I have gotten lots of requests for details about my writing process. Some people try to outline (plotters) and get so enmeshed in details they get lost in analysis paralysis. (“Does this detail appear in the book? As a reader, do I care about it? Then why as a writer do you care about it?”) Others try to go pure pantser (write without an outline; ‘write into the dark’; ‘seat of the pants’) and write themselves into a corner.
First, read “Writing into the Dark” by Dean Wesley Smith. Seriously. Just do it.
So let me start with a story. In 1928, my grandparents drove their family, including my dad, from Peru, IL to Pukwana, SD to visit my great-grandparents. They borrowed Uncle Henry Schweickert’s brand-new Ford Model A. They necessarily drove mud farm roads (‘section roads’) all the way there, because there were no US highways, like US6 or US34. Those highways weren’t even laid out until 1929. In 2018, that’s a ten-hour drive, all on Interstate highways. Ninety years ago, it was more like four or five hard days each way.
How do you even do that? You have to know where your river crossings are. Where will you cross the Mississippi, for example? Into the 1960s, my dad still thought of long trips in terms of where the river crossings were.
When I write, I have a general idea where the plot is likely to go. For “A Charter for the Commonwealth,” I knew I was going to have a revolution against Earth’s economic and political dominance of its colonies. I knew that there would be a constitution or charter or something like that (this is a prequel, and the later books already published actually said Charter, so that’s what I had to call it). I knew there would be some kind of war with Earth. I knew that the planet Doma had to be destroyed. I knew the Commonwealth had to come up with a space navy somehow in order to fight the Earth.
I also knew that, like every other successful revolution, it would have to start in the upper classes and have money behind it. So I needed sponsors, and I needed to know their motivations.
So I had my big river crossings in mind. I had them sorted in my head in terms of the order they occurred. I also knew how far apart they were, in terms here of how the timeline worked.
One thing I had to keep in mind was the travel distance between planets, so I built a little map of that. This is the actual sketch I used.
I also had a little timeline for the second half of the book, when things are happening across multiple planets, and those time lags are important to consider to get it all to work. I mapped things out in terms of weeks from the passing of the Charter. I didn’t actually build this timeline until I was about a third of the way into the book, and, as you can see, it wiggled around a bit as I wrote. Here’s the actual timeline I used.
Those are the only outlines or notes I used to write the book.
So I know my river crossings, and roughly when I’ll get to them. What else do I need to have to get started writing?
I need a starting character. I need to know about four things about them, plus I need to know where they are and what their goals are.
For “Childers,” the starting character was Jan Childers herself. What did I know about her? She was almost fourteen years old, she was a malnourished, starving orphan, she was extremely bright, and she was very sneaky from just surviving on her own. Where was she? In the slums of Houston. What was her goal? To pass the Citizenship Exam of the Commonwealth of Free Planets and get out of the slums, and off Earth, forever.
For “A Charter for the Commonwealth,” the character was James Allen Westlake VI. What did I know about him? He was the scion of a very rich ruling family on Earth, thirty-eight years old, the Planetary Governor of Jablonka, and he had classical liberal values. Where was he? On Jablonka, in Jezgra, in the Planetary Governor’s office. What was his goal? To initiate and carry out a rebellion against Earth and set up the colonies as an independent, free nation built on Enlightenment values.
That’s all I needed to start.
The first paragraph of “Childers” is:
“Jan huddled in the shadows of the alley, merging into the darkness. The sky was just lightening now, the long, wild night beginning to recede. She pulled her rags closer about her in the pre-dawn cold.”
The first paragraph of “A Charter for the Commonwealth” is:
“The Honorable James Allen Westlake VI looked south out of the picture window of the Planetary Governor’s office of the Earth colony on the planet Jablonka. His capital city of Jezgra spread out before him, both south and east. To the west was the great sea, the Voda Ocean.”
And from there I’m off and writing, heading for my first river crossing.
One other thing I do as I write. I keep a second Word window open on my desktop. When I bring in a new character, I copy and paste their name into my notes and add a little description. When I use a ship name, or a planet name, or a city name, I put a note in the notes window under ‘Ships’ or ‘Planets’ or ‘Cities.’ When I need to refer to it later, I can refresh my memory about the name I used. Sometimes I’ll create a whole list of potential ship names, for instance, and then bold the ones I use as I use them, and add a little note (like ‘in orbit about Pahaadon’) so I can remember which one it is.
And that’s it. Then I write. I make it up as I go along. And, as the characters develop, they carry the plot along for me. I write slower at the beginning of the novel as I am setting it up. Maybe 1000 to 1500 words per day for the first week or ten days. But once I am about 10,000 words in, it starts to write itself and production goes up to 3000 to 4500 words per day or more until I run off the end of the story.