Guest Post by Susan Forest: Inspirational vs. Mechanical Writing

Today’s guest post is by Susan Forest, editor and award nominated science fiction, fantasy, and horror writer.  Thank you, Susan!


 Ever write in “flow?” Oh, to be transported to that other world, to live there, to have the words pour unconsciously onto the page, coming from some deep, hidden well of the soul. That is a profound delight.

And later, under the cold light of day, does the work hold up? Often, yes, which is another satisfaction, though we all know that the revision process calls on a different part of the brain: a more analytical, more mechanical process. Here’s where we bring in craft: we know short sentences and short paragraphs convey a sense of urgency in action sequences; we know we have to cut those adjectives and call forth our strongest verbs, and on, and on.

But what about those days when the writing process isn’t in “flow,” when putting the words on the page is more like pulling teeth? Or, most common of all, I think, just the regular day when the writing’s not tough–it’s good and satisfying–but not transformative? There have been times when I have employed a more mechanical style of writing during the creation process. Are you shocked?

Here’s how it works: first, I confess, I do write my novel to an outline. I write the opening chapters with only a thin skeleton delineating my ultimate goals, but as I get to know my characters and their problems, the plan becomes clearer. I move back and forth between writing scenes to see who my characters are and how they react, and outlining the book in greater detail. Then, as I come to each chapter, I know what must be accomplished in each.

So, for example, in my current chapter, the protagonist becomes separated from an important supporting character, discovers the guy is in trouble and helps him out. This chapter is written in 5 scenes:

  • The characters are separated
  • The protagonist hears about the supporting character’s trouble
  • The protagonist locates the supporting character
  • The rescue is enacted
  • The new life stasis is achieved

When I started scene two, I really didn’t know how I would accomplish it, but as I looked around my world, my thinking went roughly as follows: everything has been so rotten for my protagonist, I thought I needed to show some happy times. I decided to begin with the protagonist as now part of a tiny community of refugees who have come across a great find: a recent battlefield with corpses they can rob! Clothing, pots, coins! A freshly killed horse they can hack up and roast for a real meal! The scene opens with a spellcrafter showing my protagonist a healing herb as they settle in to enjoy their largesse.

Within a page–let’s face it, good times are not good story–we have the arrival of a stranger (another wandering refugee) who has survived the battle and brings news of the supporting character’s troubles. At first, I thought the stranger would be a bard whose role it was to disseminate news, but where’s the tension in that? No, instead, I upped the tension by making the stranger a young girl who has been raped and terrified (no one is more dangerous than someone who is afraid). So when the enclave offers her food, she takes it–but whips out a knife to defend herself against the “payment” she fears they will force from her in exchange for their generosity.

Does the scene work? Time will tell. Right now I think so, but I’ll still do my revisions, then go back to this scene in the context of the whole chapter, and later, the whole novel. But what I found to be interesting was how consciously I made the decisions to choose settings, actions, characters and events. I really enjoyed the writing process, and found myself quite inspired in the writing of the scene, but this was in no way “writing in flow.” There was nothing unconscious about it.

In a different novel, I once wrote a scene in which a character creeps into a room to steal a jewel. I carefully crafted in the floor creaking and the room’s occupants sighing and turning over in bed, and the thief’s sweat and panic. Afterwards, I thought, “Well, everyone can tell this is a crafted scene, not an inspired one.” Then I took it to my critique group and–they loved it.

So…inspired or mechanical? Is one superior? Is it possible to write excellent prose–and let’s face it, a writer has to be at the top of her game to sell in this competitive market; nothing less will do–mechanically? Or is it a cheat that will never be as good?

Ah, the writing process…


 Susan Forest was a finalist for the 2009 the Prix Aurora Award in the Short Fiction category (for “Back,” Analog Science Fiction and Fact, June, 2008).  She is a member of SFWA and SF Canada, and works as a fiction editor for Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishers. Her recent sales include “The Right Chemistry” (ONSPEC Magazine, Summer 2010), “The Director’s Cut” (Tesseracts Fourteen) and “Orange” (AE Science Fiction Review, December, 2010). Other stories have appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction, Tesseracts Ten, Tesseracts Eleven, and Legacy Magazine. She has appeared as a panelist at Denvention, Anticipation, World Fantasy (Calgary and Columbus) and other conventions. Her YA novel, The Dragon Prince, was awarded the Children’s Circle Book Choice Award. You can check out her website at www.speculative-fiction.ca.

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