Writing Journal

At a recent SF convention, I happened to be at a panel where the question came up, Do all you pros set aside a specific time, and a specific amount of time, to write each day? And every single pro in the room – there were six or eight, I believe – agreed that he or she did.

I don’t know how many people in that audience hope to have a book published someday – probably a lot, though. And I don’t know how many of those people wondered uncomfortably whether they must be doing something wrong if they didn’t have a specific time each day set aside for writing, but given the uniformity of the answer from the pros, probably all of ‘em.

So I just thought I’d say right out in public that I don’t do this, that I have never done this, and that I have so far finished … um … 12 books (nearly half of which will probably turn out just to have been for practice, but they are finished).

Yes, it’s true that if you don’t write, you will never wind up finishing a book. But here’s how it works for me (ideally):

When I start a book, I plan on writing two pages a day. This is a minimum. If I happen to go over, great. If I go under, then that shortfall has to get made up sometime during the week. If there’s a lot of dialogue, then since I’m not counting words, just pages, yay for me! Even though I’m really a morning person, I write mostly later in the evening, after the dogs have settled down.

If I’m working on a book, even at this slow pace, I won’t be reading much fiction. (If I’m writing to a serious deadline, then the minimum can be four or (recently) as much as eight pages a day — and then I really won’t be reading much at all.)

If I do read at all while writing, then what I read needs to be at least somewhat similar in style to what I’m working on, and it can’t be too “catchy.” CJ Cherryh, for example, has for me a very “contagious” style – when I’m reading her books, I’ll start to think in her style. I buy everything she writes, but if I’m working on one of my own, her books just stack up on my “get to someday” shelves.

If I’m not reading fiction, then I spend the rest of my free time working with the dogs, or gardening, or cooking, or reading cookbooks (cover to cover, like novels), or reading nonfiction, or indexing cooking magazines … whatever. I watch hardly any television – that’s what got cut when time starting getting tight, and now I don’t watch even a single program regularly. I do buy DVDs, but sometimes it takes more than a year even to get around to watching a new one. I still haven’t watched even one episode of Battlestar Galactica, and I’ve owned the first three seasons for years.

But, if there’s no deadline, I’m not always even doing two pages a day. I’ll take a few weeks or a month, even a few months, off from writing after I’ve just finished a manuscript, or after I’ve finished a big revision. It’s best if I can take a break in, say, April or May – the months when suddenly every gardening task needs to get done all at once. This is also the time I use to catch up on my fiction reading. I like to take two days per book … I read fast, but if I finish a book in just one day, I don’t wind up enjoying it as much.

Some writers do this massive, detailed outline before they write a book. Or they draw detailed maps and make character sketches and all like that. When I do finally start a new book, I start with nothing … a scene, an image, maybe a faint idea of a plot twist, but really next to nothing. The world develops quickly, the characters take shape, both together give me more of an idea of how the plot will work.

Here’s an example of how a story develops for me. In a book I’m working on right now, I started with nothing but some of the images used in paintings by Roger Dean, ‘Pathways’ and ‘Icarus’. But I then happened to mention steamboats in a casual line early on. I didn’t mean to do anything with this at the time, but then this casual mention led to the idea that I could make steam power an important new technology in this world and use it as a plot driver. And I’d just read Self-Made Man by Norah Vincent, so I decided to have my female main character disguise herself as a boy – yes, yes, hardly a new idea, I know that, but the point is, a girl doesn’t usually need to disguise herself as a boy unless her society puts pretty serious constraints on girls. So that started to give me the shape of her society, and of this main character’s central dilemma.

All this is normal, and it happens all through the opening stages of a book. I usually have only a vague idea of where I’m going or how I’m going to get there until I’m about halfway through a story. Sometimes more than halfway.

As I get more involved with a book, though, new ideas occur to me – Oh, look, I can tie this and that together this way! Of course, this can happen because of that, and then lead to this other thing! Usually these ideas occur to me after I’ve quit working for the day. This is also when snatches of dialogue start to suddenly occur to me, or I suddenly think of unexpected twists that might occur in the plot or in characters’ relationships. This is the only time I keep a notebook handy.

Despite all this uncertainty, I almost always proceed straight through a book. Yes, I go back and forth to integrate a new idea or make sure that an emerging theme is consistent throughout or whatever, but all the time I’m really moving ahead from one chapter straight through the next. Very seldom do I jump ahead to a future scene without working my way through to it.

Eventually every story ‘tips over’ and starts to ‘flow downhill.’ The characters and the world are all clear in my head, most of the plot details have worked themselves out, an exciting scene toward the end – sometimes not even the climactic scene, but something that I’m looking forward to – invites me to work toward it, and I start to work faster. This might happen a third of the way through a book if I’m lucky, or three-quarters of the way through if I’m having a harder time, but so far it’s always happened.

Usually I try to arrange things so that this is likely to happen over my thirty-day Christmas break, which I take off just like the students. If I work slowly all through October and November, then probably by mid-December a book will indeed be about ready to ‘tip over.’ If anything prevents me from working on a new book in the fall, though, then Christmas break won’t be so productive and it will take longer, probably quite a bit longer, to finish the rough draft of the manuscript.

The first finished draft is already pretty well polished. If I’m lucky, the first draft will be quite similar to the final draft and so I’m basically done. Every now and then, though, important (difficult!) revisions are suggested by my twin brother or by my agent, but most often working through these revisions doesn’t actually take more than a couple of weeks.

Anyway, this is pretty much how it works for me. And believe me, after either completing a manuscript for the first time or a major revision, I am more than ready to put my laptop away and take a month or two off!

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