When I was younger we’d write every Thursday morning at school. It was my first taste of scheduled habitual writing. It was also pretty much my last taste of it until November of 2006. Two days before November started a friend told me about National Novel Writing Month. Then a coworker bet me that I couldn’t write a novel in 30 days. So I did.
This was the first time I’d really made myself write everyday. Oh, I’ve read all the books, all the blogs, the essays and processes, but I’ve never been a daily, disciplined writer. I write like I eat: often late at night and in binges. I once spent 28 hours writing a short story, with a break to pee. I finally passed out on my notebook a few pages from the end and woke up four hours later, found my pencil, and got right back to writing. For my novel, I needed different habits. I had a deadline. And 20 bucks on the line.
It would be wonderful to be able to say I’ve been writing daily since. That I’ve developed the “writer’s discipline” that so many others talk about as being as necessary as blood and air to the profession of writing. But this post isn’t about what I should be doing. It’s about what I actually do.
Beginning a Novel:
(Here I reveal just what a nerd I am). I see the starting process for a novel in much the same way I see the starting process for being Dungeon Master in a Dungeons and Dragons game. The first step is of course the idea. Usually this is a character or set of characters for me. Someone in the mess in my head steps up and demands to be seen and heard. My brain explores their story, and starts to build on it. I might scribble down a few ideas, a description, a name.
Then the process is ready to begin in earnest. I love to read, so research is always foremost. Even for a wholly made up world like the one in my first novel, research was necessary. I read about bloody rice, about alternate energy forms, about swords, about high oxygen environments, names. I did this in tandem with writing the novel due to the time constraints, but I prefer to get this stuff done before writing happens. Once I’ve got the idea of what elements I might need I do quick character sketches. A character sketch generally looks like: Name, description, relation to other characters.
Once I have my characters basically outlined, I do a plot outline. For the first novel, I’d written the first three chapters before I knew where the plot was going or even what it really was. And believe me, it shows. Those first chapters are even more of a mess than the rest of the book and don’t quite fit. I’ve spent all my revision time so far just on those first 25-30 pages. I do outline by chapter. This helps me define the chapters and makes sure they relate well to each other and make sure I don’t skip important things or put things out of place. It also helps me plan how to cliff-hang and build tension. Sometimes my chapter outlines are very detailed, sometimes not so much. Example:
Detailed: Twins confer whether or not Seren will release them. They plot an escape and get caught- Seren hunts them down with her hounds. Chapter ends with end of chase. (In this I have all the elements I need to work out the details, nothing is left to be filled in except the actual writing.)
Vague: Aine and Tesn travel throughout the land healing a blight/plague. Demonstrate Aine as resourceful/fearless/smart. (In this I have only a very rough idea of what will happen in this chapter. In all likelihood, this chapter will get broken up into two or three chapters once I’m writing and can get some sort of subplot going here to show all the character qualities I want).
The outline isn’t a firm road map. It’s more like guidelines really. It helps ensure I won’t accidentally forget a plot item I wanted to include. I tend to throw the kitchen sink at first drafts of anything because taking out useless stuff is often easier than adding it. One of the big issues I have with my first novel is that I’m better at paring things down, whereas the novel desperately needs about 100-150 more pages. Basically I have to double the length when all I really want to do is destroy half of it.
So, I’ve got an outline. I’ve got names, places, setting, character sketches. It’s time to start writing.
Jim Butcher’s Great Swampy Middle:
(To see what I’m referring to, go here)
The middle of the novel isn’t actually so bad once I have an outline. Mostly at this point my process involves just getting it done. The most words I’ve written in a sitting were about 9,000. The least that still got something done was probably 100. (this post is at 864 so far). I don’t tend to write things out of order, but I will occasionally write lines or ideas in margins or in my notes as I go, especially if I’m changing something big. I keep fairly extensive notes as I go to help with needing to edit for consistency. I think the outlining and note taking are byproducts of having an English degree and the research a byproduct of having a Medieval Studies degree. I find the outline and notes really help push things through the tough times in the middle of the story when things are happening but I can’t resolve anything big yet. The post I linked to describes these times much better than I can, however. At this point my writing process is just to buckle down and write.
A few things I’ve found help me. 1) Bribes. I had a large bag of my favorite cookies and would only allow myself to eat them if I was writing. (Yes, I gained about 6lbs writing my first novel, but hey, novel!). 2) Not forcing it. Sometimes the story wasn’t there. I couldn’t hear things clearly. I actually spent only 19 days of the 30 writing. If the words aren’t there, they aren’t there. (By the way, I think in pictures, so it’s doubly hard if the pictures aren’t there because then I have nothing to translate to text). 3) Music. I prefer to write to music without words, such as classical violin or piano pieces or to music without words I can understand such as various Anime soundtracks like Escaflown or Hellsing.
Decisions and Revisions:
(Yes I love that poem, why?) Moving on. Ending a novel is easy for me. The climax and results were the most fun of the whole thing to write. It felt a little like being a small child again and banging away at a piano in dramatic fashion.
Revising is the adult coming into the room and making you play properly. Wrists up, actually reading the notes and keeping time. I hates revising. Hates. I can sit all day and pick apart the work of other people. I find things wrong and see exactly how to mend them. I have insights and ideas all over the place when revising things written by not me. When I was tutoring in college I promised all my clients they’d get As and they all did. Editing the work of others is simple. Editing my own work is like pulling my own teeth. It’s the area where I feel I need the most work, and thus need more practice. I don’t have a process for it really. When editing short stories I usually just start over rather than edit. I have a few stories that exist in multiple different forms, all distinct from each other in big ways even though they are basically the same plot and characters. I considered doing this with my novel. But it’s 189 pages or just about 51,000 words. I’m not sure I can bring myself to just rewrite the entire thing. (However, I am considering it.) So far my revision process looks like this:
Step 1: Go through a printed out draft with a pen and find inconsistencies, typos, and general little fixes. Also write margin notes about where to clarify things or where something badly needs a rewrite.
Step 2: Start at chapter 1 and begin following the notes I made for myself in the paper version. Then procrastinate some more for a few months before computer explodes and you have even more excuses not to work on it.
As I said, I’m still a work in progress for this stuff. I’m trying to circumnavigate the initial editing process by writing my second novel by hand. I usually write my short stories by hand, as well as a lot of my poetry. I find it forces me to do the nitty picky editing as I type things up. I’m hoping that this will eliminate a lot of the parts of revising I find so tedious. We’ll see.
So there it is, the secret to my writing process. Ok, so it isn’t much of a secret. I have no gerbil blood rituals, or chocolate miracle pills. I don’t dance through dimensional portals to glean ideas from ephemeral fields of black and mist roses. I do write often in the dead of night, or in strange bursts of furious creation. I don’t have discipline, I don’t have formulas. I like my notes and my outlines because I like to plot things. But my characters inevitably stray from the paths laid out, just like players do in any DnD game. That is actually where some of the fun starts in writing, at least for me. Those moments in the middle of things when someone says something or a character does something that is completely right for them, but totally wrong for the following of plot. Then there is a quick scramble to fit it in, to adjust the path and explore this new unknown. A good GM can work these things in, a good writer should be able to as well. Like Hex having kids. Who knew? But hey, him having kids left me with lots of reasons to keep the characters involved in the main plot. The kid part was an accident, something that came into my head and was out on paper before I’d thought about the implications. But now not only have they become central to a lot of character motivation for him, one kid is the main character in the sequel. I’ve got a whole novel idea about her now.
I’ve probably said it before, I know I’ll mention it again. This is why I write. Because the things in my head want out. Because they speak and move with lives of their own. My process is informed by this fact, it exists to serve the desire for life, for communication. This is why my writing is very personal, why I refer to it as a sort of child. The process is me. Everything I do while writing or preparing to write comes from who I am; from my educational background to my thoughts, fears, and eccentricities. I’m my secret.