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Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Puzzle

So writing.

Everyone has a process. Finding what works for you is all that matters.

Some folks write by the seat of their pants. They sit in front of a blank screen and just start writing, letting the story unfold with no preconceived notions, no idea where the characters are going. They're called pantsers. For the life of me, I don't know how they do it.

The blank page can be a brick wall and is, in my opinion, the most challenging part of the creative process. I experience a great deal of frustration when I don't know where the story is going. I do not enjoy pantsing. At all.

So I don't do it.

I'm an outliner. I spend an extraordinary amount of time on a legal pad. My process has evolved over the years, and it's been slightly different for each novel. Socket Greeny took three years to finish. Nowadays it takes me 3 to 4 months to get a 90,000 word rough draft.

A novel is technically anything over 40,000 words. The Socket Greeny novels finished under 70,000 words each. Nowadays, I shoot for 90,000 to 100,000 words in the rough draft because I know I'll trim out 10,000 to 20,000 words in the editing process.

Don't worry about word count. Let your story be however long it's going to be. The Drayton stories were all about 10,000 words. I just couldn't seem to turn that character into a novel.

What interests you? I like stories that address reality/consciousness/identity themes. Any story that questions our humanity, what makes us who we are, our place in the universe, the purpose of life. In some ways, I like to write as a thought experiment, to question our preconceptions. Our five senses are not the gold standard for reality. What else is possible?

I also like plot twists, those turns in the road you don't see coming.

Once, I attempted to write a romance novel. I was trying something new. I was 40,000 words into a rough draft and all I could think about was my next sci-fi project. I dropped the romance novel on the spot and never looked back. Again, another 40,000 words that will never see the light of day, but 40,000 words that helped identify my passion.

So my process starts with a legal pad and a cup of coffee. I start with a vague idea of the entire story arc that I know will change. I expect it to, but I need to have a destination to start with. Detours, however, are welcome. In The Annihilation of Foreverland, I wanted teenage boys to wake on a tropical island with no memories where they would slowly discover they were being sent to an alternate reality for all the wrong reasons. That was the big stage. Now for the first act, waking on the island.

I start with a cast of characters, do some brief character sketches, outline physical characteristics and names. Then I outline the first three chapters. In a month or two, I'll start the fourth book in the Claus series. I don't even have a title yet, but I have a character. Aunt Rhonnie will be this over the top, vapid model-chic absent mother with 21st century, first world problems. The arc will be something like A Christmas Carol. That's all I've got so far. But soon I'll sit down with a legal pad and let the process begin.

Outlining means I sit there staring into space while scenes unfold in my head. I write down scant details, just enough to catch the flow, sometimes a quote or specific action. Occasionally the shorthand version of a dialog. This allows me to settle into the scene, to let it develop. To an extent, I'm an observer. And by using a legal pad and pen, I can jot down the notes as they happen because they're unfolding in real time, so to speak, in my head. I can't do that sitting at the computer.

Most of my writing actually gets done on the drive to work, laying in bed, or taking a shower. These are times I can engage the chapter I'm working on, let the characters start again like actors rehearsing. Sometimes I'll make quick notes on my phone or a scratch piece of paper so I don't forget. This is what it means to always be writing, to have the story in the queue when there's downtime. By the time I get to the computer, I have a good idea of where I'm going.

This is what I enjoy so much about writing. It's the challenge of solving the story, this gigantic puzzle that springs from the imagination to engage the reader, to thrill and move the emotions. And it is a challenge. Be prepared to delete often. In Foreverland is Dead, I torched the first 10,000 words because it wasn't going in the right direction. In Halfskin, I started over after 8,000 words because Marcus Anderson came out of nowhere and ended up being a major player in the overall story arc.

So yeah, there's a lot of starting and stopping and going  backwards. But that's the process. Enjoy that. Be the biggest fan of your own story. Some readers will join you, others won't care. But your story will always have you. Your characters will have their time in the sun.

Because they're ones telling the story.

To be continued...

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