Today’s blog marks ten weeks since I started writing posts for Headline, and in this two and a half months I’ve talked about what I write, and why, but I’ve never really talked about how. So, here’s how.
The first thing I do when I start a new book (after the preliminary “mulling it over for months” phase that I tend to go through) is to write down all the story elements I can think of: one document for characters, one for events, and one for general free-writing about the book’s themes or plot or climax. It’s important for me to get all of this done and down on paper, because it solidifies what I’ve got in my head and lets me manipulate it directly. It sounds strange, but most of the book is already rolling around inside my mind, and putting my fingers on a keyboard is like plugging the computer directly into my brain. I think with my fingers, I guess. Once I get a chance to write stuff down, the ideas gain form and the story starts to take shape.
At this point I compile my ideas into an outline, usually a simple chapter-by-chapter thing with a simple paragraph for each. These paragraphs are not pretty, and sometimes don’t even have complete sentences—all I need is a quick description of what happens in each chapter. When it’s time to write, all I have to do is open my outline, look at today’s chapter (I try to do one per day), and start writing. On subsequent days I add another step: after I look at the outline, I read through everything I wrote the say before; this helps get me in the right frame of mind, makes sure the sections flow together well, and helps me catch any egregious errors I may have made. When I get to the end of yesterday’s section I just pick it up from there and keep going.
For almost ten years I was a corporate writer, writing copy for ads and magazines and websites and brochures and everything else you can think of, right down to that blurb on the back of the shampoo bottle that tells you how to use it. I would sit in a cubicle all day, typing on a computer, and then I’d come home, eat dinner, put my kids to bed, and sit at my desk all night, typing on a computer. I did this for nine years, and in that environment managed to produce five books, none of which were good enough to publish, though each was better than the last and I learned a lot. It was kind of fun, in a way, at least in hindsight, though it quickly became very difficult to sustain—when you write all day you get burned out on writing, and it’s hard to go home and do the same thing even longer. Sometimes I think that aspiring writers shouldn’t have writing jobs, to avoid this kind of burnout, but at the same time I admit that I would never want to work at anything else. Writing is what I do, whether it’s for novels or for people who don’t know how to use shampoo, and I can’t imagine not doing it for hours and hours every day.
When I got the idea for I Am Not a Serial Killer (a process detailed more fully in last week’s post), I was very excited to get started, but I was finishing up something else and talking to any editor about one of my other books and blah blah blah, and I kept putting it off. Then I lost my day job on the same day the editor finally rejected my book, and I had to make a choice: do I drop writing for a while and do a full-time job hunt, or do I use this time and write that serial killer book I’ve been desperate to write? I chose the latter, and treated it like a real job: every morning I’d get up, get the kids to school, spend 30 minutes or so on Internet job searches, and then drive to Brandon Sanderson’s house to write in his basement for eight or so hours. I knocked out the entire book in 6 weeks, then dove back into my job search and found a new one very quickly. I sold the book several months later, and they asked for a trilogy, so I wrote book 2 of the series on the good old nighttime schedule again (plus all day on Saturdays and, for a time, all day on Thursdays and Fridays while I burned off all my vacation days). Eventually I was able to sell enough foreign contracts to quit my job and go full time, so book 3 was written on the daily schedule again.