I had a conversation with a friend of mine about a week ago that amused me. He’s an associate of Veronica’s, and he’s trying to do a zillion things at once – one of which is to start his own comics label. I wish him luck.
Anyway, he knows about The Ballad, and we were talking about my strategy for trying to expose it and eventually sell it. It’s all virgin territory for me, and as he’s trying to do something similar with Incubator Press, both of us had something to gain by swapping notes. Eventually, the topic turned to writing itself. He knows I’ve written a novel and I think he plans to do one himself, but he’s having difficulty starting. So, we talked for a little while about my method. His comment on it after I explained it to him made me laugh. He said:
“Wow. Don’t take this the wrong way, dude, but I wouldn’t have thought that this approach could successfully produce a novel.”
There are a number of methods people will use to write. Some people are super organized about it – they plan everything before they do anything, thinking about the plot and writing out pages and pages of detailed outlines before they actually begin work. They know what scenes will happen and when, and they’ve got it all on paper. They can even write scenes out of order and assemble them like puzzle pieces into a contiguous whole after all of them are done.
That seems almost superhuman to me. It’s so far removed from my own method that I can barely relate to it. But hey, whatever works, right? I can’t really argue with it if it gets the job done. This is how I used to write collaborative fiction when I was still into that – we’d plot out the scenes and decide who would write which ones, and then we’d get on with it.
But this is not how I do things when I’m working by myself. My method is a whole lot messier. Here are my steps:
1: Start at the beginning.
It’s my experience that if I’ve got an idea for a novel, and it’s a good one, then I obsess over it in the beginning. I turn it over and inspect all its sides in my imagination. Before I put pen to page, I have an idea for an opening scene for the work and a general direction for the plot. I find that beginning. I fire up Word. And then I start writing.
2: Fuck Outlines. Just Go.
I don’t think that outlining counts as writing. I do use outlines as a tool – they can be really valuable for a sense of perspective in something as long as a novel. I just don’t bother with them in the beginning because I find it simpler and better to just start writing.
I do take notes, however. This is especially valuable for the Fantasy genre because you end up inventing a lot of things from scratch, and it can be hard to keep track of everything. I write down the names of new characters with a one or two sentence description as they come into the narrative. I do the same for other abstract concepts – religions, factions, rules of magic, place names, etc. I do this as I go along, while I’m writing. This is to prevent me from having to root through all the dreck I wrote looking for a single sentence that gives me the name of a person I introduced months ago. I don’t trust my own memory. I can’t rely on remembering the names of every minor character I’ve ever introduced months down the line, so I write things down. But I don’t do it at the beginning, because I can’t shake the feeling that that’s wasted time and effort.
One of the reasons that I don’t use comprehensive outlines at the beginning of the process is that in something as long as a novel, I can always count on getting taken by surprise by a plot twist or two that I never expected going in. I don’t outline going in because it makes me feel too attached to one specific plot track, and I know that sometimes, my characters like to trailblaze. I’m better able to adapt to this if I haven’t spent hours putting together an outline first.
Instead? Just Go, baby. Start at the beginning and wing it. Keep writing until you’re done. It’s that simple.
3: … ‘Keep Writing?’
That you can knock a brick wall down by banging your head against it repeatedly is probably one of the most important ideas that has ever taken root in my mind.
I’m convinced that capital-C Commitment is what separates an Author from the untold legions of Wannabes. It’s not enough to be creative and have ideas. You have to write. And if you want to write a book, then you have to write a lot. It takes a very long time in front of the keyboard to finish everything. There’s no shortcut to this. You have to keep writing long after the muse is gone, because you can’t count on that chick sticking around long enough for you to finish the job.
When I was writing the Ballad, I stuck to quotas. I wrote at least 1500 words a day, every day. If I felt like going beyond that, then I would. If I didn’t feel like hitting it, then I’d sit my ass down in front of the monitor and just do it, damn it, even if I had to stay up into the wee hours of the morning. Or I’d fail. I’d go to sleep with my 700 words, wake up, and try again the next day.
Quotas are not a new idea. I took it straight from NaNoWriMo, set a higher bar, and extended it over several months. Forgetting the Outline isn’t a new idea, either – I got it from Stephen King’s method, and have been using it for all of my fiction since I first read On Writing in high school. It works quite well for me. Your mileage may vary.
Sometimes it felt like trying to get blood from the stone. It would take ages to do a few hundred words. Other times, it would come easily. I’d slip into the story and tap out 2000 words without even trying. I learned a bunch of little tricks to maximize my writing productivity (travel, use the Magic Pre-Coffee Morning Hours wisely, etc.), but I couldn’t rely on them completely. The important thing was to get on with it and write a lot every single day. On each individual day, I rarely feel like I accomplished much. But after a month, I look back on all I did and grin. 30,000 words is a significant chunk of a novel.
I can’t do the same thing, now. I wrote the Ballad in college and could think nothing of staying up until 3:00 AM writing. Though I absolutely love doing that, I can’t anymore. I have a job and a relationship, and I can’t neglect either.
But I still write every single day. And I still shoot for 1500, even though I don’t always hit it.
3b: Drink Coffee.
The amount of coffee I drink over the course of writing out an entire manuscript can only be estimated accurately if I use bathtubs as my unit of measurement. If you don’t drink coffee, now it’s time to start.
One of us… one of us…
4: Sit on it.
This next step is of critical importance. I have to do absolutely nothing – nothing related to this project, anyway. I use this time to take a break, write a few shorts, or start another project. I need to get the story that I’ve just written completely out of my mind. This can be really hard, because when I’m done with the rough draft, I’m usually quite pumped to start editing, finish the job, and pass it out to my alpha/beta readers. But it’s necessary – I ignore this step at my own peril.
I do this because it’s easier to be objective and follow the logic of the story as it is on the page if my idealized concept of ‘how it’s supposed to be’ is diluted in my mind. Letting the rough draft sit for a while allows me to get a better answer to an often difficult question – that is, “What the fuck was I thinking?”
I need to be able to look at my work from a reader’s perspective, not as the author.
If I begin to edit immediately, my reading is influenced by what I was thinking when I wrote it. But if I sit on the project for a little while, then I forget my reasoning. I have to reacquire it based on what’s on the page. If there’s a gap somewhere or a flaw in my logic – and there are always a few things that need tuning up – it’s easier for me to spot. This makes the whole editing process a lot more smooth and efficient.
I have a completed manuscript and I finished it several weeks ago. I’ve successfully resisted the urge to touch it in all those weeks, and am just now thinking about how I’m going to edit it.
So, I open her up.
On the first pass, I clean up obvious errors and writing mistakes. I get rid of unnecessary adverbs, remove and replace repeated words where I find them, and rewrite bad sentences. I also write down each scene in the order it appears, with a brief description.
When I’m done with this, the manuscript is already beginning to look a lot more refined. A single pass improves things dramatically. It also leaves me with a list of the scenes and the order in which they appear, and a big-picture portrayal of the plot – an Outline, in other words. I use this to divide my list of scenes into chapters. I also decide what’s missing and what, if anything, does not fit and should be taken out. I write up these new scenes, give them a lookover, and insert them into the manuscript. I delete anything that needs deleting. I add the chapter breaks where I’ve decided they belong, and I redo these divisions when I find that I’ve made some too short and some too long.
The third pass involves formatting. I double-space the whole manuscript, eliminate the line breaks between paragraphs, and indent at the beginning of each new paragraph. While I’m doing this, I idly scan for more repeated words and other mistakes – I probably caught most of these in the first pass, but given the size of the manuscript, it’s likely that some slipped past me. I’ll catch a few while I’m formatting. Even this time, however, I’ll be left with some errors. But unless I want to do yet another pass, I’ll leave these to my beta readers.
At this stage, I pass it to my alpha reader – Becki, my partner. This is the single toughest part of the process, because it involves putting my self esteem in the hands of another. She’s gentle with it, of course, but it’s still a nerve-wracking process. She reads and gives me her first impression, takes extensive notes and provides me with page-number references to her observations. She looks for continuity errors in the story as well as more basic errors in writing – anything I might have missed in the first and third passes. She also looks at the narrative critically and tells me what works and doesn’t work, what she feels is missing, and what she thinks I could change.
Here, I look at her notes and make the most obvious changes. I look for all the basic stuff and zap it right away. The suggestions about plot or story require a judgment call on my part. I’ll look at them individually and decide what, if anything, I’m going to do about each one, and then I take the appropriate action.
Once I’m done making changes to that manuscript, it is in its second draft. This is a mostly finished state. It’s almost completely free of errors, aside from a handful that have managed to elude multiple dragnets. The plot is solid and has passed continuity checks, and it has been evaluated and okay’d by a person who is not me.
Now, I bring in the beta readers. I have a small and important list of people who are willing to read my scribblings and provide detailed feedback that I can use to further refine it. These people are incredibly precious to me. It’s not hard for me to get readers, but they usually give me a reply email like ‘it was good, and I liked it,’ which is not very helpful. A rare few of them go above and beyond the call of duty. They give me detailed comments on specific parts of the narrative that let me make positive changes to it. I take this feedback and I think on it, making the alterations that I deem appropriate.
And then I’m done. It’s in its third (and final) draft. Break out the bubbly!
My method is flexible in that it doesn’t tie me to specific plot devices. This is nice for the Big Picture of the narrative, but it has a few major drawbacks that are worth noting. It’s a very wasteful writing method. I end up deleting whole scenes because they turn out not to fit in the final piece. I waste an awful lot of work. Days of it, in fact. I feel like I could mitigate this if I were a bit more structured from the getgo.
But I also feel that having absolute plot flexibility makes this worthwhile.
It’s also worth noting that this messy method is vulnerable to continuity errors. Minor details can have trouble staying consistent across the whole manuscript, and it’s very hard to catch each inconsistency across 600+ pages. For instance, in the Ballad of Iron Percy, I have a pair of characters (Jared and Elise Aranoun) that are siblings. They are roughly the same age, but they aren’t twins. One of them has to be older than the other, obviously, but this little detail is not that important to the story. I never wrote it down when I recorded the descriptions of these characters. So, which sibling is the elder was inconsistent throughout the first versions of the manuscript. It proved a serious annoyance to iron this out throughout the manuscript, and it wouldn’t even be an issue if I’d taken the trouble to be more detailed and explicit with character notes. Writers who make in-depth outlines before they start probably don’t have this problem.
When I start a new series with a new world, I’m going to try being more detailed with my character notes as I introduce new ones to the story. I’ll see if that mitigates it. Otherwise, the only remedy is a painstaking examination of the text after the fact.
I am constantly refining and reexamining my method. I probably always will be.