Posted by: Jodi | September 22, 2010

Before I knew better…

In January of this year I wrote a lengthy post called, “Writing a Fantasy Novel: The Basic Steps”.  Looking back I can see how naïve and pretentious I was then compared to now.  At the time, I was still ankle-deep in my first rough draft.  I hadn’t yet entered the doldrums of massive rewriting and editing.  Here’s a simplified version of the steps from that post:

  1. Create a central plotline and try to sum it up in a few sentences.
  2. Write a mini narrative or an outline walking through each event. Note characters and places that need creating.
  3. Spend time creating character and place details.
  4. Start writing!
  5. Edit and perfect.
  6. Get critiqued! (and then edit again, and critique, etc…)

It’s not bad advice.   You will finish a book if you follow the steps.  You will also bore yourself to death in the process.  The above advice works best for those out there who like to follow directions.  Problem is most writers prefer to march to their own beat.  If I were to re-write my advice it might look something like this:

  1. Create a character you love and understand, you might want to create a short story or two to see if the two of you can get along.  Sometimes we think we understand a character until we try to use them and they refuse to coöperate.
  2. Throw that character into a unique situation and see what they do with it, they might surprise you with their ingenuity.  Continue to build the story based on your characters reactions.
  3. Set a goal for a certain number of words to put to paper daily and weekly.  A goal of 1000 a day and 5000 a week (my current pace) will produce a decent size book in 2-4 months and won’t kill you in the process.  Some days the writing will stink, that’s ok.  You will still learn new things about your characters.
  4. When you finish the first draft put it away for several weeks, some recommend a whole month.  Don’t even look at it during that time.  You can start a different project while you wait or try your hand at a few short stories.
  5. With a pen in hand start reading, making notes and corrections as you go.   Do this on a printed copy.   Read through the manuscript figuring out exactly what needs to change to bring the draft to the next level.
  6. Implement your changes starting at the first page and plowing through to the end.  Avoid the urge to jump around.
  7. At this point you might want to put it away again and do another round of editing or you can start the critiquing process. Other people will catch many things that you might have overlooked.
  8. Continue the editing process until you are satisfied with your book. Then you can start the querying process, which we will discuss later.

I can’t say that this is the most efficient way of writing a book but it is a more natural and interesting one.  I’m working a mix of step 5 and 6, I never printed out the manuscript after the rough draft. I regret it now because I don’t have any notes to guide me as I slog through trying to pull the pieces back together.  Won’t make that mistake again.  Still making progress and that’s all that matters!

What is your writing process like?

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Responses

  1. This is great advice, Jodi, and I am using a similar technique in writing my first “real” short story. I’m glad to see your recommendation on printing a hard copy! I have a much easier time editing with a pencil/pen than on computer. My problem now is that my left-hand-writing is almost illegible! I’m going to have to figure out something that works for me, but I guess I’ll get it all worked out eventually.

    Also to whom do you give your work for critiquing? Do you look for readers whom you like (with perhaps similar tastes), writers you respect, or total strangers? Just curious! Thanks again!

    • For critiquing I would choose someone you feel comfortable with that is familiar with the genre. A writer is nice because they can catch grammar errors and the like – a super reader can help with flow and balance. I’m sure lots of blogger writer friends (including me!) would be more than happy to give you a critique.

  2. To learn, teach.

    Your initial advice may have been naive, but it may have inspired wannabe writers to put pen to paper and enjoy the creative process.

    The advice in this post . . . very grounded.

    Write on!

    • Even reading back through it now it’s not bad advice, it makes for a more plot driven book which might not be the goal for many.

  3. Thanks for this wonderful post. Even the ‘1,000’ words a day seems to have thrown me completely off course, and I’ve had to stop. After stopping awhile, though, I care about the characters more again, and the quality of every word.

    Still, I’m painfully aware that I need more discipline in having some kind of daily goal–it’s just that I haven’t found that balance yet…

    I am going to print this out so I can refer to it often.

    Thanks

    • That’s precisely why I don’t go over 5000 words a week – I need a few days built in there to recharge the creative batteries. Those days I work on other aspects of the book, if I get a chance.

  4. I come up with the situation first, like what if everyone was a Siamese Twin or society was economically tiered based on telepathathic skills? What problems would somebody have with that? The place-holding flat characters develop as they get deeper into the crisis.

    I was surprised to read Stephen King and Orson Scott Card saying something along the same lines. Guess it works for more than just me.

    • I agree, 11:11.

      I generally start with a situation, moral dilemma, philosophical conundrum, or thought I wish to explore, and expand outward ~ pulling in characters as necessary to make the story flow.

    • Interesting… It sounds like both you and Nancy prefer the story driven approach.

  5. From your initial list, I usually begin with step 4: Start Writing!

    That’s not exactly true. Most of my writings have begun as imaginary conversations in my head. I don’t know where the conversatons come from or who the speakers are, but it bounces around for a few days and evolves until a point of conflict emerges. That’s when it hits me: Write about it!

    Other than that, I just start typing. By the time the story begins to take shape, I’ve forgotten the original thought that inspired it.

    This is why I’ll never be able to write a story with an earth-shattering twist. I don’t know what the concept is until I’m halfway through the first draft.

    • I’ve had that as well, in fact that is where the roots for this story started. I started writing scenes that I couldn’t get out of my head and the characters began to develop. That was years before actually beginning a formal manuscript. Most of those scenes will not be appearing in this book but the characters all do.

      About plot twists – often I’ll get a great idea long after I’ve started writing a story that I can weave in to make a great plot twist. The joy of revising and editing.

  6. Your advice is really good, and it’s interesting to see how it has changed after your experience of writing your novel. I notice that you have moved your focus from the plotline to the characters. On the whole I think this is where I go wrong. I think a lot about the plot and what the characters have to do to fit in with that plot when really, the characters should be taking the lead and the plot should be coming from them.

    I also think it’s a great idea to set a word goal per week (or per day). It’s amazing how quickly the story grows and it’s very motivating: you can challenge yourself to beat the previous day’s word count or to do the same word count in less time.

    • I had to switch to a character driven story when my characters staged a coup and started rejecting my story ideas, often refusing to participate and sulking. When I let them lead the action they were much more motivated to make things work.

      Wow, I’m talking like a crazy person.

      I have to have a goal or nothing gets done!

      • Most authors hear their characters talking to them. Being a crazy person is part of the job description.

  7. Your second list shows the maturation of experience. When I finished my first draft I was disgusted with it because I pushed it out during a “NaNoWriMo” period and let it sit for a year. Even though nothing happened during that year, it was probably the best thing I could have done. When I got back into it, the bones were there, and they were strong enough to hold the rest.

    • Was this the book that will be published at the end of the year, or a different one? I am trying to outline a new book so I can have something to fall back on for NaNoWriMo. I’m having a hard time creating characters for this new one so I might have to rely on a story driven approach and see if they will develop themselves.


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