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GA, tell me how you do it.


Aaron Penrose

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Alright, guys. My last thread here garnered me all sorts of sage advice I have since incorporated into my writing, so now I'm back to pester you all with more questions! 

 

After weeks of letting this insane imbroglio of ideas steep, I think I'm finally ready to put pen to paper (or, more appropriately, fingers to keys) and start writing. But I'm concerned because my two prior attempts at novel-writing failed miserably. I lost interest. I started feeling like it wasn't going anywhere, I was expressing my ideas poorly, and the whole thing was trash. In the short story format, I can have a single good idea, expend a few thousands words expressing that idea, and then fine-tune it and be done. But the prospect of writing a whole novel is so daunting to me. I have no idea what to fill up 200+ pages with. The most I've ever generated in a single sitting is about 20 pages. I know basically what I want to say, whom I want to write about, and the things I'm going to have them do/say to express my ideas, but I just don't know if it's enough for a whole book. I'm feeling overwhelmed by the technicalities. 

 

So tell me, GA. When you get that fire lit under your ass to write a book, how do you go about it? Do you plan it? Or is all truly great art composed on mere whim? Furthermore, how do you decide how to divvy things into chapters? Do you think it's best to write the entire novel, have it edited, and then post it chapter-by-chapter on scheduled release dates, or should you post every chapter immediately after writing and editing? How do you pick your narrative mode? I enjoy first and third person equally, but I can't decide which to use. Do you like to narrate the whole time from a single perspective or change between chapters? Tell me, gypsies! Tell me your secrets! 

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I think you'll get some replies here, but you may also want to look back through some of the author interviews we've done on our GA News Blog - I've seen quite a few authors talk about how they get inspired and plan out their stories.

 

I know from working with one author, he never would let ANYONE see anything until he finished chapter 3.  At that point, he felt good about going forward or trashing it - and while he wrote a lot of stories that never saw the light of day but DID get past chapter 3, as well as a smaller set that were actually posted and completed, it is no great failure to keep writing and trashing your writing, just don't be your own worst critic and trash things too soon.  Maybe you go another 2 chapters and realize how to re-work the chapter you hated.

 

I would also highly recommend that when you are ready to post - even if you don't want to wait until the story is complete, probably have about 5-6 fully edited chapters ready before you start posting.  It is better for the reader that they know you have a bit more of the story ready, but also, it avoids the peril of "Oh - why didn't I mention his brother in chapter 2 now that I'm about to have a major subplot involving his brother".

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I get bogged down all the time. I write serially, then post, plus I write short stories or novellas on the side, plus do some eBook publishing... so my writing is as consistent as possible, but not always what I'd like it to be. Stories change, like crazy changes, on me all the time. That being said, when I want my writing to flow smoothly and not get bogged down I tend to do a ton of research, then explain/write out my major elements, then start writing. It helps when I don't have to stop and go... how in the heck am I going to do this? Or crap! I've plotted myself in a corner.

 

One of the things that helps many authors when they plot out a story is that, if they get stuck, they can skip ahead to a different scene, then worry about connecting them when inspiration comes. This obviously only works if you completely write the story before you post it.

 

For me, I tend to write out research info in Word. But if I really need a sequence of events file, I use a bubble map/diagram. It lets you see the plot in a timeline, which can help with making sure you follow the proper arc. There are free programs you can use online too, but it lets you branch off, write out options, add/remove different elements. It's also easier to see 'at a glance' than in paragraph format in Word.

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I find myself writing lots of notes to construct characters so that I have a visual sense as well as personality aspects in advance. I spend a lot of time asking the question, "why would this happen?" as I come up with plot idea, sometimes working backwards from the climax to get all the details in place. Then I write out an outline to plan the entire story from beginning to end. Even with that, a story may evolve and change, but I find having a plan helps keep me on track and helps me direct the story back to where it needs to go if it starts to diverge.

 

If you don't have one already, see about getting a beta reader who can help you sift through some of the weaker parts before giving up on something. You may be being too harsh on yourself and self-sabatoging. (I have been very good at that in the past.) And research any details you're not clearly familiar with and confirm the ones you are.

 

A big thing to keep in mind: don't bog yourself down in whether it's a "short story" or "novel" length piece of work. Just write the tale.

Edited by Mann Ramblings
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Remember the KISS principle:  Keep It Simple

 

One of my big problems is over thinking.

 

How many twists are too many? How many stale plot devices can I reinvent? What is this characters favorite color?

 

How much does any of it contribute to the quality of the work?

 

Any writer by definition MUST be detail oriented but I tend to get obsessive about it.

Edited by jamessavik
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Everybody writes in a different way. I don't think there's any one way to go about it.

 

As I'm writing Brushfire, I don't have the full story decided upon yet. I just have a couple of different "forks" that I'm assessing. We'll see where it all ends up; I haven't plotted it out entirely.

 

When I wrote Crosscurrents, though, I knew essentially where I was going from the very beginning and only wavered over how I was going to tell it. In a sense, this may not be a good yardstick, because the "plot" of CC, derived as it was from my own life story, was already a given. Still, I went at it with some openness. I had roughly plotted out how many chapters I'd have and what the contents of each chapter would be. Invariably, though, as I sat down to write, the writing often took me places slightly different than I'd planned. I don't know how else to put it: It's as though the story itself decided what it wanted to say while I was writing, and what it wanted to say didn't always match up with what I'd planned. That always mystified and delighted me. Not every writer works that way, but I think many do.

 

I would advise you to have a significant body of the material written, in final form, and ready to go before you start posting. Especially if your pace of production is slow. Otherwise people get annoyed that you're taking so long to get the story told. Trust me, I know this from first-hand experience.  :o

Edited by Adam Phillips
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Everyone is different, there's really no right or wrong way to do it. It's all about trial and error and learning your strengths and areas you need work. Don't get bogged down on ideas that have nice starts and then you just don't have it in you to finish. Don't be afraid to shelve something that you just aren't feeling right now or delete it entirely.

 

Why people get bogged down may be:

 

You liked an idea, but didn't develop the idea at all. Didn't shape the story or the tone or even what you really wanted. For example: You like the idea of High School lovers having a falling out, but forgetting that they will be sharing a Dorm Room together.  You begin writing, it's easy to introduce the characters and the setting, but that's it. All you really have is a skeleton and what you may end up bogged down in is when you start adding everything else. So don't write steps A and B if you don't have a clue about C and D, etc. You may find yourself overwhelmed by all the turns you may want to take.  Like taking an egg out of the fridge and then asking yourself.. "which way do I want to prepare it?" If you're unsure, you'll probably either put the egg back or still be standing in your kitchen cussing that damned egg for tempting you.

 

You outgrow your own story. It has happened to me plenty of times. I start a story, like the idea. But then you just get bored with the subject matter and the material you are working with. So you just lose the fun. If you lose the fun, you lose the story. There's no shame in that, it may just mean your interests have changed and your growth has left the story behind.

 

You allow your fan-base and readers become the directors. Criticism and praise and the inevitable, "this guy's an asshat, I want him to be with his sturdy best friend," comments will come up. If you allow them to sway you from your course, then you may find you no longer like your story. Don't write for other people. Write something you like and want to share. If it is done well enough the readers will come.

 

You don't research or research enough. Doing a story based in WWII and can't remember a lot about it, research. Not just facts. People will eat you up for messing up their history. Apart from all the dates, battles, generals, etc, research deeper. Know the styles, the architecture, technology, fashions, language, culture. Having characters speaking outside of their time would bother some people. And you will have a terrible time writing through all the barriers you come across if you don't research. So just do it.. everyone hates homework, but if you don't do it you fail.

 

Story becomes too busy. Write the minimum of what you have to. You don't have to be fancy to get your point across. It shouldn't take anyone five pages to explain a morning sunrise, how the character feels that morning, how the character feels about the beauty of the sun, etc. It's just not needed in most stories, it can become tedious and boring to read if you're not careful. Having too many characters can become difficult to manage. It's ok to have a lot of characters, but if they're not necessary to the main plot, don't make them so. That just saves you a ton of character development and back story and work. Look at Disney movies, apart from the main character, most of the other central characters are either extreme stereotypes or silly. They aren't really fleshed out, they are there to serve a purpose and nothing more. You don't know Flounder's life story, what makes him tick, his parents, his loves, you only know that he is loyal to a fault for Ariel. If you create a plot point for him, you have to make people care about it.. and to make people care, they have to know them. IF you do that too many times, you're really bogging down your main plot and message. 

 

You take on too many stories at one time. Some people thrive on more stories. Some people use a new story to keep from being bogged down in the others. I used to be like that, but I found that all of my stories suffered if I tried to commit to too many at once. For example: At one time, I had Roommates, Are You Christian, Standing in Shadows, He Got To Me, and Conflicts, and the Fanfiction all going at the same time. I put all of them on hold to finish Roommates. Kept all but Are You Christian on hold to finish it. But by the time I am seeing the finish line to one story, I actually am no longer looking forward to the others. That is why Conflicts, HGTM, the Fanfic are all going on the delete pile. If that's how you like working, it's fine.. just know what you're taking on.

 

Anywho - like I said, no one works the same way. There are accepted rules and bendable rules.. and hell even breakable rules in writing. Not everyone does it the same way.. and there are successful writers that break damn near every rule there is. The point of my entire post is to keep at it until you are comfortable and happy with what you are doing.

 

It doesn't hurt to have people around you that you trust to cheer you on, kick your ass, and help you along the way either.  :)  

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As Krista said, everyone's different. On that basis, I'll add to the above with how I used to work, and how I currently work :)

 

My first novel I wrote a chapter and posted it as soon as it was edited. The one piece of sage advice I was given at that time was to always keep in mind what you've got planned for the next chapter, so you're always writing to a goal. Also keep in mind where you want the story to go, so you have a long term target as well. Or, as I read in a book on writing, look up and see your destination, then look down to see the path in front of you. Look up from time-to-time to make sure you're still heading in the right direction, then focus back down on the path in front of you. However, there was one key scene in a later chapter which was the first thing I ever wrote. Whenever I got some writer's block, I'd jump to that future scene and refine it further. Nowadays, I'll have multiple future scenes to work on if I get stuck, but this all comes down to the idea of writing towards a destination. That destination may be the end of the story (and that's a key one), but there's no reason you can't have a few intermediary destinations to write towards, too.

 

My second novel was half-written in a notebook (paper variety) while on vacation. I'd sit by the pool and write out in fair detail what happened in each chapter, including key bits of dialogue if I thought of something critical. When I returned from vacation, I sat down with my notebook and wrote the story. Some people tell me that if they over-outline, they find the task of writing tedious, because there's no joy of inspiration in the process. I didn't find it with that story, but then I didn't struggle because what I'd written in my notebook was so detailed the story just flowed out.

 

For my third and fourth novels, I had a mental idea of where the story was going, and I wrote several chapters before I started posting. That helped me ensure that I had momentum, as well as giving me the (limited) option to jump back to an earlier chapter and make changes to set up later story arcs. That worked really well for both novels. I've got friends who will actually write out the ending as one of the first things they do, so they know the 'destination' that they're writing to, and they just have to work their way towards it. I personally don't do that (though I probably should), but I won't start a novel anymore unless I have a strong idea of where the story is going. That destination may change during the writing, but I won't start a story unless I know where it's going.

 

For my current novel, I had most of it written before I started posting. It's now complete (even though it hasn't finished posting) and I'm trying to spend the time until it finishes working on the sequel (my first sequel, so it's a challenge for me). Again, I had a strong idea of where the story was going, and I wrote to that ending. The major problem with this one (and my last novel) is the loose ends. I don't have as many in this one as I did in The Price of Friendship, but I thought I had enough to do a sequel, rather than to try to close them off with an epilogue. I'm currently working on that :)

 

Good luck! One thing -- don't worry about the story length. It'll be as long as you need it to be. That could make it a novella, a novel, or an epic saga. Just write towards the ending, and let the word/page count worry about itself.

 

PS: On Krista's comment about multiple stories, I found that I can't work on more than one novel at a time. That's just me. Other people have no problem with keeping multiple stories going. If you're not sure what you can do, stick with one for now, and try later on if you can do more than one novel at a time.

Edited by Graeme
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As soo many have said, everyone writes differently. I usually start any piece of writing on paper, and writer a good chunk of the first few chapters that way, so i can edit/revise as i'm typing things up later. (or toss the notebook onto a shelf and forget about it if i get stuck.) I never know how long a story is going to be when i start it, and I rarely plan out the story ahead (I have tried, but the characters take on lives of their own and love to derail any planning I might have had so i try to keep my outline as loose as possible these days. A few plot points here, potential relationships made note of, a good, solid antagonist worked out and I can pretty much work a story from there. 

 

Don;t worry about getting bogged down, I think we all find points in a story where we just get stuck or feel like we aren't building to where we want to go. sometimes it helps to step back from it at that point, and other times, i've found that asking the thoughts of my betas or editors can help get the juices flowing, see if they see something in the story that maybe I'm overlooking or overthinking. 

 

I think the most important part of the process is to have fun with it. It shouldn't be something to stress over, it should be something to destress and enjoy. 

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Much good advice above. I would add a few more ideas:

 

1) try to write at least 1000 words a day (maybe 3-4 manuscript pages), every day.

 

2) plot out the story somewhat with an outline, even if it's just two or three bullet-points per chapter: Joe gets lost... Joe meets X... Y almost runs them over with a car... Joe calls the police. Keep it simple and very basic.

 

3) create a timeline so you know when each situation develops in context to everything else in the novel. If somebody gets knocked in the head in March and has to go to the hospital, make sure you remember this by the time you hit chapter 20 and a different character refers to it.

 

4) create a character list that only you see, listing the characters' names, their approximate ages, their general appearance, likes, dislikes, and other important details. This need not ever be published; it's just a reference to remind yourself of who the characters are when you're deep into the story.

 

I also try to set most of my stories in real places, and I'll use Google Maps and other resources to reference specific streets and landmarks. Some people prefer to use a mythical place, and there's justification for that, too -- but again, you'll need to keep the details straight over a long period of time, including directions, distances, and the characteristics of different buildings and locations.

 

Don't be overwhelmed by the size of the novel. In truth, a novel is just a bunch of interrelated short stories (chapters) with ongoing characters that form a larger story arc. Just focus on each individual chapter, one at a time. 

Edited by The Pecman
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Short advice: don't sit down to write a book. Sit down to write, and just keep going. Also, you might find it very helpful to try writing your first novel for Nanowrimo in november. you have to write 50K then and there are a bunch to people all madly trying for the same thing. there's a great community spirit (and a little bit of healthy competition) to keep you going through the hard times.

 

And no, I basically never plan. Whole of Born Wolf over 100K, not one word of planning was ever written.

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I work with one author who had the plot take an unplanned left hand turn and then had no idea how to bring it back to where she wanted it to go. We sorted, discussed, shuffled and created a story board that incorporated the turn much later in the story.  Now its a matter of writing the additional chapters to get to the turn.

 

Her version of the story board turned into something much more than most authors would use however. The basic outline turned into a list of chapters, each having a page of its own with notes on what had to happen to get the story where it needed to be. Those got printed out and pinned over the desk, and as ideas occurred while working on one chapter they got added to the lists so as not to get lost in the maelstrom inside her head.

 

I am sure this would be too cumbersome a process for someone like Sasha who does well writing on the fly, but for this gal it works.

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I work with one author who had the plot take an unplanned left hand turn and then had no idea how to bring it back to where she wanted it to go. We sorted, discussed, shuffled and created a story board that incorporated the turn much later in the story.  Now its a matter of writing the additional chapters to get to the turn.

 

There is some precedence for using what I call "the cork storyboard/file card" approach, where story points are written down on 3x5 cards (analogue!), then loosely pinned to a cork board. Over time, you could literally have dozens, maybe hundreds of cards over an entire wall covered with cork. This way, you could figure out how to go from Point A to Point B, even if it's just one sentence: "Joe accidentally kills Mary" and "Joe goes to Hawaii to escape." You might want to insert a sequence that says, "Police find more clues at the crime scene," and insert that inbetween the two existing scenes. Writing down short notes will save you the trouble of figuring out unplanned shifts in direction.

 

love+dot+com,+all+acts.JPG

 

Many, many major Hollywood screenplays and TV shows are written this way. Sitcoms, too.

 

On the other hand... there are people who like to write wild 'n' free, and if that works for them, more power to them. As long as the writing is good and the reader is entertained, it doesn't matter how you get there.

Edited by The Pecman
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LOL The left hand turn happened befor I started working with her. The wall over her desk now looks very much like you posted picture!

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The quickest way for me to become bogged down is to over plan things out. I'm one of those wild - n - free people. Although, I have a general idea for the major plot points. How they get there is up to the characters though and the ideas that I have on the fly. :P 

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I start writing on the fly, usually, and then, as the story begins to form properly I start to plan out what's gonna happen and how it's going to end. And it always changes. The ending that I had in mind when I started planning won't necessarily be the ending I'll end up with, because as I write my characters and get to know them better I find out where the story is really meant to go. 

 

For chapters, I tend to aim for about 3000 words. Sometimes I end a chapter sooner, and sometimes I go on for longer. In the end it's all about where it seems logical to take a short break. I think of it like a movie on TV. Where does it make sense to put a commercial break so the viewer/reader can go get a cup of tea and some biscuits? 

 

I'm the edit as you go type, and often that will help me onwards if I get stuck. I'll write until I'm not sure where I'm going, and then I'll go back, read what I've written, edit, edit, edit, and when I get to the end I usually know where I'm going again. 

 

Sasha mentioned NaNoWriMo. I can add to that that now in April there's Camp NaNoWriMo. I finished Nemesis during camp last year, it was really helpful. You set your own word count goal for camp, and you can change your goal as you go. It's a bit freer like that, and I can recommend it if you'd like a little bit of structure for writing your first draft.

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There is some precedence for using what I call "the cork storyboard/file card" approach, where story points are written down on 3x5 cards (analogue!), then loosely pinned to a cork board. Over time, you could literally have dozens, maybe hundreds of cards over an entire wall covered with cork. This way, you could figure out how to go from Point A to Point B, even if it's just one sentence: "Joe accidentally kills Mary" and "Joe goes to Hawaii to escape." You might want to insert a sequence that says, "Police find more clues at the crime scene," and insert that inbetween the two existing scenes. Writing down short notes will save you the trouble of figuring out unplanned shifts in direction.

 

love+dot+com,+all+acts.JPG

 

Many, many major Hollywood screenplays and TV shows are written this way. Sitcoms, too.

 

On the other hand... there are people who like to write wild 'n' free, and if that works for them, more power to them. As long as the writing is good and the reader is entertained, it doesn't matter how you get there.

 

Scrivener has a cork board feature that I'm finding really helpful in writing my detective novel. Mysteries need more planning than other stories, so I've put a lot of Scrivener's planning features to use. As with a real cork board, you can move scenes around as you please in Scrivener, add a note when you know roughly what's gonna happen but haven't written it yet, and skip around to your heart's content without getting confused. It's wonderful software for novel writing.

 

Here's an example:

 

Working on my detective story...

Edited by Thorn Wilde
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4) create a character list that only you see, listing the characters' names, their approximate ages, their general appearance, likes, dislikes, and other important details. This need not ever be published; it's just a reference to remind yourself of who the characters are when you're deep into the story.

 

 

 

This is one VERY key item I've found.  It helps to remember "What was so-and-so's mother name again" as well as helps you get the "voice" of each character right, both major and minor. 

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