The Writing Process: You’ve Got a Story Idea, Now What?Posted: October 1, 2018 | |
Ask the Authors (Round 2)
This is the first segment of Ask the Authors (Round 2), and the topic of discussion is, as if you couldn’t guess from the title, the writing process. You can meet each of our panel members in my introductory post from last week. For those of you who didn’t catch the first round of Ask the Authors, here’s how this series works. Our panel members are published authors and they offer their answers to my questions on the topic each week. If one of their answers piques other questions for you, please leave your questions in the comments, and we will respond to them in the final segment, or sometimes indivual panel members may respond to you directly on the blog. (It has happened.) The point being that comments are welcomed and even encouraged.
The writing process. Hmmm. Let’s see. That could encompass a lot of different things, from inspiration and developing an idea into a story, to pre-writing activities, to plotting, to everything that comes right up to setting pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard. It can include rituals to get into the writing zone, or how we set atmosphere before we begin.
There is no right or wrong to this, and every author does things differently. There is no secret recipe or magic potion that garuntees a good book will result from your efforts. What works for some may not work for others. With that said, we have fourteen authors who have taken the time to answer some of our questions regarding the writing process and what works for them. Lets find out what they have to share.
Why do you write?
Mainly because I enjoy it. There are so many stories running through my head that writing gives me an outlet to share them.
I blame that on my mother. She read fascinating fairy tales to me as a child, and they must have tickled a writing bone somewhere. If I’m not writing, I’m reading.
For a long time, I wrote posts on Facebook that were like very short little vignettes, and they were pretty well received. People kept telling me I should write a book. Eventually I did, and without getting into too much detail, I learned this is something I can do – and do well. Not everyone can. Something like 80% of Americans want to write a book and never do. The ones who start, most of them don’t finish. The ones who finish, most of them don’t get it published. So I realized I was in a unique position to do something that most people would like to do and probably would never do, but also the people who read what I wrote found it really entertaining and they wrote me letters to tell me that – and that was very satisfying.
Once I did that for a while, I wanted to try different things to see if I was any good at them. So I wrote a time travel adventure story (The Navigators) and I wrote a romance (Poggibonsi) and a paranormal mystery (An Angel On Her Shoulder) and children’s books (The Zombunny series, Stinky Toe, Laguna the Lonely Mermaid)… I recently was invited to be part of a 20 book anthology with a bunch of New York Times and USA Today bestselling authors, so I had to write a murder mystery (Double Blind) for that. My critique partners say it’s my best work to date! So in the ensuing years from my first book to now, I learned a lot and my writing has improved, but it’s still about reaching out to one person and trying to entertain them. Connecting. And so I write because I feel like I have stories to tell and they’re worth telling, but it’s just a way to entertain and I like it.
I write for mainly for the pure enjoyment that I get from putting together a story that my readers enjoy. I also write for my own pleasure and the stress release that I get from writing. As a fiction writer, I can escape from the reality of every day life and relax in the world and characters that I create.
By Kaye Lynne Booth
My muse is always trying to inspire in every way.
She dances and sticks out her tongue, enticing me to play.
She knows just what inspires me
And she tries to make me see
A world that’s filled with beauty, everywhere I go.
Inspiration is all around, my muse does surely know.
On days when I am feeling down or am busy as can be
I don’t always take the time to see what she wants me to see.
By the time I’m ready to be inspired,
Of this game, she has grown tired.
She may be sulking in the corner, or in the other room
Seeking inspiration, she might be staring at the moon.
Listening to my muse is the wisest choice, I’ve learned.
She knows how to stir the inspiration, which within me burns.
The miracles of nature; a flower or a bird
Are brought to my attention, but she never says a word.
She shows me how the morning dew, on the grass does glisten
She fills my head with great ideas, if I will only listen.
Where does your inspiration come from? What can you tell us about your muse?
My husband. He is the perfect idea man. And his ideas take me outside of my comfort zone and allow me to venture into different genres.
I don’t use the term Muse. I get inspiration from ideas which are all around me. Snips of conversation, a quote, a name, those can all spark what we call a “plot bunny” that I either develop or it falls to the side.
Most of my inspiration comes from dreams. I wake up in the morning, think back to the wild adventures of the night, and know what my next book is going to be about. I also draw inspiration from real life. Something will happen and I just stop to blink. Yes, that would be perfect for a novel.
Inspiration has come from many areas. Dreams come to mind. When I’m not dreaming about the military, I have some real doozies. Aliens, UFOs, and spaceships filtering into my dreams will give me many plots. TV is another inspiration. I’m sure all of us remember The Equalizer. One episode featured a young boy with AIDS living with his grandmother, and the local rednecks wanted them out. After harassing them, the boy calls Robert McCall, thinking he is his comic book hero. That episode sparked a three-novelette story arc. I wondered why the pulp magazines never had a hero that protected children. The Masked Avenger was born after that episode.
My inspiration comes from all kinds of places. Hmm… that’s not really helpful, is it? They say that there are 20 good story ideas around us every day and a good author will see two or three of them. I think that’s right. I think if you are looking for things to inspire you, they will. But I also think there’s a lot of hard work that forces a person to sit down and write every day whether they feel like it or not, because atrophy is real and writers block is real for some people, and the more you let things affect you, the more they will affect you. If you instead say, “I’m just gonna muscle on through,” you learn a certain discipline that really helps you find more inspiration.
So my strength has always been prolific and being able to find what’s funny or unique in the normal situations that we are all extremely familiar with, so that my reader finds themselves suddenly turned on their head over things that they that are commonplace to them.
As far as a muse… Well, it’s like this. I believe several things make a story really powerful. Being able to bare your soul and put it on the page – that will allow your pain or love or passion or whatever, to connect with the reader. I actually think we even choose different types of words and different sentence structures when we are emotionally “in” the mood the scene needs. The word choice somehow seems to carry the spirit on the page and converts to the reader. You want to write to one person, so that he or she gets it; then everything else seems to fall in place. It’s a way of being disciplined and not trying to do as Vonnegut warned: don’t open the window to make love to the whole; you’ll only catch pneumonia.
I write to one person. That’s my muse.
I often joke that if I knew where the ideas came from I would turn off the tap. In all seriousness though, I love that my mind is so active that my imagination can be sparked from any number of things. I shake my head that my two little girls (3 and 5) enjoy watching a particular movie again and again, and then suddenly I’m hanging out the washing and a whole new story idea drops into my head based on a retelling of a Disney classic. Sometimes my muse can be my fellow authors, they approach me with a story idea that would be fun to explore for an anthology and then I find myself with the story half written in my head before I can blink. I then have to find the time to sit down and write. My readers themselves can be my muses. They ask me questions about the characters that I write about, “what would they do if…”; “What would happen….” And then I find myself exploring those ideas further and my stories evolve, and my series grows with bonus content.
Research is a part of the pre-writing activities for most authors, whether it is historical research for setting or time period, traveling to location in order to write about it, or people watching to observe behavior. It can be reading all the works of a given author in order to immulate their writing style, immersing oneself in a culture or subculture or digging deep to uncover the facts for a nonfiction work.
What kinds of writing do you do and what types of research are required?
The genres that I mainly write in are historical, contemporary and erotic romance. I’ve dabbled in fantasy and want to do more of it. Depending on the story, my research is extensive. I read a lot about the topic, watch movies and documentaries that pertain to that particular subject matter.
Every writer should be…no..MUST be…a psychologist. I don’t mean a shrink or doctor, I mean a keen observer of human nature. When sci fi writer Philip K. Dick was asked what he wrote about he had a concise response. “I write about two subjects,” he said. “I write about what is real, and I write about what is human.” That pithy reply has guided me since I first read it many years ago. Whatever the genre, whether I’m writing fantasy, science fiction or literary fiction, I’m always writing about people. I write about their behavior and their motivations. I write about the secrets they keep and the fears that dominate their lives.
My research begins with myself. My own behavior has been like a laboratory experiment. The genres of fantasy and science fiction draw me repeatedly to the creation of new worlds and the testing of new concepts. I’ve been using myself as a research subject since I began to behave in ways that I perceived as abnormal. I didn’t think that taking LSD at age sixteen was abnormal. I thought it was a reasonable response to a world gone mad. I grew up in the aftershocks of World War Two. I grew up viewing images of concentration camps, charnel houses and smudges that were once people before they were vaporized by atomic bombs. I didn’t think I was crazy to take risks with my fragile mind using powerful drugs.
I only began to think I was crazy when I started to eat vast quantities of food when I wasn’t hungry. I was suffering from bulimia. In the late sixties this wasn’t in the vocabulary of psychiatric afflictions. There was no awareness of eating disorders. I had a monstrous eating disorder that lasted several years and still hangs on with vestigial persistence. I knew that something was wrong with me. I looked for help, but couldn’t find help that didn’t resemble control and imprisonment. I read Freud, Jung, James Hillman, Alice Miller and Heinz Kohut. I read obscure occultists and classic Buddhist literature. I read everything on the subject of Consciousness. It seemed like the most important subject to study.
I also did more conventional research. When I was creating the world of my fantasy novel, The Shadow Storm, I read about The Balkans, Albania, Russian history and the civil wars in Yugoslavia. By this time I had the Internet, a vast magic trove of information. Got a question? Ask the internet, the ultimate research tool.
I write mostly urban and high fantasy, but I have different genres cross through the threads of each novel…it just happens that way, I don’t plan it. Any research I do would be based on a specific story. For instance, alot of the work I’ve been doing lately revolves around advanced weaponry so I’ve been researching alot of sci-fi and fantasy movies, books, and TV shows to see what others have come up with for example. Also, you’d be surprised what’s already in R&D in the real world!
Most of my writing involves a fantasy setting, so I don’t tend to do research when working on one of those manuscripts. I do write some historical fiction, and I’m obsessed with research then. I don’t want anything to be inaccurate (if I can help it). When I’m done with a piece of historical fiction, I try to find people who are into that time period to read it for anything that seems off.
As a pulp magazine collector I have read all the hero pulps. While writing for ALTUS PRESS, the publisher asked me to collect all my research into half a dozen books. They became some of my best selling books. I also wrote Intros and Forwards for ALTUS PRESS books, plus I wrote fiction stories for the publisher while doing my research into the pulp magazines. Remember, my wife and I had published a pulp hobby magazine for the 22 years, so I had plenty of data on hand.
I write everything, and I research as much as is required for the book I’m writing, but a lot of that research has kind of been going on my whole life. For example, figuring out how to tell a joke to a group of friends, they’re your friends, so they kind of know your sense of humor – and you know what makes them laugh. Writing a scene so that a joke turns out funny to a reader who has never met you and doesn’t know your sense of humor, and you don’t know theirs – that requires a lot more in the product development phase of the writing!
When you write a detective story, you have to research what kind of guns detectives carry, and how they check their clip to see how many bullets they have before they kick in a drug dealer’s door, that kind of thing. But, while that is important, that’s not as important as caring about the characters. And that’s what I say is the lifelong study thing. Why did you care what happened to Harry Potter? Why did people care that Oliver’s heart was breaking at the end of Love Story? Why was it tragic that Leonardo DiCaprio drowned at the end of Titanic? You had to care about those characters or nothing else mattered. So part of that is your lifelong experience, what you care about and how you convey that to someone you’ve never met. How do you do that? Practice. You bare your soul, and you put it on the page, and you put it out there with the full expectation that everyone in the world might laugh at you – but you summon the courage to do it anyway. Some of the best stories in the world never make it out of the desk drawer. Writers swallow hard and show that intensely personal piece of themselves again and again and again, until the next thing you know, people are telling you that something you wrote changed their life. Which is freaking awesome.
I write paranormal romance and historical romance. I’ve also touched on other genres by working with others in anthologies. My Unexpected series involves vampires, wolves and faeries. My research for this series included looking into the history of Rome and setting the “birth” of my wolf nation within the whole myth of Romulus and Remus, the twins suckled by the she-wolf Lupa, who later went on to be the founders of Rome. My vampires are set within ancient Egypt and their many gods. I like to bring in an element of ‘this could totally be true!’
My research also falls into the mundane of simply seeing what trees and other fauna are indigenous to the area my story is set.
Which writing groups do you belong to? What are their benefits to you?
My wife and I started a writer’s group in town, most of the members were retired teachers, and the majority wanted to write poetry. I could handle that, no problem. What I didn’t like was the attitude of the members. The writing group was something they came to if there was nothing else going on. We tried to make them understand that writers needed to be dedicated to the craft, but so many meetings consisted of just my wife and me. We finally quit and turned the group over to another member, but it didn’t last long. Unfortunately, where I live doesn’t have good pickings. Let’s face it a turtle crossing the yard is more interesting than the writer’s club.
This is gonna sound bad, but I don’t belong to any writing groups. I used to belong to an online critique group, and I learned a lot there and met some good writers there, so I asked those people to work with me and left the group. I kind of outgrew the group, and I really felt like I was doing a lot of teaching and not a lot of learning after a while. But that may just be arrogance on my part.
Since then, some very impressive bestselling authors have come to me to critique their stories, and they critique mine, and we kind of have our own little group. I would say there are three or four people who, if they read and like my story, everybody in the world is going to read and like my story. If you can belong to a writing group and draw some benefit from that, terrific. That works for you. That didn’t really work for me after a brief period (although you could say in a sense I just created my own writing group) and the biggest difference is, we in my group know all the basic stuff, so we don’t waste time teaching each other the rookie stuff to avoid or fix. We are pushing each other to keep going to the next level. We’re not worried about hurting feelings or anything, we are worried about trying to write great stories.
There are benefits to being in a writing group, though, and the biggest one is this: by pointing out how other people need to improve their stories, you will develop a sharp eye to help you make yours to be better. For that reason alone, it’s worth it to join a writing group. Online or in person, you’ll figure out what the garbagey comments are, and you’ll learn to dismiss those, and you learn to seek out the people who aren’t just giving you undue praise but who are actually trying to help you become a better writer.
I am a follower of Booksgosocial and try to remain an active participant within their regular blog tours and newsletter content sharing programs. I am also actively involved with a newly established Hybrid Publishing company and enjoy the interaction that comes from discussing not only our craft, but elements of our every day life. I’ve found myself with a support network of people happy to share my posts and retweet me on social media. They also share in my celebrations and support me in my endeavours.
Do you belong to any writing forums? Tell us what their value is.
A professor of mine once said, “You should read at least 100 books a year to get a good idea for your genre.” Author and Freelance Writer De Anna Knippling claims to like to read at least 100 books in any genre before trying to emulate it in her own writing.
How much do you read? What do you like to read?
Oh, I easily read 100+ books a year. But I can’t read when I am in writing mode. It just doesn’t work for me.
I would write a hundred books a year if I could, but it seems more like it takes a hundred years to write a book. My revisions are so extensive that some passages are written a hundred times. I’m serious! Read the first chapter of my Confessions Of An Honest Man. That passage was revised so many times that I couldn’t possibly speculate on a number of iterations. Yet…and here I become utterly shorn of modesty…I got where I needed to go. It’s beautiful! It does what must be done for the first chapter of a novel. It evokes a sense of danger, reveals characters, excites curiosity, elicits a bit of laughter and swings open a gate on the narrative that is to come.
Lately, I’ve been fascinated by crime novels. I think that Patricia Cornwell is one of the most brilliant writers I’ve yet encountered. I’m in the unfortunate situation of having read all of her novels in a short period of time. I’ve run out of Cornwell! So, now I read Robert Crais. He’s very good. I love James Lee Burke. I’ve read all of his books, too, and he’s so old that I’m not sure how many books he has left in his gorgeous literary soul. The element that all three writers have in common is their emotional honesty. Their soulful-ness. They write with passionate intensity and their prose contains bits of profound wisdom. They are writing about the human condition by utilizing themselves as models, probing their own condition. They are, after all, human beings. I think….
The writer who has had the most influence on my work is fantasy writer Jack Vance. No other writer captivates me in quite the same way. Every five years I re-read the work of Jack Vance. I never grow tired of it. I remember reading his classic “The Dying Earth” when I was ten years old. I was reading in the family car as we drove from St. Louis to Mexico. It was an ambitious family vacation. I spent most of it reading science fiction and fantasy. Mexico, itself, proved sufficiently weird that I looked up from my books from time to time, absorbed the ambience, then returned to Vance, Heinlein, Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov. In more recent years I’ve read and re-read David Foster Wallace. There is so much pain in his dense, highly intelligent fiction that it may as well be an extended suicide note. Losing DFW was tragic. As was losing Robin Williams and Anthony Bourdain. Depression has no respect for success, wealth, fame or achievement. It strikes wherever it wants to strike.
I don’t read as often as I should but I’m trying to rectify that. When I do read I stick with fantasy, self-help, or biography.
I used to read a book a day, but with my current day job, its more like a book a week. I’m obsessed with young adult novels, any genre, and I’ll gobble up historical fiction in any form. Recently I’ve been into religious historical fiction. There’s something about the sweet, romantic plots that make the books the perfect end to a busy day.
I usually read a couple books a week, although books are constantly getting longer every year. The 120-page novels I grew up with are now four-and-five hundred page monsters. Every time I get one of those monsters I pray that the author writes so smooth the book will read like a two hundred page novel. Age has one advantage, and it’s this: I’ve been reading for 65 years or more, and I’ve always read genres I wanted to write.
Pfft. That’s crap. Stories are about connecting with characters and going on a journey. If I had to read 100 books a year – two a week – I’d never have time to write anything.
I read a lot only because I do a ton of critique work for other authors, but I’d be happy not reading at all. I pick up on insights very quickly, and TV shows and movies are just as good at giving us the keys to amazing storytelling. The answers aren’t only in books. I don’t need to see something dozens of times to get it, but that doesn’t mean I don’t study the heck out of something when it connects with me, regardless of the method in which I received it. People say reading a 5000 word chapter of mine is like reading 3000 from someone else. That’s pace. That comes from seeing Steven Spielberg cram 400 pages into 2 hours. I can’t often get that in books.
I work with people who read a ton, so it’s a little like cheating off the smart kid at school. They gain those insights and hold my work to that standard. I bring other stuff to the table. The collaboration works.
What do I like to read?
My critique partner says I read stuff to learn how to be a better writer. Not “How To” books, but other writers: King, George R R Martin, Rowling, Portergirl. I study the masters in storytelling, on Tv and books and movies.
But what do I LIKE to read? Hmm. I’ll go with Green Eggs and Ham. Everything you need to know about storytelling is there. Pace. Lack of back story. No rambling prologue, just jumps into the story. It has great conflict and plot… and it shows how to wrap it up as fast as possible after the climax. If you can’t say it in 32 pages, you need to rethink your story (said the guy who writes 90k consistently).
I’m not sure how many books I read, honestly. I do read as much as I write though. And I enjoy immersing myself in someone else’s craft, especially well constructed craft.
What goals do you set for yourself in your writing?
My #1 goal is write 60k words in a month and I track it daily. I know how many words to write in a day and make sure that I keep myself on track. If I don’t discipline myself in this way, I’d never get anything written.
To write a thousand words a day. I usually end up writing two thousand words a setting.
Keep the reader from falling asleep!
Really, I just want to connect with my reader. I want them to realize that all of a sudden they are completely immersed in a world that I created and they care about these characters so much that when the character laughs, the reader laughs. When the character cries, the reader cries. And I have a goal of getting you really involved and then BOOM it turns out that what you thought all along was wrong. I give you a plot twist, and all of a sudden you’ve been pulling for the bad guy. I have a goal of always giving you and ending that has you sitting there saying, “Holy cow!” in complete satisfaction. That’s my goal. That, and a yacht in the Caribbean.
To write something that is entertaining as well as thought provoking. I also try and improve my writing each time I write. I take note of faults that reoccur in my manuscripts from my editors, and then do my best to avoid them when I write again, or at least to take note of them and be able to self-edit as I write.
Ultimately though, my main goal is to provide a story that the read can sink into, feel like they are a part of the story and can relate with each and every one of my characters, whether that be to love them or hate them. I want to evoke the reader’s sense of smell, sight and touch as they read.
What is your favorite setting to write in?
That’s a tough one. I really don’t have a favorite setting. But I fully immerse myself into whatever setting I am writing in.
My bedroom, with the door closed, and no sounds from outside sources.
I have the most awesome writing office. I have rich mahogany furniture and dark green walls and a chandelier; book cases lined with the classics and a window that looks out onto a lush green yard filled with massive oak trees. One door opens into my daughter’s play area. It’s the best.
I actually do the majority of my writing at my local library. The library manager jokes that she is lucky to have a writer in residence. There is something inspirational about being surrounded by so many literary works, and it certainly makes research easier, I just jump up and grab the required book from the shelf.
Atmosphere is important. What do you do to get into the writing zone?
I make sure I have coffee, my computer and either music playing or the TV on. I can’t write without some type of noise in the background. And most importantly I stay away from social media.
This is as important as the writing process in itself. I have to get my coffee or tea ready, make sure I also have my mobile next to me and a bottle of water. Besides all that, I usually need the living room to be clear either with sunshine or artificial light, plus a comfortable pillow at my back. I sometimes have some background classical music – only classical music with no words or lyrics as for me they interfere with the voices within the narrative. Under the table, I keep a kid´s chair that I use to elevate my legs, otherwise they go dormant. The word font must be 12 and never enlarged, or I lose track of the text. Then, I write two or three pages and I stand up for coffee or toilet every fifteen or twenty minutes. And, that may go on for two or three hours, and even more if possible. There are weekends that I take a whole Saturday or Sunday to write, and that rhythm is kept for eight hours at least. Once when I was talking to a friend who is painter, she summarized it all: “It takes more time in the get-in-the-mood-get-ready process than it takes to actually paint or write”. I felt that was so true for me-and once we are there into a scene, into the book: nothing else matters. For instance, I am usually late to pick up my kids, and the fault is all due to my characters; they love to start acting when I really must go (lol).
I’m usually in the mood to write. I don’t watch TV any more, and I only listen to music at night before going to bed. So if the mood hits me I close myself off from everything else and write.
Treadmill. Nothing gives me ideas to write faster than when I have to run a mile on my treadmill. It’s magic.
Other than that, I get up early, like 4:30, and write when it’s quiet. I’m always in the writing zone. I can dash off insightful pieces on a whim, and I’ve done so. But like training for a marathon, that came from practicing and building up to it – and from having the confidence to know when a piece is finished and ready to be seen.
Some authors outline, others use a screenwriting tool called a whiteboard, where you place all your plot points on the board and then maneuver them until you have them in an order that works for the story. Some authors use the same concept with notecards, and others use a graph to plot out their story.
What planning tools do you use to prepare before actual writing begins?
I use a storyboard. Similar to the whiteboard, but it’s just handwritten on a form that I created with boxes that signify each chapter in the story. My story doesn’t always stay on target as sometimes it has a mind of its own, but it definitely gives me a starting point.
I’m lazy. I don’t use outlines, story boards, notes, prompts, post-its, diminutive butlers or portable tape players. I just write. I have a goal, a broad concept of what I hope to achieve and I simply begin to write. I start off rusty, clumsy, impaired. I write at my desk, where my computer sits and a stack of USB drives snake their cables under my feet. Some day my mummified cadaver may be found, strangled by USB cables, swathed in black and gray wires running out the window and across the carpet. My fictional detective, Dizzy Tilton, will solve the mystery of my demise with his sidekick, Haakon Wyre. “His fiction killed him”, they will declare. “We must arrest his fiction and put it on trial. No doubt a clever lawyer will find a loophole and get his fiction off the hook for murder, or cop a plea for the lesser crime of Authorcide. We can’t bring him back. Let his genius speak from beyond the grave!”
I write from scene to scene. So long as I know what the next scene is to be, I can move the plot forward, I can develop my characters. My books take decades to write. I’m now seventy and my most recent book has already taken ninety years to write. I hope to finish it before my next incarnation.
I don’t outline. Once I have my plot I create my characters, and I know what the beginning and ending is before I start writing. I am in control, and my characters become chess pieces that I move about the board. They move on my command, not theirs. I always have the end in sight and move the pieces accordingly. When writing continuing characters, however, I have file cards with descriptions. I’ve seen too many blondes become redheads by mistake, or men five foot nine become six foot two from one book to the next.
Wow, all that stuff sounds like a lot of work. I’m don’t use any special tools; they aren’t necessary. What I do to come up with a story is I definitely, definitely, definitely create an outline. Too many writers think an outline stifles their creativity. It’s just the opposite. An outline channels your energy so you stay on track and don’t wander all over the place and you end up where you’re supposed to end up.
Now, just because you say we’re going to go from here to there, that doesn’t mean that’s the only places you go, and it doesn’t mean that’s where you have to end up. But having AN ending doesn’t mean it has to be THE ending. It’s just when you start, that’s the direction. Halfway through, if you decide you have a better ending in mind, change it and use the better ending! But if you don’t have that moment of brilliance, you’re at least going to end up in a good place. Too much “writers block” – a condition that doesn’t usually exist – comes from not having a destination you were writing towards. By having an outline, every day you have a series of writing prompts.
My process is, I’ll get a story idea and I’ll dash off a few lines about it. Three or four things that give you the essence of what the story is about. Then I throw it in a file, and as I am doing things throughout the day/days, I’ll keep getting good ideas about the story. Like maybe in a murder mystery, the guy who’s running for mayor, his opponent committed the murder. Or it’s his campaign manager, and the campaign manager wants it to look like the opponent did it. Something like that. So I’ll just list all these ideas down, one after the other, and I just kind of collect them for a while. They don’t come in any particular order; I’ll get a great idea for an ending, and then I’ll get a great idea for a beginning.
Right now I have the great idea for a political murder mystery called Primary Target. It starts out with an assassination attempt. So that’s how that’s chapter 1, but that’s all I know about chapter 1. Chapter 2 will probably be with the detectives who get called to check out the assassination attempt. But I know I’ll want three or four other things to happen in the story (subplots) so I’ll think about those and eventually write them down, but for now that’s my outline, those handful of bullet points.
Here’s what people don’t understand about outlines. Here’s the outline for Romeo and Juliet:
- Boy and girl want to get together
- their parents don’t want them to get together
- the boy and girl get together anyway
- everybody dies
That’s it. Those four points are an outline. Nothing stifling there. You know what’s going to happen and you know how it’s going to end. Go ahead and start writing.
My process starts out with about four points, and then I’ll realize I have 10 good ideas that can go on in that first major point. So I’ll flesh those out, and as I do, my outline evolves. Sometimes I look at one of minor points and say, “No, that doesn’t work anymore” and it comes out. My outline gives me total creative freedom, but I’m guiding and funneling my energy. That’s why everybody should outline.
I read lots of stories every year from lots of new authors. Usually, he ones where they didn’t outline end up wandering around and getting BORING because they lose their way. You don’t want that.
Use an outline, keep your chapters short, keep your characters interesting, and keep the dialogue witty. But using an outline is probably one of the most important things you can do for yourself.
I’m a bit of a pantser – I write from the seat of my pants – I don’t always plot, unless I have a tight word count and need to plot how my story runs. Sometimes I simply write a short synopsis of my story plot, something I can refer back to, especially when I have several different works in progress at once. Surprisingly though, I haven’t found any of them overlapping.
Some writers can take an idea and run with it, while others need to have a good portion of the story worked out before writing can begin.
How much of the story do you know before the actual writing begins?
Once the idea hits me, the story unfolds so fast inside my head it is like watching a movie, so I just close my eyes and type what I see inside my mind.
As long as I know how it’s gonna begin and how I want it to end, I usually can run with it.
I take the idea and run with it.
Uh… both. I take an idea and run with it, yes, but I usually also bring in some ideas I’ve been kicking around.
For Double Blind, my new murder mystery, I knew it was going to be a murder mystery – which is new ground for me – but I wanted some nice twists. So the murder mystery idea was new. Then I said okay, I’m gonna have readers think THIS – and then pull the rug out from under them later, so I had to plan how to give certain pieces of information without tipping my hand. I’m pretty good at that, but since I’d done it before, I kind knew how to do that, so that was an existing thing for me. Then I also had the idea of having a man and woman working together who had lots of rapport like two good friends, but who were not romantically involved. I’ve been kicking that around for a while, so when the murder mystery came up I had the detectors be a man and a woman who were good friends.
So on one hand, the murder mystery was a short idea that I ran with; on the other hand, I brought in these characters that I have been working on for a while. The whole first draft of 92,000 words took about six weeks to write. I spent probably another three or four weeks refining it with input from critique partners. It’s an amazing story, and it’s available as part of that 20+ book anthology called Death and Damages, with all the New York Times bestselling authors.
For The Navigators, another simple premise: some people discover a time machine. From there, I wanted to have as much conflict as possible and not do a conventional time travel story. So there’s lots of intrigue and action, because the fun part of the time travel story is actually going back in time. But the other fun part of storytelling is having lots of conflicts happen that get in the way of the characters’ goals, and each of the characters in The Navigators had different goals, and a different story arc, so it was really nice combination.
I need a character and the idea and then I simply run with it. I’ll mull the idea over in my mind throughout the day, either whilst washing dishes, or milking the cow, and then I find the words dropping into my mind. I then can’t wait to find the time to sit down at the computer and get those words out. On the rare occasions that I take a couple of days until I can stop and write, then those scenes simmer away in the back of my mind until they are so well developed that my fingers fly over the keys as soon as I have my manuscript open.
How many drafts do you make before considering a manuscript ready for publication? What are the differences as you write each one?
Just one. Once I am done writing, I send it to my BETA readers. I make their suggested changes to the storyline and plot. They also help with continuity and then it goes off to my editor.
Hmm. I write the first draft, then I go over it line by line. Then I turn it over to my wife who runs a grammar check and looks for words I may have wrong. I might go over it again after my wife is through. We try to make all necessary corrections before we submit the manuscript to a publisher. But I’m not using publishers any more. We are doing our own publishing, and we are the editors. I can use verbs, if I want. We do make mistakes. On one of my recent short novels we did all the above, and I ordered 25 paperback copies for book signings. By mistake I uploaded a first draft for the paperback printing! Money wasted. We heard from a reader that there were several typos. I checked and found the first draft was used instead of the final edited version. It was a costly mistake. I’ve been trying to give the paperbacks away, with a note about the typos. I can’t sell the darn things!
Ha! None. I usually think my manuscript is ready for publication after the first draft – even with the typos and things in there. I always think what I’ve written is awesome. The differences I make between the drafts? I try to find the typos.
I’m a perfectionist as I write to begin with, so even my first raw draft tends to be fairly free from errors. I see those red or blue squiggly lines and I fix them up. That said, I still like to at least have three read throughs of my work, saving each one as a separate draft at the start. The first read through might catch wrong words, and maybe tweak synonyms to get the best feel for the scene. I might remove sections or add more. I then like to do a typo and grammar check. Then a final proof read before it goes off for editing.
What’s the hardest part of the story for you to write: beginning, middle or end?
Luckily, I have not encountered a hard part yet. I’m sure I will some day, but for now, once I have the beginning and end worked out, I usually have no problem getting from point A to point B.
The hardest part for me is just to begin. To sit, put my hands on the keyboard, and write a few pages. Once the cobwebs clear I can write quickly and the story develops as if I am a psychic medium, a channel. I get dictation from an entity called WaldWen. He writes most of my fantasy material. The number of drafts is endless. A manuscript is never finished. I merely succumb to exhaustion. “Good enough,” I think. “It will do. Or…..maybe another revision…no…leave it alone….the manuscript has peaked….but…but Chapter Two Thirty has a clunky feel to it….no..forget it. No one reads your stuff anyway.”
Let me be honest. Sometimes it seems as if someone is dictating chapters to me. Seems. It’s actually just me and my compulsion to write. It feels as if I’m channeling something mysterious and when I read back my material I wonder, “How the hell did I do that? Where did it come from?”
The answer is quite ordinary. It came from years of reading, researching, experiencing, filtering, transforming, warping, skewing, observing and participating in the activities of human beings. I find these activities sometimes incomprehensible. I view myself as if I am an alien from another world and this life is a fiction, a script that was crafted as a method of instruction. My life is a work of fiction designed to teach me about consciousness and the intelligent control of matter. Who fashioned this script? A guide, a spirit, a Being, a WaldWen? An Arthur Rosch. A man who writes with a modicum of coherence and has thus far been able to avoid imprisonment for my strange behavior. I sure as hell haven’t sold many books, but some day I will. Some day.
I have to say the beginning. I want to capture the reader’s attention, and sometimes you really have to work those beginning words to enter the adventure.
The beginning the story is the hardest for me to write, but not for the reason you probably think. For most writers, the middle gets mushy. They have lots of good ideas that get everything set up, and maybe have an idea of how it’s going to end, but tying all that together in a cohesive manner without getting boring is the mushy middle that you’re always trying to avoid.
For me, how I avoid that is I just try to get through it as quickly as possible, and make something interesting happened in the middle of the mushy middle. Maybe a plot twist, maybe somebody dies, but that keeps the mushy middle from getting mushy
But the reason the beginning of the story is hardest to write is because it’s also the easiest to write. Like I said, in my next murder mystery, the opening chapter – the opening sentences – are going to be something like “The assassin watched his prey through the rifle scope” – something like that. So right away, your first sentence is gonna be somebody’s about to get killed and we’re watching it happen!
But the reason the beginning is hard is because most the time you are starting a new story with new characters, and you don’t really know those characters until you are a few chapters into the story. And by the time you end the story they’re gonna be different (because the story arc). For that reason, you have to go back and look at the first three chapters and have the characters be fully formed on page 1. That’s a little harder to do, to give them their personalities on the first page, and most writers don’t do that, so that’s why I say that’s the hardest – for me and for everybody else. But once you realize that, you know you need to do that. Then it’s like proofreading. Is the character fully developed on page one? No? What do I need to make him or her be there? Write that.
Depends on the story. I like to continue writing in sync – in other words, from beginning to end. I know some people like to write a scene as it comes to them, but for me I find that can cause too many plot holes as the story is stitched together. If I have a specific scene in mind and it’s stewing away in my mind, I sometimes find the hardest part is not rushing through my story to get there, to make sure my story is of a consistent strength the whole way through.
As a writer, what is the biggest challenge for you? What’s the biggest reward?
Biggest challenge: Marketing. Marketing. Marketing! (Spoken in the Marsha Marsha Marsha tone from The Brady Bunch!). I detest that side of writing so much I really don’t delve too much into it.
Biggest reward: The biggest reward is knowing something born inside my head connects to the heart of a reader!
Biggest reward: The biggest reward would have to be the fans. When I see the reviews start to cumulate on a release or when a fan messages me saying they loved a book that I have written totally makes my day.
My fantasy epic, The Gods Of The Gift revealed its ending to me as I was driving home to my North Bay mansion. I knew the ending, and then WaldWen began speaking in my head, so I drove and took notes simultaneously.
Biggest Challenge: The biggest challenge was writing the book.
Biggest Reward: The biggest reward was writing the book.
Biggest Challenge: The biggest challenge is to write something that will attract readers.
Biggest Reward: The biggest reward is to see a nice review, or have someone say they were entertained by my story. My main goal is to entertain.
Biggest Challenge: The biggest challenge? The biggest challenge is marketing. Sorry. If I can get somebody to read two pages of my story, they will read the whole story – and love it. Getting more people to figure out how to find me to read those first two pages? That’s the hardest part for almost every writer. All the hard stuff about writing the story is actually the easy stuff. The marketing is the hard part.
Biggest Reward: The biggest reward is definitely writing something funny and having people email you or see you and tell you how funny it was. Writing a scene that made you cry while you were writing it and having tears dropping on your keyboard, and having people come up to you later or email you and say how emotional they got during that scene. Putting a little Easter egg type of thing in there and having a reader “get it.” You’re like, “Yeah!” and you’re fist pumping, because they got it. Those rewards are huge. Just making that connection and putting something out there and having it having work.
Another big reward is, and I love this, is having a plot twist. Like, in chapter 10 there’s a big twist, and your critique partner is going along, and they read chapter 8, and they read chapter 9, and then all of a sudden you get this email that says OH MY GOD. That’s awesome. That’s so much fun – for the writer and the reader. That’s the rollercoaster they want, and that’s what I give them.
Biggest Challenge: The biggest challenge for me? That would be find enough time in the day to actually sit down and write. I have to balance my home life as a wife and mother with my life as a writer. And that can be a challenge when my mind is brimming full of story ideas and scenes begging to be written.
Biggest Reward: The biggest reward? To hear that a reader couldn’t get enough and wants more. I love those 4 and 5 star reviews, where the reviewer is practically begging for more. But most especially, I love it when they have picked up on the subtly of a plot line and pulled it out from the story.
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