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Wednesday, May 23, 2012

My Writing Process


A long, long time ago, I talked about my writing tools. Now I want to talk about my writing process.

Now this is MY writing process. I didn't always write this way, and I probably won't in the future. Right now, it "works" for me. I use works in quotes because, as I'm not yet published, that's a subjective term. More accurately, it feels right to me, but feelings are always in flux. And the procedure changes a little bit with each novel I write.

The first stage is always idea gathering. Usually, the germ of a story starts with some "what if" or two genres bashing together. B-movie monster and zoo keeping. Aliens and boxing. Horror and baseball. Video games are a great inspiration too. I've cribbed lots of ideas from games like Half-Life, Portal, or Shadow of the Colossus.

That's usually how it starts, and if the idea feels like a story, I think about it. Throughout days, weeks, months, I muse on the idea through daydreams and random thoughts, generating neat concepts around the idea. Some garner more than others. A few notes might mean a short story. A lot probably mean a novel. And if time goes on and I don't get many ideas, that usually means the germ doesn't have enough story and gets dropped into the "Miscellaneous Story Notes" file. The cream rises to the top. And of course, there's usually more than one germ floating around at a time.

Meanwhile, I am working on composing and revising the existing works while this is happening. Eventually, when I get done with a draft and I have enough pre-writing notes, I decide that the story is good enough, interesting enough, and commercial enough to try writing it. I compile my copious notes full of characters, settings, plot developments, scenes, ideas for chapters and neat scenes, potential endings, beginnings, & themes and get them somewhat organized.

We're still not in the outlining process yet. That comes after another round of world-building and idea revising. For this latest novel I'm working on, I'm trying out Wiki D-Pad -- a personal wiki -- for organizing my world-building into categories, character bios, and overall concepts. This makes it a little easier to search, but I'm still undecided on its usefulness. I used to just make up a text file bible.

Things can work great in your head, but once they're committed to paper, you've got to think how they co-exist in the same world, if they even can. Is this character idea a villain? Two villains? Two villains and a friend? How does this scene work in the general plot line? Does it connect to anything? Can I make it connect to anything?

Once the notes are composed, it's time to compose the novel's outline. Personally, this is the hardest part. This is when your story goes from something perfect in your head to something tangible. Something that needs cohesion. It ceases to float in the aether, unencumbered and miraculous, and plummets to Earth so that it can be shared. I'm not a discovery writer. I've tried it a few times -- it usually ends up unfinished or crappy. I need an intermediate phase between pre-writing and composition so I can write with ease. That's not to say there's no surprises during outlining or note-taking. I try and make surprises to myself as surprises to the audience, because if I was fooled (and I'm the creator), then they should definitely be fooled too.

This is my most nervous phase, because it's where the most can go wrong. Events have to connect from A to B to C and they have to do so plausibly, meaningfully, and interestingly. I have a general idea of where things show up, but basically, outlining is Wild Mass Guessing. It's like trying to figure out a movie based on random scenes.

After the initial outline comes a revision, eliminating some of the blank spots, and "todo" areas -- for example, an interjecting scene between two scenes of action. Every work needs at least two lookovers -- one when you're writing it and one when you're reading it. Child and critic. The two modes are so different you can't possibly do both at the same time.

After outlining it gets relatively easier. Of course, the next step is drafting -- transitioning the outline to a cohesive narrative story, with pages and dialogue and everything. This phase is fairly nice because if you get stuck, you can always check back on the outline, see where you're supposed to go next. And at the top, I write these words in bold: "I GIVE YOU PERMISSION TO WRITE BADLY". I got the idea to do this from Jim C. Hines (can't find the entry where he mentioned it, sorry) and it works pretty well -- he's a published author, you know. This is called Draft 1.

Usually, while I'm writing Draft 1, I keep track of new ideas, persistent questions, and plot holes that I notice. Things like "scene X needs more of this" or "need to make more mention of Y" or "if Q is B, then how can it C during X?". You should never try to fix things like this during the composition process. If you do, you will get too consumed by fixing instead of writing. You need to finish the draft first -- problems can always be fixed later. That's another reason for the "ABANDON HOPE ALL YE WHO ENTER HERE" "I GIVE YOU PERMISSION TO WRITE BADLY" banner at the top of the page.

After Draft 1 is complete (and after a little incubation), I take those notes and make Draft 1.5. At the same time, as I'm going through, I make a little summarized timeline, so that I have something to refer to during revisions.

After that is Draft 2, a full head-to-toe revision. I try to make it a point not to concentrate on sentence length or grammar, but making sure everything I said is what I meant to say. Taking out all those artifacts, blank areas, funny sentences, and lots and lots of reduction. I take the "permission to write badly" banner off the page, because that ship has sailed. It's now time to write for serious, y'all. Improve everything, shine it up. I also run my macros, sprucing it up nice and legible, because now it's peer review time.

Peer review time starts with submitting the first five chapters to Critters, with the RFDR tag (Request for Dedicated Readers). Usually, I can snag two or three people who want to read the whole thing. The problem is this stage can get long. A story takes a month to get through the queue. Five chapters = five months. Plus any additional time RFDR's need. I try not to do revisions during this time, as I wait for all the feedback to get in before getting started. But inevitably I end up tweaking something. When time's up, I compile all the feedback, analyze it (looking for common, oft-repeated notes), and input it into Draft 2.5.

Then, like Draft 2, comes another head-to-toe revision, making sure everything makes sense. Draft 3 is almost a final version. Sometimes I wonder if I should do more than three non-semantic revisions, but another part of me knows I could revise forever and never get done (my first story, Mortal Kombat went through 12 revisions, when my policy was "find a typo, revise it again"). Plus I'm a better writer now, and I know what to look for. So after Draft 4, which concentrates on sentence structure, grammar, punctuation, and semantic mistakes (and trying not to do much second-guessing of my wording or plot), I consider it finished.

After another spell-check, macro run, I convert it a copy to Standard Manuscript Format, and apply all that professional, administrative polish.

The hardest part is between Draft 1 and 2, when I have to problem-solve those plot holes, reword those awkward or lengthy sentences, and get sad that your character isn't quite the awesome guy you had in mind, but is actually quite whiny or jerky.
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