Writing Update: January 2, 2011
A new year, and a new book. I started the actual writing of my newest book this morning. The working title is Labeled. This is another example of how bad I am at picking titles. I won’t hold it against anyone if they think this name is ridiculous. It’s a working title – so I have something to call the MS Word file when I save it, and something to call it when I talk with my wife or writing group about it.
I haven’t done much writing since the beginning of December, excluding working on the plot for this book, and ironing out some key details, so I was a little concerned when I opened up that new Word file this morning at 6:00 AM and the screen glowed that dim white, void of any words. But by the time I added the title page, and set up the basic formatting, the words started coming, and within an hour, I had cranked out almost 1100 words. Just like riding a bike.
Today, I thought I’d write down some of the mechanics of how I write, just for posterity’s sake, and in case, you know, somebody actually ever wants to know.
I currently write on an Acer 1420P laptop running Windows 7 and MS Office 2010 that I got by attending the 2009 Microsoft Professional Developer’s Conference. Microsoft gave us these PC’s to get developers to work on developing certain types of apps. It has a touch screen that I never use, and a few other fancy-dancy things, but I use it for writing because it is light. Extremely light at about 3.5 pounds with a 13.3 inch screen. I haul this thing with me every day on the train, and every ounce matters.
I always listen to music on headphones while I write, usually the songs I have rated as 4 star or better on my ITunes. Sometimes I want a certain mood while I write a highly emotional piece (usually turn on classical music like Vivaldi for that) or for a chase or battle scene I might turn on something like Evanescence’s Fallen album. But for the most part, I just have the music on to eliminate distractions on the train. It’s like putting a hood over my head and pushing the rest of the world aside.
My first three books had no planning what-so-ever. My last one I planned in much more detail, and in Labeled, I took what worked from that process.
I started with a two paragraph ‘pitch’ that I could read to agents or to my writing group. I’ve found that if I can’t summarize the plot into less that 150 words, I am not ready to start writing.
Next, I wrote a more detailed outline where I started to break out some of the second level characters and major plot points.
During that process, I create a bulleted list of issues and questions on locations, motivations, issues with backstory and the answers to “Why are the characters in this position, and why would they respond as they do?” I don’t necessarily have all those answers when I write the questions down. But I know I can’t move on to the next step until I can understand those motivations.
The final step in the planning is to set up my working spreadsheet. This has two pages to it. First, it has a worksheet for word counts. Every day, as I write, I record the date and the number of words written. I don’t actually need this, but I really get a sense of accomplishment from seeing the numbers increase, and seeing the average words per day really helped me to understand just how much time it takes to write a first draft to set reasonable expectations.
The second page of the worksheet is a chapter by chapter breakdown of what I plan on covering in each chapter. Sometimes this is a partial sentence, sometimes it turns into a long paragraph. This is where the rubber meets the road in the writing process for me, and lets me know if I’ve got a short story, a complete novel, or a novel that really isn’t going anywhere. If I don’t have a good idea how events are going to unfold, and where I’m going, I’m never going to get there. At this point, I tend to bounce back and forth between the pitch and the spreadsheet, refining the pitch as new aspects of the story come out.
Writing this chapter by chapter breakdown took me three weeks for Labeled. I’ve also discovered that you can’t rush this process, and it pays to take my time. As you can see from the increased frequency of book reviews in the last month, I use this period to read a lot, and take care of stuff around the house. My brain is always working on this outline, even if I don’t open it up for a few days.
Even though I have this chapter by chapter breakdown, I also know that as I write, things happen. Minor characters come in and say something or do something that changes the whole flow. Events that I estimate to take a chapter take two or three, or conversely, take a single sentence. At some point, the story deviates enough from the plan that requires me to step back and come up with version 2 of the outline. I keep the original, but make a copy and edit as needed. That may take a few days to work out, and everything goes on hold writing wise while this is happening. The worst case here is that the plot dies – has nowhere to go because there is no climax waiting, or the characters are, gulp, boring. The best case is that it’s better than the original plan because the characters have come alive and have take control.
As for the actual writing, as I’ve said before, I write mainly on the train to and from work. Each trip allows for about 35 minutes of quality typing. Sometimes I’ll read a novel on the way home instead of write, but I always write at least on the way in. At home, I try to write on at least one of the weekend mornings, getting up early, like this morning, giving me an hour or so before the kids get up. At the end of writing ‘Army of the Risen’ I was writing in the evening as well. But writing more than an hour or so a day on a day that I work my day job wears me out.
I guess that’s about it for ‘how’ I write. But if anyone has any other questions, feel free to ask. I love talking about writing and writing about writing. I am truly passionate about the craft, but not in an academic way. I love the creativity and the legacy of writing. It feels productive and worthwhile, and I’m happy when I’m writing. And maybe someday, I’ll get to make some money doing it too.