Plying the Trade

(Picture from here.)

Recently, a friend of mine lamented that he’d fallen into a particular way of writing books. He didn’t like it. He found it inefficient.

The conversation left me wondering how I write books—or any fiction, really.

I do have a process, though it feels more like blundering around in the swamp. At night. When it’s raining. Baleful, disappointed eyes stare at me in the dark. So many, many eyes…


Anyway, here’s how I do it.

I know many people more creative than I with regard to ideas. Some are writers. Some are not. I can’t say I’ve originated all my ideas in my own head, but I’ve at least stolen from the best and made sure to file the serial numbers off. But, though SF is considered the “literature of ideas,” ideas are not the most interesting part of science fiction.

Regardless, I take those ideas, wherever they come from, and write them down. I don’t know about you, but nothing I don’t write down sticks. Many times, I’ll think, “that’s such a striking idea, I’ll surely remember that!” Only to find the imperfect translation of short-term to long-term memory has done it to me again and the idea is lost forever.

Not, mind you, the ideas I write down are always worth keeping. I’ve woken up from a sound sleep with something terrific, groped in the dark for a pencil and paper, written it down verbatim, and find the next morning find that it was complete and utter drivel. Only useful as a cautionary tale as to what is keep worthy and what is not.

More often than not, I’ll find myself wanting to write about something. I want to write about elephants having human intelligence. (Jackie’s Boy) Or if there was a God that had to obey physics. (God’s Country) Or if there were physics that allows the existence of a God. (God’s Country, again.) And there it sits for a while. Sometimes a while. Sometimes a very long while.

Until I have what I call a take.

A take can be a point of view on an idea. It can be a character that captures something I want to say—or a character I want to talk about. Or an image that strikes me. It is, essentially, anything that captures the thing I want to write about into a thing I can write about. Until I get a take, the stuff just lies around in my head somewhere gathering dust. Not all takes work. But nothing works without the take.

Once I have a take, it still sits around waiting for characters, plot, setting, etc. Or, at least, enough of that material that I can get started. Say, you’re thinking about a story about a man in a spacesuit. Well, that’s fine. Where is the space suit? On Mars? Venus? The Moon? On a station? In a ship?

Most of the time I can get started when I know who and where the story is. I may not know why, but once I have take, character, and location, I can begin pulling things together.

Which, for me, begins with geography.

I’m the kind you met in elementary school that loved maps. Globes. Star charts. Books on how to do things. In Junior High, I was obsessed with books talking about the exploration of Africa, diseases in Brazil, how to make a miniature zoo. (How to Make a Miniature Zoo, by Vinson Brown. I was obsessed with that book. It told me how to catch wild animals, house and feed them and make a display area for anybody to see them. Not just big animals like raccoons and mice but flies, water bugs, and stick insects. But I digress.)

So, first I need to know where things are set, and then I have to know what that place is like.

If you’ve read Jackie’s Boy, you’ll see that each section begins with a map. The book takes place over the broken post-apocalyptic roads between Saint Louis and Pensacola. I pored over these places. I used google maps relentlessly, blowing up the map with one mile across the screen. I knew everywhere my characters went.

While this is going on, I’m thinking about the characters.

I’m not going to delve deep into character development—every writer has their own way of doing things. It’s an article in and of itself. For me, writing is an exercise in making multiple personality disorder work for you.

I write a lot of notes on characters, journey, backstories, etc. But here I have to start being careful.

I learned something about myself years ago: part of the joy of this process—part of the necessary satisfaction with it—comes from this discovery process. If I go into too much detail, the work will stall. It will die stillborn. I’ve never been able to bring one of those dead organisms back to life.

This means that when I start that first scene, I don’t know anywhere near as much about the characters, environment, and journey as I will at the end. I learn more with each page written.

The problem with this approach is that it means that there is a lot of wasted material. I can write fifty pages and reach a dead end when my subconscious tells me something like, “well, that won’t work. He was born female.” Or, “He’s going to have trouble driving over that ocean.”

To which I reply: “You couldn’t have told me back when I was figuring this out?” Shriek and start over.

I call these studies.

Once, back in the day, I went to a Rodin exhibit and the St. Louis Museum of Art. The Museum has a fair number of pieces but this one was different. This had drawings, scribbles, wax experiments—everything Rodin needed to do before he started on a piece of bronze or marble. And they were extensive. The drawings sometimes were no more than scribbles—charcoal trying to figure out a texture. The wax sculptures were of different shapes, sizes, configurations, contortions. Some resembled the final product. Some resembled the final product in no way I could see.

It was a wonderfully encouraging exhibit. It said, right up front, there was absolutely no way a work of art appeared whole and intact from the id of the artist. There had to be intermediate steps. (Okay, yeah. There are artists that can do that. Mozart, for one. But, me, I’m with Rodin.)

So, I don’t begrudge these attempts that don’t hit the target. I get a little pissed at my subconscious, sometimes. I mean, really? You couldn’t tell me earlier?

From then on, it’s a two steps forward, learn something, drop back a step, and shore up the material, go forward another two steps.

Once the writing is going, there are two phases: fan-out and fan-in.

Fan out is in the beginning. During this period the characters learn about each other, their journey, what they can reveal, what they can’t. This is the period where people meet each other. When new characters are introduced. When the setting is introduced. There is a fair amount of meeting people meeting people meeting the obstacles meeting more people—hence, fan out. Imagine the story as a graph of interactions that spreads out as new events and characters come into play.

Eventually, this voyage of discovery comes to an end and the motivations of the characters and the necessities of the plot begin to take precedence. The new relationships are now in place and begin to pull events together. New relationships between characters we’ve met might happen as a consequence of what we learned in the fan-out period, but now the lines of the story are coming together. Hence, fan-in.

The transition from fan-in to fan out is a crystallizing moment. When I was working on God’s Country, I was 70k words in and the work was still in fan-out. I got very nervous. Eventually, fan-in began and I breathed a little easier. But the work ended up being 160k words.

Once fan-in starts, the book reaches a point where it starts to write itself. There is still discovery going on but no sleepless nights. No sitting outside with a beer staring at the robins figuring out who the characters are. By then, the next scene is pretty much predicted by the scene I just finished.

Until the end.

Usually, I know the end of a work long before I start. But not always. This used to be paralyzing but I’ve come to trust my subconscious (damn him.) to let me know what is necessary just in time to keep me from driving over a cliff.

Not that he’s any more reliable with endings than he is with anything else. I came up with an ending in one story that required me to backtrack halfway and start up again.

So: is this an efficient way of doing things?

I have to say not when compared with some techniques. If I were able to outline a work within an inch its life to the point where I just had to type in the words, writing a work would certainly take less time. However, when I’ve done that no work was forthcoming. Comparing anything with an efficiency of zero makes it look good.

Regardless, I’m pretty much able to write a book or so a year. Would a more efficient methodology give me a better book? I’m not sure. Most of the “efficient” books I’ve read are not books I would want to write. I’m not saying they are not good books. But the take on things is not something I’m interested in writing.

What’s the point of writing a good book efficiently if I don’t enjoy the road to get there?

That’s my way of doing things. It’s not complete. There are a lot of steps I’ve left out—figuring out the characters, for one. Determining geography for another. I’ve left out theme but then I’m not terribly interested in writing theme-driven books.

I’m more the kind of writer that sets up all the situations, characters, and setting, and then let the characters fall on their face on their own.




Plying the Trade — 2 Comments

  1. I too believe in pre-writing, like Rodin believed in pre-sculpting. It’s like finding bones and pieceing together a skelaton. subsequent drafts add the muscle and organs, final draft gives you the skin, hair, and clothes.

    But there are always pot holes on the journey that crop up–like discovering in chapter 3 that the person you thought had don the crime on page one winds up dead on the bathroom floor with the heroine’s letter opened stabbed in his back.

    It’s the journey that counts, for the writer and the reader.

  2. I remember some discussions about your process and mine (which are very different). Basically, I have what I think of as the topography of the story–starts out with where, emotionally, the reader, the protagonist, and I start out, and where they end up. I may know little or nothing about what’s going to happen–that’s the roadmap, and I discover it as I go along.

    But pre-writing? I’ve written entire drafts (well, two of them) that turned out to be pre-writing because somewhere I took a wrong turn and the next two hundred pages were all me trying to get back to where I was meant to be. The only thing for it was to re-write, discover the wrong turn, and forge onward.

    Writing is a weird, individual process.