Saturday, 13 February 2016

"My Method"

Today I had my bank account upgraded to HSBC's super special thing. I mostly booked that meeting to close down some accounts I don't really need and get their extra special ISA (which for all non-UKians is our local tax-free savings account - if you do save cash, an ISA is kind of the government-approved way to do it).

In any case, this young guy at the bank is setting all that stuff up for me and while we talk about all my sources of income, obviously the writing comes up. Mostly he seemed impressed that there's a noticeable cash flow from writing. And it emerged that's he's a writer, too, though one of the "I really need to get back into it" kind of writers. A baby writer. (Obviously I gave him some pointers about self-publishing and warned him about shitty contracts. Start'em young, is what I'm saying.)

One of the questions that keep coming up when writer meets writer, is "so do you outline?" - that put me back to a discussion I had on Twitter the other day, where I summed up "my method" in around 8-10 tweets.

Now, I teach writing, I coach writers, I own more creative writing books than I'll ever be able to read, so I am aware of the whole spectrum from "vade retro, SATANAS" to "I'm not writing one single line without having written five pre-outlines". I know some of the most productive writers on the planet (people who write 5-12 novels per year) tend to outline.

Outlines are awesome. They sound like a great tool. I HAVE outlined a few of my novels and I've stalled horribly on some books where I haven't - going from "shit, I didn't expect this" to an 18-month writers' block. The "outliners" even claim there's no such thing as "writer's block", but I don't think it's QUITE that easy.

So, what I'm saying is listen to what I say, not do as I do.

Because even with all those tools at my disposal, I don't outline - not in 90% of all my books. Maybe it's because I consider a story largely a living organism and I have the basic schematics very firmly embedded in my mind ("mammals - two sets of limbs each, apart from the head - we only need one of those").

So while I'm usually flying by the seat of my pants - and sometimes I'm a supersonic speed-freak of a pantser, and sometimes I'm more a blimp, lazily drawing my circles until something happens, I do usually arrive at my destination. That said, I have a couple outlines - it's just that I still need to write those books. So yeah, books I have outlined are the books that tend to not get written.

So, here's my "pantsing" process, which brought you the following stories: Skybound, Dark Soul, all of the Scorpion books, Return on Investment, Risk Return, Incursion... (it's clearly working)

1) Hear voice. A character voice emerges and at that point I barely know who they are, but they start talking and tell me about their problem/issue/situation.

(Addendum: If I already HAVE the character, as is the case with a prequel/sequel/spin-off, I'd call this "flash of insight" - it's something like, "what if Kendras realised that Adrastes isn't quite the man he thought he was", or "I think there's some kind of ambassador involved somewhere, and I knew stuff is going to move and we learn who Kendras's parents are, because all fantasy novels work like that" - bang, we have two more Scorpion books)

2) Commune with voice. At that point, I need to sit back and listen and also start asking question. Note: The more paranoid characters won't reveal all their cards or might not answer. That's fine. They'll eventually show who they are by what they do on the page.

3) Moment of commitment. I finally shove everything else (including other deadlines and projects) out of the way and sit down and start writing.

Thus endeth the "preparation phase".

4) Set-Up/Act 1. Usually at this point I have the character, their situation/problem, and the setting in the widest sense. This means I'm writing - fairly quickly - anywhere between 5,000 and 18,000 words, in chronological order. I write the books exactly in the order you guys read them - even when there's a flashback at the start like in Return on Investment, or pretty early in the book like in Scorpion.

5) THE FIRST WALL. This is my Roadrunner moment when I realise I've run so fast I've left the cliff behind and am standing on thin air. And there's always that delayed "double-take" "oh-shit" moment. Needless to say, that's not a very productive moment - I tend to seriously consider abandoning the book - the usual excuse is "I love this, but I have no plot."

6) Wandering the Plotless Wastes of Doom. This is when I tend to be annoyed with myself for abandoning whatever I've temporarily abandoned in step 3. As words are usually not happening, I notice I buy a lot more stationery and get some reading done. Extra points if those are books relating to whatever project I'm struggling with. This is when I read books on plotting, creative writing books and hang out on the internet.

7) Surrender/Travelling Without a Compass. Eventually I get over myself and keep writing. This is the moment when I'm "just following my characters" who know better than I do what they want and how they'd deal with the situation. I just let them get on with it. It's their lives, after all.

8) Moment of crisis/THE SECOND WALL. Either my character or I (or both of us) are about ready to give this stuff up and leave the book. Somehow, though, there's another 10-20,000 words on the page.

All this is roughly "the middle" of the book.

9) BREAK INTO THREE - suddenly the shutters come off, the sun climbs over the horizon, the stars align - I can see where I'm going. The missing puzzle piece shows up, and seen through the lense of THAT, everything now makes sense. That character I introduced ONLY because I found him wandering the Plotless Wastes of Doom with no idea what he was good for has the answer or said something clever, and suddenly IT ALL COMES TOGETHER. This is how I know I'm in the last third of my book. Shit's beginning to make sense. I usually even have a rough idea how it'll all end.

10) The I'M A FUCKING GENIUS/WRITING IS EASY phase. So I'm writing hard and fast to put in all the pieces I have. This is usually when my writing speeds up quite impressively - I'm writing 5-10,000 per weekend, that kind of speed.

11) The "Maybe this is shit, but at least it's done" moment. As the exhilaration of the previous stage wears off, I'm approaching the ending. This is the last 10-20 pages of the book. The ending is so close I can see it. This is the moment when I'm seriously wondering whether the book is actually any good - what I do know is that it's a poor shadow of the book I  WANTED to write. But at least I'm almost... and then done, so phew, it might be a crock of shit, but it's written and it kind of all makes sense.

12) Betas. I usually send books to a couple readers, but more intensely so towards the ending of the process (because then I know I'm much more likely to finish it). Usually, while I'm still coping with the disappointment/non-genius of that book, I start getting feedback from my betas who indicate it's not a flawless emerald of rare value, but at least it's readable/entertaining and has some decent to good lines.

And then I edit - realising that I'm a decent writer who can actually write. That's nice and gets me through the edits/proofing/layout.


So, right now, with Risk Return, I'm very firmly in stage 9, bordering on 10.