Posts Tagged ‘writing process’

Toss Out the Recipe Book

I’ve been engaged in some long-term strategic planning. When you’re a writer, no one assigns you tasks the way your boss does at work (unless you’re a freelancer, different system); you have to determine for yourself what you’re going to do after you finish the project you’re working on. (Assuming you do finish. It’s okay sometimes to put a story aside because it just isn’t working, but one of the hallmarks of a writer is that you finish what you’re working on. If every project is being set aside half-done, that’s a problem.)

And now I’m concentrating on novels, so it’s even more important to have some idea of what’s coming up next. Writing a novel for me can take anywhere from a couple of months to a year (although I’m working to bring that down). You would think that this would allow plenty of time to plan the next one, but you’d be surprised. So I’m doing a little strategic thinking: A possible trilogy cut to one book, a half-done book to be revisited, a long-time thought experiment moved to the starting lineup.

The thing is, all of these are speculation. Any of them could change because a book sells better than I think (or worse), a publisher changes his mind about me or goes out of business, a new and exciting idea comes along and crowds out everything else. This is solely a thought exercise designed to make me believe that I have some idea of where I’m heading. Uncertainty is a momentum-killer. It’s the outside force that acts on your career to slow you down.

Then again, nothing is certain, even uncertainty. It’s bad when it slows you down, but “uncertainty” is just another word for “potential.” If you can’t predict your next project because nothing speaks to you, that’s bad–but if you can’t predict your next project because you didn’t know that a TV producer was going to offer to option your book and your agent calls you to demand a sequel, that’s good. Or there could be other factors delaying or derailing your Plan, either good or bad. Writing is not a linear occupation.

Which is why, when I see people complaining that certain Big Name Authors haven’t come out with a new book as fast as they’d like, I think, “Well, obviously you’re not a writer.”

Books are not mass-produced like cars or toasters. First, writers move at different speeds, and no one moves at the same speed every day. Second, writers are people, and they have lives. Sometimes those lives interfere with writing (ironically often because of what we have to do to support our writing, like editing, book tours, convention appearances, or just sitting around Planning).

This doesn’t just apply to Big Names with huge series. This applies to all writers, published and pre-published. Just as there is no schedule for writing a book, there is no schedule for moving from publishing short stories to novels, or just publishing. There’s no requirement that you have to move from short stories to novels (or vice versa) at all. Writing (and having a writing career) is not done according to a recipe.

If I ever become sufficiently well-known that someone asks me, “How did you become a writer? How did you get published?”, I’m going to say, “I wrote. For many years. Sometimes I think I didn’t write enough. Sometimes I think I just needed time to grow into the right person. None of which has anything to do with you. Now go write something.”

Because there’s no secret handshake, there’s no schedule, there’s no recipe. You may sell the first time out, or collect 500 rejections in a row. You may sell the first time out, and then collect 500 rejections in a row. The best you can do is make a plan. Which probably won’t happen the way you wrote it.

But you will have written something. And that’s where it all starts.



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The hardest thing about writing (today) is… writing. Sometimes it’s starting, and sometimes it’s coming up with a title, but for today, it’s just writing.

Writing is all about putting something down on paper (duh). But until you try it, you don’t appreciate how hard it is. Think about when you had to write a term paper for school. What was the hardest part? Writing it down. Heck, the hardest part of a thank-you note is simply writing it.

I was on a panel on writer’s block at a convention recently. This post is not about writer’s block, this is about convincing yourself to write, about the discipline needed to do that thing on a regular basis. (Daily is best, but few of us manage that, I think.)

Last night I put 500-odd words in on my novel. Between being stuck (a form of writer’s block), and doing writerly admin tasks (tracking novel sales, submitting stories, checking for open markets, other ways of wasting time not writing), I hadn’t put anything into it for several days, so I thought 500+ was a significant accomplishment, worthy of satisfaction, if not pride. Today I read a blog from another writer who had done the same thing after a lengthy dry spell. I told him truth is a hard thing to get down, and that putting one foot, or in this case word, in front of another is a slog, but that’s how it’s done. I hope my words help.

Ironically, that was the truth of the matter, and it wasn’t hard to put down. (Of course, it didn’t run 4000 words, either.) Some truths run longer than others. Some run into the tens of thousands of words, but they can be set down.

Just put one word in front of another. They add up. They really do.


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Nope, that’s not a typo, and this is not a baseball post. The timing is quite coincidental.*

One of the (many) eternal debates in writing circles is “first- versus third-person narrators.” It says nothing that proposing this topic as a conversation starter will like as not lead to a small-scale riot within fifteen minutes. (Pretty much any conversation about writing, among writers, is likely to start a small-scale riot within fifteen minutes, ten if alcohol is available.) At the same time, it does rank right up there with “Should I write novels or short stories?” and the granddaddy of them all, “Should I submit to markets run by people whose politics I disagree with?” (Which often gets sidetracked by “Is it really bad to end a sentence with a preposition?”–an argument sure to end in blood. And don’t ever mention the words “Oxford comma” in a roomful of writers!)

But I digress. Although I haven’t conducted a study, it is my impression that the first-person novel is frowned upon today. Personally, I often write in the first person (like now). For me, first-person narration makes it easier to get into my character’s head. Some would question the need for this, since the protagonist is often an idealized form of the writer, but for me, it allows a freedom of expression, because the narrator, through his words, is informing the reader about himself.

Normally, an author will show the reader the narrator’s character and motivations through his actions, and his reactions. I prefer a more direct route, a more personal path.  Perhaps this is because I am a science fiction writer, and my narrators are not always people you could meet on the street, or if they are, they are in extraordinary circumstances and I am interested in seeing how they respond, from the inside. (Hey, if I’m not interested, you certainly won’t be.)

Sometimes, my narrator isn’t even a person: In my latest novel, my narrator is a gorilla. How does one get into the point of view of a gorilla unless one becomes a gorilla? (In a manner of speaking.) There is no guarantee I will succeed–although I challenge anyone to tell me I failed–but I can’t think of a better way to try than with first-person narration.

It’s not true in every story, of course; I’ve written a lot of traditional third-person narratives. For me the choice comes at the beginning of the story, and generally it comes upon me already decided; I don’t choose how I’m going to tell the story because most stories choose it for themselves.

As with all of these controversies, it boils down to what’s right for the story, first- or third- person. I don’t have a preference.

Except second-person narration. Then we have a problem. And don’t even get me started on novels told in the present tense…


*Nevertheless, go Dodgers!



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It’s time to admit it. I’m 8000 words into my new novel, Marauders from the Moon, the fourth book in the Nemesis series, and the damned thing is going to be written regardless of my personal feelings on the matter. I am still gamely attempting to write my short story at the same time, but I have a sinking feeling that it is going to take second place, and a distant second, at that.

Now, this may not be such a bad thing. After all, I am writing, which is the number one priority. And maybe the short story just isn’t ready; “Rights and Wrongs,” which was published in Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, took me three years and several versions to get done, and then they sent it back with an R&R request (revise-and -resubmit) that took me another two yearsand I ended up re-writing the entire second half from scratch. I believe when a story is ready, it will write itself.

But I don’t want to take five years to write this story; I have one already that’s been half-done since 2015. Hey, it’s my process. I don’t have to like it, but there it is.*

So at least Marauders is progressing. After a quick start, it bogged down, but tonight I wrote 1100 words, and significantly, I did not stop at the end of a chapter; I wrote the first paragraph of the next chapter. If you’re a writer, you will understand what that means. (And if you’re a writer who has not tried that trick, I recommend it.)

Now, I re-read these words as I struggle to find a closing, and I am reminded that the hardest advice to take is that which you give yourself. Example: Three paragraphs ago I said, “…when a story is ready, it will write itself.”

Marauders from the Moon was busy tonight, writing itself. I guess it’s ready. I guess I’d better be ready, too, or who knows where these characters are going to go if I’m not there to ride herd on them?



*Yes, I understand the irony that I can write a novel in two months but I can’t finish a short story in three years. It is what it is.


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When I was writing The Scent of Death, second in the Nemesis series, I posted irregular reports on “the Experiment,” i.e., whether I could write a book in three months. (I could.) You can find some of them here and here. I even did a “Son of the Experiment” as I started out the next book, The Killing Scar. These posts, however, were mainly concerned with charting progress through word counts, not so much about the nature of that progress. This time I propose to do something a little different.

I am currently working my way up to starting Marauders from the Moon, the fourth book in the series. And when I say “working my up to starting,” I mean that I haven’t written Word One. It seems, then, that this would be a good place to start with regular Progress Reports–not only to document where I am, but how I got there and where I think I’m going. (As you will see, where I think I’m going is an important caveat.)

Convention-goers are familiar with Progress Reports, and know that PR 0 (zero) is the very first, before the committee really has a lot to say. And that’s where I am, so I’m going to talk about the process so far.

I’ve been trying, with some success, to outline before I write. Many writers outline, and no two of them do it the same way. My approach has four steps:

  1. Write a blurb. Like for the back of the book. A book blurb contains your entire story in a few words. Once you write that, you know what the book is about.
  2. List every thought, concept, setting, character, and plot device you can possibly think of, in no particular order. Just throw a bunch of stuff at the screen that you think might be fun or useful to include.
  3. Begin what resembles an outline. Lay down a few plot lines, pencil in some character interactions. Try to work up a paragraph for each chapter, more or less. Get as far into the book as you can before you start writing so you can get a running start.
  4. Start writing the book, ignoring half of step 2 and most of step 3.

I like to write the book from the inside out, which is to say, I’m a pantser who uses an outline as a crutch. There’s only so far I can outline before I lose track of where I am and how many words I have covered. At that point, I have to start writing the book itself so I can see where it’s going. If I’ve jotted down 12 plot points and cover them all in the first 15,000 words, then I’m going to need a lot more plot points–but I can’t know that until I start writing. And yes, this is a messy process; you should have seen it before I got organized.

The plan is to write about 5000 words a week and be done by April 30. I will also try to post at the end of each week how I’m doing, and why it’s going well or poorly.

That’s it for PR 0. See you in a week. At least, that’s how I’ve outlined it…


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I’ve mentioned more than once that characters have a way of telling the author what they want to do in a story. I can’t count the number of times that characters have intervened in scenes they weren’t supposed to be in, or decided that they want to take up romantically with another character without telling me first. But those things are not so tough to deal with; they can be handled. In the extreme, the author can veto the whole idea. What’s more difficult (and difficult to understand) is when a character thinks he’d better serve the story by being dead.

For such willful souls, characters can be very selfless. In a recent book, I had a character walk into a room and unexpectedly find another character’s lifeless body. And when I say “unexpectedly,” I mean that neither he nor I saw this coming. It was like the one characters said, “Ooh, what if you walked in and found me dead. Wouldn’t that be cool?” Well, yeah, except that all he has to do is play dead; I’m the one who has to explain how he got that way, and more importantly, why.

In this instance (not to give anything away), I had set the character up to be aligned in the reader’s mind with the bad guys–so why was he dead? Why would his supposed allies do him in? This raises possibilities: Maybe he wasn’t who you thought he was. Was he merely an innocent bystander? Was he actually playing for the good guys? I mean, thank you for the chance to mess with the readers’ perceptions and expectations, but come on, I wasn’t planning to do all that extra work! And I thought you were going to be around for the climax!

Oh, well, he’s dead (Jim). Deal with it and move on. But I wish he had warned me. I was going to put him in a sequel. Yeah…you didn’t see that coming, did you? You could’ve been a star… Well, let that be a lesson to the rest of you. Writers write, characters act.

And preferably, not on their own.


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It’s scary starting a new book. You have an idea, maybe just a scene that you’ve been carrying around in your head for weeks or months, waiting to see if it grows into something you can use. If it’s a series, you already have your main character(s), so that’s a help. But you don’t have a plot, you don’t have secondary characters, you don’t have a beginning, a middle, or an end… You have to write 1200-1500 words per day for the next four months and you have no idea what Word One is going to be! Help!

It’s exciting to start a new book. There’s this image you’ve been carrying in your head for weeks or months that you can’t wait to get down and see where is goes. This is the fourth book in your series, and you’re really getting into your characters’ psyches, and you’re learning more and more about your setting all the time. Right now you’ve got nothing more than maybe a half-page of scattered notes, but in a few months you will have a book: Tens of thousands of words that you put together in a way that has never been done before and never will be again. Your universe, your mark on history. The possibilities!

And you wonder why writers can never seem to confine themselves to the here and now, even when they’re away from their typewriters. They are in a constant state of simultaneous terror and awe. (No, not shock and awe. That’s different. That’s when someone buys your book.) There are those who say fiction is irrelevant; it has no relation to, or effect on, the real world. They’ve never written a novel. Believe me, when you write a novel, it affects your real world a lot.

I am at the “ten lines of notes that I may never use” stage. And I have a blurb. In fact, the blurb came first. It was the first thing I wrote, because once you have a blurb, you have a story. You just have to fill in the details.

I have no idea right now what those details are going to be. I am in the same state as anyone else starting to read this book; I have little to no idea what’s going to happen.

It is scaring my pants off, and exciting as hell.


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