Lately I've been trying to structure my writing time more and be a little bit more organised: learn to use my time wisely instead of getting mired in one aspect of writing (or rewriting) at the expense of others. So I sat down and made a sort of map to how I go from a blank page to X number of words. I figured that putting it in my LJ wouldn't hurt anyone -- it'll give me an insta-accessible reminder wherever I go, people who enjoy these sorts of posts might be entertained, and people like me who rarely want insight into others' writing process can just scroll on by.
So, without further ado:
I'm not kidding, by the way. Mine is very much a structured approach and I suspect it's not for anyone who can only work when they're having a frenzy of inspiration. I don't tend to wait for inspiration: more often, inspiration hits whilst I'm writing. (In Russia, there's a folk saying, "аппетит приходит во время еды" that boils down to "you gain an appetite for your food as you eat it") What I consider my best ideas tend to occur to me as I am stubbornly ploughing through "connect-the-dots-in-your-plot" exercises, where I basically write bridges between scenes and groan at how much more there is left of the outline, how much longer there is still until I can finally rewrite this crap into something resembling a proper story. (Needless to say, my approach is also probably not for anyone who writes aesthetic fiction or poetry.)
And really, come to think of it, this is more about how I edit than how I write. Writing itself is easy for me; I don't need to work myself up to a "mood" to write. I just need writing implements of some sort (preferably a keyboard, though I use pen and paper for outlines and brainstorming). I've never lacked ideas, so plotting/outlining is pretty easy for me too (not that I've never been stuck, but usually it's because all my ideas to become unstuck don't fit the current project -- they want me to abandon ship and write something new and shiny >.>). The structure comes when I rewrite, which is actually where I spend about 60% of my writing time. It wasn't always that way -- when I was first starting to write, I thought that whatever you wrote down first was how it was supposed to be, because it was from the heart. I know better now, but I think it's not something you believe until you work it out for yourself.
Step by step, then:
0001 - Development Hell
Outline. This can be a one-sentence synopsis from which everything else emerges, or it's four to thirty pages of lined workbook paper filled with scenes and plot details. I want to teach myself to use index cards to make it easier to rearrange things, actually. It's something everyone seems to swear by, and it's one thing that would probably help me use my time better -- because sometimes a scene that's all the way on page 14 of my outline actually needs to be in chapter two, but I don't realise it until I am well past writing chapter ten.
0010 - Journey of a Thousand Miles
Choose a point of view. This is always a gut decision and I've never had a reason to change that. Write. Sometimes from beginning to end, sometimes writing the easy scenes first and the hard ones last, sometimes in some other way. Whichever way works for that particular story, basically. Do not stop until the story is finished.
Once the writing is done, I research (if necessary). I usually don't set stories in locations with which I have no familiarity at all (and by familiarity I mean anything from having lived in a place to having read about it before), but if it's not a place I know intimately (whether because I grew up there or because it is a place I invented), I will do fact-checking and research to make sure I'm not putting statues where there are none, etc. If I were a writer of historical fiction, I would do my research before writing, because messing up a historical detail can destroy an entire story.
With sci-fi, I don't write about things I am unfamiliar with, so I usually have enough basic science to get by for the first draft, but I fact-check afterwards to make sure there hasn't been new research that caused the value of g to change, for example. This is where I often find new research that can help me enhance my story, or, in a few cases, cause me to scrap it altogether.
I used to do all research before writing, but I found that it increased info dumps in my stories by 80%, because it just seemed like such a waste to collect all these neat details and then not use them. By researching after writing (and leaving placeholders for any sections not researched), I manage to keep most extraneous details out of my story. Plus, having a finished story helps me focus my research better.
Most of the information I need, I can usually find online, because as I'm not a historical fiction writer, I rarely need academic analyses -- and Wikipedia is just as useful in finding the day JFK was shot as is a bound encyclopaedia. If I find myself needing very technical, very specific information, I hit the library. There is a huge central library in a nearby town where I can usually find everything I need -- and what I can't find there, my alma mater's library can provide. In some cases, like financial market intricacies, I can turn to friends who work in the field.
I also make my character profiles after I'm done writing. I find it easier to create a character from actions than from thin air, and if I have a set of behaviours for Allison the Renegade Hacker (not a real character >.>), it's a lot easier to tell what sort of person she is. OTOH, I know people who have detailed character outlines before they ever sit down to write, and so they know exactly what their character will do in any given situation. I have found that the lack of spontaneity tends to restrict me too much and choke off the flow during writing.
0011 - Mental Yoga
Double-space it and print it out. Now the real fun begins. I usually put it away for at least a day. This comes from a need to take off my "writer" hat and put on my "editor" hat, and as those of you I've beta-read for can probably attest, it's a hat that's a little bit evil. Without it on, I love the world, I am starry-eyed, I love what I just wrote, I'm so excited about the story because it's YAY OMG AN ACTUAL STORY as opposed to an outline. Without it on, I couldn't edit my way out of a paper bag. The editor hat also turns me into a cynical, hyper-critical bitch with a bad case of ulcerative colitis (when it comes to the written word).
0100 - The Slush Pile Slog
With editor hat firmly on, read the story. At this point, I am just reading, not making any notes in margins or anything like that. I read it to see if I've managed to accomplish what I set out to. Is it a story or a random collection of facts? The answer is usually yes, it's a story. When the answer is no, I scrap it and rewrite from scratch (go back to Development Hell). It happens. Sometimes the first execution of an idea may seem like a great plan, but then it just doesn't work. I prefer not to throw it away but to try it differently.
0101 - Extreme Weight Loss
Once I've determined that what I have is, indeed, a story, with a coherent beginning, middle, and end, I read it again, watching for character development, conflict, and resolution. This is where the pen or Sharpie comes out and entire paragraphs or sentences get excised for having no purpose to the plot or to character development. This is one of the most difficult stages for me because this is where I kill my darlings. Those little scenes that are SO CUTE or those scenes where I think I've managed to hit on an Important Philosophical Point, but that Point has absolutely no relationship to my characters or the plot; it's just something I thought was neat. Cut all gratuitous references to fandom, world events, my favourite food, etc. Cut, cut, cut.
0110 - What Do you Mean, They're Green?
Now that I've cut everything that wasn't necessary (and I'll find more stuff to cut later, but this was the major sweep), I cut it all out of the Word file and reprint the story (still double-spaced). I read through it again, this time with several blank sheets of paper next to me, where I note:
- Sequence of events and story timeline.
- Pacing. Do I tell where I should be showing? Am I showing too much -- are there sections of dialogue where I couldn't resist info dumping the kind of food they ate? Is the story a smooth arc or does it stop-and-go? And if it's stop-and-go, is this a pattern I want to make something out of, or just sloppy writing?
- Dialogue patterns. Is Draco talking like a hillbilly? Is Harry swallowin' his Gs? Did Ron suddenly grow a vocabulary worthy of Mensa?
- Relatability. Hey, is the story actually interesting? Is there drama, or is it just melodrama? How about conflict? Stuff I or another reader can relate to? Are the characters people, or superheroes?
- Consistency. What drives my characters? Is it consistent? If not, why not? If a character's motivation has appeared to shift, was this something I intended? And if so, is the shift logical given the story's events? Do my characters expand with the events of the story or are they just going through the outline's motions? I catch a lot of this last when I look at pacing, too. Consistency of detail -- are people moving around in logical ways or do conversations that began in a bedroom suddenly end in the Leaky Cauldron for no apparent reason? Has Draco acquired a random dye job, and if not, why does he suddenly have red hair?
- Patterns. Is there foreshadowing? Have I put any guns on the mantle that have yet to go off? Are there leitmotifs I can build on, or should the random bird imagery go to the cutting room floor? Does the setting function as a living backdrop or is it a still life that can be replaced with another? Have I foreshadowed anything that ended up cut in the previous step? Have I failed to foreshadow or at least hint at something that's vitally important at the end?
The above choices are far from exhaustive, and I don't think I could ever write down absolutely everything I do at this point in my edit. It's one of the most brain-intensive parts of editing, because it demands creative thinking and painstaking attention. It is, at least for me, as chaotic as an initial brainstorm. It's usually not a very good idea to disturb me when I'm in the middle of this particular exercise, as I tend to actually snarl. Losing focus at this stage feels like a failure. The story pages sit untouched. I've made my notes, and I will get to them in due time, but first I've got to switch over to the rational and structured, because while creative chaos is a lovely state of being, I can't sustain it for long without turning into a nervous wreck. So I arm myself with a set of highlighters.
0111 - Colour Your World
First, I make a legend on the first page, drawing a line in highlighter colour and writing what that colour is supposed to represent -- dialogue, action, reflection, description, or "other" (if I can't decide wtf is going on in a sentence/passage). I need the legend because I make a point of not using the same colours -- using the same colours made me approach this task as a colouring-book exercise rather than an active dissection of my story into component parts. Using different colours every time forces me to think about what I am highlighting and why.
Once the legend is made, I go through the entire story and highlight according to the legend. This is what a ~1500 word story looks like after I'm through with this exercise. That photo is actually of a later draft stage, but it was the only photo I had available. >.>
As you can probably see from the photo, the highlighting draws immediate attention to problem areas -- sometimes most of a page will be dialogue, and sometimes it'll be all description. I pick up a red Sharpie and write stern notes in areas where I believe things need to be mixed up -- sometimes a page full of dialogue is fine, but if a page is almost all description, it's gonna need reshuffling or, likelier, more cutting. I read the story again, with the highlighting. Then I read each colour separately and see if some of these elements are doing more work than others -- this is where I usually catch most if not all of the "As you know, Bob"-type mistakes (where story is exposed through dialogue in such a way that it's clearly an author lecture rather than a character's own words).
1000 - Burying the Devil
Now that I have a rainbow-coloured manuscript, I pick up a pen and go through the text, scribbling ideas on how to reorganise, circling paragraphs/sentences and drawing arrows to other places -- basically taking the whole thing apart in detail. As I write down each note, I ask myself if this particular item is necessary for the story - does it add to the overall picture or is it just there because I needed to connect paragraphs or sentences? There is nothing wrong with section breaks. This is a return to creative chaos, but I am thinking about flow and cohesion rather than structure. At this point, I find more stuff to cut out, usually in places where I repeat myself to hammer home a point. Once I'm through with this step, I go back to the computer and edit paragraph by paragraph, taking time to glance at the notes I've made during What Do you Mean, They're Green?. Once I am done, I let it sit for a while and go do something else.
1001 - Fun with Search and Replace
If I've done my job in the previous steps, I am in possession of a second draft. I do another visual sweep through the story, onscreen, just to make sure I haven't missed anything majorly glaring. This is where I get to wield the theoretical scissors again, this time with the aid of modern technology! How exciting! Ctrl-F is possibly my favourite key combination.
- First, check the text for typos of the sort spell-checkers don't pick up (for/four/fore) and grammatical correctness (tense agreement, etc).
- "ly " to zero in on descriptive adverbs and rewrite sentences that contain them, if possible.
- I (temporarily) use HTML formatting whenever I italicise stuff, so I can search for <em> to see if I am relying too much on italics for emphasis. If a page of dialogue requires italicised words to convey its meaning and emotion, then there is something wrong with that dialogue. I deliberately distinguish <em> from <i> -- I use <i> for spells, foreign phrases, and character thoughts -- those need to be italicised as a matter of style -- they do not denote emphasis and therefore are not anathema to good dialogue.
- All forms of "to be" to eliminate passive voice wherever possible and replace weak verb phrases with strong ones.
- Semicolons. I love semicolons, but tend to use too many of them, so I make a point of rewriting any sentences with semicolons that don't need to have them. I work more on punctuation later, but I do that line-by-line. With semicolons, I prefer searching because there are usually so damn many of them in my second draft.
- "There" -- this is often legit, but also often it contributes to wordiness. "Draco walked into the anteroom. No one was there." is fine, because you're not going to say "Draco walked into the anteroom. No one was in the anteroom" (or the completely silly "Draco walked into the anteroom, where no one was.") However, "A vase dominated the windowsill" is stronger than "There was a large vase on the windowsill". Sometimes "there was"-type phrasing can be effective -- when trying to conjure a dreamlike, breathless atmosphere, for example -- but even then I try not to overuse it.
- "really", "very", "totally", "generally", "always", "usually", "just", "only", etc. Why say "really tired" when I can say "exhausted"? As with the rest of the above, these can be legit, but I try to forgo them unless I want them for impact.
- "sort of", "kind of", "a bit", "rather", "quite", "a little" -- these all exist for the express purpose of weakening the impact of a statement, and anything that weakens writing has to go. Dialogue is an exception, obviously, as is inner monologue in some instances, but overall, I try to avoid these.
- "all things being equal", "all things considered", "as a matter of fact", "as far as I'm concerned", "at the end of the day", "at the present time", "due to the fact that", "for all intents and purposes", "for the most part", "for the purpose of", "in a manner of speaking", "in the event of" -- all empty phrases. They only stay if they serve character voice, and sometimes not even then.
- "seem", "appear", "feel" and permutations. I call these coward words. They water down the impact of pretty much anything they come in contact with -- consider: "Everything seemed in order. Then Draco's father died." versus "Everything was in order until Draco's father died." The first uses a cheap foreshadowing trick, something any astute reader will see through and feel cheated. The second is sharp and to the point, and the contrast is starker. Sometimes these, too, are legitimate choices, but it's important to pay attention and use them only when they're necessary.
- Everything that is "odd", "strange", "inexplicable" or any permutation thereof. Everything that happens "somehow" or "suddenly" gets a critical eye. If I can't explain it, then I haven't thought about it hard enough. Sometimes these can work, but usually they just end up extra words that convey no information. A "strange shape" conjures no ready image, neither do "oddly twisted" things. An unfamiliar shape might resemble a familiar one, and can be described in those terms, and an oddly twisted column can simply be called twisted. Let the reader decide how it was twisted: the direction of the twist is hardly important in most cases, unless we're talking about a fantasy story where a column twisted with ridges to the left kills you, and one with ridges to the right lets you go free. It's all about context. When a character "just knows" something (somehow!) it's either a poignant character moment (rare) or it's pure laziness.
- All forms of "know" and "see". Often these verbs are lurking in sentences where a character "knows" what another character is thinking without any clues from the other character. "Saw" often features in sentences such as "Harry saw the column topple and ran." This sort of writing robs action of its immediacy and drama -- why do we need the column toppling filtered through Harry's senses? We are already in his head, we assume he is seeing it. So it is better to say "The column toppled, and Harry ran." This way of writing can sneak in at any time, and so I search for the verbs to make sure I'm only using it when it's needed, when I want to slow things down and detach them from the drama.
After clichés come redundancies -- a bouquet's definition assumes flowers, so "bouquet of flowers" is redundant if I'm talking about flowers rather than "bouquet" in the olfactory sense. Of course, sometimes "bouquet" can be used to arrange things other than flowers, such as "the patient in Room Six presented with an entire bouquet of mental disturbances", in which case the preposition and noun[s] are needed. Unlike clichés, redundant phrases can be a great device for facilitating character voice: redundancy lends itself readily to absurdity and humour, so some redundancies are allowed, and as for others, it's a Boxing Day sale and EVERYTHING MUST GO. This process of culling the "good" redundancies from the "bad" is extremely unscientific. I'm afraid I mostly rely on my intuition when dealing with them.
Then I do a sweep for unnecessarily long/dense words -- there are too many of them to search for effectively, so I just scroll through the text, keeping an eye out for "analogous" instead of "similar" and "desist" instead of "stop". Like redundancies, long/complicated words can do wonders for character development when used in dialogue/inner monologue, and they have their uses beyond that, but they are often unnecessary.
Finally, adjectives -- too many of those tend to bog a story down. There is no qualitative difference between "A well-placed adjective can make or break a sentence" and "An adjective can make or break a sentence". Adjectives are a struggle to cut, because they're so damn useful, aren't they? And you can't really avoid them altogether -- there is a reason they exist, and they are fabulous when used well, but it's very easy to catch adjectivitis and begin relying on adjectives to tell your story for you.
As I do all this, I also keep an eye out for my Achilles' heel-type phrases -- fragments that I use often and without thought. These are things like people raising their eyebrows during dialogue, or crossing their arms, or pacing, or playing with their hair. Sometimes I count occurrences on "raised an eyebrow" and realise that if I stand in front of a mirror and try to mimic my characters as they interact, they all look like they need some serious Prozac. Speaking of mimicking...
1010 - Karaoke
This is where I read the story, which is now a proper third draft, out loud to myself. I'm not much of a voice actress, so I don't try particularly hard to act things out as I read, but I pay attention to tone and pitch, to rhyming that shouldn't be there (or unexpectedly pleasant resonance where I didn't realise there was any). This helps me to nail down issues in dialogue, to identify overly long sentences, to notice bizarre metaphors. I usually lock myself in my wardrobe for this, or, if the weather permits, drive out to a park and find a quiet spot where no one will bother me. Once this is done, I incorporate the notes I've made into the text -- usually by cutting and reorganising. I pay special attention to the beginning and ending -- is there a hook? Is the end really the end, or have I got dangling plot threads that weren't apparent when I was focussed on the nitty-gritty but are glaring at me now? Reading it out loud in the first place really helps me find places where the story drags, where there are eight lines of dialogue for a thought that can be expressed in one sentence of straight narrative.
1011 - Line Dancing
Fourth draft. This is another read-through, this time line by line, with a fresh printout and a pen. I pay attention to things like punctuation and word order, getting rid of comma splices, split infinitives, dangling modifiers. I look closer at word choice here, too, rooting out weak verbs and nouns. Here's where I'll sometimes refer to a thesaurus, if I come across a word that doesn't seem to quite cut it for what I want to say. Paragraphing is another thing I look at here -- do I have huge blocks of text that are hard to follow because they mix too many ideas at once? This exercise is not wholly technical. As I go through the manuscript, I keep in mind the story I want to tell and try to make maximum use of symbol, imagery, and metaphor to drive things forward appropriately; this is usually reflected in word choice, which is why that part of this exercise is often especially frustrating. There are a lot of metaphors that are in themselves clichés because they're used so often, and I try and keep these stale images and feelings from my narrative. I tend to alliterate -- I rarely realise I'm doing it and I'm not sure where I've picked up the habit, but alliteration in straightforward prose can seem pompous and be distracting, so I do my best to keep it to a minimum. I don't remove alliteration at the expense of word strength and sentence structure, obviously.
1100 - Denouement
Fifth draft. By this point I'm so sick of looking at the thing that I have to put it away and either start work on a new project to get my wind back or do something completely unrelated to writing. When I feel like I'm ready to pick the story up again and read it with fresh eyes (this can be anywhere from a week to several months), I print it out and spend an afternoon with it. Usually I'll find tiny problems that I was too exhausted to see the first time around, but nothing major. If I'm finding plot holes at this stage, I must've been very sloppy in the previous steps. The story isn't perfect -- stories never are -- but I'm done with it and if I hope to improve it any more, I have to show it to someone who hasn't spent days sweating over it. In fandom, this is popularly known as getting a beta-reader (or eight). I don't touch the story until I get feedback from everyone I've asked, and then I make choices: if I had three people read the story, and all three tell me that there's a problem with a certain section, I rewrite that section. If all three feel that something is missing -- a scene shift, an explanation for a character's behaviour, etc -- then I make sure to add that in.
OTOH, if I had three people look at a story and all three are giving conflicting advice about a particular passage, I carefully consider where each person is coming from, asking questions if necessary. If Beta 1 leaves a note saying "I really don't like this" and it turns out that she's had a traumatic experience involving a similar situation, this is not something I need to worry about in my story. But if Beta 2 leaves a similar note, explaining that the character's behaviour here on page 34 doesn't seem to gel with what he did on page 6, I go back to page 6 and usually find that indeed, I took a shortcut and assumed that people would understand my character's motivation when in fact it's impossible to understand it without being a mind-reader. So when they get to the "problem" section on page 34, people who are not me will think there is a contradiction. Beta-readers are invaluable in this regard -- they are not me, they don't think like me, and they will mercilessly point at everything that makes no sense because they aren't me.
This is the only time during my entire edit that I actually add words to the story. Editing is 90% cut and 10% paste, in my experience. Any writing I do at this point is very slow, because I am trying not to make any of the mistakes that I've just spent enormous amounts of time fixing in the rest of the manuscript.
And that's it. Then the stories sit on my hard drive until I work up the courage to send them out for consideration. Sometimes I go back to them and end up realising that I picked the wrong POV. So I rewrite. And you know, the more I do it, the more I am sure it's not a bad way to spend my time. Not a bad way at all. :)
This process is far from static, so I will come back and revise this every once in a while. In another three (or six) months, I'll probably have learned several new things about writing, or picked up a new habit that I have to either correct (after imadra_blue and I co-wrote a H/D novel for Big Bang 2, I became so fond of the phrase "nothing for it" that it kept creeping into everything I wrote even if it wasn't fiction) or nurture (I've been watching my semicolons like a hawk lately, and I'm noticing that I tend to use them less, often even without the obligatory "oh shit, a semicolon. do I really need one here?"). So that part of fun with Search and Replace might be gone soon, replaced with some other annoying mannerism (perhaps I've been overusing dashes...) So, yeah. The process changes as I learn.
I should note that even though I used fan fiction examples above, most of my fan fiction does not get the above treatment. If it's written as a gift, I do as much as I possibly can because I believe that gifts ought to be made to the best of my ability (unless I'm writing a last-minute pinch hit, in which case I still try my best, but time is vital to good editing). But if it's just something I'm writing for fun, I do some of it but not everything -- I certainly don't waste paper on printing my fanfic and I don't read it out loud to myself (leastways not the whole thing; just passages that seem "off" despite appearing grammatically/stylistically sound). When writing fanfic, everything I do during the "story analysis" step for my original work is done during Development Hell -- I work out the details well in advance and do my best not to deviate from the plan. I incorporate a lot of the language fiddling into the "writing" step, so that the writing is much slower but the first draft is actually third-draft quality. Then off it goes to betas. This is because I judge the time investment my revising process requires too high a price for something that I can't ever show to an editor or agent.
Though, if you asked me if pro publishing was my ultimate goal, I would say no. I hope (and plan, to an extent) to publish professionally, and I am working towards it somewhat, but if I never have a book in print, it won't be my life's One Big Regret. For a long time I thought that I wanted the perks that came with "being a published author" but those perks are only real for a handful of writers, and I haven't had my head in the clouds regarding this world for approximately 13 years. Only a tiny handful of "pro" writers can live off their writing alone -- most have to supplement their income in other ways, and the idea of being a starving artist does not appeal to my hedonism at all. Writing makes me feel like a whole person, like I am doing what I was put on this rock for. That's why I do it. Anything else is just gravy.
That's all she wrote. ;)