Friday, June 15, 2012

How I Write

Something I get asked fairly often is how I approach writing a story, and in this article I'll try to provide some insight into my creative process.

My approach is probably not the most efficient way to do it, but it works for me. If you're planning on getting into the writing game, take what you need and find a way that works for you. The important thing (as I'll discuss later) is that you do the work and put in the hours.

Ready to get started? Great, let's go.  

Plotter or Pantser?

The first question I need to answer is whether I plot my stories, and the answer to that is no. Not that I have anything against plotting, in fact I admire someone who can map out an entire story upfront. I can't do it. When I try the resulting work comes out sounding forced and wooden.

Does that make me a pantser - someone who writes a story by the seat of the pants? To be honest with you, I've never liked that description. I prefer Stephen King's suggestion that stories are not written but "found". The analogy he uses is of unearthing a dinosaur. It suggests that the story already exists and that the writer's job is to unearth it, using the tools at his disposal - his writing skills, imagination and command of language.

The idea that the story already exists has often come to my rescue when I've suffered that loss of faith called writer's block. It's a whole lot easier to keep going when you know that "it's in there and all I have to do is find it", than it is to deal with "I'll never be able to write this. I suck as a writer."

My approach to writing is to create a character and give him a goal. I'll set him on the road to addressing that goal and I'll throw all kinds of problems and complications at him and see how he works himself out of them. Often resolving one problem will lead him to another, and if it doesn't I'll throw something else at him (I'm cruel that way!).

The Book Is The Boss

The point is, I don't try to force the action. The award winning sci-fi writer, Alfred Bester once said, "the book is the boss" and I can relate to  that. My own writing credo is, "let it go, let it flow," in other words I allow the story to reveal itself to me rather than forcing the action. As soon as I use force, I tend to lose my story.

At this point you may be thinking, "that's all very well but what if the ideas dry up half way through, what if your characters simply refuse to cooperate and work things out for themselves?" I'm not going to lie to you and say I've never had to trash a scene, a chapter or even an entire story, but it seldom happens. Human beings are born problem solvers, where a problem exists we are genetically programmed to seek a solution, even if the problem is only a fictional one.

If I do find myself in a situation where my story refuses to move forward, I know that it is down to one of two things, either I am trying too hard, or I'm not trying hard enough. Trying too hard means I am forcing things along, not allowing my characters to do their thing, making their decisions for them.

It Won't Write Itself

The flip side is not trying hard enough, i.e. not doing the work. I have a sign above my desk that says "It Won't Write Itself!" When I find myself slacking off that usually gets me moving.

I write every day and set myself a goal of 4000 words. Some writers do more, others less. The point is that you set a goal and stick to it. I have often had days when I approach my desk with nothing and end up with some of my best work simply because I pushed on to reach my target.

Why I write Novellas

I write novellas of 20,000 to 30,000 words often in series of three to four books. There was a time when there was no market for the novella format, but that's all changed, thanks to the rise of e-books and e-readers. Novellas are a perfectly suited to the format. They are generally fast-paced and a quick read, ideal in other words for today's time-poor reader.

But that's not why I chose the novella as my format. I chose it (or maybe it chose me) because it suits my style and temperament. I like to set a fast pace with lots of action, lots of dialog and just enough description to set the scene. I don't want to bore my readers and I don't want to pad out my work with reams of description, so the novella works perfectly for for me. 

Story Ideas

Probably one of the most common questions I gets asked is, "where do you get your ideas from?" Maybe I'm lucky in this regard, but I actually have more story ideas than I'll ever be able to write.

Where do they come from? The honest answer is that I don't really know, they just seem to turn up whenever I'm writing. Perhaps there's a clue in that, I believe you'll find more inspiration in the doing than in the sitting around and hoping inspiration taps you on the shoulder. 

Writing Mechanics

A good bit of writing advice I once read is "there's no such think as writing, only re-writing. Unfortunately, it's advice I find difficult to apply. I'm not suggesting that I don't do a couple of re-writes once I'm finished my first draft. But I do try to get the first draft as close to the finished product as possible.

Other writers just get in the zone and get it out and fix later. I can't write like that. I spend a lot of time editing and re-editing as I write. It can be a real pain in the ass sometimes, but what can I say, it's what I've got!

So, that's it - a brief and, I'll admit, somewhat rambling description of my writing process. If there are any other questions I can clear up for you, please use the comments box below.  


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