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bear by san

March 2017



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bear by san

I tell you all my secrets but I lie about my past.

howtowriteanovel meme! howtowriteanovel meme! howtowriteanovel meme! howtowriteanovel meme! howtowriteanovel meme!

Oh, look. It's the how-to-write-a-novel meme.

Justine said:

  • computer
  • title
  • borrow plot
  • type
  • spreadsheet
  • rewrite
  • first readers

Jay said:

  • computer
  • title
  • borrow plot
  • type
  • spreadsheet
  • rewrite
  • first readers

(Notice how cleverly I kept their different bullet points?)

If you are a hoary old novelista reading this, tag, you're it. (jmeadows, I deputize you to collect them all.) If you are an aspiring young writer scribbling notes, I proffer you the wisdom of the inestimable John Gorka: "What once worked for you will not work for me."

So. Here is how I do it. 

  • something to write on
  • characters
  • conflict
  • worldbuilding
  • title
  • *
  • fallow time
  • type
  • first readers
  • type
  • revise
  • type
  • spreadsheet
  • type
  • get stuck
  • research
  • outline
  • natter
  • self-loathing
  • book hate
  • type
  • revise
  • type
  • *

On my list, items between * and * may be taken in any order, consectively or concurrently, in sequence or in parallel. In fact, more usually in parallel.

Heh. Kind of a mess, isn't it? And sometimes, I actually start with the conflict or the worldbuilding before I get the characters, but those novels are much, much harder for me to write. As for "type," please assume that often, whatever I am typing may have been scribbled previously on a cocktail napkin in broken sentences, or on the inside of my arm, or what have you.

Okay. Here is how I write a book.

I have a computer or an old envelope or a notebook or a felt-tip pen and my forearm. I use it as God intended. 

Somebody walks into my head and introduces himself. Sometimes he comes with a scene or a setting. Often, he just shows up and sets up camp in the green room. (characters)

I take this guy out to lunch. I get to know him. I read up on the things that he's interested in. I interrogate him. I root around in my head and hold casting calls for people who want the same or different things. (more characters)

I figure out what he wants and take it away from him. I let them choose up sides and pick armbands. (conflict) I give the mess a name (title) (my working titles aren't as much fun as Justine's but they often go on to become the actual title. Scardown and Hammered always had those titles. Whiskey & Water was A Glass of Rain, and One-Eyed Jack was Whiskey & Water at first. Worldwired was Wetwired, which was a stupid title. Blood & Iron was Shadowhand for several drafts, and then it was Bridge of Blood & Iron. (Its nickname around the house is still "Bridge," actually. And Liz tells me that the production department has taken to calling Whiskey & Water "War and Peace." Er, yeah, it's almost 700 pages. Sorry guys.)

I write the first ten to fifty pages (type) of the book and walk away. (worldbuilding)

I go work on something else, or play a lot of computer games. (fallow time)

When the story starts bugging me, or the deadline is approaching, I go back to it. (I have stories that have were fallow for two decades. No, I'm not kidding. Yes, B&I is one of them.) I talk to my friends about it or make cryptic comments on livejournal or quiz people about their knowledge on related subjects. (natter) I read whatever I can get through on topics that have something to do with the book. (research) I write things as they come to me (type) and sometimes these are things completely out of sequence. (I joke that I wrote all the sex scenes in The Stratford Man before the rest of the book. This is not entirely true, because I also wrote a bunch of the captivity-and-isolation scenes at the end of The Journeyman Devil around the same time. Especially the bit with the joke about Edward II's ghost. Which of course means nothing to any of you, but check back in 2009, maybe. :-P)

I also make notes for scenes that may or may not occur later in the book. I refer to this, laughably, as "(outlining)." of course, it is not by any means an actual outline, because there is no plot involved. There are a bunch of character bits, setbacks, reversals, setpieces, and (usually) Fraught Moments. (The fifty pages I have of Patience & Fortitude, so far, is all Fraught Moments.)

I send bits to first readers (first readers) and see what they say. I fuss and poke (revise). I write more, some of it connective tissue (type). I keep track of my wordcount in Excel (spreadsheet, which I use for a totally different reason than Justine does. I keep that excel file because if I didn't I would never finish a book. I would succumb to despair somewhere around 40K, feeling like I hadn't made any progress at all. If I have a spreadsheet, I can tell myself "You're an idiot, Bear, you wrote a thousand words every day this week."). If I am losing track of what's going on in the story, I use Word's comment feature to create a handy list (a cheater's outline) of what happens in each scene. Or I create an outline of what *has* happened already, and then a list of things I need to tie up or address. (outline) I send more bits to first readers (first readers). I rearrange and hash things out with people who are by now very sick of hearing me whine (revise, natter). I get stuck (get stuck). I go for long walks. I wash the dishes. I hate myself (self-loathing). I hate the book (book hate). I rewrite and rearrange what I have (revise). I write some more bits (type).

Eventually, I get something that resembles the first third of a novel. In this first third, I have (characters), (worldbuilding), and plot (conflict) which by now, hopefully all support each other and create a framework on which to balance the Dreaded Middle Of The Book. At this point, the characters all have goals, and reasons to like or dislike each other, and I have a list of things that it would be cool to do along the way to the end of the book.

Generally, about now, I write the end of the book (type).

This actually almost always wind up being the actual end of the book. The epilogue or denouement, in other words, rather than the climax. I generally have no idea how I am going to get from (a) to (b), but that's okay. I have characters, and they have reasons to like or dislike each other, and they have goals.

I turn them loose (type).

And then I let them break things (type) until I can't figure out how the hell they are ever going to get out of this book alive. So then I go and talk to a friend, who assures me that the things I thought were gaping plot holes actually work just fine, and that I will in fact finish the book, and no it's not as terrible as I think, and really, I only hate it because I am overexposed, and have you looked at these thematic elements (natter, self-loathing, book hate, first readers)?

Then, I make another list of things I need to do to get to the end of the fucking book (book hate, outline), and I write those scenes and transitions and connections (type, type, type). And then I rewrite the ending I already wrote (revise), fix any egregiously stupid things and send it off to the first readers (first readers) again.

And then I do it again.

howtowriteanovel meme! howtowriteanovel meme! howtowriteanovel meme! howtowriteanovel meme! howtowriteanovel meme!


Your process gives me hope. No really. Not to mention a tip or two so that I can counter the despair point that kicks in at around 40K. :)
I think it inordinately over-dignifies it to call it a process....
Forearms! Why did I never think of forearms! Brilliant!

(I keep a couple of small notebooks in my purse, and when I don't have those I use my palm. Of my hand, I mean, though I guess I could use my Palm, but in fact I don't.)
IIRC, the "I Quit" phase seems to straddle the self-loathing, book hate line. But could that actually have natter and worldbuilding elements . . . or is it natter, or do you just unplug altogether (fallow)?

Instead of "I Quit," I have a "Write Self-indulgent Smut" phase. :-) It Works For Me!

the hounds, they start to roar...


It occurs to me that book hate (well, story hate, so far, in my case) is actually a valuable though vile thing.

It can only often be cured only by going in there in a vile and vicious mood and slaughtering the darlings left right and centre.

Anything that survives me showing up with fire and sword ... is probably an okay bit.

Re: the hounds, they start to roar...

Doesn't work that way for me. My book hate is of the profound and deep-seated variety. The entire book is awful, and there is no salvaging any of it, and I should go get a job mucking stalls.

Fortunately, it usually passes by the time the CEM comes back.

Re: Characters

Oh gawd yes. The funny looks I get when I try to explain where characters come from are priceless. I've taken to simply telling people if you think of my head as a house, the characters are built by a team of mad dwarven artificers in the cellar. I mean, I know it's me doing it but I don't see it getting done. They just appear in the front hall looking at me with that 'get off your duff and write my story' look.

I've got one who has been driving me plaid for years. She won't talk to me just sits there cleaning her nails with a small knife and sullenly kicking her heels. It's probably time for me to take another run at trying to figure out who the hell she is.

Re: Characters

They're just extraordinarily well-differentiated pieces of my subconscious.

Which means I have about as much control over them as you might expect.
Well, that's more or less how I work. :D
That userpic rocks. Where'd you find the original?

I love you.

That is all.


Um. How come?
I like your way of writing best so far.
I have yet to officially HATE my book. But the pounding thread of 'finish the damn thing already, finish it finish it finish it' is about to drive me batty.

This does give me hope. It is always infinitely satisfying to read that the 'experts' that write the "First you must outline" books aren't always right.

(Of course, it works for me, but that's because I need reminders, or I'd forget the damn ending...)
This is somewhat reassuring. Now I just need to fill up the bits between world-building and self-loathing with more typing. :)
Yeah... what is with all that typing stuff? Sheesh! ;)
My deepest desire is to have something that will take the story complete from my brain to my computer without the intermediary of fingers typing, cramping and editing/self loathing eventually. Whee!

(Then again, I'm a big proponent of enjoying the multitude of accidental changes that happen between brain and fingertips...so that kind of fouls things up, huh?)
If you like keeping track of wordcount for motivational purposes, you might like Ywriter...keeps a running count for you, and you can drag and drop your scenes at will. If spreadsheets work for you, by all means you should keep using them, but I've found this to be quite helpful because you've got the scene wordcounts, chapter wordcounts and total wordcounts updated pretty much automatically. :)
Ehn. I don't see the need to learn a new software package for something I can do by hitting the "wordcount" button on my word processor. *g*
go work on something else, or play a lot of computer games.

Check. Got that part down.
(cut and paste into Word and print it)

Whew. Last night I shut up my internal editor with gaming, and after I'd died enough times it shut up long enough for me to get back to my story. Finally the beginning works, defines the character, the setting, and implies a ticking timebomb. I'm pleased. And very glad to know that gaming works for other people. Once this is easier than pulling teeth, I might try Steven Brust's trick of playing Solitaire (with physical cards), but for now I don't dare get away from the computer. That dratted editor/scared voice will use any excuse to not write.
Is it always an individual character you get first? Not a situation, or a relationship between two or more characters, or something like that?

I'm thinking about this. I'm very character-focused (mostly character development) in my reading, but most of the seedling ideas I can remember things starting with are dynamics or circumstances, rather than isolated individuals. I think I would be flumoxed by a character who didn't come trailing some thread of context for me to anchor her/him with.

I also think I envy you the ability to interogate your characters in your head. Most of the time, I can't get a character's voice to ring true away from the paper/computer. If I want to know what so-and-so would say if someone asked him something-or-other, my usual answer is, 'Write it and find out.' I psychoanalyze my characters, but that's--hindsight, rather than prediction, and it's usually with the same kind of fascinated sense of discovery that I have when I attempt to unravel the actions and thoughts of real people around me.
Nope. It's the people. Relationships can't exist without people to have them.
'Straordinary. As far as I can tell, the only things we have in common are book hate and self-loathing. Oh, and type. Lots of type. Just as well that jmeadows doesn't know where to find me, or I'd have to work out just what it is that I do do, given that I don't do this...
She *will* find you.

Watch out.

Besides, now you have to tell how you do it. *g*
Admittedly I'm looking at this post through the haze of birthday! drinks!, but I read Justine's post in depth whilst at work, skimmed Jay's before I went out, and now I witness this in the early aftermath... and geez, this novel meme is really growing in complexity. Sooner or later budding writers will be advised to shower themselves in the milk from Cleopatra's last bath and hum the last hum of Sophocles whilst penning their thoughts during a whipping and caning courtesy of the collected Dastardly Dictators of History, cheered on by Henry Kissinger... after two years of plotting, planning, annotating, editing, transposing, re-organising, re-thinking, re-plotting, re-planning... oh, you see where I'm going.

Drunken, bad, lazy attempts to be funny aside... I will read your post when sober. Because I have no doubts there will be great advice to be gleaned.
no no no. This isn't advice.

This is how I write a novel. Full stop.

There may be bits you can steal. But it's not advice. *g*
Have you ever read C.S.Forester's essay on writing? It's in "The Hornblower companion" and is a fascinating insight into how he wrote.
It's also probably not applicable to anyone else, other than as a general idea, but it's an interesting read.
I have not. And yeah, none of it is applicable to anybody else. That is the magic of art. No rules, just techniques that work or don't work.
(falls in thankful heap)

I completed my first novel late last year and sent it to an agent who showed some interest (still waiting.... still waiting....).

As time has stretched, I've found myself less and less confident in the work, and the main object of that quiet despair has been a)I'm not good enough after all and b) I ddin't know what the hell I was doing.

My work process was a lot like the one you've outlined.

So now, at least if this novel goes nowehere, I'll know that you're never going to sell a novel either :)))

Seriously, thanks for posting this. Getting an insight into a working practice that is close to my own, from such an established writer, has done a lot to quiet my inner self-hate machine.

Self-loathing! It's part of my process!
A fellow tech writer and chum gave me a novel assembly kit for Christmas one year.

It consisted of a pack of yellow legal pads, a pack of yellow eight-sided pencils, a couple of pink erasers, and directions.

The directions read, "Sharpen pencil (a). Remove single pad (b) from package. Using pencil (a) to apply lead to pad (b), assemble words from the character set A-Z, a-z, 0-9, and special characters as necessary. Repeat until finished."

And really that covers most of the essentials...