Mentor of the Month: Edgar Allan Poe: The Process

I have often thought how interesting a magazine paper might be written by any author who would – that is to say, who could – detail, step by step, the processes by which any one of his compositions attained its ultimate point of completion. Why such a paper has never been given to the world, I am much at a loss to say – but perhaps, the autorial vanity has had more to do with omission than any other cause. Most writers – poets in especial – prefer having it understood that they compose by a species of fine frenzy – an ecstatic intuition – and would positively shudder at letting the public take a peep behind the scenes, at the elaborate and vacillating crudities of thought….”
–Edgar Allan Poe, “The Philosophy of Composition.”

Is the author’s process secretive? Not nowadays, I don’t think. Anyone can find Stephen King’s process in On Writing and the bookstores are full to bursting with writers trying to tell other writers how they did it.

But in a lot of cases we don’t know what we were thinking while we were thinking it, so how are we supposed to write about our process?

For example, in FJR the whole thing was originally supposed to be a road trip. ‘Crazy girl finds out that her fiance was madly in love with another girl in the past and sets out to find her. As she crosses the country, she meets various wise people who tell her to get over herself.’ For those of you who have read the novel, I’m sure you’re now wondering where the road trip is. And after a while it became less about the girl Anica was trying to track down and more about the fiance.

I started the stupid thing fifteen times before I finally settled on starting it at the end of the road trip (which really isn’t a road trip). Part of that is because David Keplinger once said that the start of a story starts with the knock on the door. I was trying to force her down a long stretch of interstate before that happened. Instead of knocking, Anica pitches a cinderblock through a window, but I think the thought process holds true.

And that’s just to start. I stalled out halfway wondering what the hell I was doing. Once I figured out that Dan had to have his say, the story picked up for me, and ironically, all my first readers have said it’s like a train picking up speed at right about the same point.

I have also had to:

  • turn Anica’s best friend into her sister
  • change a son to a daughter
  • cut random suspense-killing sentences
  • be less flip throughout
  • turn all my ‘THE’ into ‘The’ because I hold the shift key down too long
  • get rid of the word “Hon”

(And these are just the minor fixes….)
I guess ‘autorial vanity’ does have a lot to do with omission. If we all talked about our process like this, our readers would think us insane. ‘Why on earth would you work on that for so long when you don’t even know what the hell you’re doing?’

Part of the trick of writing is to make it look easy. It’s much more impressive that way–unfortunately, that illusion passed down through the centuries, also makes anyone think that they can do it. People: it’s not a ‘fine frenzy’ or an ‘ecstatic intuition.’ Maybe the first draft. But first drafts suck. You must be willing to be cold and calculating as well for the drafts to come.

And that’s a whole other part of the process.

Edgar Allan Poe Mentors Writing Thoughts

jenny maloney View All →

Jenny writes dark fiction that her mother hates. Her stories and essays have appeared in Across the Margin, Pantheon, Shimmer, Black Denim Lit, Skive, and others. When she’s not writing her own stuff, she’s reading mysteries for Criminal Element. When she’s not writing fiction or reviews, she’s writing/directing/performing/designing plays at Springs Ensemble Theatre.

3 Comments Leave a comment

  1. I dig the quote 🙂 I just used it as a free-writing prompt in one of my composition classes. We’re working on revision right now and it’s the perfect fit.

  2. As someone about to dive back in for what feels like the umpteenth revision of MMG, I hear ya. May I soon get to the point Jenny’s now at. Hmmm, think Susie would be fresh eyes for the rest of us? Although, with 3 or 4 different timelines in MMG, that might not be a good fit. 😉

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