The Writing Process and Beth Bernobich

Here’s Beth Bernobich giving us a very different take on the writing process. I’m stealing some of this stuff…

Tamago: Do you have a regular drafting process, or does your drafting process vary from book to book. Can you describe it to us generally, or at least for one project?

Beth: For the first draft, I tend to use a mixture of outlining and seat-of-the-pants. I have a general idea where and how the book should start–an image of characters in action–so when I sit down for the first time to write, I write that scene, letting the words spill out however they please.
Then I make a document that’s a combination of notes and outline. I write a paragraph each for the beginning and the ending. Then I fill in milestone markers to get the story from that opening scene to the ending. Each “marker” might be as short as a single sentence, or long as a page, with dialog and other bits of real prose. I also add notes from any research, or summaries of certain plot arcs I want to include. This phase can take as little as a few days, or it can take several months.

Once I think the plot hangs together, I write the first draft. I pick whichever section is clearest to me at the moment and write the same way as I wrote the opening scene, just letting the words spill out. Eventually I fill in all the pieces and have a complete draft.

From there, I make a printed copy and read that through with pen in hand. If I find a problem, I draw a line in the margin and keep reading. That way I get a sense of how the story flows. I repeat the process for one or two drafts. When I think it’s done, I print another copy and read the whole thing out loud to catch prose issues and any remaining glitches.

Tamago: Which part of writing–drafting, revising, critique from others–do you enjoy the most? Why? The least? Why?

Beth: Heh. My feelings usually depend on which part of the book I’m writing. I love drafting the beginning and the end because those are the parts where I have the clearest full-sensory picture of I want to write. The middle is a horrible slog because I only know a handful of plot points and I have to flounder through the waist high mud of doubts and second-guesses. Revising is a different animal. I love figuring out how to fix things, but sometimes the task itself is daunting. Critique is briefly painful, but absolutely rewarding and exhilarating. There’s that amazing moment when someone points out a flaw in your work, and you immediately see not only how to fix the flaw, but how that fix makes the whole book stronger.

Tamago: Is your writing process the same for your shorter works as it is for your novels?

Beth: Short story writing, for me, is a more tentative process. I follow much the same pattern as I do with novels, but each phase takes longer and requires many more rewrites.

Tamago: Your universe and books are very intertwined, over a series of several lifetimes. How do you keep track of so many timelines, characters, and so forth?

Beth: I started off trying to keep everything in memory, but that soon became impossible. So I wrote up a document listing the main characters by their names in the “current” time period. Underneath each main entry, I have the list of their names and roles in past lives and the time period for that life.
I keep a second document for the world itself. When I started writing the series, I had a general idea about the history and geography of the world, but as the story expanded, I realized I needed a clearer picture of the wider world and of its past. So I wrote a five or six page overview of the key elements–geography, politics, religions, etc.–and how they’ve changed over the past five hundred years.

Tamago: What comes first to you as you start a draft? Idea? Character? Image?

Beth: All three come at the same time, actually. I get the image of a character in a situation. They might be doing something, or saying something, but they are never static. And with that image, I get a sense of the story’s shape–where and how it might start, and how it ends.

Tamago: How many drafts of a project do you write?

Beth: Between three and four. The first one is the horribly messy, just get the words down draft. The second and third drafts are for fixing the plot holes and overall flow. The last draft is my polish the prose draft, and I often do that in parallel with the previous one. That is, I polish earlier chapters in the morning, while in the afternoon, I fix plot issues later on in the story.

Tamago: Do you belong to a writer’s group, or do you work alone? Why have you chosen the approach you have?

Beth: When I first started writing, I belonged to a local writer’s group and an online workshop. In the past fix or six years, however, I’ve dropped out of formal groups because the weekly or monthly schedule doesn’t fit my own writing schedule. Instead, I depend on a few writer friends and the feedback from my editor.

Tamago: How do you know something you’re writing isn’t working?

Beth: I know the story isn’t working when I completely lose traction with all the pieces–characters, images, prose, and plot. The story feels dead inside my imagination. I might persist a few pages longer, just in case, but the plot usually falls apart and I stop getting any ideas for this next scene, or that next detail.

Tamago: What has been your favorite project to date, and why?

Beth: Whatever project I’m working on is usually the one I both love and hate the most. That has been especially true of Allegiance, which is the third book in my River of Souls series. In the middle of writing it, I hated the project, because I had to struggle with tying the story lines together into one coherent, satisfying conclusion. But once I had a first draft, I loved it, because the story had surprised me in so many ways, and because I was able to given my characters the resolution I’d been aiming toward for three books.

Tamago: After the initial break-in moment (your first book, agent, or assignment), what are the moments/accomplishments that you feel define you as a writer?

Beth: There are all the usual milestones — reviewing my first contract, surviving my first editorial letter, receiving my first fan letter — but what really made me feel like a writer was having my first novel go through copy edits. Here was my document all marked up with formatting symbols and notes from the copy editor about my magical language, or pointing out where the wording wasn’t clear, or asking did I really intend to name three minor characters Willem. That’s when it all felt much more solid and real.

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