Writing Process #7: Submitting

YOU’VE self-edited your script, and now it’s much better than that first draft you had before. Is it perfect? Probably not. You could do another editing pass and I’ll bet you’ll still find something wrong. Lots of somethings, in fact. But there comes a point where you can honestly say to yourself that your typescript is something you’re happy for someone else to read. Are you ready to get it published?

How do you get it published?

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There are a number of options:

  • Self-publishing. There are plenty of places to do that. My very first full-length work was self-published on Smashwords, and as part of that process it was automatically made available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and several other platforms. But to self-publish properly, you have to do all the work that a publisher would do. You must BECOME THE PUBLISHER. You need, really need, a professional editor to work with you on polishing the work to a high shine. (I can’t stress how important that is. Some people can self-edit to a professional standard, but those people are as rare as rocking-horse droppings; do you really, honestly think you can self-edit to that standard?) You need someone to format it properly for publication. You need cover artwork. Of course, you could do all that yourself, but you’re better off getting professionals involved—and that costs money. So you have to ask yourself, are you happy to spend the cash with no guarantee that you’ll make enough sales to get that money back?
  • Go directly to a publisher. Smaller indie publishers will generally accept submissions directly from authors. Larger publishers, not so much (see the next bit, about agents). Work up a list of publishers that deal with books in your genre—you might be surprised just how many people submit work that’s in a genre the publisher just doesn’t deal with. Make sure they’re accepting submissions (many publishers only accept submissions at certain times of year; some only open for submissions when they have the bandwidth to take on work). Publishers have guidelines for submissions—for example they might ask for the first ten pages of your story to be pasted into an email cover letter. Some will ask for a synopsis. Many will delete emails with attachments unread. So read the guidelines carefully and follow them to the letter.
  • Find an agent. The bad thing everyone thinks about agents: they take a percentage of the profits of sales of your book. Well, of course they do. They have to pay the rent on their double-wide, same as you. But the good things about agents outweigh the bad by a good margin. An agent can submit your book to publishers that won’t take submissions direct from authors. They can help make sure that a publishing contract isn’t screwing you. They can get you better contract terms (for example a better percentage on sales) than you might be able to manage on your own. In the end, the fact that agent takes, say, fifteen percent, is more than made up for by the fact that she’ll get you a publishing deal that makes you more sales. Some agents also suggest edits to improve the work. As to finding an agent . . . well, there are a few ways. Follow Writer’s Digest (@WritersDigest) on Twitter—they often send out alerts when agents are looking for books in specific genres. Check out QueryTracker—this is a great tool that can help you search for agents. When you find an agent to submit to, the rules are much the same as for publishers—check genre, make sure the agent is accepting submissions, follow submission guidelines closely. When it comes to writing query letters, check out Query Shark.

This is IMPORTANT: No reputable agent or publisher should ever, ever, EVER ask you for money up front to “cover costs” or for anything else. Real publishers and agents take their percentage from sales of the book AFTER it’s been published. If an agent or publisher charges for their services up front, they’re almost certainly scam artists intent on taking your money. Take a look at the Writer Beware site for more on this.

Here’s another thing: Be ready for rejection. In fact, expect rejection—that way it won’t faze you when it happens. And it will happen, over and over and over. At a rough estimate based on what I’ve seen, the chances of any one agent accepting your work is something like five percent. Indie publishers appear to have higher acceptance rates, but it’s hard to be certain about that because good data is hard to find. The thing is, agents and publishers are taking a risk when they accept your work. They have to cover the costs of doing their job until your book is on the shelves and making sales—in the case of agents, time spent dealing with publishers, and in the case of publishers, paying editors and artists and everyone else involved in getting your book out there. Maybe you’ll sell hundreds of thousands of copies and you’ll all be rolling in cash. Or not. It’s a gamble, and it’s on their dime, which is why agents and publishers are so picky about what they accept.

Now let’s say your work is accepted. What next?

AFTER you’ve celebrated a little bit (because getting accepted IS a big deal and worthy of a little celebration), be ready for what can be the hardest part of this whole thing. Remember all that self-editing you did? Well, now it’s about to happen again. Only this time, someone else—maybe your agent, maybe a copy editor working for a publisher—will be picking your book apart and finding things you didn’t even suspect weren’t right. They’ll be coming back at you with lists of things that need changing. (They should not be making those changes themselves, beyond maybe correcting simple, obvious stuff like spelling errors; they should just be telling you this passage or that scene needs fixing, and they might suggest ideas for how to fix it. But it’s your book, and how you fix it is up to you.) And you might very well find yourself working to a deadline.

Here’s a story for you; at the time Mr. Gunn & Dr. Bohemia was accepted, I had no idea that I was about to spend the next SEVEN MONTHS editing the typescript for publication. Seven months of working on it evenings after work, and hour upon hour at weekends. It was tough, and not just on me—I swear my wife had plans to throw my laptop out into the yard and then set it on fire. (This is why so many books have an “acknowledgements” page where the author thanks their spouse for putting up with it all for so long. Until you’ve been through it, and put your other half through it, you have no idea just how much mutual understanding is needed for this.) But seeing the book out where people could buy it made it all worth it.

And guess what? Once you’ve been through it once, the lessons you learn will make the next one go that much easier.

That, I think, concludes this short series of posts (unless I think of something else to add). I hope, gentle reader, that this helps in some small way.

Until next time . . .

Writing Process #6a: I Found This Great Book

I was in the process of writing the #7 post for this short series when I came across a book . . .

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It’s How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method, by Randy “Snowflake guy” Ingermanson. (Here’s a link to the web site.) And having read it, I have to say that if the articles I’ve been writing about my own process resonate with you, then you should have a look at this book. Ingermanson’s method is very similar to my own in many respects, but formalises some steps that my own process tends to leave a bit vague. (On the other hand, my process seems to have a couple of additional aspects—for example the way I think about characters—but I should be able to merge bits of my own process as described so far without any conflicts.)

The way the book’s written comes across as a little weird at first—Goldilocks goes to a writer conference and learns about the Snowflake Method, meeting the three bears, the big bad wolf, Mother Hubbard, and other storybook characters along the way—but it makes for a more entertaining read. The last couple of chapters summarise the method and show in detail how it was used to write the book itself.

I’ll definitely be using this method for my next book (or to be more specific, I’ll be creating a Frankenstein hybrid of Snowflake and my own, using Snowflake for the framework and adding in my preferred way of thinking about characters together with the way I like to build my timelines).

Does Ingermanson’s method supersede the posts I’ve already done in this series? Maybe. Probably, even. But I’ll leave them up anyway. Does it mean #7 won’t happen? No, it doesn’t—because that’s going to be about getting a work published, which is something the Snowflake method doesn’t get into so much (beyond writing short and long synopses, but that’s still considered part of the process of developing a story as well as being something you can use when submitting for publication).

So, watch this space for #7 in the series, which should be up within the next few days. (Sorry for the delay on getting it done, by the way; life intervened and pretty much blew away last weekend, which was when I’d planned to finish it up and get it posted.)

Until then . . .

Writing Process #6: (Self) Editing

YOU have a first draft! Great! But . . . it’s not ready to be published. Not yet. Trust me on this. There’s work to be done.

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The work needs to be edited. Ultimately it needs editing by a professional editor, but before it gets to that stage there’s a lot you can do. For one thing, you just wrote the thing and it’s going to have rough spots all the way through it.

As I mentioned in the previous post in this series, after I’ve written each scene I go back over it—just a quick pass to spot obvious screwups. Missed and doubled words, errors in spelling, grammar, and punctuation. That’s about it. There’s not much point trying to do more right after I’ve written the scene because, well, I’ve only just written it. The words are still in my head. I’m still too close to it. As a result, I can read the scene and still miss some glaring errors.

That’s why, after I’ve written each scene, I only give it a cursory once-over and move on. When the last scene has been written, something like three months will have passed since I wrote the first scene. So if I look at those early scenes again, I’m seeing them a little bit more clearly. Ideally I want to be reading it as if I’d never seen it before, so what I should do next is put the draft away for about ten years, so that I forget I ever wrote it. No, of course that’s not practical.

The first thing I do when I go back to the first scenes I wrote, three or four months earlier, is to re-read, carefully, looking for mistakes. Many people will tell you to read it aloud. The thing about doing that is, it forces you to slow down the pace and avoid just skimming, and that will help you spot errors better than just about anything else. The other thing you’ll find by doing this is passages where the wording is awkward or convoluted. If it doesn’t trip off the tongue, it’ll tie your readers’ brains in knots.

Here are a few of the things I look for in particular:

  • Obvious mistakes in spelling, grammar, and punctuation. If in doubt, use a style guide. (I use The Chicago Manual of Style, because that’s what my publisher uses.)
  • Consistency. If you use the Oxford comma (I do), then make sure to use it wherever it applies. If you have hyphenated words, use the same hyphenation everywhere. (Example: one of my early stories had a thing called a “road train”—but in some places I hyphenated it as “road-train”, and in others I didn’t.) If you italicise your characters’ thoughts, then be consistent.
  • Passive Voice. This can be difficult to spot, because it’s sometimes very subtle. For example, the difference between “someone shot at me”, and “I was shot at”. (I think you’ll agree that the second phrase is a little stronger than the first.)
  • Dialogue layout. I open a new paragraph as each character speaks; I find that makes it easier to follow who’s saying what. (I’ve read books in which the different characters’ lines are all mashed together into a single paragraph. It’s horrible, and hard to read.)
  • Again, in dialogue, I rip out superfluous uses of “he said, she said” and similar. Most times, you know who’s talking. If there’s a potential for confusion, especially in a long conversation, I’ll add something every half dozen paragraphs or so to make it clear who’s doing the talking.

And of course I’ll spot errors of other kinds as I’m going through. Dialogue in which it’s not clear who’s speaking. Characters acting or talking in ways that aren’t in line with their personalities (that can be harder to fix). And sometimes entire scenes that come across as so wrong that the only thing to do is tear them down and rewrite them. It happens.

When I’ve finished editing the last scene, I put the whole thing to one side for a bit—maybe a week, maybe a month—and then . . . I do it again. And I can guarantee you that I’ll spot a whole herd of obvious, glaring errors that I didn’t spot the first time round. Errors that are so in-yer-face that it’s hard to believe I could possibly have missed them earlier. And yet, there they are. And then I do it again, and I find a bunch more mistakes. AND THIS NEVER ENDS. I think I could go through it a hundred times and still find mistakes. Eventually there comes a point where I just have to say “good enough” and stop. And of course, bear in mind that the book will still be going to a professional editor, and she’ll spot things I missed, too.

Another thing I do is write a synopsis. I usually do this after the first or second editing pass. Basically I skim each scene and note what happens, in the form of a single sentence. The result is similar to the one-paragraph-per-scene timeline, but there are a couple of important differences:

  • I have one sentence per scene, and I put the sentences together so that I have one paragraph per chapter*.
  • I’m actually working from the draft text, not the original timeline; that’s important because during the writing, what I actually end up writing very often drifts away from the timeline description a little bit because a new idea comes to me as I’m writing.

(*At this point a chapter is just a file containing around 2,500 words. Whether the final book’s chapters line up with this or not is irrelevant—it’s just a convenient size when it comes to editing. The final book might not even have chapters; for example The Artemis Device is in the form of a series of scenes with no other divisions.)

Having a synopsis is valuable, because many agents and publishers will ask for one as part of the query/submission process. If you’ve created one as part of your process, you won’t have to put one together in a rush later when you suddenly find you need one. But building the synopsis is priceless, for a couple of reasons:

  • You get back to a high level view of your story’s structure, and that in itself can help you spot problems that you might not notice otherwise. For example, while I was writing a synopsis recently, I found that I had a character recovering in bed after being attacked—and then, just a couple of scenes later (in terms of time, a matter of a couple of hours), he’s up and about in a different part of the city. Oops! When I checked the timeline I found I’d missed an entire scene in which he decides he has to go after his assailant despite his injuries. Somehow I’d skipped over it.
  • As I’m writing each sentence to describe each scene, I sometimes come across scenes for which adding a sentence to the synopsis seems like padding. When that happens I can ask myself, is this scene really needed? If I rip it out, does the story suffer? If the scene doesn’t have a function—if it doesn’t drive the story forward or explain something about a character, it can probably be removed.

When do you stop editing? I guess, when it’s time to submit your work to an agent or publisher. And so, in the next and quite possibly last post in this series, I’m going to get into that a little bit.

Until next time . . .

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 . . .

Writing Process #4: A Bit of Character

THIS post should really have come a bit sooner. I mentioned in an earlier post (#2, I think) that I begin to develop my characters in parallel with developing the story, as I expand it from a few paragraphs to a full scene-by-scene description. But I didn’t go into detail, and I should have. So let me put that right before I go too much further.

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This is what I said: “Story is characters. Characters are story. You can’t have one without the other.” And I said a little bit about how I build up my characters as I’m building the story. So let me expand on that.

Character Drives Story

ALAN—our protagonist—is walking home from the pub with his friend Bert. On the way they encounter a couple of other guys. Bert’s had a bit too much to drink, and says something that one of these other guys takes offence at. Tension. There’s a fight coming. What happens next?

That all depends on Alan’s character. He might be scared of getting hurt and just step back out of harm’s way. Or he might say something to try to defuse the situation. Or he might square his shoulders and step up beside Bert to warn the other guys off. Or he might be a bit handy with his fists and relish the idea of a bit of rough and tumble. Or he might be torn between running away, and risking lost teeth to help his friend.

What happens next, then, depends on Alan’s character. Character drives the story, decides which direction things go. So it’s important to know your characters. If you don’t know Alan, you don’t know what’s going to happen, so you can’t write the scene.

One way to get to know Alan is to work out his back story. So I might say to myself something like, Alan grew up in a small town and he didn’t see a lot of violence, apart from a couple of lads who tended to bully some of the other kids. Once, one of them punched Alan and threw him into a pond, and Alan’s been scared of getting into fights ever since. And so on. I could figure out an entire history for Alan (and since he’s my protagonist, I certainly should do that in some detail), and that will help me get to know who he is and how he’ll react in a given situation.

Another thing I need to know about a character is their motivations. Back story can give you a lot of that, but I also try to think about two particular aspects:

  • What the character wants
  • What the character needs

These can be two very different things. The character will be aware of what they want, but they might not recognise what they really need. When the wants and needs are in some kind of opposition, conflict ensues. That makes for an interesting story. For example: Vernon wants the winning lottery ticket that’s being blown away by the wind, but running after it means leaving his friend William hanging from the flagpole on the side of the skyscraper—and he needs William’s friendship. He’s torn between going after the ticket, and helping William back to safety.

Story Drives Character

CHARACTERS that don’t change aren’t as interesting as ones that do. Your main characters should be changed in some way by the voyage between the beginning and the end. The story needs to punch them in the gut, open their eyes, teach them something about the world or about themselves or about something they love. And as part of planning your story, you need to plan how the story is going to affect your characters.

I have to admit that I used to be a bit vague on how I did that in my earlier writing. I didn’t really have a method for it, and I tended to just let the story happen and do whatever it did to the characters. But just letting the story push the characters around isn’t very satisfying. The characters need reasons to push back, to force their own stories the way they want them to go (and of course when different characters try to push the story in different directions you get more conflict, and your story is better for it). By having a more focused method, you gain a lot more control over how you get your characters to grow.

What I do these days is based on something I found in Chuck Wendig’s excellent book, The Kick-Ass Writer. It’s the idea of the character arc, which put simply is a way to describe your character’s changes as three keywords representing how they are at the beginning, middle, and end of their own path. For example, Denial to Doubt to Acceptance, or Timid to Pressured to Confident. Keeping the descriptions short and to the point—single keywords in those examples—makes it easier to keep them in mind as you develop your characters over the course of the story. And that in turn will help make the scenes work better, because the characters will act in ways consistent with their personalities and the arcs you want them to follow.

Until next time . . .

Writing Process #3: Review the Scenes

BEFORE I go further, I have to mention that these posts describe my own particular writing process, the one that works for me.

A lot of books about writing fiction will tell you that everyone has their own process that works for them, and that what works for one writer doesn’t necessarily work for another. But I think it’s fair to say that, in the broad strokes at least, you’ll find that many of them are similar. If what I’m describing works for you, mostly, then that’s great. As it is, my process is based on writing processes that other writers have described, with some tweaks to make it fit the way I think, the way I like to develop stories, the way I like to write. And as you, gentle reader, work on your own stories, you’ll no doubt develop your own process that you’re comfortable with.

That said, on with the show . . .

Following on from the previous post, at this point I have a set of paragraphs, each a self-contained description of a scene. I don’t include anything that isn’t relevant to the story—for example, I don’t bother to say what the characters are wearing, or where the scene takes place, unless it’s important. If you read these paragraphs in order, you’ll get the whole story from beginning to end, and it should make sense. You should even be able to give it to someone else to read, and it should make sense to them, too. (And if it doesn’t, they should be able to tell you why.)

What form does this set of scenes take? That’s up to you. You could just write them in a notebook, if you want to. But you probably want something a little more flexible. I tend to use a spreadsheet on my computer (specifically, I use Google Sheets—that way I can access it from my laptop, or a tablet, or my phone in a pinch). I know of people who use index cards pinned on a big board. The point is, you want something that lets you move the scenes around.

You see, the next step of my process involves going back through all the scenes, and doing a couple of things as I do.

First and foremost, I’m organising the scenes into a Timeline. This is a spreadsheet page where each row represents a point in time (which can be as specific as the story demands—”1pm Thursday” for example, or “Winter”) and there’s a column for each character. Depending on the point of view I’ve decided to write the story in (third person limited, say), I colour-code each cell to highlight whose point of view the action will be written from for that scene. At the same time I fill in the other cells in the same row to tell me where the other characters are at that same time—that’s great for spotting some silly mistakes, like where Fred is in London while one scene is taking place but then he’s in Glasgow in the following scene, which takes place only minutes later. It also helps me spot action that I currently have marked as happening behind the scenes, as it were, but that might actually be better done as an actual scene in its own right. (And I often spot scenes that I intended to include in the story, that are actually better off happening off-screen and maybe mentioned in passing later.)

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As I build up the timeline, I’m looking for opportunities to add conflicts and obstacles to drop into the way of the protagonists. As you read back a scene, ask yourself, What can I do to make things tougher? My detective is driving like hell to get to the slaughterhouse where the evil janitor is about to chop up his next victim. What can I do to make things tougher? I know: it’s snowing hard and he can’t see the road in the dark. And . . . he hits a patch of ice and runs off the road, and totals the car. Yes! And he gets out of the car and he’s all cut up and dazed and, MUAHAHAHA, he hears the yelping of coyotes nearby. And then . . . well, you get the idea. Put your characters right behind the eight ball. Make them bleed. Then, if you like, let them dig themselves out of the hole at the last minute. But one thing to watch here is, make sure your characters act according to the rules you’ve set for them. Remember their wants, needs, motivations, and the kinds of people they are, and how you want them to change as the story progresses (I’ll have more to say about that in a future post), and make sure their actions fit.

Another thing I’m looking for is places where I read a scene and I get a feeling that somehow it doesn’t deliver—that it’s just flat, somehow. It’s hard to define, exactly. When I see scenes like that, and I get that feeling, the first question I ask myself is, Is this scene needed? If I delete it, does the rest of the story make sense? The answer to those questions determines how I deal with it, which might mean rewriting the one-paragraph description to beef things up, or trashing it altogether.

One more thing I’m doing is making sure that things flow nicely. That’s particularly important if the story has places where two or three things are happening in parallel—for example, I have a set of scenes where John is breaking into the tool shed to find the stolen Spanner of Justice, while in a separate set of scenes taking place at the same time, Janice is in her car, chasing The Mad Professor and trying to delay him getting to the same tool shed so that John has more time. So I have to make sure that as I switch viewpoint from John to Janice and back, it all makes sense in terms of the order that things happen. So I might need to change the order of the scenes a little to get that right.

Yet one more thing I’m doing is evaluating the peril and tension. I assign a number, usually from zero to five, to each scene. Some people like to assign one number for peril and another for tension; I usually find that they end up being pretty much the same most of the time, so I generally just use one number. If you’re using a spreadsheet, as I do, you can dedicate a column for that and then create a chart showing how the tension goes up and down as the story progresses. Getting a graphical display of this is priceless. What you’re looking for is a line that starts low and gradually climbs, in fits and starts, to a peak at the climax, near the end of the story, then drops in the denouement. If things climb, then drop to long flat spots, you should be thinking about how to get that tension up. You might need to rethink those scenes to add more cowbell, or combine things into one scene where the boringness can be swiped over quickly, or consider just plain tearing the slow scenes out. Whatever works.

And when I’ve been through the scenes from beginning to end, I put it all to one side for a couple of days. And then I do it again. And again.

I can easily spend a month or more doing this, until I reach a point where I really like what I have and I don’t want to change it any more. Once I’m at that point, I’m ready to start the actual writing. I’ll come to that in a future post, coming soon to a screen near you.

Until next time . . .

Writing Process #2: Building on the Idea

YOU have your story idea. Now what?

To paraphrase Stephen Koch in his excellent book, Modern Library Writer’s Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction:

  • You don’t know the story until you’ve told it
  • You can’t tell the story until you know it

. . . which of course sounds paradoxical. But the insane thing is, it’s absolutely true. You really don’t know the whole story until you’ve told it to yourself. And you can’t tell yourself the whole story until you know it.

Ok, if it was that much of a paradox, writing any story would be impossible. Here’s what I do:

I write the whole story out in a single paragraph. At this point in the story’s development, that’s all I can really do. I don’t have enough detail to go any deeper just yet. That’s the point; I start with the ten thousand foot view, and get more detailed as I descend to ground level.

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So now I descend, as it were. I write the story again, in three paragraphs:

  • What happens at the beginning.
  • What happens at the end.
  • What happens in the middle.

Note the order. The beginning part is the setup, where I establish my characters (at least, in a very vague form at this point; I haven’t assigned names, ages, genders, etc.). The end is where I want them to be at the end of their journey. I can’t figure out the middle part until I have an idea of where the story ends.

The middle part is the story, in many respects. I know where my characters begin their journey, and I have a pretty good idea where they’re going to finish up. Now I can tie a rope between those pins, and figure out how it goes from one end to the other. That rope’s going to go up and down and maybe round in circles a little bit, in the sense that the characters are going to have problems and conflicts and hurdles to deal with, and while they might be forced off their trail by those obstacles, overall they’ll be moving toward the end. But they must, must, MUST! have those twists and turns. There must be things getting in the way, all the time. A story without conflict is a boring story. (George must kill the dragon. He drives his 4WD to the dragon’s lair. The dragon’s asleep. George walks up to it and shoots it with his revolver. The end. You see? Boring.)

The beginning and end don’t really need much else just yet. It’s the middle part that needs 99% of the work.

And so, I tell myself the story again. I’ve already written the beginning, middle, and end as single paragraphs. So now I write them again, expanding them to three or four (or more) paragraphs each. And then I rewrite each of those paragraphs, expanding them to three or four more detailed paragraphs. And so on. And all the time, I’ll be trying to think of conflicts and obstacles and hoops the characters have to jump through.

And while I’m doing that, I’m getting a better idea of my characters. For me, at least, this is an almost automatic consequence of developing the storyline. Story is characters. Characters are story. You can’t have one without the other. And I find that the more detailed I get with the story, the better I get to know my characters.

I begin to work out back stories for the characters. Not that all of that back story will find its way into the final typescript, but if I know that Jenny, say, has an aversion to rabbits because one bit her when she was a kid, it then makes sense when I write a scene in which she freaks at the sight of her friend Alice’s pet fluffy bunny. The thing is, back stories can help you greatly in figuring out your characters’ motivations, and those are important because they are in themselves a source of conflict between the characters themselves.

When do I stop with all the detail? There comes a point where I can say that each paragraph represents a single, self-contained scene. There’s no point going any deeper once I’m there. That typically takes four, maybe five iterations starting from my original one-paragraph story.

How many scenes should there be? That depends. I find that when I come to write the scenes later (I’m not to that point yet), each scene ends up being anything from about two hundred words to about two thousand, with an average length of about seven hundred and fifty (but that’s down to my personal writing style—your mileage may vary). For me, that means that a final scene count of around a hundred and thirty-ish will equate to a novel of around one hundred thousand words. Fifty scenes or less, and I’m looking at something that would be barely novel-length (it’s pretty standard that forty thousand words is the minimum for a novel, and less than that is a novella, maybe). If I’m working on a short story, I might aim for twenty scenes or so, depending.

But the real answer to the question is, the right number of scenes is whatever the story demands. However many it takes to tell the story, from beginning to end.

So by the time I’ve finished this process I have a bunch of scenes that tell a story. Am I ready to start writing yet? Not quite. There are a few more steps to take care of before I get to that point, and I’ll be getting to those in upcoming posts.

Until next time . . .