust it more (and because the world needs another novelist’s progress blog), I’m going to try to write something everyday about the experience. Some days, that might be “I daydreamed about Bel and Nicola sword-fighting but I was too depressed to write.” Some days it might be more like this. Some days I might not feel like doing it at all.

That’s cool. It’s all cool. It’s all part of the Pollocking.

Pollock's Guardians of the Secret

Jackson Pollock, Guardians of the Secret, 1943; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art