How Do I Write? Part 1

Handwriting, boredom

Every fiction author develops a unique recipe for making diverse ingredients—characters, plot, setting, language, and theme—emerge from the creative oven as a whole creation. A work of wonder. A novel. I’m often asked how that happens, though I feel I hardly know and can only speak for myself.

Last Saturday, at the Hoboken Library Festival, I gave a short talk that answered some of the questions readers often ask: how do I put a book together and what do I hope they will get out of it? Starting with the end product in mind, I held up my crime thriller, Architect of Courage, and said my hope with it was to give readers an exciting adventure that, along the way, shows the risks in making assumptions about people, the meaning of loyalty, and the ability of an ordinary person to find ways to accomplish extraordinary things.

You’ve probably heard that fiction writers divide roughly into two camps. The plotters—those who have dozens of 3×5 cards or different colored post-its or Scrivener index cards noting every scene and major plot development. They shuffle these around until they achieve what they believe will be be the most effective, compelling, reader-aware sequence to get to the end they have in mind.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are the “pantsers,” so called because they write by the seat of their pants. They start writing (not always in the right place, but that’s what revisions are for) and find the story developing before them. They go where the story leads them.

Suffice it to say, neither camp understands how the other one works—or can work!

Truthfully, although most authors probably are in mainly one camp or the other, they often try the other approach too. I find I write a chunk (say 20,000 words of what will turn out to be a 95,000-word manuscript), then take stock. At that point, I might make myself a map of who the main characters are, their conflicts, their strengths and weaknesses, their alliances and antagonists, and look for new ways they might come interact. Arrows all over the place. That sets me up to write another big chunk. When I finally see the end coming, I do have to be more organized to make sure that when I get there, all the story questions have been answered. (Like, how DID Charles know Adeline was allergic to peanuts? Or where DID the money to buy the lake house come from?)

I keep a running list of story questions as I go along. Since, as in real life, some questions are unanswerable, the story must recognize that that particular element is beyond reach. I show that the characters may not know the answer, but they (and I) haven’t forgotten the question.

Another way I stay organized is to put a table at the head of the long Word document that’s the novel. The table lists chapter number, 2-3 words describing the main action, who’s the point-of-view character, date the action takes place, word count. That table lets me easily navigate around the document. It was a godsend when my editor suggested shortening the timeframe of the novel. If I hadn’t known the exact dates when events happened, I would have been lost. That revision necessitated another table column, “New Date.” I know Scrivener automates this kind of thing, but I stick to my homegrown approach.

How Do I Write? – Part 2 tomorrow

4 thoughts on “How Do I Write? Part 1

  1. This was a good explanation of your writing process. You’re right, writing is an individual procedure and you have to pick what works for you. I’m looking forward to reading Part 2.

  2. Interesting article, Vicki. You’re right, every writer writes differently in terms of process. Sometimes I know the goal posts, where the novel will end; sometimes I let the story unfold organically, as I befriend my characters and understand who they are, how they would behave, what their goals are. Each book has been created in its own fashion. After a first draft, I usually make a day calendar to keep track of what happens and when, a list of characters and their descriptions, and sometimes I sketch floor plans of houses…otherwise, no index cards for me!

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