About the Author,  For Writers

My New Way of Looking at the Writing Process

My mother affectionately calls me a magpie. Everywhere I went as a child, I stopped to pick up shiny things and noticed little details others missed, a trend that’s continued all the way through adulthood.

One of the many ways this trait shows up in my life is a fascination with gemstones, crystals, and pearls. I have many smooth shells picked up from family trips to the beach and pretty rocks I saw glittering in rivers on the hikes we’ve taken in Cuba, the Carolinas, and California, just to name a few. 

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that, when I had this latest epiphany about my writing workflow, it was born from my first experience tumbling my rocks. For those who are new to the concept, rock tumbling is a hobby that turns rough crystals smooth through a four-stage process of adding rocks, water, and increasingly smaller particles called grit into a barrel, then having a machine rotate the mixture for days or weeks at a time.

Here’s an example of raw amethyst versus tumbled amethyst:

It turns out that the four-step process for turning a jagged piece of colorful quartz into a smooth and shiny treasure was a lot like how I should be approaching my books.

But first, why the metaphor in the first place?

Listen, I know the usual writing process: outline (or not), draft, revise, edit, and publish. I know it, and I hate it.

For starters, that revise word is so deceptively short for a process that can take multiple drafts and months or years to slog through.

Worse still, I am a sorry excuse for a recovering perfectionist. I have unapologetically high expectations, and I’ve found no compelling reason to lower them. These are not impossibly high expectations, and I do allow for grace and compassion for myself when I fall short, but I have no interest in settling, especially not in my writing. 

And that makes writing those initial rough drafts a real bitch. I agonize over them, and I’ve tossed whole story ideas out the window because the first few paragraphs weren’t to my liking.

See me here in my “I ❤️ Rough Drafts” shirt? When I came home wearing it one time, my mother scoffed and said, “No, you don’t. Your shirt is lying.”

Y’all would love my mom. I know I do!

Anyway, over on the Writer’s Atelier blog, I’ve written about using brackets to help me through drafting. This has worked somewhat, and I even found that bracketing sentences, paragraphs, or entire chapters could help me maintain a rhythm while writing. But honestly, it felt weird to me that I was approaching writing this way. No one else I knew used brackets to complete a draft, it’s never been a suggestion given by one of the greats, and though I knew it worked for me—wrote a short story for a contest on my favorite writing app, 4TheWords, and I’m very proud of what that became—it just felt weird, like I was adding a step I didn’t technically need according to conventional writing wisdom.

Who says I have to follow conventional writing wisdom? This is what works for me: a rock tumbling metaphor for crafting a novel. Maybe it’ll work for you, too.

Stage One: The Coarse Grind

The coarse grind is the first stage of tumbling. The grit used in this stage will be the most rough, and will act like sandpaper.

If you think of the raw and rough rocks as my characters, setting, plots and subplots, this is the stage where I get those into a workable form. I see what they’re really made of, and whether or not they’re likely to survive the complete tumbling/writing process. I construct my characters and their arcs. I use a chapter by chapter outline to create the framework for my story and ensure it’s truly viable.

After the first round of tumbling, the rocks will be a little smoother to the touch, but won’t feel right in the hands. They’ll be very dull and lifeless looking, though, you’ll see hints of the brilliant colors they will become when they’re finished. we’re going to put them back in for another round, this time using medium grit.

Stage Two: The Medium Grind

The medium grind is what I call the bracket draft. I think most people would call this a rough draft, but what differentiates it (in my mind, anyway) is that I am making absolutely no attempts at making the prose legible to anyone but me. The verbs will be in whatever tense feels right to me in the moment, regardless of what I’ve already decided about the POV. I note when I need to research things, talk myself through what needs to happen, and maybe write a sentence that I hope to turn into a beautiful piece of prose later.

What’s so helpful about this is that it lets me have that view that I’ve struggled with finding as a writer—the one between the bird’s eye view and the magnifying glass. I can see the whole of the book and the parts that make it the whole without getting caught up in words not sounding right.

While cleaning the barrel and the rocks to prepare them for the third round of tumbling, a tumbler may notice some of the rocks that were softer than the others have been beaten to almost nothing, and take those out—they’re not serving any purpose any longer. That’s another reason why I love the bracket draft. Writing everything in brackets makes it more modular for my brain, so I find it easier to add or remove elements that aren’t working. I don’t have to worry about whether they flow or create transitions between paragraphs, either—it’s in brackets, so I know it’s not “real” writing I need to worry about.

Stage Three: The Fine Grind

Now comes the fine grind, also called pre-polish. This is when I will print out the bracket draft and use it as a template for the prose draft. All of the logic of the story has already been thought through, and all of the pieces are right where I want them, so ideally, there will be no rearranging whatsoever. I can just focus on the words and phrasing things how I want them to read.

After the last three rounds of tumbling and after washing away the “slurry” as Moonrise Rocks calls it, the crystals are very shiny, and mostly smooth. An amateur might mistake them for being ready to sell or add to a collection. It’s only after drying them and inspecting a little more closely that one would realize that they need the final stage to be their best selves.

Stage Four: The Polish

The final stage, finally! This is when I read over the book, make edits, fix typos, and do whatever else I can to make it the best it can be by myself. When I’m through with that, I send it to readers for feedback.

For my aforementioned short story, my only reader was my partner, who is the only person I knew could handle the 4TW-specific vocabulary the story throws at its audience. He gave me a few minor suggestions for tweaks, I accepted or STET’ed as I saw fit, and I had a finished story.

And going through the process was not painful. At least, it wasn’t as painful and fruitless as it used to feel.

It’s hard to put into words how healing for the soul it was to go all the way through the process, even for a short story. Prior to now, when I had tried bracketing an entire draft, I would run up against deadlines or even my own impatience. I would abandon the bracketing, choosing instead to plough forward because I’d run out of time to do things the way my brain needed to do them. This led to me feeling drained and sick of the story, even if I loved it. I was working against so much resistance that it stopped being fun.

Against all odds, despite my high expectations and perfectionism, discovering this way of thinking has taught me patience. I have a project right now that I could conceivably put on pre-order. A younger Megan would’ve done so, betting that she could push herself to get out thousands of words a day, even when the data I have shows that is simply not how I write best.

I need all four of my stages. The rock tumbling process doesn’t happen overnight, and neither does a novel I’m happy with.

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