On Writing

Writers often discuss their writing methods, the tools they use, and the like, so I thought I would talk about about mine. These work for me, and may not work for anyone else. Then again, if you are having trouble getting started, changing some things may help. This could give you ideas.

Pantsers and Plotters

On the grossest level, writers can be separated into pantsers and plotters. Plotters work on a plot outline, they write character back stories, they often will map out the flow of the book, to the point where they have a sentence or two for each chapter that says what happens in that chapter. Pantsers, by contrast, write by the seat of their pants. They just sit down and start typing.

I’m a pantser. I need a main character, I need a setting, and I need some idea of where the character is going. That’s about it. When I wrote Childers, I had no idea that she was going to kill four attempted rapists in Bahay, win a terribly costly victory in Kodu, or end up heading the CSF as the Chief of Naval Operations. All I had was a starving orphan living in the streets who had two things going for her: she was smart, and she had learned how to be sneaky. That was all I had when I started typing.

I originally started by trying to be a plotter, and it didn’t work. Doing all that up-front shit is b-o-r-i-n-g. I would literally fall asleep. Yet I thought that that was How It Was Done, so I tried, and failed, and had let the dream of being a writer sit for ten more years before I tripped over a little book called Writing into the Dark: How to Write a Novel without an Outline. Basically it said I could skip all that and write. It was very freeing. I recommend this book to you. The method may not work for you, but if it does, you’ll thank me.

So I need a character, a setting, a direction, and also some idea of the story arc. Is it boy gets girl, or hero saves the planet, or what. It needs to gel to some level. Once it does, the story writes itself. I do between 15,000 and 20,000 words a week when the story is writing itself. And it’s not boring. I have to be reminded to eat meals. You see, I need to write the story to find out how it ends.

Tools

Plotters like all kinds of tools. Outlining tools, and timeline tools, and character building tools. All kinds of stuff. I don’t use any of that. I use the Word file for a previous book and modify it. So I get all the margins and gutters and paragraph setups and all that for no work. I have a title page and a copyright page and a contents page, as well as page headers for the left (author) and write (book title) pages. I edit that stuff, then I go to chapter 1 and delete the existing chapter 1 text and start writing the new book. After I have chapter 1 written, I delete all the rest of the previous book and just write the new book directly into the book format. It saves a lot of time. When the draft is complete, I basically have a book ready to go.

Once the draft is complete, I do a couple of things. I copy the whole text and drop it into Hemingway to see what grade level it is written at. I write pretty consistently at a seventh-grade level, which is perfect for adult fiction. I check my adverb counts, which are usually a little high, and my passive voice counts, which are usually a little low. The adverb counts are high because a lot of my books are dialogue-heavy, and people use adverbs in speech a lot more than authors use adverbs in exposition. The passive voice counts are low because I write action-adventure kind of stuff, and so I don’t have a lot of “thing was broken” compared to “someone broke the thing.”

Another thing I do is search for things I do a lot. I look for So, And, and But beginning a sentence, and trim them down. I look at every “that” and see how many I can get rid of. The ones that get omitted are ones like “She learned that the widget was broken” or “He knew that the planet was a heavy-gravity world.” So most ‘that’s after learned, knew, forgot, remembered, etc., go away. I look at all the ‘very’s, and usually get rid of all the ones that aren’t in dialogue. People use very a lot, so in dialogue it’s OK, but writers shouldn’t, so in exposition or narrative it’s not.

Then I go through the Word grammar and spell checker and look at everything it highlights. If it’s a word that it flags as a misspelling, and it is the name of a planet or character or something, I tell it “Ignore All” so I only see those once. The other ones that get flagged may be an inconsistent spelling of the planet or character.

Having done all that, I read the whole thing through beginning to end in a single sitting. I am looking for continuity and consistency errors, as well as grammar errors that will jump out at me as I read.

Next it goes to alpha readers, one of whom reads every word and comma, and finds most of the grammar things I missed, and the other one of whom reads for atmosphere and tone and pacing, and catches jerky transitions. I don’t ask them to read that way, that’s how they read all the time, and I use those skills. And they get a free book to read, so it works for everybody.

Cover

Covers are important. Everybody says that. The cover should be compelling, make someone say, “Well, this looks interesting.”

Lots of science fiction covers have spaceships, and explosions, with planets hanging in the background. My stories are all about people, though, and the most compelling covers to me are the ones with people in them. My first two covers, on Childers and Childers: Absurd Proposals, were just people, nothing else. Well, a starfield background. Partly because I found two models who looked so much like my vision of the main character, at different ages, that I just had to run with them. For the cover on Galactic Mail: Revolution!, I included an explosion and a firearm, which is drawn from the action in the book, but I still had a person.

Whether those are good covers or not, I don’t know. I like them, so I guess that’s what matters.

Self-pub vs. trad pub

I like self-pub because I’m in control, and because the time to market is basically zero. I’ve written four novels since July 1, 2017 — in eight months — and they’re all out there for sale. With trad pub, the first one wouldn’t even be available yet. The reviews on them have been good, which has been a motivator to write more. It would probably be hard to keep writing for a year or eighteen months after a first novel without even knowing yet whether people liked your stuff.

Of course, if I was an author with Baen Books, when my book finally did come out it would probably sell several thousand books the first week, just because Baen published it. If I could break into trad pub, maybe I would go for it.

At least now, based on the reviews I’ve gotten, I know I probably could go trad pub if I wanted to.

And, as with any skill, the more I write, the better I get.

So anyway, there’s some thoughts about my writing process. I hope they helped you think about your own writing process, and maybe gave you some ideas.

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