This Is How I Do It (And You Can, Too)
A while back, I offered some damn good reasons to write a novel, because I’ve written a few and I know a number of people who would like to give it a go themselves. I’ve found that all sorts of folk have the kernel of a book inside them, or stories to tell, but they seem befuddled by how to build a narrative and translate the images in their heads into words. Thus, because you’ve all been waiting with baited breath for some insight into what I do and how I do it (oh, my sarcasm is delicious…), I offer this: a glimpse into how the mind of this writer snatches ideas, builds them into stories, and hammers them into some readable, reasonably-entertaining form.
First: Images and Ideas
I find that my ideas don’t start with people or events: they start with a basic notion of the type of story I’d like to tell, or perhaps an image that suggests a world I’d like to explore. From the outset, then, it’s setting and tone that attract me, not necessarily story or character.
Doc Voodoo: Aces & Eights, was born of a determination to tell a story in the tradition of Prohibition-era hero pulps like The Shadow or The Spider (albeit, with modern attitude). I didn’t conjure up an image of Doc Voodoo and then decide what world he’d fit into: rather, I saw the world—mobsters, Tommy guns, jumping jazz and Manhattan at midnight—and I consciously created a hero to move in that world.
My Roman-era supernatural spy thriller, Ordo Arcana was born of an image: a rabbi and a Roman centurion standing before a glowing gate through which some nameless Lovecraftian horror was about to pass. From that image was born a supernatural police procedural set in a real historical time and place.
Again and again, this is how it begins: I see an image—a window into a world. I want to understand how that world works, who lives there, and what struggles they might endure. I see the clanking pistons and chuffing engines of a steampunk Victorian Age and wonder what would happen if such a hyper-industrial world was threatened by paranormal forces. I see a galaxy-spanning, space-faring confederation and wonder how such a far-flung civilization could find social or political cohesion. I see the Runic banners and martial ceremony of the Third Reich, the black uniforms and death’s head regalia of the Shunstaffel, and I wonder what magical forces lie behind that very earthly evil, and what sorts of specially-trained paranormal commandoes might be employed to fight the real second world war—the shadow war that might have unfolded just beneath the surface of mundane reality.
(Note the persistence of supernatural tropes. Like most writers, I didn’t choose my subject—it chose me. While not every story I’d like to tell involves the supernatural, it seems to be the persistent obsession of my imagination. Your imagination might have a completely different obsession—solving puzzles, seeking justice, recreating shadowy corners of history, rendering everyday mundane life in glorious detail. The key is: don’t fight the basic impulses of your muse. If it wants dragons, give it dragons; if it wants high tech, give it high tech; and if it wants the quiet moment and the psychological epiphany—well, shit, give it those, too.)
Images spark ideas. Ideas spark images. As the two wind together to form a strange sort of Celtic knot of inspiration, I find myself drawn from merely daydreaming about an idea into the next stage: research and brainstorming.
Second: Research and Brainstorming
My good friend and publisher, Matt Peters, once described me as a research hound who wrote stories to support his compulsive desire to learn stuff. I suppose this is as good an explanation as any of why I seem obsessed with telling stories in a vast array of times and places, employing the supernatural, the preternatural, and the merely unpleasant or unknown. The here and now is never good enough; ‘what I know’ is always too limiting. I want to learn more, to know more, to imagine that I’ve done more—and so, I research, and I write stories to give that research form and function.
My research often starts on Wikipedia (which I maintain is a great place to start, but a lousy place to settle), moves onto the net, then finally ends up in books and magazines, where all the dross I’ve acquired by dredging wiki and the web can be solidified, refined, and double-checked. At this stage, the story itself is vague, just images and ideas. Characters haven’t been named; worlds haven’t been built; no outline or inkling of plot exists. At this stage, I’m literally testing the boundaries of my chosen subject or era against the boundless possibilities that my imagination conjures. I’m drawing maps and charting pyramids of power, making timelines, compiling lists. I’m learning what day-to-day life in, say, 17th century England was really like, so that I can better imagine who my Restoration-era mage-detective might be, as well as who might aid him and who might oppose him. I’m brainstorming all sorts of ideas as my research sows and quickens them, but I’m settling on none. Often, during this stage, a curious thing happens: I actually start to generate multiple ideas of very different hues, all around the same basic tropes and themes.
At this stage, there are always three things I do, in an effort to order my thoughts and create a sense of something real gradually coming together. First, I start an MS Word file to record my thoughts, notes, and ramblings. Second, I try to come up with a title—at least a working one (when I’ve done so, I also create a title logo with just the right font—something that might look good on a book cover). And finally, I create a soundtrack—an iTunes playlist consisting of dozens of tracks—usually culled from my collection of movie scores—that helps establish the mood and atmosphere that I’m aiming for in my new endeavor. As odd as the last two things might seem—creating a logo? a soundtrack?—I must admit that no idea is ever ‘real’ for me until I’ve taken these two steps. That logo and that soundtrack help to focus my imagination, acting as keystones for all the research, brainstorming, and story-building to come. (And yes, it often happens that the perfect logo and soundtrack that I start with are not what I eventually settle on—but hey, you’ve got to start somewhere, right?)
Third: Labeling and Outlining
At some point in my researching, I realize that it’s time to start building the story itself. Research and brainstorming don’t stop at this stage—they just shift from being my primary focus. What’s necessary at this stage is the naming of parts (labeling) and the mapping of plot (outlining). This is a very difficult stage, because it’s the point at which all my nifty ideas about my story—all those characters and incidents and twisty-turny ballyhoos that I think are so fascinating—get thrown against the proverbial wall to see if they’ll stick. Inevitably, a lot of them don’t, but by losing some things, I gain sharper focus on others.
This is a stage at which you might find yourself creating place-holders, and then asking if you really need them or not. You thought the hero would have a dashing, ne’er do well best friend and compatriot, but now that you think about it—is that really necessary? You thought that the heroine might be cold as ice and tough as nails—but on second thought, maybe she needs to be softer? More human? More vulnerable. Hell, at this stage, you can find yourself swinging wildly back and forth between possibilities—one minute, sure that your protagonist is male, the next, tossing his masculinity out the window and leaving a female in his place.
This is also when you have to think about the basics of story and structure. Who is my hero (or heroine?) What do they want? What do they need? What happens when what they want and what they need are in direct opposition? And who (or what) stands in their way? Is there a MacGuffin? (A MacGuffin, for those of you not in the know, is a treasure or object that everyone in the story wants, but that is ultimately of little importance. Think of the Heart of the Ocean jewel in Titanic) Is there a ticking clock? (Because ticking clocks—literal or figurative—increase suspense.) Will the hero win, lose, or fight to an impasse?
Long ago, I synthesized all the useful tricks I learned about story structure—be it Three Act structure, the Hero’s Journey, Lew Hunter’s thirty-step screenplay outline, or Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat screen story structure, into a worksheet. This worksheet gives me thirty cells, labeled with the steps of the Hero’s Journey, and broken into three acts. By trying to lay out the basics of my story in a solid framework, I can easily see what sort of a story I have on my hands. Is the first act too long? The middle too short? Am I spilling over my thirty story steps, indicating that I’ve probably got a very looong novel or screenplay in mind? This is the stage at which you lay out your story in miniature, to see if it will stand or fall.
Once you’ve got a workable outline—a road map—composed, the time has come to really get your hands dirty.
It’s time to start writing the book.
Every writer’s different, so a lot of what I offer here is optional. Some writers just like to dive in. They start with a vague notion of what they’re doing and they let intuition guide them. God bless those folks… I can’t work that way. I often veer far off the road map that my outline provides, but the simple fact is that I don’t have the confidence to go veering if I don’t first have the map to veer from. If I get lost in the woods after following my intuition, I need a compass to get back on the right path. The outline is that compass.
Likewise, I think having a solid outline in place makes the writing of a first draft a lot less scary. If you have that outline ready, all you have to do is sit down every day and write about whatever comes next on the outline. By chipping away at it, bit by bit, you make progress, and a book full of characters and scenes and incident starts forming where once there was only a vague synopsis. You can choose almost any daily goal you want: five hundred words, one thousand, three thousand. The key is regularity, tenacity, and momentum. Now is not the time to tweak and alter; now is not the time to polish and shine. Now is the time to build your story—word by word, paragraph by paragraph, chapter by chapter—until you reach the end. Only when a completed draft is attained should you make any attempts at revision.
I completely fail to take my own advice in this regard, by the way (proving once more what liars and hypocrites we writers be). The closest I ever came to completing an entire draft of a novel before stopping to take stock and revise was my first draft of Doc Voodoo: Aces & Eights, which I wrote two-thirds of before losing steam and laying it aside. That not-quite-complete draft then sat for almost a year before I picked it up again.
When I’ve finally got a finished draft, it’s time to do two things: take a short break from the book (say, six or eight weeks); then dive in for a lot of revision and polishing.
Fifth: Revision, Revision, Revision
Revision is the part of writing that some people hate most. Myself? I actually enjoy it. To me, that’s when the book really becomes mine. Any fool could have written the drivelI wrote in that first draft… but only I can nip and tuck my sentences, re-structure my paragraphs, wheedle over word choice, excise sub-plots and punch up action scenes in such a way as to make the work mine. When I meet writers who are competent, but cop to rushing through the revision process, I shake my head: smart revision and conscientious polishing is the difference between a good read and a great one. Don’t skimp on it, because your laziness—just like your hard work—will be evident.
How many drafts, you ask? Well, that depends on you. I don’t think there’s a magic number. Stephen King suggests three drafts and a polish. Steven Pressfield suggests up to fifteen drafts, using each draft as the opportunity to concentrate on just one element (character, action, sub-plots, theme, etc). My rule of thumb? I just keep tinkering until I can’t stand to tinker any more. Then I show the book to some trusted readers, they tell me everything that’s wrong with it, and based on their input, I find the reserves for one more pass, to address everything they brought to my attention.
Bringing me, at last, to abandonment.
Yes, that’s right: abandonment—the unnamed sixth step in my ‘process.’
A wise man once said that books aren’t finished, they are abandoned (Oscar Wilde, methinks), and I’ve come to find that this is true. Realistically, you could tinker with your book forever and never make it perfect. But, while working hard to create the best work you can, there must come a point when you say, “Okay, that’s it. I can’t do anything else to make this better without starting over from scratch.” That’s the point at which you either put the book in a drawer, or you send it out into the world to see if you can snag an agent or interest a publisher. I won’t go into the ins and outs of that process here—I’ll simply say, if you’ve written a book and polished it to some conclusive form, those are your only two realistic options.
So, you see, it’s really quite easy: five (okay, six) simple steps from the stirrings of an idea to a finished draft of a novel. You brainstorm images and ideas; you do research and build an outline; you pound out a first draft, one sentence at a time; then you polish, polish, polish until all that’s left is to abandon your baby and force it out into the world (or forget about it). Sure, those six simple steps may take you years to complete—but they are just steps along a road, benchmarks of progress that can be aspired to, practiced and attained.
So what are you waiting for? Get to work, already! Sooner begun, sooner abandoned, I always say.