Monday, August 16, 2010

Every day I write the book

Okay. Maybe not every day, but a quite a few of them. Sometimes, all strung in a row.

Process. How I do what I do. All writers have them. It's the way they go about constructing stories, but also, how they conduct their writing life. I've shared mine a bit, and thought to share it here for the rest of everybody who chances by.

I write novels and an occasional short story. I have great respect for those writers who can shape an idea from beginning to end in a few pages. I have, what some might consider, literary sprawl. My stories are rarely short and I'm fine with that. So this'll be about the novel process.

Way back in '95 and '96, I wrote two novels: What's Real and Insert Title Here. Both were fiction and both started with a vague idea and a number of scenes. What's Real was a tale about a group of friends in their late 20's (no, don't think The Big Chill, thank you), who've been friends for years. When their "leader" dies, they realize he's been protecting them from the real world. Each falls apart in their own way. After the funeral, secrets come out that tear them apart and they know their lives will never be the same. Each character had their own chapter, written in first person. The second half of the book (post-funeral) was in third person omniscient.

Insert Title Here was about a guy (Rick) and his ex-girlfriend (Katarina) (both had been in a band together), stalked by a crazy fan. Katarina disappears, and her current lover, Meggan, seeks Rick out to help her find Kat. Sound familiar? It's what eventually, with a few twists and turns, turned in Forever Will You Suffer.

Both books had vague outlines, but nothing concrete. Another fiction novel (Having Love, Making Sex) had been outlined to the point where I had no interest in writing it. Maybe someday... With the other two books, I took notes as I wrote and went back and tweaked what needed tweaking to keep it all working.

I had sent queries out to agents and editors, and an editor from Berkeley (her husband worked with my wife) was interested in Insert Title Here, but she had no idea how to market the thing because it encompassed too many genres (mystery, horror, romance, mainstream, etc.). I offered to take out the UFO abduction scene if it would help (yes, there was one), but she'd already left Berkeley (feel free to insert joke about my book driving her out of the industry).

Then came 2002 and my first National Novel Writing Month challenge. 50,000 words in 30 days. No prize, just a certificate and the overwhelming joy of having a 50,000 word piece of literary chaos. From 2002 through 2008 (I started in 2009, but didn't finish (first year I didn't)), this was how I wrote novels. No plot, no characters, just a seed of an idea and a vague road map. It was like taking dictation from the characters and writing it down in story form. Some times the story meandered, but for the most part, it followed a plotline that created itself as it unfolded. It basically followed Anne Lamott's theory: Write the shitty first draft to get the whole thing down, then go back later to edit. When you have 30 days to write 50,000 words, there's not a lot of editing as you go time.

In 2008, I came up with the idea of homeless people living in a fictional town. I had finished a college course on literature (I'm in the midst of finishing the college degree I had no interest in back in the 80's) and was inspired by a Gabriel Garcia Marquez story about an angel. I started plotting the story out, but never once called it an outline. This'll happen, then this, then this, and maybe that. I revamped the "outline" when ever I came up with a better idea, like when you're driving somewhere and you know the basic route and you make a few detours because they seem much more interesting than the highway.

Scenes come to me like I'm watching a movie. I'm there, in the story with the characters. How do I feel going through the poorly lit basement that's cold and damp? What's that odd noise sound like? All these details get transferred through the main characters and their history, psychosis, their baggage, their feelings, and their thoughts, until (hopefully), the experience the reader has is as close to being with those characters as possible.

Editing is fun! Editing makes the book better, stronger, faster, and it smooths out the kinks, and the little details that can get scrambled in a 300 page manuscript (did he have brown eyes or blue? It was mid September when he walked out of his house, but two weeks before Halloween when he got to work five pages later).

I do not edit until the first draft is done. I would never get the book done if I kept going back and editing while I wrote. I have several run-throughs that look like this:
1. On the computer to clean up any glaring issues.
2. Printed out to make sure every sentence flows and there aren't any creaky sentences.
3. Smooth out any new bits just added.
Step 3 can be repeated several times over the course of the whole book or just sections that I really want to rework. To me, there's a difference between revision (small changes) and rewriting (large changes). I rpefer to revise, but if I have to rewrite, then I do.

During all this, I may bring the book to my critique group and/or my wife (first reader) for them to go through. I'd rather polish a section up before the critique group gets it. There's no point in them reading a first draft of something I know I have to change.

I write as often as life allows me. Writing everyday is a good way to work the imagination, but sometimes I can't. Yes, I get cranky when I don't write, so to keep the peace, it's better I do write every day.

So there you have it. My novel process. Grab a few maps, some friends and start walking. Who knows where we'll end up. But that's the fun of it: the exploration of a story, the discovery of where the road leads and where it ends.

Happy Writin's!
Gary . . .


  1. the little details that can get scrambled in a 300 page manuscript (did he have brown eyes or blue? It was mid September when he walked out of his house, but two weeks before Halloween when he got to work five pages later).

    I'm surprised you have this sort of trouble if your habit is to write at flat out speed. Back in the days when I used to produce prose at breakneck speed (novel-in-a-fortnight sort of thing; I've slowed up a lot in recent years), I found that one of the big advantages was that I didn't have to worry so much about this category of error: I knew his eyes were blue because it was still fresh in my memory that I'd made that decision.

  2. I'm sort of a pantser writer myself...more exciting that way. I have a rough outline in my head, but fluidity allows the characters to play--and even surprise me once in awhile!

  3. I'm a panster who writes novellas. It's a mystery to me how I fit so much in a short story! And I'm a fan of series so I do have character charts that keep me straight.

  4. Interesting journey, Gary.

    I try to write everydat - doesn't work. Today was pretty productive though. I finally found a way around the waiio I wrote and now I think I can actually finish the damn book by the end of the month.

    I try not to edit anong the way, but sometimes I find myself rereading and rewriting, Have to stop that to make progress.

  5. I wish I could write at break-neck speed, but lately, days can go by between writing sessions and when I am writing, it goes a lot slower than I'd like. I do want to cut the timeframe down so it's not taking me a year to write a novel.

    Fluidity is a wonderful thing, but some times, I get caught up in making changes because I'm bored. Bad plan.

    There's always that moment when a sticking point resolves and the rest of the story flows easily.

    Thanks all!

  6. There is a difference between breakneck speed and writing for word count.
    Your writing is always better when writing fast (with the flow) but not obsessing over that 50,000 word goal.
    Those novels from november always caused you grief to smooth out the word count days
    gratuitous violence and fun romping you allowed more of during novel writing month

    If life and schedules allowed you to write edit and reedit once more, then you would not be so bored with a scene you have re read the 20th time.

    Hugs N