Thursday, January 21, 2010

Words, Words, Words

If you ask ten writers the same ten questions about writing, you could get 100 different answers.  Writing is the most difficult subject to teach because no two people learn the same skills in the same order at the same rate, or even in the same way.  It’s a personal act that comes out of your own special rhythms, experiences, and thought processes.

Some people plot.  I plod.

Before I can write a word of a novel, I need to arrange at least 50 scenes in what looks like the best order.  This means writing longhand so I can scribble in the margin, draw arrows, and spread the pages out to see everything at once.  I write character biographies and try to find everyone’s voice, then type up the scene list as a word document and give it a clever title:  “Chronology A.”

This takes two or three months and I’ll change 90% of it while I write the first draft, but I sit down at the keyboard knowing, scene by scene, what to write that day.  It helps.

For the first draft, I write every day, including weekends and holidays.  I finished one first draft on my birthday.  My scenes average 5½ to six pages, during which something changes for a major character, and I try to write two a day, saving each one as a separate word document so I can change the order later.  It beats scrolling through 250 pages to find the three that I want to cut and paste.

Writing quickly helps me find the story’s rhythm and shows where I left something out or put something extra in.  It also shows me where I need to do research, which I try to avoid.  I keep a separate document called “Revision Notes” and date it as I go along. Character ideas go there, too.  Whenever I add, cut, or move a scene, it goes on a new chronology, so, at this stage, my favorite keyboard command is “Save As.”  Every day’s work goes on a flash drive, too.

Even when I’m writing, I get to the gym four or five days a week.  An arc trainer or a bike is a great place to ponder characters or problems, and the exercise keeps my brain from turning to oatmeal.  It also loosens my back after hours of hunching over a keyboard.  Any ideas I come up with go into the revision notes as soon as I get home.

By the time I finish the first draft, about two months, I’m usually working off chronology L or M.  The scenes are so thin you can suck them through a straw, but I know whether or not the trip from beginning to end makes any kind of sense.  No matter how terrible a first draft looks, I can fix it: that’s just process. I love process.

I turn to some other project to get the voices out of my head.  Then, after at least a month, I print out the last chronology, character list, and revision notes and do it all again.  The new scenes become files 1 b, 2 b, 3 b on the flash drive, and the chronology and revision list keep pace.  Then I go away again.  My first four drafts tend to get longer because I find details and description (which I hate to write) and hear the characters’ voices more clearly.  The fifth draft starts tightening and finding recurrence that will unify the structure.

At draft F or G, it’s time to print the scenes out and walk around the room reading them aloud.  That picks up awkward phrases, hard to pronounce passages, and repetition.  They may look fine on the screen, but now I hear the problems and maybe even feel them.  I insert transitions to combine scenes into chapters and find logical chapter breaks.  Sometimes, scenes work better by themselves instead of in groups, but I never know that until I hear them.

Now someone else has to read it all and decide if it’s really a story or just junk.  I have two friends who “get” my writing and will gladly tell me where it doesn’t work.  I wish I had ten more like them, but chocolate is expensive.  I consider every comment they make and follow their advice about 80% of the time.

Then I do it all again.  I expect to do at least ten drafts of anything before sending it out.  One story sold after the 24th revision.  This isn’t about how many times I do it; it’s about getting it right.

Sometimes, that even happens.


  1. Love your opening paragraph on the many different methods of writing, Steve. Just reading this weeks posts so far is evidence of that.

  2. Reading how you do it sounds like a heck of a lot of work! ;-) Good thing I don't know what I'm doing or I'd run for the hills when that amount of revisions come into play. Makes me cringe when I think of what a publisher's editor is going to eventually put me through!

  3. Good blog there, Steve. I must a-plod your effort.

    Sorry about the pun, but I see that you're like me in a way. During my breaks on a job a few years ago, I actually wrote the original draft of "Land of the Blind" in long-hand, with lots of notes in the margins. All the young guys in the company were astounded -- they didn't know what long-hand was.

    Anyway, whatever works is what I say.

  4. Hey, wasn't Hemingway the revision king, editing 30 to 40 times before he was happy...or should I say the least unhappy with his work? Imagine that.

  5. Yowza, 24 revisions!? How do you "feel" around that 20th or so revision? Are you getting kind of obsessed with getting it right or are you thinking about throwing in the towel? I don't have quite as many revisions under my belt (yet) but I find the more I revise, the more I want to keep going till I get it right.

    The long-hand I don't think I understand. I get a cramp on those few occasions I have to write a check.

  6. Hey, good article mate. I think virtually every writer can relate to this stuff.