Process

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Articles about the process and activities of writing.

Are you a writer or a follower?

When I write, I don’t read other people’s works. I know that a lot of authors are also voracious readers both within their genre and outside of it, and I like to read as well (when I have time). When I’m writing my own new works, I don’t like to be tainted by the voice and style of others.

I am a writer, not a follower. I write my own story.

Imagine trying to write a song while listening to the radio. Intentionally or not, your song will be influenced by whatever you’re hearing whether you realize it or not. My writing is the same way.

I have read articles that ask the question, “How would ____ write this?” They often refer to famous authors, such as Stephen King or Ernest Hemingway. Although it’s worth gaining general knowledge of the mechanics of writing by studying famous literary works, asking the question, “How did ___ write?” is the better way to approach it.

Every writer has their own method, their own approach, their own voice. I’m no different. I have tools and processes and quirks that work for me, and they may work for others, but they may not. At the end of the day, I am writing my own books, not rehashes of something written by J.K. Rowling or R.A. Salvatore.

When I find myself struggling with a certain passage, I don’t ask, “How would ___ write this?” I am a writer, not a follower. I write my own story.

When writers cheat

Writers cheat. I’m not talking about blatant or even subtle plagiarism. I’m referring to taking short cuts when it comes to plot devices. How often have you read, “It is written…” or “It has been prophesied that…”? I see this technique as a way to explain away why something happens without really explaining why it happens.

There’s nothing less exciting for the reader than inevitability.

As I begin writing the sequel to my first novel, Ohlen’s Arrow, I have imposed upon myself the requirement that I answer “Why?” for every character motive in my story. My process involves making a plot event list, which is nothing more than a sequential list of events that occur in the story. Each event is a single sentence that translates into a scene in the book. I then organize those scenes into chapters.

When I state, “The monsters attack the castle”, for example, I must answer the question, “Why did the monsters attack the castle?” What is their motivation? Simply declaring, “They’re monsters, that’s what they do!” is nowhere near good enough, and would easily come across to most readers as transparent and cheap. If a character gets promoted to a position of power, how unoriginal would it be if I declare that it was prophesied by the mystic elders of the First Millennium? This makes it sound inevitable, and there’s nothing less exciting for the reader than inevitability.

Answering “Why?” requires that I do some backstory research, which can be described as Iceberg Tips. Even though a great deal of the backstory behind my character’s motives won’t actually appear in my book, there will be hints of it and the discerning reader will glean why Argo the Orc hated Prince Ruprect with every fiber of his ugly hide. Without the iceberg, there can be no tip.

How edits feel

Elmore Leonard once said, “Write the book the way it should be written, then give it to somebody to put in the commas and shit.” This is a good viewpoint to hold when you’re a writer, because when you give your work to a copyeditor and they take their red pen and bleed all over it, you can’t take it personally.

Otherwise I would have stabbed myself in the heart with a rusty nail weeks ago.

As I’ve received edited chapters from my copyeditor, I got a brief sense of panic when I noticed the sheer volume of suggested changes. It makes me feel like I just started learning English a month ago. I also wonder what went through her mind as she reviewed my work. “This guy thinks he can write a book? What audacity!”

It has helped me to realize that this is part of the process. No writer, no matter how skilled or successful, produces flawless prose on the first try or even the 30th. As Elmore Leonard pointed out, it’s not really the writer’s job to do so, either. Focus on the creativity, the tone, the emotion, the description. Get the basic mechanics of your writing down, then allow someone else to do the editing, to put in the commas and shit.

I only have three more chapters to review from my copyeditor, then I need to read through Ohlen’s Arrow, cover to cover, one more time before I put it up for sale. I’m very excited about this as you can imagine, but it has been a very long, tedious process. The editing and revision phase of a book project is far more difficult and tedious and time-consuming than actually writing it; I am really looking forward to getting it finished.

The mechanics of self-publishing a book

I have written Ohlen’s Arrow and am finished with all editorial changes. It is now in the final proofreading stage. In fact, I hope to only have one more go-through to catch any errant spelling or grammatical errors before I call the text golden.

The cover design has been approved and is now in the hands of the illustrator for the final proof. She’ll next work on the world map that appears in the front of the book.

Meanwhile, I have purchased 10 ISBNs, enough to handle each publication channel. Initially, I intend to offer the book on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Apple iTunes book store. There are no plans to print the book in a dead-tree edition, but I’m not opposed to that happening down the road.

I am also currently working on creating the book’s tagline and blurb. For such short pieces of text, they are remarkably difficult to create. They say you should never use a big word when a diminutive one will suffice. Well, try summarizing an entire novel in less than 10 words. Better yet, try doing it in a way that makes people want to buy the book while simultaneously not giving away the plot or the surprising twist you gave it at the end. That’s a challenge!

My goal remains to have Ohlen’s Arrow ready for purchase on-line by June 1st. So far I think that deadline is still feasible. Stay tuned.

First-person or third-person?

I’ve read numerous tweets and blog posts lately about the trend of perspective within fantasy and sci-fi. Apparently, third-person perspective has fallen out of favor. Editors think its boring and so last year. But what if your story involves many different characters and it’s confusing to jump back and forth into their heads like a squirrel with ADHD?

For an experiment, I took the opening scene from my book, Ohlen’s Arrow, and rewrote it from the first-person perspective of the main character. Read the original third-person version here:

Thwip.

The arrow sank deep into the creature’s throat and it fell backward in a spray of blood, twitching and clawing at the wooden shaft protruding from its severed windpipe. The man lowered his bow and crouched down into the bushes in case there were others. He remained still but watched and listened intently to see if he had stumbled upon a lone cru’gan or if it had been part of a patrol. At first the only sound was the wet gurgling coming from the cru’gan’s throat. Now it lay still and silent and the only thing the man could hear was the evening breeze through the pine trees.

After several minutes passed he retrieved his arrow and quickly searched the body, then rolled it under a pile of briars out of sight. He kicked the creature’s blood into the dust and pine needles to hide the evidence of the encounter, then moved silently away into the forest amidst the diminishing evening light.

Now, here’s a first-person version I wrote:

Thwip.

My arrow sank deep into the cru’gan’s throat and it fell backward in a spray of blood. It’s filthy hands frantically clawed at the wooden shaft protruding from its severed windpipe. I lowered my bow and crouched down into the bushes in case there were others. I held still while I watched and listened intently to see if it was alone or if I had stumbled upon a larger a patrol. For several seconds the only sound I heard was the wet gurgling coming from its throat. Now it lay still and silent and the only thing I could hear was the evening breeze through the pine trees.

I waited several minutes, then retrieved my arrow and quickly searched the body before rolling it under a pile of briars out of sight. I kicked its blood into the dust and pine needles to hide the evidence of the encounter, then moved silently away into the forest under cover of the diminishing evening light.

Which do you prefer?

The editing phase of a story’s lifecycle

In the life-cycle of Ohlen’s Arrow, I’m in the editing phase. I’ve hired an editor and we’ve been going through revisions one chapter at a time. I gave her the story as Word files, one per chapter. She then returns those Word files with track-changes turned on. I open up the Word file and place it next to my Scrivener screen. I review each suggested edit and make the changes in Scrivener as I go along.

At this point very few of the edits involve plot items, although I did rework a conversation my lead character has with two friends at the beginning of the story. This helps establish some key plot elements that didn’t quite fit later on in the story.

The bulk of this round of editing has been spent on sentence structure, grammar, and word choices. It’s like a musician being told how to hold their instrument. What I love about this phase of the “I’m writing a novel” process is it makes the finished product better. It also makes me a better writer.

Outside help

No writer is an island. You can’t edit your own work. These are just some of the sayings that highlight the fact that writers need outside help in their effort to write and publish their works.

For Ohlen’s Arrow, I have engaged the professional services of an illustrator to design the book’s cover and the world map inside, and an editor for the text contained within. Up to this point my outside help has entailed the reviews of nearly a dozen volunteer beta readers.

Writing a book is an exciting process, and frankly, I’m glad I don’t have to do it alone.

Technically flawed but creatively interesting?

I am perplexed. I’ve been reading works by several other recently successful new authors and I’m noticing a trend. Their stories are technically flawed yet they are demonstrating surprising levels of interest and enthusiasm from their readers. All the books and articles I read about what constitutes good writing are fairly clear and consistent in their message. Show the reader, don’t tell them; avoid excessive hyperbole; etc.

The stories I’m reading fly in the face of those Good Writing Maxims. I won’t name names because I’m truly happy that these authors have landed publishing deals. I’m even happier for them that their books are doing well. Ultimately that’s what makes a good book: people enjoy it and show that support with their pocketbooks.

In my own effort to write and refine Ohlen’s Arrow — and ultimately my goal to get it published — I have spent a great deal of effort and time following the rules of what constitutes good writing. After reading other works, I’ve also gone back and made sure my characters were interesting. Something can be technically flawless but if it’s not interesting, who cares?

Consider a musical analogy: Credence Clearwater Revival. They were, and still are, a hugely popular band yet their musical chops are rudimentary at best.

As a reader, can you overlook technically flawed writing if the characters and situations are unusual and interesting? Or can that get in the way, preventing it from being what would otherwise be a good book?

When to stop plot expansion

My book, Ohlen’s Arrow, is now dwelling in a state of revision. I wrote the first draft and sent it out to several beta readers for feedback. After receiving that feedback, I spent two weeks revising the book and another week proofreading it.

The problem is that my brain won’t let it stay where it is. I keep coming up with ideas for plot expansion. Part of this results from realizing I’ve neglected certain foreshadowing opportunities within the book as well as links to the two books I have planned as sequels in what will probably turn into a trilogy.

I also realize that I mention certain plot elements within the story but don’t expand on them as much as I could. I’m sure sharp readers will finish the book and say, “Hey, what about that dagger you mentioned in chapter 3?” or “Why are the cru’gan so tribal and not more cooperative?”

Questions from readers like this are to a certain extent unavoidable. I can’t answer every possible question; it’s not feasible, and I don’t think the book would be very interesting if I did. Everyone needs a little mystery left over once the last page has been turned.

The challenge as an author is knowing when to stop. At what point do I allow the book to exist as it stands? When do I determine I’ve done enough?

If Ohlen’s Arrow becomes a New York Times best seller and gets a three-movie treatment from Peter Jackson, no doubt I’d walk away from the bank after cashing my royalty checks still harboring thoughts that it could use just a little more work.

You can’t be a writer if you don’t write

After adopting the idea of a plot event list, my productivity on Ohlen’s Arrow has been much improved. I write on weekends and have been cranking out 2,000-5,000 words per day. I’ve tried to get some writing in on weekday evenings but by the time I get home from a long day at the office, my brain doesn’t fire on all its creative cylinders, so I use that time for proofreading or just relaxing.

Going for long periods of time without writing is inefficient. I have to read over several chapters just to get back into the groove of the story before I can write a single new word. Maintaining momentum, however, is actually much easier. I can add a page or two, or even a single paragraph, without much prep time at all. I’ve also been making a conscious effort to avoid other projects lately, devoting my weekend time to the book. Avoiding fragmentation has added to my productivity.

Whether my book gets published or sells a single copy is irrelevant. I’m writing, and that’s what’s most important. There’s time enough for that publishing and money stuff later.