Process Envy

By Laura Drake

I belong to the Women’s Fiction chapter of RWA.  We just completed a month-long Write-a-Thin (you’d have had to have been there,) and it was wonderful, on many levels (not for me, on the ‘Thin’ part, but that’s another blog altogether.)

Since I’m so anal regimented in my schedule, I didn’t think I needed the external motivation of a group with goals.  I only signed up to support others. But I found that it helped a lot, to feel like I was writing with friends.

In chatting as a group, we got off onto interesting tangents. I admit, I experienced angst,when people began sharing their writing process.  It was fascinating in that, “curious, but not sure you want to know” way.

Photo Courtesy of Lynn Kelley, WANA Commons

Let’s face it. It’s like your hair: blonde, curly, thin, red, thick, grey, whatever. Mine is brown (until the gray, anyway,) straight as a board, and very fine. Which means that it most often looks greasy, flat and mousy. I always wanted auburn. And curly. And thick (yes, WITS bloggers, I have a heroine like this. I also gave her the body I didn’t get, but that, too, is another blog.)

Bottom line is, whatever we got, we think someone else got better. Right?

WF group coined the term: Process Envy. If you’re a plotter, you think you’re too rigid – writing would be easier if you just let it flow.

I’m a pantster. I know the characters, but not what is going to happen to them. I start, and the plot becomes clear to me, one chapter at a time. Maybe some part of my brain knows it, but not the conscious part.

If you write in order, you think those that write out of order must be more fun.

I get up at 3 am to write. People are amazed by that. I’m amazed by the guy I know who realizes that when he gets an email from me at that time, it’s time for him to go to bed.

I think this is human nature. I keep trying to plot, thinking I’m going to like it. . . all I need is the right tool! Scrivener is the latest one, calling my name. Those little virtual index cards are SO cute!

Whatever we got, we think someone else got BETTER than we did.

I’ll probably never be satisfied with my process, and maybe you won’t either.

But I’m glad I KNOW it!

Do you remember how hard it was to discover your process? Some of you may still be trying to figure yours out. Doesn’t it feel like walking around in a pitch-black room, full of furniture, and steps you weren’t aware of? Virtually barked shins hurt just as badly as real ones, don’t they? We bumble along, making mistakes, and learning from them, until a form comes out of the darkness . . .

Like it or not, it’s the only way.

So please tell me, am I the only one with Process Envy?  What do you wish for in your writing process that you didn’t get? Or your hair, for that matter.

ALERT: C.K. Crouch – you are the lucky commenter that has won a copy  of Kat Martin’s Deep Blue!!!!  Please contact us, and let us know if you’d like a paperback, or e-version! Congratulations!

About LauraDrake

Author of romance and women's fiction. Grand Central and Harlequin author, debut book, The Sweet Spot, due out May 28.
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48 Responses to Process Envy

  1. Liz Flaherty says:

    I like this post, and I’m often up at 3:00 with you. (Though I feel smug about that one–how could someone actually prefer something else?) The rest of it–you bet I envy. Especially right now, when my own process (or lack thereof) isn’t working!

  2. This is The Single Most Freeing Post I’ve read on the process. [Caps intentional, btw. That’s how the words in this post will live in my brain.]

    Yes, I have process envy. So much so, I let it slow me down. “How can I possibly write forward until I’ve solved all the ‘what if’s’ knocking around in my noggin?”

    For me, plotting is like solving a Sudoku puzzle without putting down any numbers until I’ve solved the entire thing. I’d never get one finished. Which is my point. When I solve those puzzles, I don’t record tiny letters in the corners. I think through the “what if’s” three, four, however-many-spaces-it-takes to spot a pitfall in advance, and then punch in the number.

    Knowing there’s a multi-contracted writer out there who lets the plot develop as she writes? Priceless! So long as I meet (or approximate) the criteria for turning points and exceed criteria for building tension, I have to let go of the plotter process. I shudder at how many times I’ve told my critique buddies, “I decided on a new twist, so I have to spend some time plot/plodding….”

    Ruh-roh. Does that mean I now have Laura Drake Process Envy?

    I’ll let you know. When my characters finish writing this WIP.

    Thanks from the bottom of my socks. (Like Snoopy or Linus says, “Somehow my heart didn’t seem deep enough.”)

    • Laura Drake says:

      LOVE the Sudoku analogy!

      And Gloria, I’M glad to know that I’m not the only one! You don’t want my process – I’m terrified that the next chapter won’t be there, when I’m done with this one!

      I think that writing is about faith — trusting a part of yourself that you can’t even see, or touch. For a scientific brain like mine, that’s hard!

      The one thing I KNOW doesn’t work, is to abandon your process for the next shiny one that comes along, tempting though that is!

  3. Edith says:

    I just can’t seem to shake off the feeling that as soon as I ‘discover’ what my Process actually is, that then I am going to be able to write and write and write without stopping, until all those stories and plots have been told!!! The thing is, I can’t make up my mind whether I am a plotter or a pantser……..how simple life could be if I had a system…….🙂 And yes, the Write-a-Thin was great! Can’t wait for the next one. xxx

  4. Laura, how about we call ourselves … pants-plotters and let others long to know our secret? I might have a gaggle of stories, but none of them make sense until the characters rise from the mist and introduce themselves. I need to know who they are before I put them in peril, or decided to give them a hard time falling in love, or I wreck their life with my plotting.

    We can read all the books, use all the tools, take more Margie classes than her grandchildren, ask Donald Maass to adopt us or find the Holy Grail of “how to do it without even thinking.” It will not change our approach. Like you can’t change getting up at 3am while others are nodding off.

    I loved our chapter’s Write-a-Thin and good thing I participated. It was the last solid, controlled and peaceful month I’ve had. The autumn of 2012 will go down in my journal as the most annoying time … not becuase I finally realized a dream of my own cottage … nor because I love watching my new space materialize like one of our stories … but because it has been a time when I have not been able to set a new pace for the new space. I don’t have Process Envy yet, but if I don’t get back and fiind the direction I need in my work I might become “postal,” and shoot the next writer who publishes an article or book about … just do it. Yeah, I am envious right now, but not because someone found the ancient scrolls, or the one secret I need to do my work … but because writing in comments or blogging is about the only time I have lately🙂 As always, thanks for this little chat. Maybe it helped me saw through the block of wood stuck in the middle of my head !!

    • Laura Drake says:

      Oh Florence, it’ll be there for you, when your life calms down – never fear! You sound, like me, to be a ‘nester.’ You can’t relax until your nest is in order. I can’t imagine the tons of details you have flying around in your head…how could you concentrate on writing?!!! It’ll happen, just relax. Frustration makes it worse!

      If all you can do is read right now, think of it as homework, for writing!!!
      This too, shall pass, my Dear. Wow, I sound like Dear Abby, don’t I?

  5. I’ve experienced just the opposite: process bigotry. The plotters I’ve chatted with think I’m crazy for winging it, and I use to think they were nuts for spending all that time on an outline they always ended up deviating from.

    I’m convinced, these days, that the “right process” is the one which gets good writing done. For me, it’s a cycle: pants | plot a bit | pants lather rinse repeat. For others, it’s an outline so detailed they’re basically filling in blanks to finish the book.

    But I’ve never had process envy. Any process besides the one which serves me well seems foreign and confusing. (I also contend that anyone who does have process envy should try the process they envy and see. Maybe you’ll hate it and get over the envy, but maybe it’s your unconscious telling you where you really ought to be.)

    • LauraDrake says:

      You know, Joel, I wonder, after reading your reply, if this is mainly a Venus thing. Women tend to always think someone else is doing it right; guys tend to figure it out, and never look back. And I envy THAT, too!

      So glad you found what works for you. Forge ahead with it!

      • Pretty sure my wife would disagree😉 Each of our personalities more closely matches the other gender’s stereotype.

        I think my stance is based mostly on years of research into how our brains work, and teaching myself to focus on what works instead of what’s broken (which is the norm for BOTH genders: let’s analyze what’s broken instead of focusing on what works.)

        But I’d find it interesting to see more responses from men, and see if in general men are more likely to be process bigots, in which case, I might have to retract this whole comment😉

  6. Sharla Rae says:

    I’m proud Panster but yes, I envy the ploter big time. The good thing, I seldom run into a saggy middle. The bad thing – I’ve written myself into a corner that’s hard to escape which can sometimes be a good thing if it means you have to think of a “clever” way to escape it! In any case, I usually don’t sit down and actually plan the story until I have three to five chapters written. Every step of my process is a surprise and again that can be good and bad. What I know now is that my inner writer knows the theme when the outer writer doesn’t have a clue. Somewhere after the first third of the book it pops out into the obvious zone and the outside writer is like, oh! How smart I am. Ha! Still, I envy the plotter because they know where they are going from the get-go and since I’m ususally a very practical person, the plotter method sounds a whole lot safer way to proceed.

  7. Stacy Green says:

    No, you’re not. I’ve turned into a plotter but I still haven’t found the perfect process or organization. I do love Scrivener, and it’s been a big help, but I’m still the most creative when I’m plotting by simply writing out my ideas in notebooks. That means notebooks all over the place, and ideas here and there. I’m still learning!

    • LauraDrake says:

      Oh man – so Scrivener won’t take the place of all my hand written notes?
      Hmmm – it looked great! But I know I’m just dreaming – gotta stick with what works for me – no matter how weird it is.

  8. For being such a freak about making lists all the time, and having a plan for EVERYTHING…I don’t understand how I ended up a pantser. But I am. And I have the worse case of Plotter Envy every time I sit down to write. Because my process is brutal. I get the characters first, hang out with them a while, kind of get the setting in my head, and then a seed of a story starts to come. I start writing and more is revealed…I go back and thread that in…more is revealed…threading…lather, rinse, repeat. Like Sharla Rae above (must be a Sharla thing) I get about a third in and can actually do a plan and a synopsis of sorts to go by, but it will change. The very second I decide that it is officially called a “plan” or anything resembling that word, everything changes, a character will take it off the rails in a completely ass-opposite direction. Now…while all that is fine before you have people waiting on you, when you have an editor wanting a full synopsis of your next book, it’s enough to make my teeth ache. I have to send it with a disclaimer that “you know how I am and that this will likely not be the case next week.”

    I spend the entire time writing a book, in full realization that I rot and I’m a fraud and I’ll never write anything worthy again because everything I’m putting on the page is pure crap and nothing is connected and the plot is flat….etc etc etc. And I have meltdowns and my husband thinks I’m a lunatic. Secretly, of course. And then I have that moment, 3/4 of the way in, where all the lights come on and little roots come out and snake around like those time lapse videos of plants growing. All my ducks suddenly line up and make sense….subplots that I didn’t even know were there are suddenly clear. And I rush to the finish and then stare in awe that it worked. Somehow, magically, it works. But I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. 🙂

    • LauraDrake says:

      Wow, Sharla, I’ve read your first book (and have preordered the next – people, if you are looking for the next NYT author – Sharla is it – MARK MY WORDS!) and I can’t believe that this is your process! None of that comes though in the finished process, if that makes you feel any better.

      I know one other author who has the same process you do (and she IS NYT!) – and it’s agonizing to watch her go through it . . .

      So sorry – I do not have envy for YOUR process!

  9. Betty Bolte says:

    I wish that I could be a pantser, but I must have a story arc with which to work in order to begin writing. I have to know the end goal, where the characters are heading. Though I have no clue exactly how they will get where they need to go. I worked through a trilogy by writing scene cards for all three books and essentially laying out the entire trilogy story arc. Did I stick to that storyline? No way. But it helped me visualize the end goal and take steps and twists to get there. Characters come to me out of an idea for a story, not of themselves by themselves, if that makes sense. I mean, I don’t meet a character and try to figure out a story, but see a situation or a comment and wonder who would react in what way to that moment or event. Where would that lead them? Then both character and story evolve together, interwoven. Does this work? I’m not published, yet, but I do have an agent and several beta readers who like my stories. So my fingers are crossed. The Write-a-Thin was awesome for keeping me on track and having the camraderie as I worked through revisions and more. I love our WF group!

    • LauraDrake says:

      Betty, now your process, I envy! I don’t know HOW you could write a trilogy without being a plotter – or a mystery for that matter!

      Keep at it, girl – you’ll get there!

  10. Carrie says:

    I’m definitely a pantser and an “out-of-orderer” as well. While it gives me some fabulous scenes…it’s not always so good for actually finishing anything OR having it make sense in the end. I go off on tangent whenever I am inspired and while it might loosely tie into the overall story it doesn’t always keep me consistent with my motivations or characteristics of my hero/heroine.

    I envy people who can just sit and write. I managed to write cohesively during NaNo last year and actually pulled off a complete story. I hope if I just focus on ONE story line this November i might finish a novel that has been slowly building for a few years🙂

  11. texasdruids says:

    I started out as a pantser with my first book and ended up rewriting chapter after chapter because the story wasn’t going toward the goal I envisioned. It took me years to finish that book, and I decided never again. From then on, I’ve become a confirmed plotter. Like sharla Rae, I usually write three or four chapters during which I get to know my characters and their motivations, conflicts, etc. Then I take two weeks to a month to plot the story arc, loosely outlining the chapters. Once that’s done, I set up separate chapters on my computer and plug in the pieces of my outline. Then comes the fun part — fleshing out the story.

    Of course ideas pop up along the way, prompting changes to my original outline, but I stick fairly close to the overall plot. One thing that really helps me when I’m plotting the story arc is to discuss it with critique partners. They often see possibilities I hadn’t even considered. When I was stuck on the plot line for my current WIP, I spent several hours talking it over with my good buddy Carra Copelin. I came away feeling like a load had been lifted off my shoulders, and I knew pretty much where my story would go.

    • LauraDrake says:

      Oh, I agree, Linda. I’d never get anywhere without plotting with my crit group. Not only do they come up with super ideas that solve Gordian knots – it helps me to get it out of my head, and out of my mouth. Something about saying it out loud makes it real, and I can look at it a bit more objectively.

      I do wish I was a plotter. Instead, I think I’m just a plodder.

      • texasdruids says:

        Ha! I’m a plodder too. My goal right now is to write two chapters per month, but with outside distractions, I’m doing good if I write a few paragraphs a day.

  12. Laurie says:

    I do have plotter envy. I pantsed my first novel, and I’ve been attempting a rewrite. It’s a mess! I will try very hard to be a plotter for the next one.

  13. I’ve come to accept it. I’m a pantser. I keep trying to plot with outlines, cards, sticky notes on my plotting board. Yes, I have one of those that stares at me day after day leering at me, mocking me. But I never cave. Ha! It is liberating knowing my true process. Great post, Laura, Thank You!

  14. Stormie Kent says:

    The story is in my head for a while. I let it play over and over before I try to write it down. I do a bit of research. I take a notebook, and write a very rough outline or quick ideas for each chapter. Then I write. Things change as I write. Sometimes, scenes I thought went in the book don’t fit after the character’s grow. I don’t do index cards because the big plot points are already in my head in order. Am I a true panster? I don’t know.

  15. marsharwest says:

    I’m mostly a plotter. Give me my charts with internal and external conflict, my character charts with all their backstories, relatives, fears and dreams, etc. For my current WIP, my 6th book, I even found pictures in magazines for these folks. The story line flows from the external conflict chart. For my first book I just typed out something like 150ish things that had to happen. My process has developed as has my craft. Thankfully.
    In the middle of writing a book, pantsing happens at times. I was so surprised when one of my characters in book #4 tried to get the heroine. He wasn’t the hero, just a neat supporting guy. He’s now got his book, #6 referenced above. Here’s the thing. I’m literally green with envy about all you pantsers out there. I believe you’re the truly gifted ones. How you sit down with just a little knowledge of you characters and the thing pours from your computer! Well, it’s pretty magical.
    Intriguing post, Laura, and everyone’s comments.

    • LauraDrake says:

      Oh, I’m SO laughing right now, Marsha! You’ve proved my point! I’m reading along, about your list of 150 things, thinking, “Oh, man, that’s JUST what I want to be able to do!” and then I read the end, where you wish you had blonde hair….

      See? Process envy!

  16. C. K. Crouch says:

    I love your post Laura. I’m a panster that tries to see if she can improve by jotting things down before she starts wrting. I’ve decided I’d try this for NaNoWriMo next month. Amazing how some authors crank out multiple books in a year but I figure they have a method that works for them. FOr now I trudge along seeing if I can find my way in the dark just like you said.🙂

  17. Janie Emaus says:

    I usually write from 10-midnight. That’s my best time. And I rarely outline, which gets me into trouble, but then getting out of it is half the fun.

    • LauraDrake says:

      You and I are flip sides of the coin, on writing time, Janie!
      But at least we know what works, and though it may not be easy – at least it works, right?

  18. My best time is in the AM from 6:00-7:00. That is really the only time I have, but I think about my book throughout the day and make notes. I return, sometimes, in the evening to add pieces. It is a slow go. I’m envious of people who have lots of time to write.

    • LauraDrake says:

      You know, Susan, so was I — until I retired. I don’t get much more writing done now, than before. Well, except for deadline time.

      I didn’t believe it either, when my retired author friends told me this, and I vowed that wouldn’t be ME – but it is. Sadly.

      If you write every day, you’ll be surprised how it adds up!

      • Hi Laura–you are right. I usually do better when I keep to a work schedule. I really want to write more, and I’m just focused on that. Thanks for the comment. I really love this blog! It has helped so much to get me going with my writing.

  19. I don’t think I envy anyone elses process, but mine is changing. Instead of writing straight through from beginning to end. I’m starting to write scenes and piecing them in the story.

  20. Reblogged this on Ella Quinn ~ Author and commented:
    Great article from WITS on the process of writing. What’s your process?

  21. I’m a pantser too, but I’ve discovered that doing a little plotting keeps me on task and prevents me from writing 300,000 words for the 70,000 I actually wanted, so I make notes, writing what comes next, what scenes I want to not forget to do, and where the story goes. But it’s not organized or on cards or in charts. I don’t have process envy either because I am what I am and have always believed this. I work early (like you) and long and hard on a manuscript, finishing entire books within a month’s time. But that’s how I work. We are all different and that’s okay.

  22. Bob Stewart says:

    Great column, wonderful comments. And Laurie here is one man’s version of writing. After more than 45 years following the rigid journalism model of who, what, where, when, why and several successful non-fiction books I turned my attention to fiction only to be told that there is a great deal of difference between non-fiction and fiction. I scoffed.
    Okay, so I was wrong and it took me close to ten years and a number of conferences to finally come to understand the difference, one that seems to be better felt than told.
    Journalism is the inverted pyramid in that the most important info comes first and then trickles down to what’s not as important so the editor can cut at the bottom to make the story fit.
    After all those years I found myself to be a pantser/plotter. I write all over the landscape. I think of interesting events and then write it. It may be a murder, a stalking, a psychological clash, etc. When I get enough of these done, which will include the beginning scene and the ending, I lay them out and then begin to write the bridge from scene to scene.
    I know it sounds crazy but it works for me. And while my ebooks are not best sellers, they all have five-star reviews on Amazon and its rewarding that folks enjoy the stories.
    So, I’m a pantser who writes a number of scenes that appeal to me. Then I’m a plotter who links the scenes together. And finally I rewrite, which is my favorite part of the process because the rewrite brings the story to life.
    This is a very interesting blog, and you did ask for another male POV.

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