Monday, November 23, 2009

Process Story RE: The Process of Writing a Novel

Last Wednesday, Kalayna posted about her writing process (crossposted here and here) and as a writer with the opposite type of process, I thought I'd expand on it.

(Turnabout is fair play!)

Kalayna has a very detailed pre-writing and writing process. I have no pre-writing process and a completely scatterbrained, I'm-sure-there-is-a-method-to-the-madness-in-here-somewhere writing process. You guys all know I'm a pantzer; we don't need to into that again.

But I have a really detailed revisions process. I revise in seven different waves. This process first came into existence with Aundroma, because I revised the first book so many successive times, each time looking for different things as I learned more and more about craft, that the waves just kind of happened. That very haphazard experience formed the basis for revising as I do it now. With Familiar, I think I finally got my revising method down to a solid process.

Wave 1: Macro-edits After the initial crazy first draft writing phase is complete and I've let the story rest for about a week, I read through the whole thing again and look for major plot holes, scenes that I meant to include but forgot about in the frenzy of writing, characters who appear out of nowhere or disappear with no explanation, and subplots that never resolve. I don't do any line editing in Wave 1. All I do is identify these major problems, make notes to myself on existing scenes detailing the changes that will need to be made, and write any new scenes that have to be inserted into the story.

Wave 2: Highlighting With Familiar I tried out the EDITS system, as taught by Margie Lawson and I am totally hooked on it. If you can get into one of her classes, do so. EDITS is fantastic. I go through my whole manuscript and highlight all of it using the EDITS technique. I do end up doing another round of reading through the manuscript at this point (it's hard to tell whether a sentence is yellow or green or blue without reading it) so I do also end up making some more notes to myself during Wave 2, but that is not the focus. It is important, I think, to note that I don't analyze the highlights at this point. All I do is read the sentences and classify them. Analyzing comes later, in much smaller chunks.

I call Waves 1 and 2 my second draft. This part of the process takes about a month. At this point I stop working with the manuscript as a whole and work waves 3 through 6 on each scene before moving on to the next scene. I won't look at the manuscript as a whole again until Wave 7.

Wave 3: Scene edits At this point, I break the story down into small chunks, usually scenes or chapters and go through a really detailed edit. This is where I look at the EDITS highlighting to make sure all my colors are balanced. I go through all those notes I made before and fix the random little issues. I make sure the flow of the scene works, that the tension is right, and that the story is moving the way I want it to.

Wave 4: Micro-edits Once I've got the scene just the way I want it, I start really drilling in line by line. I'm looking at this point for repeated words, excessive adverbs, passive voice, grammar issues, etc. This is also the phase where I start reading the text aloud, because I catch a lot of errors when reading out loud that I miss when reading silently.

Wave 5: Critique I am blessed with a fabulous critique group that meets once a week. I try to bring 10-20 pages to critique every week. I recommend every writer find a critique group. A critique partner is a must, but a group, in my opinion, is better. By getting multiple perspectives, from writers all over the board when it comes to genres and career levels, every scene gets filtered through a slightly different lens, which gives me a better overall view of what works and what doesn't. I don't always make the changes my critique group suggests, but they are pretty smart, so I go with their advice more often than not.

Wave 6: Scene polishing After the pages go through the group--assuming the group doesn't read them and tell me they just don't work at all and they need to be rewritten--I make whatever adjustments need to be made and give it one final look, making minor tweaks here and there. After that, barring a major story change occurring to me during the revision of later scenes, the scene gets locked. I put it in a separate file and don't look at it again until Wave 7.

Waves 3 through 6 make up the third draft. Now, assuming I've made it through the whole manuscript without going totally insane, we're back to working with the whole text once again for the last wave.

Wave 7: Final polishing After putting all these pretty revised and analyzed and critiqued and polished scenes back together into a manuscript, I have to go through the whole thing again on an overall level, just to make sure the whole things flows together right and that the overall plot arcs in the right way. If I'm lucky, I don't catch more than minor tweaking and transition smoothing here, maybe a balance here and there of the scene/chapter breaks.

Theoretically now my manuscript is perfect and lovely and ready to send out to agents and such. I try not to look at it again after this point, but I don't usually succeed at that. Invariably, a random little quirk here and there will occur to me and I'll open the document and make a quick change.

So that's my process. What about you? What's your process?

Friday, November 20, 2009

I Love the Smell of Libraries in the Morning

I'm a book buyer, an avid reader of fiction. I still do my research at the library. From dusty old books. Because they're tangible. The physical connection to the book is one of the reasons I love them. One more note to my overactive brain that says, "Cool. We're reading now. Shut everything out but just this one imaginary world, time, person, people, creature. Immerse yourself. Because you deserve it."

Books have been my alternatives to movies for a long time, first for the price difference and second for the lack of a screen, though the former is leveling out at an astonishing rate as the price of a paperback goes up a dollar a year. Increasingly, I've been entering physical bookstores and can't find the book I'm looking for since they refuse to carry it. Sure, I can order it through the physical store, sure I can order it online, but when I want a book NOW to read NOW and can't find it because it's not carried in the store hey -- a short walk away from this bookstore over here is a movie theater. It's lunchtime, and matinees are just $7. Which is $0.99 to $1.99 cheaper than the book I would have bought...big screen, here I come.

If they do have it in stock, the bookstore wins every time. Because you know what's NOT cheaper than a book? New eyes.

(Insert severe train-jumping veer to the left here. Weee!)

I squint at a screen innumerable hours a day. My eyesight is wretched--still steadily declining from the negative 7s and ousting me from the range of some formats of laser surgery. My morning and evening commutes, and bathroom breaks, are about the only time during the day when I'm "unplugged". I'm a technical writer, copy editor, graphics designer, and software quality assurance technician during my day job. I write fiction at a computer in the evening, I watch TV with my husband at dinnertime, I exercise to an assortment of cheap fitness DVDs and the Wii Fitness Trainer, and I even record my steps on a handheld game thingymabob. The last thing I need is another screen. I've resisted the smartphone, though the Droid is like a homing beacon calling to my inner Star Wars obsession. (In that every time I hear about it, the iconic Verizon "Can you hear me now" is replaced with "Where could he be? Threepio! Threepio, will you come in?") Procuring a smartphone at this point would likely sign the remaining usefulness factor of my eyes away.

The eReaders theoretically have a format that's book-like, and won't induce further eye deterioration. I'd be inclined to acquire one as the competition wears on, but only if I can, say, back up the data elsewhere in case the thing blows up, be able to redownload without repurchasing my purchases (via CONVENIENT activation/inactivation of licenses or somesuch), and limit my access to simply BOOKS from the thing. I've recently discovered I do too much from my laptop/desktop computers, and to that end I can't sit there and read an ebook for hours on end like I can with a physical book. This has nothing to do with eyestrain. There is simply too much going on.

Online, I can't shut out the world.

Nothing tells my brain to enjoy the book, immerse myself. Instead, my brain goes, hey, go check your email! Go update the latest version of this eReader software! And while you're there, go read the replies on your twitter! Go see the latest publishing news! Go work on your own book! (Thankfully that last one does in fact occur despite the other distractions around me. But at that point I actually have to disconnect from the internet to keep that kind of work going longer than 15 minutes.)

Do you have too much screen exposure? What steps of physical separation do you have to take to get a moment of peace or get back to work? How do you get away from the monotone electronic buzz that flits through our lives every hour of the day?

....Do you even try?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Process of writing a novel

Not long ago, I asked for writing questions on my blog, and this is one I received. ( X-posted)

Cher asked: What process to you go through during the writing of a novel? Also, something that keeps popping up is the use of scenes and sequels. I'm a little confused about the differences. I understand the functions but when I look at other's writing I can't point out which is which. Any suggestions or examples?

My answer: There are a couple different ways I could interpret this question, so if I don’t hit on what you are really asking for Cher, please let me know. (*Disclaimer* this is the process that works for me and I am not claiming it will work for everyone.)

Anyway, my process for writing a novel goes something like this:
I start out with brain storming sessions where I figure out my world and my characters. I tend to work with pen and paper in this stage, and the result is typically a mess. I rarely start with plot ideas, so this is truly just figuring out who I’m dealing with and what the world around her is like. My world and my main character tend to develop simultaneously. As I figure out what interests me about her, I learn about what the world around her must contain, and as the world fleshes out, I learn the rules and the pressures that will have shaped her. It is very organic—thus the mess. Once my idea start to solidify, I tend to write down the major rules to my world so I don’t forget. If I’m lucky, during this process, other characters and a plot have emerged, but not always.

The next step I take is what I call ‘post-it note plotting’. Basically, I write down every idea for a scene I have, in whatever order it hits me, on a post-it note. Then, once I have a whole lot of such scene ideas, I try to arrange them into a coherent plot. I blogged on this process a few years ago if you’d like to see a picture of a complete post-it note plot arc.I used to do this on actual post-it notes which I then stuck to my wall, but these days I use a program called scrivener which has an amazing outline/post-it note feature.

Now that I know the structure of my plot, I transfer the scene list from post-its to my computer. (Obviously, I now skip this because I use a program these days.) I then take this scene list and flesh it out into a full and fairly detailed outline. I have yet to write one of these the same. My first outline was based on time. Night one: list of scenes of occurred on that night in order. One outline I structured based on key points such as ordinary world, inciting incident, rising action, turning point one, ect. and listed the corresponding scenes under those points. I’ve written outlines broken down by chapters. I tend to go with whatever feels ‘right’ in my head at the time I’m organizing. It’s very trial and error for me. As you’ve probably noticed from my early posts this month, I didn’t actually go through any of the stages I’ve mentioned for this year’s NaNo novel—that is one reason it is stalling out at times. I’m a plotter and I like the road map, even if I don’t follow it. (Oh yes, I should have mentioned that. Despite the fact I write very detailed outlines, I still deviate from them as I write, but they do let me know where it is I think I should be should I get stuck.)

After all the pre-writting stuff, all that is left is to sit down and write the novel. (Easier said than done, right?) Once I start writing, my only processes to to write one word after another. I know that doesn’t sound very helpful, but it is true. In a first draft, my concern is to get the story down on the page. I don’t consciously focus on scene and sequel, or the heroes journey, or any of the writing rules I’ve studied. I just write the story.

I’ve taken numerous online writing courses, read dozens if not hundreds of writing craft books, and sat down and picked apart my favorite novels for how and why their writing worked for me. As I sit down to write a first draft, it is my hope that all the information I’ve gained has merged with my subconscious and my inner story-teller so it will be applied without my conscious effort as I write. Also, with any luck, my pre-writing plotting has already dealt with things like character motivation and logic issues, so they are already in place when I write.

Once the first draft is finished and the whole story is on the page, I start worrying about consciously applying writing principles. I evaluate the story as a whole and by scenes. I’m condensing what is actually a whole lot of work into a couple sentences, but I’m not really sure how to explain revisions. There are Macro story edits where I evaluate logic ensure I have rising tension through out the scenes, that characters grow, that I don’t drop story threads, and such. Then there are more micro edits where I look to ensure each scene serves a purpose to the story (or better yet, two or more purposes) as in, does the scene progress the plot, show character development, create tension, ect. and does the scene start and end at the correct spot. (As in, not too far before or after the main purpose and action.) Then I go to the very micro edits where I evaluate the flow to sentences and my word choice. After all this and some polishing, I send the manuscript out to my critique partners so they can poke holes in it. After more revisions, the MS then goes to editors, who poke even more holes in it. Yet more revisions, and then I have a very tight book which (hopefully) won’t have any holes left for readers to find.

So, that is my whole process, from idea to polished manuscript.

As far as your question about scene and sequel in particular, I have read books and taken classes on the subject, but I have the same issue you have Cher. I understand the principle, but I can’t tend to pick them out unless there is an obvious ‘rest’ beat. By the way, that is how I tend to think about scene and sequel—scenes are ‘action’ beats where the character is actively taking action to achieve a goal and sequel I translate to a ‘rest’ beat when the character is reflecting/planning/deciding what action to take next. The important thing to remember is to keep ever increasing tension in the story. Even in a ‘rest’ beat, the end result is the decision to take action (always better when the decision is between two bad choices.) Make sense? Like I said, I don’t consciously write thinking “okay, this is a scene. Now this one is a sequel.” I just tell my story, and hope that I’ve assimilated enough of these principles that I follow them subconsciously.

For more about writing craft, here are books and classes I highly recommend:
Scene and Structure by Jack Bickham —This is a great book both about the structure of single scenes, and the structure of scenes throughout an entire book.
Goal Motivation Conflict by Debra Dixon —This is an amazing book to help make sure your characters are moving forward logically and that you throw the right things in their path.
Self-editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King —This is a micro editing style book—I love it. (This is also part of the grand prize package for the NaNo competition)
Margie Lawson Teaches several amazing classes, in particular the EDITS class, which help you break down your scenes and really see what you have on the page.
Mary Buckham Teaches an amazing class called POWER PACING. I highly recommend it. She is also the co-author of the craft book Break into Fiction.

Have a great hump day (okay, so it's almost over. I hope you had a nice one then.) If anyone has questions, feel free to ask!

Monday, November 9, 2009


I'm a pantzer. I've discussed this before. I write by the seat of my pants. I don't plan things out in advance. I don't outline. I, on occasion, allow myself to jot down ideas for a future project in blurb form, but I usually only glance at them once before I start writing, just to point myself in a vague direction of the idea.

That is not to say I have not tried to plot. I have. It just doesn't work for me. I've talked on my blog before about how I'm getting more and more plotter-ish, but I don't think it'll go any further than it has. I like the freedom and the thrill of pantzing too much.

In fact, during this year's NaNoWriMo, I set an all time pantzing record for myself. I came up with my idea for my current project approximately 10 hours before the event started.

I've noticed something funny this year though. Perhaps it's been going on for a while, but because I'm more involved with other Wrimos this year than I have been in the past I'm just now witnessing it, but I've seen a whole bunch of people trying to mess with their method. I've seen pantzers try to bang out and then stick to an outline. I've seen dedicated plotters pick up a shiny new idea and try to just run off with it with no direction in mind at all.

I applaud them for their bravery.

I fear for their sanity, even more than I do for every Wrimo's sanity. (And I fear for us all a great deal, trust me.)

But I wonder if they will make it. Will those panzters trying to plot get a few weeks (or possibly days) into November and then suddenly toss the outlines out the window and take the story off in a whole new direction? Will the plotters giving pantzing a shot break down and take a few writing days off to outline and world build and character sketch?

Or will the event reveal an ability they never knew they had? Will they come away from it able to write both ways from now on, like a right-handed person who breaks their arm and has to learn how to do everything with their left as a result?

NaNoWriMo has always felt to me like a pantzer's paradise, but I know plotters who swear by it too. It really is all about getting out of your own way and letting the words rule the day. I've often toyed with the idea of using NaNoWriMo to experiment with writing in a different genre than I usually do, but it has never occurred to me to try a whole different writing style.

What do you think? It's too late for me to try it this year, but is it something to keep in mind for next year? Or are these plotting pantzers and pantzing plotters even crazier than I am?

Also, are you one of the switchers? If so, how's it going for you? Has it made you nuts yet? Have you given up and reverted to your familiar form? Or is it working for you?

Friday, November 6, 2009

Rewards for NaNoWriMo?

It's NaNo, and I'm not having any trouble keeping above a daily 1,667 word count because I've had a set daily goal all year long. It feels like a tiny boost compared to last year's uber-challenge. As of last night, I was already up to 12,226 words! So if I want a real challenge, I have to spice things up a bit.

This month, I will:
  • Write 50k words from beginning to THE END of one or two versions of the story driving into my skull.
  • Complete four steampunk rings and post completed pics up on my blog to show off the finished results.
  • Give up my Saturday morning writing time in leiu of "Husband Appreciation Time". This is prime hours for me productivity-wise, but the hubby is so supportive and awesome regarding my writing efforts that he should get a medal. (In leiu of medal I'll be popping something in the slow cooker on Saturdays and watching a movie with him...hehe!)
  • Increase my baking to 2 loaves of bread a week (yum!) to have extras in the freezer.
  • Stock up on frozen baggies of homemade slow cooker soup.

  • My rewards? At 25k I get to start using the WiiFit Expansion pack in my daily exercise routine. At 50k, I get to hit the bookstore for Cherie Priest's new novel: Boneshaker. And for the first two weeks of December I get to avoid writing altogether while my prose stews -- time enough to binge on the new Sims 3 expansion pack, whittle down my TBR pile, and busy myself with holiday craftiness.

    What are your rewards for meeting your goals this November?