Posts Tagged ‘writing process’

I’ve always been what they call a “pantser,” which is to say I write by the seat of my pants. Now, I know, from one experience in writing in someone else’s universe, that outlining can increase my output dramatically, but it never seemed to work for me. I tried it to a degree in The Cosmic City, and it helped keep me moving, but it didn’t achieve the results a true outline can bring. And so far as writing short stories is concerned…forget it.

But I’ve been blocked lately from writing much of anything, so much that when a couple of my friends asked me, a week apart, if I was writing anything I had to admit that, no, nothing specific at the moment. (Although yes, I was and am still writing.)* Okay, I thought, I was going to concentrate on shorts this year, but if you’re not writing, you’re not writing. Even writing something that may never turn a dime is better than sitting around feeling like a lump.

So I grabbed an old idea I had, a sequel to The Choking Rain, and I started noodling with it. I thought, outlining is easy, and it counts as writing. If I get stuck or inspired by something else, it’s easy to put aside. On the other hand, if I could create an outline in say, eight weeks, I could probably have a book written before Halloween. That’s about half what it usually takes. Not a bad use of my time whatever happens, and I can still spend the last two months of the year writing short stories (which have a better chance of selling).

An outline for a 60,000-word novel means (given my typical chapter length), setting up 40 chapters. If I were shooting for an eight-week schedule, that would average five chapters a week, or one a day. (I don’t work weekends.)

In two days’ work, I have outlined eight chapters.

Now, they will get harder. I haven’t created any real characters yet, only cut-outs, and characters are hard. But then again, they don’t need to be fleshed-out at this point. And if I can even approach four chapters a day, I can finish the outline in two weeks.

That means I could be writing a new novel by the end of the month, and finished before Labor Day. My previous record is just over a year (albeit that was 85,000 words).

I’d better start designing a cover.


*Why do people who have known you for decades, and have always known you as a writer, ask if you’re “still writing”?


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Yes, you are “supposed” to write every day. Of all the “rules” (in quotes because the only rule everyone can agree on is that all the rules can be broken), this seems to be the most common. But there are days when you just can’t. Maybe you’re tied up with inescapable family business. Maybe you’re in surgery. And maybe you just can’t muster the time/energy/inspiration to write. Some days it just won’t happen. The only people who deny that writer’s block exists are people who haven’t experienced it.

So how, you ask, can writing be like not-writing? Is this some Zen thing? No, it’s just…well assuming I can come up with enough similarities, you’ll see. If I don’t, you won’t see, which will prove my point.*

  1. It’s frustrating. Writing is frustrating because it’s slow, and difficult to get anywhere. Not writing is frustrating because you’re at a dead stop, which also makes it difficult to get anywhere.
  2. It tends toward futility. If you don’t write, you don’t sell. If you do write, often you still don’t sell, at least not for some time.
  3. It’s time-consuming. Writing a story takes time, then editing takes more time. Not writing a story takes time away from writing, then noodling around on the Internet in the name of “research” takes more time.
  4. It’s hard work. Until you’ve written a story (or a novel!), you don’t know how tough it is. And until you can’t write, you don’t know how tough it is.
  5. It expands your mind. When you write, you open the way to your unconscious and allows you to say things you didn’t know you had in you.** When you don’t write, you open the way to reading sponsored articles for things you didn’t know you cared about. (See my Internet comment in #3.)
  6. It leads to writing. When you write, you write more. You limber up those mental muscles and they become easier to use. When you don’t write, you feel the need to write more. You bounce around trying to loosen up those mental muscles until you come up with a blog post, at least.

So we come down to it. The Secret. It is simple: If you are a writer, you will write. You may write blogs. You may write children’s books. You may write movies. What you write is up to you, but you will have no choice but to write.

Or not to write. It’s all the same.


*That may be zen, but I really don’t know. Or do I? Would I know if I did?

**Like how two opposing concepts are the actually the same thing.


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I just finished writing about 500 words. I should have written more, but I’m writing longhand, and you can only go so long before you have to take a break. Besides, I’m up to the point where I have to make a point, and I’m not sure how I’m going to do it. But I will.

When you’re really going, writing seems almost automatic. You don’t really have to pay attention to what you’re doing. It’s like driving, where  you can watch the road and listen to the radio and think about what you’re going to do when you get to work, all at the same time. (And like driving, you can’t write while you’re on the phone.)

I don’t think I had noticed that before tonight. At the same time the words were unspooling, I was able to look at them almost objectively (never totally objectively). As I watched myself scribble them (and scribble is the right word, believe me), I marveled at (a) how they arranged themselves so neatly, and (b) how good they looked. Not that I claim to be Shakespeare by any means; it’s just that I can still recall how I used to write years ago, and the difference is profound. But I wonder if the real miracle isn’t either of those things, but rather how I was able to separate my brain into two parts, one writing and one watching. Usually when you write, your brain is separated into “writer” and “editor,” and the toughest part is stuffing a sock into the editor’s mouth so the writer can work. This wasn’t that. The observer did make a few cogent suggestions, which were followed, but mostly he let the writer work. It was he who found the whole process amazing. (The writer was too busy to care.)

Oddly enough, now that I’m blogging, the two halves seem more in partnership. I stop and edit more, and the writer doesn’t mind having the editor peer over his shoulder. It’s a funny thing.

It’s a funny way to live, if you think about it. Writer vs. Editor. And then there’s Marketing Manager… Thank goodness they’ve got him locked in the closet for the duration.



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“Kill your darlings.” That’s what they tell you in Writing 101. Don’t hesitate to cut sentences, even paragraphs, no matter how much you love them, if they don’t serve the story. Take your writing scalpel and remove them from the body of your work.

In a recent survey of market opportunities cross-referenced with the stories I have available for submission, I came across a pro-rate paying magazine whose guidelines immediately put me in mind of a certain story.*

Now, this is one of my favorites. I have held onto it, refusing to submit it to less than pro-rate markets, knowing in my heart that it is good enough to pull down top money—despite the fact that all of the top markets so far have rejected it (even if one did request a rewrite). New markets pop up with some frequency, however, so I’ve been living in the hope that it would find that one editor who would believe in it as I did.

I didn’t recall, though, sending it to that market. “Is it possible I never subbed that story to that magazine?” I wondered. “How could I not?” But in checking my files, I saw that no, I never had. Why? Because a second review of the guidelines showed that their maximum length was 4000 words, and my story was 4500.

I immediately thought, “Five hundred words? How am I going to cut 500 words from a 4500-word story?” I live by the rule that after you’ve drafted and polished a story, you should go back and cut another 10%. I had already done that. But I bent to the task, intending to try to identify some scene that could be excised, much as I believed it impossible. Every scene was absolutely crucial!

It took exactly one pass to remove 450 words.

The rest fell quickly after. There were unwieldy constructions and unnecessary exposition. I even added a few words at one point to make a critical scene clearer, and still managed to reach my goal. The whole process took less than an hour.

What’s the take-away here? Should I change the 10% rule to 20%? I don’t think so. You don’t want to compile so many rules about how to write that you forget just to write. Truthfully, when I started this essay I didn’t know myself where it was going. But the answer was in front of me almost from the beginning: You can’t set a story on a pedestal. Sure, when it’s published, out in the world, it’s set. But until then, it can always be improved, no matter how much store you set by it.

Kill your darlings with a scalpel? Sure. Except when a machine gun will do the job better.

*According to SFWA guidelines, “pro” rates start at $0.06/word.

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There’s a mystique about being a writer, that it’s somehow a sacred calling, reserved for the most empathetic, the most evolved, highly-advanced meta-beings inhabiting a lofty plateau in the clouds, dispensing emotional wisdom to the masses hungry for their stories and essays and novels, who in turn reap upon these demigods and goddesses riches and accolades appropriate to their exalted standing.

This is, of course, a complete load of garbage out of my own turgid imagination. But then, that’s what writers do. We imagine. Which is why we are all writers.

You don’t need a college degree to imagine. You don’t need a fancy computer, or even a pencil and paper. And you don’t need to imagine great rollicking fantasy trilogies, you might just be dreaming of a better job. The only difference between you and the guy with the trilogy is that he wrote his imaginings down.

You might think writing a novel is hard. Yeah, it is. But you don’t have to write a novel; I’ve sold stories that were only two pages long. Even when you write a novel, it’s divided into chapters, which are sort of like short stories. (I’ve seen more than one aspiring writer ask: How long is a chapter? That’s like asking: How long is a piece of string?)

Being a writer has one requirement: You have to write. And if you can talk, you can write. Just put down on paper what you say. It’s that easy. (It helps if you know how to spell, but that can be fixed.)

Then, once you’ve made that leap, gone to that trouble, once you’ve written and submitted a story (then another and another and a few dozen more), you will know the joy that comes of having a story published. And then you will occupy that high plateau, worshipped and adored and laden with riches.

And we’ll even teach you the secret handshake.

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It’s a truism, of course, that writers drink. And as a class, though this is less well-known, they are often depressed. What’s even less well-known, however, perhaps I would even say a secret, is why they drink, why they are so often depressed.

The sordid truth is it’s because writers are lousy parents.

“What?” you exclaim. “That’s crazy. My mother’s cousin’s ex-brother-in-law’s mailman became a writer. He drank when he wrote, he was depressed when he was rejected, but he was terrific father.”

Well, yeah, that’s true if you want to talk about a writer’s offspring. I’m talking about a writer’s children.

Writers spend weeks, months, often years raising each little literary Writer Junior. His name might be “Short Story,” or “Graphic Novel.” If the writer was feeling expansive at the conception, it might be “Great American Novel.” But no matter how long he spends on raising Junior, with all the passion and love he can bestow, invariably, when he sends his child off into the big world, he never wants to see that kid again. It’s not just that he wants little “Novelette” to make it on her own, he boots her out the door with orders not to come back. All he wants is a letter saying that “Novelette” has found a job with Asimov’s.

Unfortunately, little Novelette does come back, more often than not, in fact. And what does she find when she returns home? That Dad has already raised another in her place. Now he’s stuck with two kids he needs to find a home for. So he sends them both away with orders never to return–and of course, they both do, but Dad has yet another bundle of joy on the way, and so it goes.

Occasionally, of course, Novelette or one of her siblings will stay away, to live in a faraway town called The New Yorker. Then Dad will laugh and dance and tell everyone how successful his “little effort” has become. But what about all the others, all the children who haven’t found jobs, who may never find jobs? He has to keep sending them away, until he decides there are no more towns, no more markets, and he shuts them away in a trunk or a box, there to sit for years, if not forever.

You think this is easy? You think a father wants to do that to his children? Hell, no. But he has to. It’s part of raising a writing career that sometimes you have to be a lousy parent.

But there’s hope, too, the hope that someday he’ll be hugely successful, so successful that even the most hopeless of his children, the runt of the litter, will be wanted. On that day the writer will open his trunk and pull out his neglected but never-forgotten offspring and happily send them to live on their own.

Because while writers may be lousy parents, they do their best.

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I was getting down thinking about my WIP (work-in-progress in writer-speak). I thought it was stalling creatively, that while all the scenes were necessary, I was really just filling in the time until I reach the next phase, which in this case is the final act, the last third of the book, which I had scheduled for 50,000 words, or about 6000 words from now. (Like drivers in LA who measure distances in the time it takes to get there, writers don’t measure time in minutes, they measure it in words.)

And then it hit me: Who was I creating this artificial milestone for? If the story was stalling out, then certainly it wasn’t for me, and if I do my job, this stuff is invisible to readers, so who?

The publisher. Who at this stage is completely hypothetical. But I knew that publishers like books to have a certain length to justify its cost. So when I was outlining, I had divided my book into roughly even chunks in order to block out the scenes, if you will. But now, with the scenes almost all blocked, and the big climax (with explosions, if you’ll pardon a spoiler), looming ever larger, my outlined structure had gone from being a frame to a cage.

Well, the heck with that. I’m not Dan Brown or George RR Martin. (I think their books are too big, anyway.) If you think my book’s too short, let me know. I’ll write a sequel. That’s my “write,” too.

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