How I Do It

One of the fringe benefits, I guess, of serializing longer works in shorter chunks, is that I’ve iterated a lot the last couple years. In fact, I’m about to produce my eighth title in the last 24 months. It’s really taught me how I write. Not how TO write. But how I do it.

Some people plot everything out, for example. Some people write by the seat of their pants. Most people are, like me, somewhere in between. In fact, I realized recently that I write as if completing a puzzle or restoring a work of art. To start, I assemble a scaffold: the basic conflict, the beginning, the ending, and what I call the turn. All of that happens before serious composition, although I may develop them by writing snippets of dialogue or unattached descriptions. The ending in particular is important. My beginnings can (and often do) change, but without a destination in mind, I’m not sure how any writer reaches a satisfying conclusion, except wholly by chance.

Then I jump around, literally and figuratively. Pacing helps me think, and I can often be seen wearing a path in the carpet while swinging my arms and making fists — silently, since the action is all in my head. I write whatever pops in. Sometimes all I have is notes for a setting, but more often than not that comes last. What comes first is long conversations with little to no attribution (although I know who’s talking) and no sense of what is going on or even where it’s taking place!

After free-floating dialogue, often what comes next is a key piece of action. Not the whole sequence, mind you. Just the critical turn that makes that scene, that whole chapter even, vital to the story. A rule for me is that each scene has to matter. It doesn’t necessarily have to be critical to the plot, but it must add something such that, if it were removed, pace or clarity would suffer — the discovery of an important clue, for example.

A good example of the opposite, and unfortunately a common one, is a scene where two characters wring their hands about all the terrible things going on. I’ve been guilty of this myself. Writers seem to think visible fretting creates suspense when really it’s just very tedious and anyway should be clear from the character’s reactions to the action. The rule for me is: Make each scene count. And not in some abstract “it helps the story” kind of way. I need to answer the question “What is all of this for?” and it’s that answer that often appears before any of the rest of the chapter, save the aforementioned dialogue.

These different always tidbits appear completely out of order — a conversation from chapter four, an action sequence from the middle, a setting for chapter one that foreshadows a critical reveal in the second act, etc. Right now I have bits and chunks of just about every chapter in Episode Six written (some more than others) but not one is to a complete draft. Several of them have long segments of dialogue without attribution or setting or descriptions or anything but two people talking, and all of them still have at least one unfilled gap in the text.

It may seem strange to write this way — I don’t know — but I think just about everyone is familiar with this process. It’s how we pretty much all go about completing a puzzle. You dump the pieces on a flat surface. You spread them out and see what you have. Does it look like fun? Should you work on a different puzzle? You look for the corners. Then you start building the outside — the scaffold I talked about earlier: the premise, the characters, the ending. Inevitably, while digging through the pile looking for flat surfaces, you recognize certain colorful pieces from the middle, and you may even assemble small, free-floating chunks not yet attached to anything else, like my unattributed dialogue. And slowly, working back and forth, sifting through the pile, squinting at the picture on the box, you assemble more free-floating chunks, even moving them around occasionally, only at the end finding the little pieces that attach them to each other. And sure enough, the very last bits I write before handing the manuscript off to beta readers are usually small transition sequences and bridging scenes that function only to hold everything together.

Unlike with a puzzle, however, the reference picture on the “box” is fuzzy, like a cheap Chinese bootleg. It’s an inexact construct based on the scaffold — more of a hope than a plan. And in that sense, writing is also art restoration. You might have an idea of what the whole thing is supposed to look like — based on a copy in a different medium, for example — but that doesn’t tell you what color this particular mosaic tile was, or was supposed to be. And sometimes, after doing research and getting stuck for days, you figure that bit out… and realize what you did over on the other side last week was probably wrong and needs to change.

In other words, fiction is a malleable rather than a fixed puzzle, a painting where the canvas is stretched in time rather than in space. The feel I now have for space-less composition, after iterating so many times, is difficult to translate. There’s less groping, for sure. I can tell you, what’s good in the first few episodes of THE MINUS FACTION is so more by educated guesswork — and luck — than concentrated skill. When you have something physical in front of you, like a canvas or a pile of puzzle pieces, it’s easy to improvise a process. Less so when the work exists without static reference.

I think readers (and especially moviegoers) expect creators have it in their power to just pull awesome from the void, and that therefore if the book or movie wasn’t awesome, it must be because the creators weren’t aiming at “the right thing.” Or they just suck.

Sometimes that’s true. But a writer, like an archer, can’t just walk the arrow to the target, jam it in the bull’s eye, turn, and say “There!” The best we can do is faithfully follow our process, and once we let go, hope the arrow hits the mark. Many great works of art were so more by accident (or random trial) than by aim. Practice helps, of course, as does some amount of raw ability, but the end result is never fully ours. Even great directors produce box office duds.

This is why my feel for how I write is so deeply satisfying. I would tell you what I’m producing now — roughly since the middle of Episode Four of THE MINUS FACTION — is as good as anything else out there. That’s not to say everyone will like it. Quite the opposite, in fact. The more I refine my work, the less generic it will be, and so the more it will appeal to some and the less to others, meaning I expect criticism to go up rather than down.

And that’s a good thing. I’d rather readers have strong feelings than no feelings at all. But more importantly, without that deep sense of how I do it, versus Ms. Bignamewriter, I can’t develop the complementary sense of who will enjoy it, and so I end up chasing after everyone, which is a failing strategy. Plus, as I’m discovering now, confidence in your craft frees you from (most of) the sting of criticism. It’s only when you’re unsure of what you’ve made — or more correctly, of how you’ve made it — that you fret about whether it should have been different.

So how do YOU do it?