Tuesday, August 26, 2014

My Writing Process

Because someone asked.
You know who you are.

In television commercials and on Mythbusters, they always warn you DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME.  I have a similar warning about my writing process because it must be wrong. It has to be wrong. I'm terribly inefficient. I don't do things the same way every time. I don't find the plot so much as it finds me as I blunder about.

I may have posted about my experience writing The Devil's concubine, but I'll sum it up here. I originally wrote it as a NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) work. the challenge there is to write a complete fifty thousand word first draft between November 1st and 30th. But just because you can't write word one before the first doesn't mean you can't plan ahead. I was looking for a writing experience, not a real first draft, so I decided to try all sorts of things I'd never done before, such as working from a written outline and using Scrivner.

A writer friend suggested using the snowflake outline method, so I tried it even though I hated the idea so much (Flames! Flames on the side of my face!) that I dreaded forcing myself into it. I won't go into the snowflake method here (Google it for yourself) but I will say a few things about it. 1) outlining didn't destroy my creativity, it simply changed when I was creative. 2) if you have to churn out a fifty thousand draft in thirty days,  you need an outline like this. 3) even if I never outline another novel as long as I live, there were some truly useful tools there, the most important of which were the first three. Oddly enough, those first three are the last three seat-of-the-pants (pantster) writers usually think about, and even then, only when they're trying to sell the work.

I didn't get Scrivner at that time even though I meant to. I used it to write Tempt the Devil. The jury is still out on it. I didn't use all its bells and whistles, but I liked being able to move scenes around easily and see them on my sidebar while I'm working on text.

Getting back to my NaNOWriMo experience, on November 1st I had a detailed outline and was ready to start writing, Every night when I got home from work, and after dinner, I knew exactly where I was in the story, what was supposed to happen in the scene, and  what came next. There wasn't a moment of staring at the wall wondering about any of that, which seems to be my usual habit. (my wallpaper is atrocious and not at all conducive to the imagination) By the 28th, I had more than fifty thousand words and a completed first draft.

It sucked.

I rewrote it -- meaning that I typed each word of it over again rather than working to improve the the first draft-- in December and January. The main problem I fixed was changing the main character from Kyam to QuiTai, which of course meant many new scenes. That was a huge leap forward, because now she wasn't this incomprehensible, stereotypical dragon lady. She still was to Kyam, but not the reader. Guess whose opinion I cared about more?

But while changing the MC to QuiTai made huge, positive changed to the work, there were still problems with the story. The biggest one? Kyam. He was a different person in each scene. He was always the foil to QuiTai, but he was inconsistent. You'd think after starting out with him as my MC that I'd have a clearer view of who he was, but I didn't. So the third time, I focused on him and really defined who he was rather than thinking of his role in moving the plot forward. That was the fix it needed.

I'm not supposed to say this, but I consider Devils' Concubine to world's longest prolog for Devil Incarnate. The sole purpose of it was to introduce QuiTai and set everything in motion for Incarnate. Incarnate was so complicated with so many moving pieces that it couldn't fit into one book. But since I wrote Concubine with Incarnate's plot already in mind, Incarnate was fairly easy to write.

"You don't learn how to write a novel. You learn how to write this novel." Poppy Z Brite.

She said that as the first Saints and Sinners writer's conference I went to, and it has stayed in my mind as I've worked through this series. Every novel is a different animal. It seems like the same work, but it isn't. There are different problems. Challenges.

I was a bit spoiled after how easily Incarnate flowed onto the page, so I was a bit surprised when Tempt the Devil turned out to be as difficult as Concubine was, but for different reasons. In the first draft, QuiTai was the detective.  The problem here--- and I'm sure A.C. Doyle must have run into this exact issue with his novella length Sherlock Holmes story Hound of the Baskervilles-- was that QuiTai was too smart. Unless I gave her a serious case of the stupids, she'd solve the case far too quickly. AC Doyle took care of that by having Sherlock send Watson out to investigate. Watson dutifully reported what he saw in letters. He did a good job, I think. Watson, we must never forget, was a worthy, educated man. A brave soul. But oddly for a doctor, he couldn't seem to link symptoms to the cause.

I solved my problem by calling on my own Watson, Kyam Zul. An intelligent man. A worthy one. And, in the end, a better detective than Doctor Watson. To do that, I had to toss out the first draft and start over from word one. The second draft was better but I wasn't at all happy with it. Before I could muse over the problems and fix them, a close relative died. And the company I worked for closed its doors. And there was some other family drama. Every time I thought I put out a fire, another one would crop up. Somehow, I lucked into the perfect position quickly after the company closed and the family drama fires got smaller and easier to manage with the passage of time. Either that or I'm numb to emergencies by now. Either way, it seemed as if life got less hectic. At that point, I'd been away from my manuscript long enough that it was easier to see the flaws. (Always remember to set aside your work for as long as you can stand to so you can come back to it with fresh eyes. It makes a world of difference) With my MS already six months late for delivery, I sped through the third rewrite. I sped too much. The final chapter was utter crap. My beta readers called me out on it, thankfully. So I fixed it and got the MS out the door.


Rewriting an entire novel three times is a waste of time and it's inefficient. This is why I'd never suggest my "process" to anyone.  But there are things I do that aren't such a waste of time. My stories are complex. There are many wheels within wheels. Sometimes as I'm writing, something will occur to me and it's as if the perfect cog dropped into the timepiece. It's glorious and perfect and such a gift from my subconscious. I also call it lacquer. It's one thin coat of varnish over another, over and over, until each scene has multiple depths of meaning set into the words. Lacquer or clockworks, it all leads to the same thing-- going back into previous chapters and weaving those thread seamlessly into the existing work.

That takes a lot of time. It takes keeping the whole novel inside my head at the same time which is really difficult to do. That's why outlines are good, because you get to have an adjunct brain to hold all that detail for you. If I used Scrivner the way it was meant to be used, I'd have the power of an outline at my fingertips without having to actually write an outline.  So even if you hate outlines, play around with one or use Scrivner and you may find it works well for you.  I won't because I work the way I work, but you work the way you work and no two writers are the same, so just because something doesn't work for me doesn't mean ti won't for you.

Now I'm noodling around ideas for book four of the Devil of Ponong series. I have a few seconds of a mental image, like a movie inside my brain, that offers a tantalizing clue. Like strudel dough, I have to stretch and work that blip of insight into a whole scene, then into a book.

I'll spend the next month or so imagining, rejecting, and piecing together the story before I sit down to write it. I won't know the entire story. I seem to find it as I'm writing -- another thing which you probably should not do. Yes, I have a vision of the overall series story arc, but there are many path through the woods that all lead to the same destination. My method is to blunder around by writing until I luck onto the right path. How do I know it;s the right path? I can't explain it. I just know.

I'm a bad example. Really, there must be a better way to write. I just can't get myself to work any other way. So now you know my process, such as it is. But please, Do Not Try This At Home. You've been warned. ;)


  1. Awesome! Thank you so much for sharing that with us all.

    Regardless of whether it offers any immediate or direct help to a given writer who may read this, it's still really interesting to see how others think about the process even if it doesn't sound like "the way we would do it". Perhaps especially because it isn't that!

    We all need motivators, so anything that helps is of value. I don't think there actually is a "right" way - except that which ever way works for you is the right way regardless of what anyone else thinks!

    I appreciate your taking the time to share this with us. It's just what I wanted to read. Thank you!