The question is inevitable. Whether you’re chatting on the phone, meeting people in public, or going through e-mail. Everybody wants to know one thing:
How the hell do you do it?!
This wouldn’t be a how-do-I-write post without a couple of prefaces; the most important, of course, being that what follows is only how it works for me. It’s not the right way, the best way, or the only way. . .it’s just my way. Something totally different may work for you. I only suggest you try it. If it works, use it. If not, scrap it.
It’s up to you.
That said, I’ll take a shot at a few of the bigger questions I get, and then go step-by-step through my process. Here we go.
WHERE DO YOU GET YOUR IDEAS?
This is the first question every author has to deal with, and it’s the easiest to answer. The answer isn’t always satisfying, but it’s simple:
I don’t know.
They hit me. Out of nowhere. I’ll be walking with my girlfriend, taking a shower, driving to the store, whatever…and the next thing I know I’ve been woolgathering for ten minutes, chasing details through the beginning of a story.
WHY FANTASY? WHY NOT SCI-FI/ROMANCE/WHATEVER?
Another easy question: fantasy is what turns my crank. I love reading fantasy stories (Martin, Tolkien, Eddings, Weeks, etc.). The type of fantasy doesn’t matter: epic, urban. . .whatever. I love it. Magic and dragons and sword fights, oh my!
HOW OFTEN DO YOU WRITE?
Every day. I don’t take days off. I don’t want days off. Writing isn’t just my job, it’s what I do for fun. I don’t know what I’d do with the time I spend writing if I didn’t use it to write. Sit and stare at the television like a mindless blob, maybe.
HOW DO YOU WRITE?
The setup didn’t used to matter. I sat down, fired up MS Word, and started pounding away at the keys. Now that I’m a little more aware of publishing standards, formatting issues, etc., I tend to fall into a routine.
First comes formatting. Before I ever type a line, my Word document is set to Default paragraph styles, 1.5 line spacing, and 0.25 first line indents. I use Garamond, 12 point font, and I make a point of inserting line and page breaks as I type (so I don’t have to go back and do it later).
I’ve tried writing longhand, and I can’t do it. I think the voices in my head are speed talking sometimes, like a country auctioneer jacked up on cocaine and Red Bull. I don’t write quickly enough longhand to get everything down. Which means I lose stuff. Which means my story isn’t the best it can be.
Which means I’m sad.
I type about a hundred words per minute, though, so my first drafts go straight into the computer.
DO YOU OUTLINE?
There’s a short answer and a long answer to this question. I’ll give them both to you, and you can decide which one to run with.
Short Answer: No.
Long Answer: I think writers fall into three categories: Architects, Archaeologists, and Stephenie Meyer. Lest you think I’m off my rocker, let me explain.
First, the Stephenie Meyerses of the world. They have a unique way of doing things, which goes something like this:
“Oh, you know, I have a dream. And then I sit down and, you know, like, write out my dream. And then I go on to, you know, my next favorite part of the story. And then the next. Why? ‘Cause, you know, like it keeps me from getting bored! Yeah! I can write the fun parts first! You know? Right?”
(I don’t know why Stephenie Meyer kind of morphed into Shaggy from Scooby Doo, but anyway. . . .)
That is a perfectly legitimate way to write a book, but I think it lacks something. Chronology, maybe. Linearity. Orientation. Sense.
Architect writers like to build stories. I’m thinking of Jim Butcher here, but there are many others. They sit down with outlines and story boards and index cards and magic markers. . .all inside a rough circle, etched into the ground, with a small animal to sacrifice to the Writing Gods. They are organized, in control, and they’re going to erect the story, by gum, or die trying.
I think that’s admirable. If it works for you, do it. I can’t, though. I’ve tried. I have outlines for dead stories that will likely never be written unless I break free from the confinement (some see outlines as schematics; I see them as cell walls) of the outline itself and get back to the simple “what if” that drove the idea in the first place.
Archaeologist writers, on the other hand, like to uncover stories. I’ll steal a metaphor from Stephen King here and say that Archaeologist writers see stories as fossils in the ground. Their job is to uncover them.
The key idea here is that the story already exists. All we archaeolo-writers are doing is uncovering it.
Where’s the creative control in that, you ask? For one, I think any writer who thinks they’re “in control” of the writing process, or the fruits thereof, is kidding himself. . .but there still exists creative control in the archaeological approach to writing. How? The writer decides how much of the fossil to uncover. And if, by some miracle, you’re uncovering a fossil nobody’s ever seen before, then you even get to pick what to call it.
Now, on to my own deceptively simple (yet vastly complicated) creative process:
STEP 1: REALIZATION
This is obviously the key step in the whole process. It’s also the one I know the least about. Ideas hit me out of nowhere most of the time. Sometimes, I’m able to isolate the idea; narrow it down to what particular movie, conversation or article I watched, had, or read that swung my creative dials up to ten.
Sometimes. Most of the time, though, it’s pure, blue sky imagination. I don’t know where the ideas come from, and I don’t care. . .as long as they keep on coming.
Once the idea is there, it usually winds up sitting in the dusty corners of my brain for at least a year. Sometimes it’s quicker, most times it’s much longer. And the idea is almost never the same when I conceive it as it is when I sit down to write it. Time does that to you, I guess. It lets you grow a little wiser, a little more patient, a little more confident. I’ve got ideas that are so far beyond my capabilities that I wouldn’t even know where to start writing them today.
Three years from now, though? Five? Maybe. Hell, probably.
STEP 2: DOMINATION
After what seems like a cosmically preordained interval of time, one idea floats to the surface. It’s not always the best idea, and it’s rarely the easiest idea. . .but it always shows up. Whereas before I’d thought about the idea in a that-would-be-a-good-story kind of way, the Domination step finds me thinking about the idea, more and more, in a how-would-I-write-that kind of way.
This is just as stubbornly mysterious as Step 1, and there’s nothing I can do about it. I don’t know what triggers it. Maybe it’s a culmination of current interests and environmental stimuli; maybe it’s because I eat spicy food just before bedtime; maybe it’s because Mars is in retrograde. I don’t know.
Feel like I’m not really explaining anything here? You’re absolutely right. I’m not explaining anything, because the process is largely (to me, anyway) inexplicable. I don’t understand it. But it works, and the point here isn’t to explain this to you, it’s to share with you how I do what I do.
STEP 3: ARTICULATION
Once the idea has burned its way through the levels of my brain and reached the surface, I’ll do a few things right away:
1. Create a folder and file in my writing directory. Usually by this point I have a working title, and that’s the label I use for the folder and file themselves.
2. Format my document. Like I said above: Default paragraph styles, 1.5 line spacing, 0.25 first line indent, and Garamond 12 point. I’ll usually type a few paragraphs of garbage, throwing in quotes and italics and anything else I might run into in the course of writing the book, and then run it through the conversion process, just to make sure I’ve got everything set up right. It’s much easier to fix formatting when you have two paragraphs instead of two hundred thousand words.
3. Read a lot. I have a lot of books, and I have the Kindle app for my phone, so I usually find something quick and free (Wells’s “Time Machine”, for instance) to skim through. Sure, I get to read a (hopefully) well-written and interesting book, but what really matters is what’s going on underneath. Reading is a kind of meditation, and while I’m reading, my brain is sorting out my latest story idea. It’s working through the storyline, looking for holes, discovering a few new bones to go with the fossil.
Most importantly, I’m figuring out where to start digging. I’m looking for that opening paragraph, the leading scene, that’s going to draw the reader into my tale. Reading somebody else’s words helps me forget about my own on a conscious level, allowing the subconscious to do all the grunt work.
4. Sit down and start writing. Now, this action is a series of steps, which I will dutifully list below:
a. Turn on the computer, punch in the password, bring up my pre-formatted Word file.
b. Check Facebook, Twitter, and Blog. This is how I settle in to write.
c. Start writing, keeping the main “what if” firmly in mind.
STEP 4: DIVERSIFICATION
Once I’m done with the first draft, I put it away, take a day or two to spend with the girlfriend, and then go right back to work on something totally different. This is essential: I’ve got to get the old story idea out of my head. The only real requirement for this process is that what I’m writing is completely unrelated to what I just wrote. For instance, I can’t start writing book two of a trilogy when I’ve just finished book one.
STEP 5: REVISITATION
Ah, revision. I usually do a quick once-over as I’m writing. For instance, I’ll write Chapters 1 and 2 on Monday; Tuesday, before I sit down to write anything new, I’ll quickly but thoroughly go over Chapters 1 and 2, correcting typos, grammar, and sentence flow.
This step, however, is a detailed cleaning. I’m fixing typos and structure errors that I missed in the day-to-day, and I’m also checking the story over as a whole to make sure there are no plot holes and that my characters come across how I want them to.
STEP 6: PUBLICATION
Once the story is revised and the formatting is correct, it’s off to the presses. Whether that means a letter to your agent or an upload to Amazon and Barnes & Noble, it’s time to let it go. If you keep it around, you’ll find many ways to improve it. Of course you will; there’s always a way to improve a story. But there comes a time when you’ve got to let it go. It’s done, finished, over, and any tinkering you do after your final revision is doing more harm than good.
* * * * *
So that’s that. That’s how a little nibble of an idea turns into a book, at least for me. Your process may be wildly different, and that’s okay. The choice is yours.
There are things I left out, of course. For instance, I listen to music while I’m writing. Usually it’s loud, and it’s always rock (Guns N’ Roses, Metallica, Alter Bridge, Seether, Liquid Tension, etc.). It’s a way of both closing the proverbial mental door and letting everybody else in the house know that I’m busy, and unless you’re bleeding to death or the house is on fire, I’m not really interested in what’s going on. That sounds harsh, and maybe it is, but the writing is important. It’s my livelihood. If you’re going to interrupt me while I’m working, somebody had better be dying.