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sf sapphire and steel winning

February 2016



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sf sapphire and steel winning

I lost the comment in the shuffle (this happens a lot; if you comment and don't get answered, chances are I have nothing to say in reply, or I meant to reply, and I forgot--don't take it personally, please) asking what, in particular, my writing process was. And since my agent recently asked me the same thing, I figure it's railroading time.

And the answer is, I don't have one.

No, really.

Usually, I compose on the keyboard, at my desk, but I have a laptop too, and when I take that on trips I write on it. I also write on paper, in notebooks, and transcribe it later. I draw little diagrams and notes and reminders to myself, and sometimes timelines or calenders. Sometimes I use 3x5 cards and sometimes I outline and sometimes I don't, and sometimes I change process mid-book. Twice, (Hammered and Whiskey & Water) I've had to outline the portion of the book I've already written so I could see the structure in my head. Most of Carnival was handwritten first and then transcribed, so the first draft was really three drafts (three, because my first draft is usually about two and a half drafts, as I reread old stuff and tweak it.)

Sometime I signpost ahead--I wrote all the sex scenes in The Stratford Man and all the fight scenes in Scardown ahead of everything else in either book--and sometimes I write completely out of order (Carnival and Blood & Iron having been particularly haphazard in their construction) and sometimes I write the entire book more or less consecutively, start to finish. Sometimes I know the plot--By the Mountain Bound--practically on a scene by scene level, and sometimes I'm completely making it up as I go along (The Sea thy Mistress).

The one thing that's consistent is, if I get stuck, I switch. I change it up. I do something else. If keyboarding isn't working, I hand write. If I can't write at my desk, I go sit on my bed. Or out in the yard. Or on the couch. And if I'm still stuck, I work out. A good brisk walk or an hour of yoga will usually kick something loose in my head.

I have all the bad habits in the world.

If you've ever read in a how-to-write book that you shouldn't do something as a writer, I probably do it. I stop midsentence to research. I write fifteen things at once. I prefer to end my writing day at the end of a scene. I write while I'm online, in between answering emails, with a chat room running in the background for company. I listen to music when I write. Or television. (I had The Muppet Show on today while I was doing the final trip through Whiskey & Water, and most of One-Eyed Jack was written to The Avengers, I Spy, and The Man from UNCLE tapes and DVDs.) I write at random times through the day rather than having a ritual, though lately my rule has been that I start at 9 am and write until I have 1500 words or I have to leave for work around 2, whichever comes first.

But I refuse to fetishize the process, really. I used to write in my high school notebooks when I was supposed to be taking notes (got decent grades, too). I don't see any reason why, if I could do it then, I can't do it now.

A couple of things are constant. By the time I'm a third of the way into the plot, I usually know how the story ends. And it usually takes me longer to write the first third of a book than the remaining two thirds. Because I write a few thousand words and walk away for a while and let it cook, and then I come back and write maybe a hundred pages and walk away and come back later--and then I rearrange everything and put it in a different order, and then I go over it and rewrite chunks, and then I poke at it some more...

...and then I write the rest of the book. But that's more an observed pattern than a process.

Anyway, I hope that helps. *g*


Hell. I just make crap up as I go along. Works so far.
The time when that stops working is when you find yourself deep in a series, hemmed in by all the semi-random shit that sneaked into the back story along the way. (Trust me on this, I'm in the process of beginning to refactor a series that I'm a third of a million words into -- for an editor who wants it to run for a l-o-n-g time. Eek.)
There's always a Crisis on Infinite Earths!

I kind of like the restrictions I've built for my self in the Promethean books. I actually get *more* clever when I have to paint myself back out of corners.

Having an editor who wants something to run a loooong time is a good thing, at least.
. I used to write in my high school notebooks when I was supposed to be taking notes (got decent grades, too).

::grins:: Once I worked out that my physics teachers never checked out any of the notebooks, I filled the margins and often trespassed into the whitespace round diagrams... song lyrics, doodling, and snatches of story/dialogue. (Chemistry and biology got a little less densely packed). I remember rather clearly the day we had the school inspectors in and he sat down in the empty chair next to me (only girl in the physics class) and very quietly asked to see my notebook. ::grins:: I comfort myself that neither of the two physics teachers who took my class had liked girls before that anyway :o)
Thank God they don't do that in American schools. *fervently*
Yes, it helped. It as incredibly reassuring. :)

Ta. :)
PS - Why is your blog asking me to take action on all the comments?
I think it's a widespread problem. I've noticed it on a few friends journals.
Damned if I know. *g*
'Tis an LJ problem. *Every* blog is inviting me to censor/edit the comments. The strain of being good is driving me insane....
Nothing like a temptation, is there?
The only other thing which seems about as annoying is my notion that I have a strong will. ;)
I was the one that asked, over here. And thank you for such a detailed response; your explanation is both incredibly reassuring and encouraging.

I find it's always interesting to hear how other writers write, as if it helps you consolidate your own thoughts regarding your own process of writing, if that makes sense. At least I now know that I'm not the only one who writes with a chat screen in the background, or stop midsentence to research, or have other "bad" writing habits.

But are such writing habits "bad" if they work for you? Surely, what would seem "bad" for one writer would only be so if they didn't work for him/her. If they did, wouldn't they be "good" writing habits? And who's to try being the authority here, anyway? Only the writer him/herself, I'd say...
Sure. I mean, no, whatever works for one isn't bad. I suspect the reason so many writing books give similar advice is because so many want-to-be-writers have the same bad habits that keep them from getting work done.

If you get the work done, than what you do is facilitating it.
I just finished the first draft of a novel (TJM) where I got the surprise closure twist on the ending the evening I wrote it -- and where the Big Twist in the novel only occured to me a week before I finished the book (after a year spent writing it on-and-off, and a year or two before that thinking about it). On the other hand, it was a novel that demanded a surprise ending -- if it surprises the author, it's a fair bet that it'll also surprise the readers.

At the opposite end of the spectrum I've written a 100K-word novel from a 9K-word outline.

Making Shit Up is the name of the game, isn't it?
Making Shit Up is indeed the name of the game. By the Mountain Bound was in three first person POVs, alternating ABACABACABAC, so it was good I more or less knew the plot, because I had to be able to juggle that and map it out in advance with characters in the right place at the right time. The few surprise developments.

I did figure out a couple of surprise revelationin Carnival basically as I was writing them. They're Cool Shit (TM) rather than actual plot, but then, it's SF. You can never have too much Cool Shit.

Makings Shit Up is, indeed, the name of the game. I dread the day when I have an editor who needs more of an outline than the setup and then the words "and then a miracle occurs...."
if it surprises the author, it's a fair bet that it'll also surprise the readers.

That seems to work. Though only one of my characters ever did that to me.

And I cried.
This is really reassuring. I write in very much the same fashion and occasionally worry that it'll hinder me in the long run. Thanks!!
As long as you're producing finished products that are improving in quality, whatever you're doing isn't wrong. *g*
I'm reminded of the interview Gene Wolfe gave several years back where he was in a dialogue with Neil Gaiman. The latter had just finished a book and commented how he felt he was finally getting a handle on how to write a book. Wolfe disagreed and said you only learned how to write the novel you were working on at the time. Each one was different.
I love that quote.
Sometimes I think I'm lucky I didn't read all the how to write books people tried to shove at me in the beginning. I was far along in my learning curve before I found out that so many of the things I do, things that work for me, are supposed to be bad habits.

Once I did find out, I shrugged them all off with a 'Whatever' and went on with what I'm doing. I think they are only bad habits if they stop you from being productive, stop you from getting the book written or are used as an excuse to avoid writing.

I think all writers, those who are going to succeed on either a personal or professional level, depending on their goals, find ways that work to make shit up. Call it process, call it habits, good or bad, call it what ever you want, the fact it works is what is important. Getting the words written is what is important.

Chair dancing while writing scenes of death and destruction, or stopping to research in the middle of a scene then diving back in; that all works for me. I'm not going to change what I'm doing until or if it stops working for me.
The first how-to-write book I read -- if you discount the Writers and Artists Yearbook, as a source of publisher info -- was Stephen King's "On Writing", and I came to it somewhere between selling my fourth and fifth novels.

By that time it wasn't much use, other than in a "oh, so he does it that way, too," kind of way.

I think you're right about being lucky to have avoided the prescriptive technique books everyone bangs on about; they invariably work for the author, but not necessarily the readers -- and that leads to all sorts of frustration when the aspiring writer blames themselves for not following the recipe properly (rather than discovering for themselves that there's a different recipe for every cake).
The only writing book I've ever finished is Ray Bradbury's "Zen In The Art Of Writing". It wasn't a how to book, but more a story of how he got where he is and how to take joy in your writing.

And your right. The only way to learn to write is to do it, maybe listen to a few wise friends who are ahead of you, and make your own recipe.
The only one I've found useful is On Becoming a Novelist, which is a book on how to observe rather than on how to write. (And it's the one that famously consigned Harlan and Heinlein to the oubliette!)

A lot of people like i>Bird by Bird</i>, but I found it whiny. That's also more a memoir than a how-to.

Silverberg's Science Fiction 101 (and it has another title, too) is useful in terms of showing a technique, and then dissecting how the story uses that technique--it's descriptive rather than prescriptive, and a pretty good anthology, too.

Other than that, into the oubliette with all of them!
Other than that, into the oubliette with all of them!


I've been sitting here thinking about why how to writing books leave me cold and have from the beginning. They all lie.

All the prescriptive, how to books I've looked at have that aura of 'magic button' about them. They whisper in the beginning writer's ear Do it this way and you will be published. Follow this path and you will be successful. Step off the path and you're doomed to fail. There is only one way and that way is the right way.

None of that is true. The only right way is the way that works for you.

I think you can cherry-pick technical bits from some of these books-- what the differences are between the various POVs for example-- but they can't tell you what POV is best for the story you need to tell. They can make you aware, maybe, of story structure and plot, but they can't teach you if the plot in your head is full of holes big enough to drive a bus through. The only way to learn to plot that I can see is to -- plot.

The zen like sayings you quote so often are what ring true to me. Fail, try again, fail better. To my mind, that is how you learn to write and find your own process. Magic buttons are a lie.

I like Terry Brooks' Sometimes the Magic Works, but this is the ultimate personal preference: I find the book far less useful for practical advice than the fact that Brooks' enthusiasm bubbles over into my own system when I read it. It's more like recharging my batteries than gettnig helpful hints.
Anyway, I hope that helps.

If by "helps" you mean "scares the shit out of you," then yes, it does help. *weak grin*
Am I really all that scary? *g*
thank you for taking the time to write all this craziness out... it was very interesting to read!!!

my own writing style has changed a lot over the years... I used to ALWAYS start at the beginning and keep going until... I got distracted by another idea and started that. (I never got to the "good parts" that way... the part I really wanted to write when I thought of the story.)

now I write the good parts first... whether that's the beginning, the end, or somewhere in the middle.
Here's another hint. *Only* write the good parts. They're the only parts the reader wants to read, anyway....

You know the whole joke about Goldman's The Princess Bride being "the good parts version?"

;-) It's good advice.
LOL true... too true!

*smack on forehead*
if it's not fun/interesting to write, it's probably not fun/interesting to read either. BRILLIANT!!

*bowing down*
you know how sometimes, somebody tells you something JUST the right way?

Here's another hint. *Only* write the good parts. They're the only parts the reader wants to read, anyway....


That is what I tell myself everytime the academic part of me claims 'But they don't have enough contextual knowledge! You *have* to give more details' and the rest of me protests 'Oh no, I'd be bored if I have to explain a culture that stretches back many millennia before I get to the dialogue'. And then the rest points out that if the writer is bored, the reader couldn't possibly be enthralled. The academic part subsides, though it still murmurs in discontent, and all of us get to be lazy. :)

I am mad, btw. :)

keep up the bad habits

don't fret what works.

Re: keep up the bad habits

I'm sorry, did I seem to be fretting?

Re: keep up the bad habits

nope. just issuing my usual illogical reminder not to do what you're alreay not doing. ya know, just in case and all. after all, you might suddenly come down with a bad case of fretting bad habits. almost like a bad case of stripes, but that is another story.

hope you eat your personal lima beans too for that matter. if you don't get the reference, find a childrens story called Bad Case of Stripes. Read. I think you'll enjoy.

I'm starting to ramble more than usual so I'll stop now before you track me down and hit me over the head with a thick stick.

Re: keep up the bad habits

I had lima beans two days ago. *g*

Actually, I really like lima beans. And succotash.

Ooo. Succotash. I have corn and lima beans and milk. I could... make... succotash...

Re: keep up the bad habits

I hate lima beans.

On the other hand, I love edamame.

So I make my succotash with edamame.

(I mention this only because it was a Miraculous Solution, last year.)
If you've ever read in a how-to-write book that you shouldn't do something as a writer, I probably do it.

Phooey. Nothing'll save you if you don't have motivation and don't write entertaining stuff, and nothing will stop you if you do. All else is writing ex machina.
Yep -- don't fetishize the process. If you do, you get locked into needing to write a certain way (or, at least, give yourself an excuse for not writing: "Conditions were not optimal!"). So I write on trains, on lunch breaks, on paper, and otherwise. All that matters is getting the words down.

I do tend to write novels more-or-less from start to finish, though. I have a relentlessly linear mind.
Hmmmm. I end at the end of scenes all the time; I can't recall reading a writing book that says that. For me, stopping at a scene's end will automatically get my brain working on the next scene(s).

As for writing at a set time...I prefer this when I can get it, but I think one mark of a disciplined writer is writing whenever the chance presents itself. If that's at 11 am today and 8 pm tomorrow, then it's a far, far better thing to write at 11 and 8 than get frustrated that you don't have chronological consistency.
That helps a lot, actually. Validation for my unprocess is a Good Thing.