Tag Archives: process

To the Far West: Writing is Rewriting

Last time I ended up with a shitty first draft. And it was shitty — I changed my mind in the middle of the story twice, I didn’t like the name of one of the characters after I typed it out a dozen times, and overall the whole thing was a mess. So now it was time to make it better.

First off, I should mention that I generally write first drafts in plain text, either using WriteMonkey on the PC, or PlainText on my iPad. I do this because both work well with DropBox (so I can move between software packages as needed), both have just enough features to be useful, and both lack a particular feature — easy ability to jump around in the manuscript. If it’s irritating to scroll back a few pages and check something, I’m more likely to just push forward, which is what I want for the first draft.

At this stage, though, I need to jump around and edit, so I saved the whole thing as a Word document.1 The second draft was very simple — I took the comments I made to myself in square brackets and turned them into Word comments (getting them out of my text), and did a quick readthrough to get rid of grammatical errors and insert styles. Again, this is where the plain text draft helps me — since I can’t bold or italicize in plain text, I have to do this pass to make sure my formatting is accurate. I also found a few more notes of things to correct, and culled a couple of notes that were redundant.

I then broke my notes up into two categories: local and global. Local comments related to a particular scene or chunk of the manuscript (like “make sure to reference the detective’s bag here”), while global comments were things I needed to check against the whole manuscript (like “avoid an over-reliance on eyes,” which is a tell2 of mine). Draft three then was taking on the local comments, and draft four was taking on the global comments. Finally, draft five was an overall polish and revision. Sometimes I do additional polish and revision drafts, but time was running out and I was getting a bit sick of looking at it, so I kept it to one pass.

It might seem counter-intuitive to change small things before large things, but it actually makes sense to me. If there’s a large thing that really needs to change first (like the character’s name I mentioned), odds are I’ve already decided that it needs to change, and I’ll do that in the second draft as I’m working my way through. If it’s really big, I have scrapped part (or all) of a first draft to address the problem, because usually if it’s that huge, I’ve written myself into some kind of corner. Either way, those kinds of problems never make it past draft two, so by starting small and working my way up, I’m fixing more urgent problems, and then making sure that it all fits together nicely later. If I went the other way around, it’s possible that my small fixes would break something larger in the manuscript, and I wouldn’t notice it.

Also, a trick I’ve picked up from when I was podcasting Whitechapel: for my polish pass, I read the story out loud to myself. I have caught so many errors and style flubs through this one technique that I simple cannot imagine writing fiction anymore without doing this step. It takes longer (and in my case, makes your wife look at you a bit strangely), but it really does work.

And so, five drafts later, I have the first draft for the editor. In the past editors have either taken my first draft entirely or made minor edits without needing my input, but I never assume that. I always expect that I will have to do even more revisions based on editorial feedback, which might include going back to draft one.

Writing is rewriting. Lots and lots of rewriting.

  1. I have in the past used other software like OpenOffice for this stage, but I find myself coming back to Word time and again.
  2. A tell is what I call a quirk of style that comes up time and again. Once in a while it’s clever and interesting, but most of the time as a writer you want to reduce your tells as much as you would when playing poker.

To the Far West: By Any Means Necessary

Last time, I talked about outlining the story. From there, I started on my shitty first draft. (Note: Get used to the word “shitty.” It comes up a lot.)

To be clear, I intentionally call this a shitty first draft. That first draft is paralyzing — the act of pure creation is terrifying, and many potential writers have crumbled under the gaze of that empty screen or that blank paper. For a while, I called it a “zero draft” so I wouldn’t even think about it as a draft, but I think that discounts the work that goes into it. Rather, I embrace the shitty first draft, because I have one goal and one goal only with this draft.

Finish it, by any means necessary.

There are lots and lots (and lots) of strategies for finishing that draft, and not only are they often unique to the writer, but they can be unique to the project as well. I generally find that I need a wordcount budget — some figure that I tell myself I will hit to qualify as success. In the past, I have used weekly budgets that I can allocate as time permits, but it had been a while since I hammered on a project with a timeline, so I decided that I needed a small but daily goal: 500 words a day.

This is where the vague, bullet-point list works well for me. With just 500 words, I don’t really have room to mess around. If I want to keep interested in what I’m working on, I have to feel a sense of progression. With the bullet-point outline, though, the small units work in my favor. It’s easy to go “Today, I’m going to write to this bullet-point in the story.” Since I’ve done the outline, I don’t have to worry too much about how it all hangs together or how this part connects to that part — I only have one point of focus. Get to the next signpost. Write to the next stopping point. Get 500 words down.

Finish it, by any means necessary.

If it’s a rough day, that’s all I need. But on days when it’s going well, I sometimes do a bit more, and that’s okay. Over the weekend, in fact, I pounded out over 2,000 words, because I was in the flow and wanted to get to the end. But the flow is also a trap, because I’ll find myself thinking about the story and wanting to make changes. A few times I wrote something in a later section of the story that changed or improved on something earlier, and I was convinced that I needed to go back and correct the earlier material.

But this is wrong. This is not forward progress. Instead, I left notes for myself in the draft in square brackets and all caps — something I can’t easily miss, and which will irritate the hell out of me when I go back to read it again. Here’s an example (which I’m sure makes no sense without context):

[WHAT DOES FLASH POWDER SMELL LIKE? ADD OTHER SENSES. ALSO MOVE THIS TO CORPSE SCENE (OR REPEAT IT THERE), TO ESTABLISH THAT SHE DOES THIS TO DOCUMENT EVIDENCE.]

Some writers point out that if you outline, there’s no surprise in the writing. Personally, I consider it more accurate to say that there’s no problem to solve in the writing, which sometimes makes it boring, but the point is much the same. However, a thin outline leaves a lot of room for problem-solving during the draft. In this story, I had no idea what the murder method was — only who was killed, by whom, and why. I actually had the victim hanged for half the story before I decided to have him shot instead (one of the many things I have to go back and rewrite). A couple of times I intentionally wrote myself into a cliffhanger, so when I picked it up the next day I would be ready to solve the problem before me. Each day meant I had something to think about, as well as a goal to accomplish.

Now I have a shitty first draft. The hard part — finishing it — is over. Now comes the fun part — tearing it all apart and putting it back together again.

To The Far West: Research and Outlining

One thing I haven’t done on my blog is go through the process of creating fiction, from start to finish. Since I’m in the middle of a short story, I thought it would be a good time to correct that oversight.

This is my contribution to Tales of the Far West, an anthology for the Far West franchise. I’ve written for a number of franchises in the past (everything from Vampire: The Masquerade to Red Dwarf), and one of the key things of writing for someone else’s universe is that you have to research. You don’t have to just research the specific property in question (although for some established franchises, that can be a massive undertaking in itself), but you also have to look into ancillary research that relates to the property.

For example, Far West. Since this is a property that’s still being developed, Gareth was able to get me a short bible, and made himself available for questions. If I don’t know the franchise to start, I try to go into it relatively blind, so that I don’t form an idea for a story and then become disappointed. In this case, one particular paragraph grabbed my attention:

Our analogue of the Pinkerton Detectives, mixed with a bit of Detective Dee and more than a smidge of James West from Wild Wild West. Our “citified dandies” who use gadgets and tech.

I immediately pitched the idea of a detective story in this setting, and Gareth gave me the green light. This led to more specific research, including a lot of questions about the legal and political structures of this franchise.

But remember how I mentioned ancillary research? Far West is a kind of Wild West/steampunk setting with Asian influences, so I had to also look into criminal investigations and technology from the 19th century. Luckily, my Sherlock Holmes project meant that I had most of the resources on hand and fresh in my mind (part of the reason I made the pitch, if I’m being honest), but the point was that I had to do a fair bit of reading before the rough shape of the story took shape in my mind.

At a certain point, I had enough details in my head that I needed to start writing them down and banging them into an outline. I am a writer that lives by outlines. I have tried to write without an outline, but every time I end up getting lost half-way through the story and giving up. Every time I outline, I can finish the project. The down side is that sometimes it takes me weeks to get an outline strong enough for me to start writing, and some projects have died in the outline phase. Still, it’s better to have it die after a few pages rather than a few dozen (or hundred).

In this case, I did spend a few weeks just working on the outline. People who have worked with me as a developer have remarked on my clear, thorough outlines, but the ones I write for myself aren’t so clear. The first pass is usually just a hand-written list of details. I try to put them into some form of shape, and notice gaps which I then try to fill. For this story, I knew I was looking at a story of at least 5,000 words, and using the Lester Dent formula, I wanted to have a couple of twists and a couple of conflicts before the end.1 In my notebook, I literally drew four boxes and scribbled facts, twists, and conflicts in each one to make sure I had the right balance. I immediately noticed a very soggy middle and a weak ending, so over the course of a week I wrote it a few different ways. At one point a key piece (the reason behind the murder) popped into my head, and the whole outline fell into place. I created a new SpringPad note (something I can easily get to on my computer, phone, or iPad for refeerence) and write a list of bullet points, covering the key facts of the backstory (since the murder happens before the story starts, I had to make sure those facts are straight as I introduce them), and the three or four things I needed to do each 1,500 words or so.

Then I started writing my first shitty draft, which I’ll get to in another post.

  1. I have a different way of interpreting Lester’s formula — I should write a separate blog on that sometime.

How I Write

writing processRecently on Chuck Wendig’s blog, he was talking about the nuts and bolts of his writing process. I posted a comment about my own process, but thought I would expand on it a bit.

First off, because I write at work as well as at home, I don’t have a daily timeframe in which I always write. What I’m working on in a particular day changes too frequently to fall into a process, and writing at home is often when I have some spare time and the energy to do it. As a result, my writing timetable is more about daily time management rather than something like “I get up at 5am and write for three hours.” That being said, I do try to write something meaningful every day, and I tend to write before noon on weekends, and between noon and early evening on weekdays.

I tend to write first drafts in plain text. For a while I just used Notepad in Windows, but I’ve recently been a convert to WriteMonkey. It doesn’t have easy text formatting tools or spell check (which is good, because that tends to be what I fiddle with when writing first drafts), but there are useful features like real time wordcount and a progress bar that keep me going back to it. Basically, it gets the hell out of the way and lets me write my ugly first draft without judging me. Even better, I can install it on my Dropbox, so I always have it on any computer I have my Dropbox hooked up to.

A quick side note: I know a lot of writers like programs like WriteMonkey because they are “distraction-free.” I’ve also heard stories of writers who turn of their Internet connection or shut down certain pieces of software while they’re writing. I don’t do that – the only concession I’ll make to the Internet when I’m writing is that I’ll switch my Google Talk to “Do Not Disturb.” When writing in the office, I can’t really block out email or IM, especially because our IM client (Communicator) also doubles as our office telephone system. But in general, I tend to work in short sprints of 10-15 minutes, instead of trying to run a marathon of several hours. Sure, sometimes I get into the groove and I’ll write until I stop, but more often than not taking two minutes to answer a quick work email will recharge me enough to start my next 10 minute sprint.

Second and subsequent drafts used to be done in Word 2010 at work and OpenOffice 3 for home, but over the past few months I’ve run into enough formatting problems trying to switch documents between the software suites that I went ahead and put Word 2010 on my personal laptop as well. I used to just copy and paste the text from WriteMonkey into Word, but recently I’ve been playing with the textile markup export. Between that and Word 2010 styles, I can go right from boring text to a look that is closer to what I want, so I can jump right into revision instead of (again) fucking around with formatting.

I do subsequent drafts in Word until I’m ready to call something final. Then I usually print it out, or export it to a new program to look at it one more time, because changing the context can often cause thing to jump out at me that I didn’t see before.

Blog posts like this one are generally written in Windows Live Writer 2011, because blogs are pretty much one-draft writing. The exceptions are my Tour de Holmes essays, which go through the usual WriteMonkey/Word process, because those require more research and crafting.

All of my writing (both work and personal) is saved to Dropbox. Not only does it mean I always have access to everything I’ve written, but Dropbox does save old versions of files, so if I really screw up (which I’ve done a couple of times), it’s easy for me to go back in time and get that draft I thoughtlessly deleted.1 One side benefit is that I can also pull my drafts on my phone, which has been useful when I get a spontaneous idea or when asked about a particular point of a project in progress.

I’ve been trying out the Scrivener beta, and I’m already in love with its organizational options. It might replace WriteMonkey for longer projects like Whitechapel and Marvelous Superheroes, but thus far I haven’t done too much with it – I’ve tried out too many betas to trust a project I care about to them. But once it’s out of beta, I’ll likely drop the $40 and start moving some projects into it.

What’s your process like?

  1. I’m ruthless in deleting old drafts. Unless there’s a strong reason for me to keep an old draft, I’ll delete it rather than letting it clog up my hard drive, and I’ll often delete old drafts once a project is done.