Process

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Articles about the process and activities of writing.

The method of John Irving

Through iTunes U, I watched a brief lecture given by John Irving where he talks about knowing the ending of his books before he begins them. Something about that talk inspired me to take a new approach to how I write my stories, and after using this approach to crank out a short story in two days, it has proven to be amazingly effective. I feel stupid not having used it before, it’s that simple.

Elevator Speech

In a single paragraph, write what the story is about. This paragraph is called the High Concept. This kind of text could easily go on the back cover of the paperback novel or even as a teaser on the DVD jacket when your story is optioned by Steven Spielberg and goes blockbuster. It’s also referred to as an Elevator Speech and for good reason.

Let’s say you are standing on the ground floor of a New York skyscraper, waiting for an elevator to the top floor. Standing next to you is some guy in a tailored business suit. The two of you begin idle chit chat and at some point you mention you are writing a novel. As the elevator doors open and you both step inside, the guy says, “What’s your book about?”

You must convey the gist of your story in the amount of time it takes the elevator to reach the top floor in a way that makes the guy in the tailored business suit — who just happens to be the CEO of Random House — want to write you a six-figure advance check on that book plus sign a contract for your next four novels.

Create Character Bios

I create simple biographies for each of my main characters. These bios are usually 1-3 paragraphs long, depending on how important that character is to the story. Each bio will contain a brief description of the character’s physical appearance followed by any details germane to the story.

Plot Event List

Once you have decided upon the overall plot of your book and written it out in the form of an Elevator Speech, you must then figure out what actually happens in your story. This is the fastest part of the process. With a blank sheet of paper or document on your computer, write out a series of short, simple sentences, one per line, that describe the chronological events or scenes that take place. Try to keep each sentence short enough that it fits onto a single line. Brief is good. Don’t worry too much about the actual order of the events because you can rearrange them later if necessary. Here’s an example:

  • Alice meets John while standing in line at the coffee shop.
  • John takes Alice out to dinner.
  • Alice and John wreck their car while driving home.
  • John wakes up a month later in the hospital, confused.
  • A nurse tells John that Alice was killed in the car wreck.
  • John’s doctors discuss his prognosis.
  • John is told he’ll never walk again.
  • John thinks he sees Alice standing in his room.
  • Alice’s ghost visits John during his rehabilitation.
  • etc.

You get the point. Each sentence represents a single scene in your story.

Create characters and scenes in Scrivener

I’m a huge fan of Scrivener. It is a fantastic writing tool and it’s ability to help me stay organized really jumps my writing effort ahead. Part of Scrivener’s usefulness is it’s ability to help keep my story research organized and at easy reach. One way I do this is create character bios in Scrivener. As I’m writing, I can reference these notes with a single click, then jump back to my story, all within the same program.

I then create empty text blocks called scenes and then arrange them in any order I wish with a simple drag-n-drop operation. I can organize them into chapters, too. Using my plot event list, I create a new scene within Scrivener for each line on my plot event list. I use the scene description to label the scenes within Scrivener, so I can tell at a glance which scene I want to work on.

Write out each scene

Once I have created a scene for each item in my plot event list, I can now write the text for each one in any order I choose. Because I’ve broken down my entire story into manageable, discrete chunks, it’s very easy for me to focus my mind on the creative task at hand without worrying about plot holes and other details.

The plot event list is like framing a house. All the dimensions and layout of the rooms is decided here. Writing out each scene is like putting in the floors, drywall, fixtures, and even the furniture, one room at a time. Since the room itself is already defined, I can focus and flesh it out completely. Since all the other rooms have also been framed, I don’t have to worry about how this room will fit into the overall structure.

Mental Benefit

Since writing a novel is a very large undertaking (described as eating an elephant one spoonful at a time) this approach breaks it into manageable chunks. This helps my brain work more efficiently. I start with the high concept first, followed by brief descriptions of my main characters. Next, I create simple descriptions of scenes and key events in the story. This is an entirely creative process and it goes rather quickly. Finally, I flesh out each scene. Since I’m only having to creatively focus on one scene at a time, I don’t have writer’s block caused by feeling overwhelmed by the magnitude of the overall effort. It’s like walking around the world but only thinking about the journey 100 yards at a time, yet knowing you’ll reach your final destination because you have the entire route planned in advance.

How do mystery writers compose and solve their crimes?

I am starting on a new writing effort, this time it’s a series of short stories about two brothers that solve crimes. One is free and easy and very creative while the other is analytical, left-brained, literal, and very socially awkward. They sort of dove-tail their skills and perspectives into a unique relationship that is greater than the sum of their parts.

Since it is their mission to solve crimes, as a writer I need to create those crimes. Therein lies the problem. I’ve never written a crime story. Ever. I love shows like CSI and Criminal Minds and have always wondered how the writers contrive their stories. Do they concoct the crime first and then figure out how the good guys solve it? Or do they focus entirely upon the good guys and unravel the mysteries of the crime as it unfolds without any internal prior knowledge of how the dastardly deed was perpetrated?

Are you a writer or an actor?

Over the years I have written many stories that included characters with personalities I couldn’t personally relate to, doing things I would never do. The reasons for this are as varied as the characters themselves, but ultimately it came down to one goal: serving the desires of my readers.

When writing fiction, I am often tasked with the need to step outside of myself and write about things that I may not directly understand or care for. Every character is my creation and I take pride in how I present them, but in order to serve the needs of the story I sometimes have my characters behave in ways that I personally find distasteful. Some characters I actually despise. But that’s kind of the point. That’s what those characters are supposed to do. Their actions and personality serve the needs of the story.

As I get into the minds of these nefarious fictional people, I find myself feeling more like an actor than a writer. Mentally I am portraying someone I’m not. As I write I play out different ideas in my head and experiment with scenarios and dialogue to get a rough idea of what I’m trying to achieve before actually writing it down. This is an uncomfortable feeling sometimes, because I am forced to role-play things in my mind that I would never contemplate otherwise.

I doubt all fiction writers feel this way, but for me I think it helps to have some acting skills. To get inside the heads of my characters and understand their motivations helps me give them life in my stories. If I write about them in the abstract, keeping a mental and emotional distance between the real me and the fictional them, how can they have any life or energy that will engage the reader?

Are you a writer or merely someone who writes?

Arnold Palmer once said,

There is a difference between a golfer and someone who plays golf.

It sounds like pedantic semantics (say that ten times fast!) but there is a fundamental change that occurs when you go from doing to being.

The boundary between being a writer and someone who merely writes is hard to define, but it can be recognized by a few different characteristics. The most obvious difference is a writer gets paid to do so, and probably — hopefully — makes a living doing it, although there are a great many successful, published writers that hold down full-time day jobs to pay the rent despite having one or more books on the shelves. Someone who writes probably isn’t cashing very many royalty checks or buying second homes with the advance on their next novel.

Money isn’t everything. Where the financial side of writing ends, the matter of attitude picks up and this is probably where writers separate themselves from the rest of those who merely write. Let’s say you are attending a cocktail party and someone asks, “So, what do you do?” Your answer will say it all. “I am a writer.” Or is it something more like, “I sell insurance,” followed 10 minutes later, buried in the midst of idle chit-chat, “In addition to being a soccer Mom, I’m also writing a novel.”

This brings up another point of contention when defining what constitutes a writer vs. someone who merely writes: have you been published? Some, perhaps many, would argue that you cannot call yourself a writer until you’ve been published. “I’m writing a novel” doesn’t cut it. “I just published my novel,” does. No one cares what you’re going to do, only what you’ve already done. It’s sad, but many people feel that way. There are exceptions, however; see the previous paragraph regarding attitude.

The significance of labels only matter so much, however. It doesn’t matter if you’ve yet to be published, and it doesn’t matter if your works don’t earn you a six-figure annual income. If you have the drive to write, if putting words to paper is your passion and is your default activity — it’s what you’d rather do than anything else, then you may be a writer after all.

The value of a handwritten journal

Motorcycling became a big part of my life back in October 2006. I took a class, got my license, and purchased a used 250 cc Honda Rebel. After putting 1,000 miles on it during that winter, I sold it and bought a new adventure-tourer, a 2007 Suzuki V-Strom 650. Since then I have ridden over 46,000 miles up and down the west coast of the United States and Canada, almost all of it solo. During my trips I have recorded my experiences in handwritten journals.

Recently I pulled out my journals and read them from the beginning. It was fascinating to rediscover the adventures I’ve had, the people I’ve met, and the places I’ve seen. What made the rediscovery more profound was the realization that the ink I saw on paper was laid down at the time it happened. Even my handwriting changed based on how excited or tired I was at the time. In recent months I began taking an iPad on my trips and would type my journal notes on that, leaving pen and paper at home. At first I thought using the iPad was a better way to go because my notes were longer and more detailed. But, compared to my handwritten journals, they lacked character.

A good way to understand the difference is with an example of communications between friends. If Jane wants to tell Mary about the lunch she had with her new boyfriend, John, she could send Mary an email. In that email she could use descriptive text and even emoticons like :-) and other forms of non-verbal communication, such as LOL and OMG. Or, Jane could take Mary out to lunch and tell her in person, using body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions to convey the story.

Using this analogy, typed notes using a journaling app on my iPad is like Jane’s email, and it can only convey a certain amount of character regardless of how voluminous the notes may be. A handwritten journal is more like the face-to-face lunch.

I have vowed to change back to the old way of journaling my trips by taking my small, leather-bound journals and a pen and making notes during break stops and at night before bed. I can always transcribe my notes and expand on them when updating my blog back at home. For me, when it comes to travel journaling, the handwritten approach is the best way to go.

Ohlen’s Arrow: First impressions matter

After reading Michael J. Sullivan’s article, “Starting out Strong – How to Write a Killer Opening” over at Mythic Scribes, I was reminded of the effort I went through working on the opening of my book, Ohlen’s Arrow. My original opening was action packed and very engaging, or so I thought.

Like the love of a first child, we can become enamored with the beginning of our book, especially after we have spent hours or even days writing and re-writing it until we are convinced it is perfection incarnate and have no room for improvement. Then someone can come along and point out just how much work it really needs.

Sullivan worked with me on my opening chapter and as he pointed out in Starting out Strong, I was giving away too much information without really engaging the reader/editor early enough. So I rewrote it, cutting it down to just three paragraphs. I also realized that I was telling the reader what was going on rather than showing them. “Show, don’t tell” is very simple advice but it’s a powerful approach that really sets a story apart from the rest of the herd.

To show you how the opening of a story can impact the reader, below is the current version of my book’s beginning. Read this and notice I’m showing you some intense action in just a few brief paragraphs but I’m raising more questions than answers. What is a cru’gan? Why was it there? Who is the character that fires the arrow?

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 wind pipe. 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 obscure the evidence of the encounter, then moved silently away into the pine forest amidst the diminishing evening light.

The book begins with a single action word, indicating the sound an arrow makes when it strikes its target. The next sentence is somewhat gory, which captures the reader’s attention, but it’s not gratuitously so. The third sentence establishes who fired the arrow, something about where he is, and that the sense of danger may not be over (“…in case there were others.”) The opening segment finishes without answering the question of why the encounter occurred, why the man wanted to conceal the evidence, or where he was going. This curiosity is what will spur the reader to continue.

This opening segment is also short enough to fit on the back cover of a book, which can help sales.

For contrast, here is the longer original version. Notice how I was telling the reader a lot of information and only showing a little. It was also too long-winded and didn’t create curiosity within the opening paragraph:

His feet found the trail to be familiar and he quickened his pace. Normally he traveled with a slow cautiousness, always alert for the presence of enemies and danger. Today was different. He was heading home.

The tall pine and fir were fragrant in the afternoon sun. Their needles softened the ground and quieted his footsteps. The sun was setting and it cast long autumnal shadows where it slivered in between the forest trees. He had hunted this forest in childhood and learned its ways and paths under the guidance of his grandfather. The old man had been wise enough to allow the boy to get lost on occasion, always knowing he was safe as he struggled to find his way back to the village. Those lessons, although seemingly dangerous and somewhat frightening to the boy, had shaped him into the ranger he had become as a grown man. It built within him an innate sense of direction and an awareness of his surroundings. Those lessons had saved his life on more than one occasion.

The trail was worn and solid. His people had walked its length for generations for trade with neighboring villages. It’s warriors moved along its course on the way to hunting grounds. Today it saw their best warrior returning home. It had been many years since his feet trod this ground. It had been far too long.

A musky scent in the air brought his senses back to the moment. He stopped and slowly looked around him, listening intently and sniffing the air. A faint breeze came from the north. There was a slight incline rising to his right up into the tree line. Whatever he smelled was gone now, but he knew it wasn’t natural to this area. He was familiar with every kind of animal in the forest of his ancestral home and he knew their ways and habits. This scent was different, not of any animal in the area and although it seemed animal in nature, there was also something malignant and human about it.

He crouched low and began to work his way off the trail and up into the trees, moving slowly but deliberately. The hill got steeper and the trees became close and dark. He could see a narrow line of rimrock up the slope ahead, stretching from side to side just below the crest of the hill. He paused and closed his eyes, listening intently.

He heard a faint snap up the slope to his right at the base of the short rock cliff. His bow was already in his hand, an arrow nocked and ready to draw. He scanned the hillside and rocks amidst the trees and brush, moving his head slowly from side to side to change his perspective on the area ahead. He heard another faint snap and froze.

The opening continued on for another twenty paragraphs after that, with a detailed description of how the man shoots the creature, followed by even more description of it’s physical characteristics. It was long-winded, tedious, and did nothing to engage the reader’s curiosity. The new book opening gives the reader enough to get a sense of what’s going on but draws them into reading more rather than presenting them the full enchilada on a single, drawn out platter.

The temptation to quit

My book began simply and without grand ambition. Writing creatively has always been a source of joy for me and has rarely felt like work, even when it was to meet a scholastic or occupational requirement imposed upon me by others. The first three chapters saw their genesis in Sunday morning sessions on my laptop, writing in the quiet early morning hours with a cup of coffee and a comfortable chair, simply for the joy of it. Without any long-term goals, I merely wrote what I wanted to read. The main character is not based on any person, alive or dead, fictional or factual; he is what my hands typed almost at random, nothing more.

I learned about the main character the same way the reader does, word by word, sentence by sentence. His personality unfolded to me as I wrote him. Once I was introduced to him, ideas and inspirations began to form in my mind about interesting things that could happen, so I had to equip him with the skills and experience necessary to survive and thrive. He needed friends and family, so they came next as well as the world he lives in.

It wasn’t until I finished the first three chapters that turning it into a bona fide book began to seem plausible. I re-read everything I had written so far and found myself eager to read more, wanting to know what happens to him next. Up to that point I had simply written what I would want to read, so I made the audacious assumption that what I liked might also appeal to others. I made the decision to keep going with the explicit intention of making a book out of it.

At that point I stopped writing and began to read everything I could about the business of writing; how to write, what to write, and how to make it sell once the writing was done. I almost ended the entire project because the odds of getting it published and sold at anything resembling a successful level seemed nearly impossible.

I began to doubt myself. I let my wife and a few close friends read what I had so far and they were very enthusiastic about it, eager as I was to see what happened next. I contacted Michael J. Sullivan, a rising star in the epic fantasy world, who had become an overnight success that was more than 10 years in the making. A conversation began via email; questions were asked, answers were given, and ideas were discussed. After several weeks, Michael offered to read my work and give me an honest and professional critique.

Sullivan’s feedback was perfect because it was both encouraging and constructive. He admitted that my gritty writing style wasn’t exactly his cup of tea, but that aside, he gave me some pointers describing how he might change things. He added the caveat that there isn’t always a right or wrong way to do things, just different approaches to solving the same problems.

I took his advice into consideration, which basically means I contemplated scrapping the whole thing and starting from scratch purely out of frustration. At this point I had four fairly long chapters written and the idea of reworking them to the level he suggested seemed like more work than it was worth. Starting over seemed easier.

Writing for fun is one thing. Writing for profit is an entirely different enterprise. The scale of what you write varies, of course, but there are many other concerns that I quickly discovered would influence how I wrote the story. Just like pop songs and blockbuster movies, there are formulas that govern how top-selling books are written. I found myself in a state of mind focused on the mechanics of writing a fantasy novel rather than being driven by the passion to create. It was this loss of passion that tempted me to give up.

Then I realized something. Books, like art, are very subjective things. Even non-fiction can be subjective. Three different authors can witness the same event yet they will write about it in completely different ways. Readers will like one version and dislike the others. It’s all subjective. I wasn’t overly worried about spelling and grammar, but if I made sure I didn’t have any plot holes or reference things or characters that weren’t previously introduced to the reader, I could continue writing what I would want to read and just let the book unfold and finish the same way it started.

I now find myself eager to keep writing because I really want to find out what happens next. Stay tuned…

Advice from a master, Michael J. Sullivan

Michael J. SullivanAs I’ve mentioned in a previous post, I use Scrivener as my primary writing tool. I came across an article describing how acclaimed fantasy author, Michael J. Sullivan, uses Scrivener to write his books. Michael and I exchanged emails for a while, discussing various aspects of writing as a profession with a focus on the ‘getting published’ side of things. During these discussions I mentioned that I was working on my first fantasy novel and Michael volunteered to read what I had so far and give me a critique.

So I took him up on his offer.

Although Michael wasn’t personally enamored with my work so far, he said it was better than most of the works he reads from budding authors. He followed up with some excellent advice on how to improve the grab-factor of my first chapter, and more specifically, the first three paragraphs. Editors, like record executives, need to be hooked by your story as quickly as possible or they won’t bother reading the rest. You can’t write something obscure and then explain it in chapter three, hoping the reader has the patience to last that long into your story.

Michael is an approachable and likeable author who is willing to share [via his blog] his experience and wisdom gained in his effort to become published. He has numerous posts that impart valuable tips on the entire range of the “I want to be a successful author” effort. I am halfway through his first novel, Theft of Swords, and can attest that he’s a damn good writer as well as a nice guy.

For those like me who are aspiring to become novelists — regardless of genre — check out Sullivan’s blog. The breadth of information and advice he provides is invaluable. His books are definitely worth reading as well.

Writing to an outline vs. freestyle

Something unexpected happened to me as I’ve been writing my book. The first three chapters were a stream of consciousness, everything just came out of me as a pure expression of my own creativity. At the end of those three chapters, I read what I had written and thought, “This is pretty good. I’d like to carry on with it and see where it goes, but take it seriously.” So instead of just writing for fun, I decided to make it a formal effort.

As a web developer, I have worked on some very large projects in my career, and have had to use a lot of project management techniques to stay on top of things. Otherwise the project would be too large and I would become overwhelmed. So I outline what needs to be accomplished at a high level and then go back in and fill in the details. I decided to do the same thing with my book. After the first three chapters, I spent several days coming up with the overall plot line and main events. This, too, was a purely creative effort.

The problem came when I tried to sit down and continue writing the additional chapters. I had to fit my writing to the outline that I had created. Without realizing it, I had inadvertently constrained myself within my own boundaries. My creativity was no longer free, and I found it very difficult to write.

It seems counterintuitive; having a guideline of what I’m supposed to create should make the creation process easier. But for me, it doesn’t.

If I write freestyle without any constraints and just let my creativity flow, I think I produce good works but I have no idea if I am going to write myself into a plot hole or create inconsistent character descriptions, etc. in essence I am only looking at the ground immediately in front of my feet. I have no roadmap or destination in mind. If I work with a map (my plot outline) I have a clear idea of where I am going and how to get there, but I lose my creative motivation to take each step necessary to make the journey.