Writing Advice #43: My Method

All right, I want to do something a little bit different this week. I want to talk about my method.

Why, you may ask, am I going to talk about my method? Could it be that I am such a towering egomaniac that I just NEED to talk about myself? Or, conversely, am I so unbelievably insecure that I simply MUST talk about myself to make sure that SOMEONE is?

Well… Gee, both of those things are probably true, but that’s not why I’m going to talk about my method. It’s just that right now I’m deep, deep, DEEP into several projects, so I’ve been thinking about HOW I write, and it occurred to me that it might be helpful to some of you who are still establishing your own routines and methods.

Now let me start off by saying that this is MY method. It may or may not work for you. Your mileage may vary. Side effects include nausea, headache, runny nose, stomach cramps, and word-vomit. See your doctor if these symptoms persist. Women who are pregnant or may become pregnant (which is, like, almost all women) should consult with a gynecologist before using.

OK, now that the legal disclaimers are out of the way…

This is how I write:

First of all, you have to have The Idea. This may seem like a no-brainer, but it isn’t. Because, look — The Idea isn’t just “I want to write a story about superintelligent pasta from the planet Ragu.” That’s a nice little high concept, but what are you going to DO with it?

My hard drive is crammed with little fragments and ideas and notions for stories, things I’ve accumulated over — no lie — the past twenty or more years. There is, for example, this little nugget:

“Future story, world w/ plants rights activists.”

That’s it. That’s all there is. Now, because my brain works in very, very weird ways, I can remember EXACTLY where and when I came up with that — it was in biology class in ninth grade, so we’re talking quite a while ago. The idea popped into my head. I scribbled it down. And as the years went by, I eventually ended up entering it into a database of story ideas that I keep.

Let me again indulge in my towering ego: I think that’s a friggin’ cool idea! I love the idea of a futuristic society where you have plants rights activists. I like thinking about it — what would people eat? Why would such a movement arise? What are the social and scientific bases for plants rights? And so on.

If I like the idea, you may be wondering, why is it that I never wrote it?

Simple: I don’t know what the story is.

“Future story, world w/ plants rights activists.” is not a STORY. It’s just a notion. It’s a gimmick. There’s no plot. No character. You could write just about ANY kind of story set in a world where plants have rights, but you have to know which story you want to tell. Is it about the clash between a plants rights activist and an animal rights activist? Is it a love story? Is it told from the point of view of a plant?

I don’t know. Years later, I still don’t know. So I’ve never written that story. And odds are, I probably never will.

But I keep it. Just in case.

Repeat after me: Ideas are cheap.

Digging deep INTO an idea and mining the ore there and then smelting that ore into something pure and usable… THAT is worthwhile.

When I sit down to write, I need more than just the basic concept. I need a hook. I need something that snags me and pulls me through the story from start to finish.

With my first book, it was two things: One, the idea that the beginning and ending of the book would be almost identical, giving me a framework for the tale I would tell. Two, knowing that the main character would be similar to me, meaning that I would be comfortable with his voice and his life.

In my second book, I went into it knowing who my main character was, knowing what he had been through. It wasn’t “This is a story about a kid who was molested.” It was, rather, “This is a story about a specific kid, who was molested in a specific way, AND how he’s coming to terms with it, years later.”

I should also point out that my second book changed DRASTICALLY as I was writing it. Whereas with the first book I had a map from the beginning and dutifully followed A to B, with the second book, I somehow ended up at Q. Halfway through, I stopped and realized, “Hey, if I keep going the way I’m going, this is NOT going to be the book I intended to write.” I decided to go with it, and I’m glad I did.

So, yes — you need more than just the basic idea. You should have SOMETHING concrete to go on. Maybe it’s a crucial (and way-cool) plot twist. Maybe it’s a character you can see in your mind. Maybe it’s the outline of the ending, or the rough arc of the story. Depending on what KIND of story you’re telling, the particulars will present themselves differently. For a romance, you may know the perfect way for her to realize she loves him. (You may not even know who “he” and “her” are yet, but you know SOMETHING!) For a thriller, maybe it’s an incredible action sequence. For a comedy, maybe a hilarious gag…that only works when you build to it just…right…

Whatever it is, you need it. Because just having the quick one-sentence notion is not enough. Otherwise, you’ll spend (and waste) a lot of time flopping around and going down a lot of dead ends.

Therefore: Step One: The Idea, which is more than just “it’s a story about…”

Then I usually do research. Not ALL of the research, mind you. I like to leave some stuff open to explore as the book proceeds. With my first book, I was able to get away with doing very, very little research because I was already intimately acquainted with comic books. However, part way through the book, I did run into an issue that required research. To wit: My main character was in school. Well, what was he studying? I had no idea! It had been, uh, a few years since I was in high school. I had no idea what was being taught in high schools in the early 21st century. So I had to do some research and find out.

With my second book, I had to do a lot of upfront research. I read baseball trivia books, a book about baseball statistics, and Ted Williams’ seminal treatise on how to hit a baseball. I scoured the internet for weird, quirky math facts for Josh to know. I researched female sex offenders and devoured every case I could find of female teachers having sex with male students. I spent a lot of time reading up on the aftermath of sexual abuse.

And you know what? There were still occasions during the writing of the book when I would stumble and realize that I’d forgotten to research something. My favorite example of this is the final baseball game in the book, which I lovingly wrote as a nine inning squeaker. And then my dad read the early draft and talked to some local high school baseball coaches and informed me that, in Maryland, high school baseball games are only SEVEN innings.

Oops. I had to rewrite the entire game.

But that’s OK. Do your research up front, but leave yourself open to making adjustments throughout. And whatever you do, don’t fall in love with your research. Just because you learned something in your research doesn’t mean you HAVE to stick it into your story. It might not fit. It might be extraneous. It might be too much detail. Be thorough in your research, but parsimonious in how you use it. If your readers wanted to read a treatise on the subject, they would BUY a treatise on the subject. They bought your book because they wanted to read a STORY.

Therefore: Step Two: Prepare, but be ready to do MORE preparation throughout.

OK, once I’ve got my Idea and my research, it’s magic time. It’s time to write.

I like to ease myself into writing. I’ve set myself a target of writing 3,000 words per day, which is roughly twelve pages. Why 3,000 words? I honest to God have no idea. I don’t know where it came from. I started this practice with Boy Toy, which was the first book I wrote without also working a day job. In other words, it’s the first book I wrote where writing the book was my job. And for some reason, I decided on 3,000 words per day. (I probably read somewhere about another author who writes that much, but I don’t remember doing so.)

But that’s a lot of words. So, like I said, I ease myself into it. I start out with a thousand words (roughly four pages) per day. I do that for a week. Then I increase that to fifteen hundred (six pages) per day for a week. Then two thousand. Then twenty-five hundred. And then, finally, that magical 3,000 words per day.

(Why do I count in words as opposed to pages? A couple of reasons, but here’s the main one: Words are a little more absolute. If I write a chapter that ends with a quarter of a page, then I haven’t REALLY written that whole page, have I? If I do a lot of dialogue with short sentences, that could be a lot of pages, but not many words. Counting pages can be deceptive, but word count is always honest.)

The cool thing about this easing-in is that by the time I hit my full stride of 3,000 words per day, I’ve already written at least a whopping 35,000 words (140 pages)! It’s MUCH less intimidating to face the keyboard each morning when I’ve already got so much work behind me. And at that point, I’m so immersed in the story that it’s easy to keep going — I’ve built up momentum.

Think of it as revving the engine before you throw the car into gear and slam the pedal down.

You may be thinking, “There is no way in HELL I can write that much per day.” And you’re probably right. You probably have school or a job or kids or something else that demands your attention, so you can’t be expected to do that. And that’s fine. Pick a goal you CAN meet. Pick a reasonable goal. Then cut it down and do like I do — work your way up.

Writing is like compounding interest, OK? If you invest a little bit of money right now, you’ll have a lot of money in fifty years. You have to look at it that way.

Assume the average novel is about 400 pages (100,000 words). This is high for some genres, low for others, but we’ll use it.

So if you wrote as little as one page a day, you would have a first draft in about a year.

Think about that. You’ve probably been wanting to write a book or TRYING to write a book for more than a year. And now, with just one page a day… Just 250 words…. You get it. You get that book. Your first draft is done in a year. (Your subsequent drafts will happen faster than the first one because you’re massaging what you’ve already got.)

So, do you think you can write one page a day? Work your way up to it.

Try a measly sixty words a day at first. That’s just a couple of paragraphs, right? Then work your way up to a hundred or so. Then two hundred. Next thing you know, you’re writing a page a day.

Now, a page a day is a perfectly fine and respectable pace, especially when you have other demands on your time. But guess what? There will be days when you look up and realize you’ve written TWO pages. Or three. Or five. And that just accelerates your pace. Good for you!

And maybe — just maybe — you start doing two pages a day some days and one page a day on others. Maybe you do five pages on Saturdays, just because you can. Acceleration. Things happen a LOT faster when you put just a tiny bit more effort into each day. If you do a page and a HALF each day, instead of just a page (that’s only, like, 100 extra words!), you end up finishing a draft of that book in only nine months. Not bad!

Therefore: Step Three: Pick a reasonable pace for yourself, then ease into it.

In the process of writing, I have some tricks that I use to keep myself going.

Way back when we talked about writer’s block (almost a year ago!), I talked about writing the story out of order. I do this even when I’m not blocked. If I wake up one morning and I’m inspired to write a scene that is still several chapters away, guess what? I write it! There’s no law that says I have to write chapters 1-10 in order to write chapter 11. I do as I please. I’m still getting the story written.

I also try NOT to end the day’s writing on a natural break. For example, if I’m writing an intense argument between two characters, I try not to finish it that day. Why? Because when I pick up the writing the next day, I automatically know what I’m doing for that day — I’m finishing up the argument scene! That’s MUCH better than sitting down, looking at the conclusion to a great scene and thinking, “Now what?”

When I wrap up the day’s writing, I spend a few minutes leaving notes to myself so that I don’t forget any of the great ideas I had while I was in the zone. Using the example above: Let’s say I hit 3,000 words in the middle of a great, tense argument between two characters. As I’m writing, I know EXACTLY what I want to happen next. But I’m tired and I’m ready to call it quits for the day…and I don’t want to forget my great ideas! So I’ll finish up the day’s work by writing “Then she blames him for her dad’s death and he gets pissed. They argue some more. He reminds her of the picnic and the time they went horseback-riding. She says it’s not enough. End with knock at the door — Dad’s still alive? Or save for later?”

This way, I don’t have to rely on my memory the next day to know where I was headed. Note that I’m not 100% sure how I’m going to wrap things up — clearly I know that Dad is going to be revealed to be alive at SOME point. I’m just not sure it’s going to be HERE. Maybe, maybe not, and we’ll see tomorrow after I’ve let my subconscious work on it overnight.

Therefore: Step Four: Don’t make the writing harder than it has to be. It’s hard enough already.

Also, Step Four-A: Let your subconscious do some of the work for you. Really. I know it sounds sort of weird and New Age-y, but a lot of times I just let a problem hang and come back to it the next day and my brain has already worked it out. Many, MANY times I’ve laid in bed at night and suddenly sat up and turned on the light and reached for the laptop because my almost-asleep brain just figured something out and I better write it down NOW.

When I’ve finished a first draft, I forget about it. I celebrate a little bit, but I close the file, make an obscene number of backups, and then forget about it for a week or so.

After a week, I come back to it. I print the whole thing out. (Yes, I kill trees. I have to at this stage. I find it nearly impossible to analyze a novel on-screen.) I read it from start to finish, taking notes the whole time.

Then I go through it again on-screen, using my printed copy as a guide. I make corrections. I move things around. I cut things. I add new material.

USUALLY at this point, I feel confident enough to show this new draft to a few friends. If I don’t, I forget about it for another week and dance the dance again. But one way or another, it goes to friends. Friends I trust. Friends whose opinions I respect. (Remember how I talked about finding a good writers’ group and going to conferences? That’s where YOU will find the friends whose opinions YOU respect.)

I don’t show it to my mother. (I only showed Boy Toy to my dad because I needed his mad baseball skillz.) I don’t show it to my best friend from high school. I show it to a fellow writer whose work I enjoy. I show it to people who have a good eye for screw-ups, to people who know my work and — therefore — are able to say to me, “Are you really going to pull this trick AGAIN???”

And I show it to my brother.

(Most of the time, I recommend NOT showing your stuff to your family. Odds are your family members are not particularly good editors, nor are they going to bring to the table a critical eye, an objective voice, and a willingness to stab you through the heart, all crucial aspects of a good reader. In my case, my brother happens to LOVE stabbing me through the heart, so I trust his judgment.)

These folks give me the wonderful gift of their time and they read my book in its just-born state. Make no mistake — this IS a gift. These people are taking valuable time out of their own lives to read something that might not be a lot of fun to read yet. And it’s work. Because they’re not JUST reading it. They’re also taking notes so that they can tell me, “This worked.” “This part DIDN’T work.” “This part over here would be better if you changed X and Y and Z. But then you’d also have to change Q on page 64. And maybe N on page 89.”

It’s hard work, no question about it.

I collect their opinions and their ideas. Some of them I agree with and I use. Some of them I agree with, but DON’T use because I have another way to fix it. Some of them I flat-out disagree with, and that’s OK.

Then I go through ANOTHER round of sitting there at the computer, fixing, adding, subtracting, changing. And then the book goes to my agent. And if she has suggestions, I consider them, too, and then the whole thing goes to my editor and I get to go through it with him or her (depending on which project we’re talking about at the time).

Whew.

Therefore: Step Five: Take your time! There’s no prize for finishing first, only for finishing WELL.

And that is how I write a book.

 

Trackbacks

  1. […] I sit down every day and I write. Simple as that. No magic formula. No special coffee shop. No lucky mug of tea at my side. I write at home, at friends’ houses, on trains, in hotel rooms. Boom. Do it. I actually outlined my entire method on my website: http://barrylyga.com/2010/03/writing-advice-43-my-method/. […]

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