Writing Process #5: Writing It

FOLLOWING on from the previous post . . .

I’ve got my story in timeline form (the spreadsheet), and I’m happy with it. Is there anything else I need to do?

There probably is. It’s almost certain that there are small things I do as part of my process that I’ve neglected to mention up to this point (when I have time I’ll go back and update the earlier posts to add those other things in as I think of them).

One thing I know I forgot to address is Point of View. I usually decide pretty early on which PoV I want to write in, and in fact the way I do my spreadsheet depends on that decision. I colour-code each scene (usually green) depending on whose PoV that scene will be written from. If I’ve decided to write the story in first person, that means that all the green scenes will be in the one column corresponding to the character telling the entire story. That doesn’t necessarily make the colour codes redundant, because there might be “scenes” in my timeline in which something happens, but I don’t want to include it as an actual scene in the written story. For example, maybe this is something that gets referred to later in a flashback, say. (Not that I use flashbacks, but I’m not going to avoid using them just because some people say they’re bad; if I find a place where a flashback works better than other options I can think of, I’ll use one. Not that that’s ever happened, but it might. But I digress.)

More often, I write in third-person, and each scene is told from one character’s perspective. I prefer third person—it means I can write scenes from pretty much any character’s perspective, including an antagonist’s, so I can create dramatic irony by using that character’s PoV to reveal to the reader stuff that other characters don’t know (Fred is pounding up the stairs to get to the tenth floor in a hurry, but we know something that he doesn’t—Charlie is waiting on the ninth, and he’s got a very sharp axe). As part of building the spreadsheet, I decide who gets the PoV for each scene. Mostly it’s obvious, but often there’ll be a scene with two or more major characters in it, and it can sometimes be hard to decide which of them gets to tell the story for that scene.

Another thing I didn’t mention is that sometimes—in fact, pretty often, if I’m being honest—I might “lose” a handful of scenes at the very beginning and the very end of the timeline. I don’t delete them; I just change them from green to grey, to indicate that these scenes lead into the real action at the beginning, and aren’t necessary at the end. Trimming like this can be important, especially at the start of the story; you need to get to your inciting incident, the thing that kicks things off, but you often need to give your readers something to set the scene before you get to the real action. Balancing how much lead-in you should have can be tricky, and it can be easy to write more than the story really needs. I try to err on the cautious side; if in doubt, I’ll leave the questionable scenes in place, and then later I (or my editor) can see if they detract or slow things down too much, and I can chop out the fat.

Enough of that. Back to where I started: I have the timeline, and I’m ready to begin the process of putting words on paper (well, on my laptop screen, but you get the point). Where do I begin?

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You don’t have to write the scenes in the order they’ll be read (at least, assuming your readers start reading at page one). It’s your process; do what works for you. I’ve heard of people who start at the last scene and work forward. I know of one writer who saves up the “fun” scenes—the ones he thinks will be the most fun to write—for last, so that writing those will be a reward for getting through the rest of it (in his words, looking forward to writing those gives him more motivation to write the other scenes).

Personally, I begin at the beginning—the first scene in the timeline. To me it just seems logical to do it that way, and one big plus is that it helps me keep the continuity straight. (I’ve screwed up continuity in the past; for example, in one book I wrote, I did some shuffling of scenes on the timeline and ended up with a character showing up in a scene after she’d already died in an earlier scene. Oops. One more reason to do as much as possible get the timeline right before starting the actual writing.)

Here’s what I do. I look at the one-paragraph description of the scene I’m about to write. I take it in, mull it over, and think about how it’s going to be worded. This thinkage is something I find easier to do when I have a few minutes of quiet time—in the car on the way to the store, maybe, or on the way to or from work.

I think about where the scene is going to take place. In some cases the description doesn’t say because it’s not important, so I can pretty much pick anywhere that makes sense for the story. In other cases the description does say where it happens, but not in detail. As an example, it might happen at the zoo, so I have to decide where exactly—I might decide it’s going to take place by the lion cage, or in the insect house.

I think about the ambience of the setting. Outside? What’s the weather like? Inside? Is it all brightly lit by sunshine through big windows, or dim and smoky, or maybe shafts of sunlight cut through the dusty air like in a Ridley Scott movie. Is it hot, or cold? What sounds are there, what smells?

And of course I think about what’s going to happen in the scene, just as the one-paragraph description says. How is it going to happen? Which characters are involved? What are they going to say to each other? (That leads to thoughts about the actual dialogue. If I think up some dialogue that I like a lot, I’ll find some way to record it—scribble it on paper, use a voice recorder, tap it into Google Keep on my phone; but I’ve learned from experience not to trust to memory.) Is there going to be some fighting going on? If so, I think about the moves (I’ll come back to this).

How long I spend thinking about all this for a single scene varies quite a bit. Sometimes, for a simple scene, I might have it straight in my head in twenty minutes. For a complex scene I might think about it for four or five hours spread over a couple of days. It all depends.

Once I have it all figured out, I can write the scene. Here are a few guidelines I try to follow:

  • Description: two or three short phrases is usually plenty. Give only the details that are important; let your reader’s imagination fill in the rest. A tall, grey-haired man in a black suit entered the library, his metal-rimmed spectacles reflecting the gaslight as he turned to stand in front of the fire.
  • Get straight to the point. If you need to set the scene, do it quick and get on with the action.
  • You generally don’t need the little details. Two characters sit down and talk over tea. That’s all you need to say. You don’t need to point out when they pour tea, add sugar, stir, sip. Unless the way they do it says something about their personalities, or is important to the story in some way. Jack held the sugar spoon above the cup, and watched the second hand on the clock. When it hit thirteen, he dumped the sugar in quickly, and stirred.
  • Similarly, you can do without the body language for the most part. Nodding and shaking of heads, shrugging, things of that nature, can all be left out. On the other hand, sometimes a little body language can say something better than words. Fred’s eyes went wide at the sight. (Check out a really handy book called The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression, by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi.)
  • Fights and other fast action: keep things moving. Bernie throws a haymaker at John. John ducks, and punches Bernie in the groin. Bernie doubles over as John straightens quickly and brings his knee up into Bernie’s face. You get the idea. The thing is, just saying they fight isn’t enough. You need pulse-pounding action in bite-sized chunks, shot at your reader in short, controlled, machine-gun bursts.

. . . and possibly the most important points:

  • Don’t worry about screwing up on the first stab at a scene. Fear of writing the wrong thing is real, and it’ll stop you in your tracks if you let it. So don’t let it. Remember, no-one will see what you’ve written until you’re ready for them to see it, so you can edit and polish and edit and polish and take as many runs at it as you need to get it into shape.
  • You can’t correct a blank page. You can fix a scene that’s not working for you.

. . . and with those in mind, I start writing. Pretty much guaranteed, the first sentence will be junk. That’s ok. Everything is fixable, but I make a point of not fixing anything until I’ve got the scene down. Sometimes I come up with new ideas as I’m writing that aren’t quite in line with the original description of the scene but, in a kind of Eureka moment, are better than what I was originally going to do. I put those in, full steam ahead and damn the torpedoes—just so long as it’s not going to mean rewriting the timeline (or at least, if it only means minor changes to fit it in), that’s fine too.

And I write until the scene is done, and I don’t look back at what I’ve written as I go; that’ll kill what momentum I have faster than cold water on a dynamite fuse. I know there will be mistakes. When the scene’s done I go back over what I’ve written and fix any glaring errors—missed words, spelling and grammar mistakes, other minor stuff. That junky first sentence? I might fix that, too, if I a better alternative comes to me (it often does, once I have the rest of the scene in place to give it more context).

Then . . . on with the next scene. Think it through, get it all in my head, then write it. Rinse and repeat.

One thing that tends to suffer a little bit here is that because I essentially stop between scenes, it can be hard to maintain momentum. Some people would have a problem with that. I have a problem with that—but I’ve found that if I happen to build up that kind of momentum (it just happens, or it doesn’t; it’s not something I can control), and let it flow, let myself carry on into the next scene and the next without worrying about it, I sometimes end up writing something that is possibly better than what I’d have written with my usual planning steps. Or not. Or maybe about the same. The thing is, when it happens I let it happen, and see where it carries me. When I come back to it later, if I don’t like it, I can always change it just by going back to my usual, plodding, planned method.

Like I said, think and write, rinse and repeat, one scene at a time. Given that I have limited time because of the day job, it usually takes me somewhere around twelve weeks to get a full-length book of, say, 90,000 words written from beginning to end.

But at the end of that twelve weeks I have a first draft. And the first time you do that, you get that realisation that WOW, I’VE WRITTEN A BOOK! It’s not ready to publish yet, but the whole story is there. Break out the bubbly and take a break, for in the next episode I’ll be coming to the next job: editing.

Until next time . . .

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