Working at writing

Writing isn’t always writing. Tonight, I spent the time I usually set aside to work on some outlining and character sketching for NextLife, my first ever attempt at a science fiction novel. I have a pretty good strategy that I use when writing short stories. (Most of the advice I have gotten for the writing of short stories comes from Isaac Asimov’s various books and writings on the subject.) For instance, I think up a problem and a solution before writing anything; I try to begin the story as late in the time line as possible. I try and think up interesting characters. Once I’ve got that, I set myself loose and have at it, usually (but not always) without too much trouble.

A novel is different. You can go into much more detail and the plots can be substantially more elaborate. I have to outline and plan. And I’ve never taken any kind of class on writing novels. (I’ve taken fiction classes in college, but they mostly focused on short fiction.) I’ve never seen a good description for the process of planning out or writing a novel. Sure, there are books that tell you how to do it, but they give you rules, not examples. I always thought it would be great if someone kept a diary about the process of writing a novel so that other people could learn from it. I suppose that is, in part, why I am doing this. Anyway, I have no idea what I am doing. Instead of writing this evening, as I said, I was planning.

I took a stack of about 100 4×6 index cards and pulled 6 off the top. The novella on which this story is based has six main characters, and so I wrote a character sketch for each of the six main characters, one on each card. I’ve never written characters sketches before, and I don’t know what is supposed to go in them, so I just made it up as I went along. I wrote the character’s name at the top. Then I wrote their age (which is important in the story). Next, I described who the character was, what their role was in the story, and most importantly, what it is the character wants. (The latter comes from my conversations with Edmund Schubert at Ravencon.) Finally, I wrote a very brief, one-line description of the character at the bottom. The reason for this is that, as strausmouse pointed out after reading one of my stories, he liked the story, but I gave so little description of the character’s physical appearance that he couldn’t picture them. Good advice. Asimov was good at doing this by identifying a few characteristics in broad brushstrokes: tall, slim, with a enormous hook nose, etc. I wasn’t trying to write prose here, so I just tried to picture the character as resembling someone I knew and left it at that. Thus, for my character named Marc Raych, I wrote, “Resembles Doug in appearance and attitude.”

It took me about an hour to do the six cards, but afterward, more of the tendrils of the plot began to fall into place. For instance, in one part of the novella, there is an attempt on the life of one of the characters, but I always felt there was not enough of a motivation for it. After doing the characters sketches, I discovered the perfect motivation for it, and it even helped to establish a necessary relationship between two of the characters.

Next, on a single sheet of paper, in small print, I started constructing an outline of events that I know take place in the novella, and slowly, started adding to the existing events, identifying places in the story where I could add more detail (through flashbacks to earlier times, perhaps). I only got the briefest of starts on that this evening.

Finally, I also have a stack of 45 cards, each of which is labeled: Chapter 1, Chapter 2,… Chapter 45. Working from my outline of events, I have begun to detail on each card what the point of that chapter is, what needs to happen, what the important elements to get across are, ending with how I will transition from one chapter to the next. Along the way, I’ve made little reminder notes to myself. For example, on the card for Chapter 1, after mentioning a key point to get across to the reader, I write in all-caps: BE SUBTLE! DON’T RAM THIS DOWN THE READER’S THROAT! (I have a tendency to do that, but I try to learn from my mistakes.) I managed to get only one bullet of the very first chapter worked out on the index card tonight.

People will point out to me that there is software that can do all of this for me. I know. I’ve tried many different kinds of “writing” software that allow you to collect ideas and focus on writing. None of them worked for me. Besides, I’m an index card enthusiast. Even at work, when starting a new software project, before compiling requirements into a document, I will first collect them on index cards. I like fiddling with the cards, they are very low-tech, very handy, and I work well with them. They give me a feeling of comfort. If I want to swap to chapters, I simply re-order the cards. I can cross stuff out with a stroke. They are durable.

All of this stuff is work, the kind of thing that I imagine many writers go through (although there are some out there that can probably produce final draft prose from their brain, with all of the plot and characters fixed firmly in their head from the beginning–I am not one of them.) I love it, and it isn’t even the best part. The best part is taking that first index card for chapter 1, and popping into the word processor, and from the few sentences you have on the card, creating a mini-short story out of it, and then looking back and seeing how what came out on the page was different from the outline on the card, and what facets were added and subtracted and the serendipity involved in the play of imagination. I suppose you could call of this story-building. It is a lot of hard work, for me at least, but it is fun work and I enjoy it immensely.

So that’s what I did tonight. It wasn’t adding wordage to my novel, but for someone who has never written anything longer than 20,000 words (and who, prior to that, struggled to get 10,000 words), it is an important part of the program.

So, the score stands as follows: I am 1.6% through my schedule and 1.1% of the way to my target length. So I’m slightly behind, but I should make up for that once the outlining is in place.