A lot of writers talk about how they write, and today I’m going to do the same. Note, this isn’t about style, or dialogue, or any technical aspect of writing, but rather how one goes about conceptualizing, starting, and finishing a full length novel which is a challenge unto itself even once you’ve got all the basics under your belt.
Before I talk about that, though, I want to preface it by saying that I’m not saying you should write the same way. This type of post is pretty common, and while it’s implied that really what we’re saying is ‘this is how I do it’, too many of them (in my opinion) veer into the tone of ‘this is how you should do it’. At the moment, I make my living coding. That is something where a more experienced coder could reasonably step in and tell a less experienced coder ‘this is how you should do it’ because while there’s room for individual coding styles, there simply *are* better ways to do some things in that realm. Writing isn’t like that, though. With the technical aspects of writing yes (show don’t tell, etc) sure, but as far as ‘how does one sit down and actually write a novel’ there are many paths to take and they depend largely on the personality of the writer. If any writer (me included) ever tells you ‘this is how you should do it’, what they really mean is ‘this is how I do it’, and take it with that grain of salt because what works for me, or author A or author B won’t necessarily work for you. Some authors can’t start without an iron clad outline, others need to just start. Some have to plot out every aspect of the story before they begin, others don’t know where they’re going until they get there. Some can’t proceed with the story until they get the bit they’re working on polished to their satisfaction. Others have to get the whole thing laid down before they can begin the process of polishing. There are many different styles, and they all work for the authors who use them. You are an individual, and no one can tell you how you as an individual *should* write. Just make sure you *do* write.
That’s really the key, I think. Obvious, I suppose, but really the one key element you need to adopt is to keep moving forward, in whatever form that takes for you. You have to finish. Whether you are a slow writer or a fast writer, you have to be moving toward that end.
As far as beginnings go, in the plotter vs. pantser arena I am a plotter, but not an entirely rigid one. I knew how the revivors series was going to end before I began the first book, so in that sense I’m a plotter, but the particulars of the story remained organic enough that the path deviated along the way from what I’d originally imagined. The basic plot and structure of the series never changed, but some aspects did. The best example I can think of is the character of Penny Blount, who is introduced in The Silent Army. Originally, she was meant to be a one-off character, kind of a messenger who wasn’t crucial to the overarching story. Another character (Ai) was going to have most of the interactions with Zoe once Penny facilitated their meeting, but when I started writing Penny she ended up becoming much more than I intended, and I let it happen. I opted to keep Ai aloof and mysterious and let Penny be Zoe’s primary point of contact. A true friendship grew out of that, and Penny ended up filling a critical role for the remainder of the series, and I think the story was better for it.
I like to have structure, and as a writer I need to have a concrete end I’m working toward, but as a ‘day job’ boss once told me, ‘I reserve the right to be smarter tomorrow than I am today’. Sometimes the biggest snag I find myself having to get past when writing is trying to stick to an outline that, because of the way the story is evolving, needs to be altered. Sometimes I’ll catch myself trying to puzzle out some aspect of the story, sometimes for days, before finally realizing that the only thing blocking me is me – the story has changed in some way, and I need to step outside my outline to see where it needs to go next. Sometimes it’s minor, other times a whole different, better story path emerges. Then I remember it’s my story, and I let it change, and it’s always better for it.
That’s me. I outline for a long time, plotting out events, character interactions, plot points, twists, etc. but once the real writing begins there are always times when I have to stop and ask myself ‘am I just being a slave to that outline’? I can outline for a year – there’s just some things I’m not going to know until I’m in the trenches.
A daily word count is another marker I hear mentioned a lot. You should write 2K words a day, or 3K words a day. If you write 1K that’s not enough. If you write 4K you’re being too sloppy. If you skip a day of writing you’re undisciplined, etc. I think this is another aspect that kind of varies from individual to individual. I get the ‘write through the pain’ mantra – like I said earlier, you’ll never finish if you don’t keep making progress, but that said as a writer there are some days when I’m writing shit, and I know I’m writing shit, and I know it’s all going to end up in the trash, and so I stop and try again the next day with a fresh outlook. I’ve been doing this long enough to know when I’m just pushing food around on the plate. When that happens I let it go, and I’ve still managed to write not one but seven novels that are ~100K words in length, three of which have been published by a major house, one of which will be published in 2013, and one of which is under contract to come after that. Set goals for yourself, I think that’s universal, but make them your goals not someone else’s. Some people can write 2K a day, some 4K. Hell, for me it varies from novel to novel. Some are just easier to write than others. Some can’t get onto the page fast enough, others require more thought. My personal goal is a minimum of 2K a day, but I don’t keep blindly doing it if I begin to suspect something is wrong and I need to backtrack a little. Backtracking can feel like progress lost, but if it frees the story up to go where it needs to go it’s time well spent because the overall project moved forward. As long as progress is being made, and the words THE END make their way onto the page, it’s all good.
In the end that’s what you’re working toward. The agent, the book deal…none of that can come until you’ve completed the best book you can possibly write. If you want to even have a shot in the business, you need to find a style that works for you so that you can write more books, on a schedule, and consistently. It doesn’t have to be mine, but find your discipline, your way, and stick to it.
Oh, and I guess I’ll put down one hard and fast rule while I’m on the subject, because it’s the only thing I can think of that will concretely ensure failure: Don’t quit.