Alycia Christine

Enchanting Tales, Intriguing Art

Tag: writing process

Writing as a Business: My Pants-on-Head Plot Process

"Banana Leaf Lines" - click the image to enlarge or buy.

“Banana Leaf Lines” – click the image to enlarge or buy.

I was asked about my writing process during a recent Goodreads forum discussion. Since every writer works in a different way, I thought I’d share my methods with all of you and get your thoughts on the matter.

There seem to be two main types of fiction writers in the world: plotters and pantsers. Plotters often write their books in chronological order, while pantsers tend to write “by the seat of their pants”. Plotters usually follow plot outlines and copious amounts of notes when they write. Pantsers usually write with little or no outline at all. Instead they write scenes as they imagine them and piece them together in a proper order later.

After writing four books and several short stories of varying lengths, I’ve discovered that I’m what I’d call a pants-on-head plotter. I tend to start a story knowing two things: a beginning scene and a general idea of the story’s end. It’s only after I write the first couple of scenes, that I actually do any sort of an outline to find out more of the story’s plot.

My starting outline is a simple paragraph that summarizes the whole story. I then expand this paragraph into one-sentence summaries of each chapter as I figure out more details. I develop my outlines as I write the book rather than before I begin. I keep the book outlines short because more detailed outlines give me very little room to play and experiment. I don’t like losing spontaneity in my story discovery process, so I actually threw out my current novella’s outline because it was stifling my creativity.

As unwieldy and “pantsy” as my outlines often are, I’m usually fairly organized when I actually write fiction. When writing a story’s first draft, I create my main scenes in (mostly) chronological order. Then I go back to expand scenes and add transition scenes in the second draft, so that the story makes sense from beginning to end. I research as I write and keep notes on the characters and their world so that I can stay consistent. The third draft is my time to get really picky with details, language use, and themes.

Weirdly enough, I write my first and second drafts in two stages. I typically write half of a book, rewrite the first half, and then begin writing the story’s second half. Once I’ve written the major scenes in the second half, I’ll go back to the story’s halfway point and rewrite from there. It isn’t until I hit the third draft that I read the story fully from start to finish.

So now that I’ve laid out my crazy creative processes for all to see, I have to wonder if anyone else has this bizarre of a writing approach.

Until next time, may we each rewrite our world for the better!

Alycia


The Seared Cookie Report: one Artist/Writer’s Labored Soliloquy (SCRAWLS) is brought to you from the writing desk of Alycia Christine at Purple Thorn Press and Photography with fine art, love, speculative fiction books, and tea suggestions for all. Please let me know your thoughts about this particular post and, as always, if there is any subject you wish me to discuss, contact me. Thanks!

What’s the Best Weapon against Writer’s Block? Find Out Now!

Rivulets_AC4x6Sometimes writing isn’t fun; sometimes it’s a real chore. I guarantee that you’ll have to trudge through episodes of writer’s block just as much as you’ll skip past easily-crafted scenes. But never fear because we authors have a few weapons in our arsenal to help us break down those ugly creative barriers to get to the beautiful prose on the other side.

One of my favorite personal siege engines against writer’s block is research. Now calm down before your collective groans start drowning out my sentences. Research can actually be a ton of fun because it helps satisfy our natural curiosity as human beings. The other reason research is fun is because it makes our jobs as writers much, much easier.

Imagine this: you are writing a scene where two characters are eating in the middle of a deli-style café, but you’ve never actually set foot inside a deli. It’s going to be very difficult to accurately describe what’s going on around your characters or even what they’re eating if you have no experience in a similar sort of setting, isn’t it?

We writers have words as our only essential tools for building a story, so we must describe everything to our readers. That is extremely difficult to do if we don’t understand how something works or the way an object or person looks. This is why research is so essential to writing and why it becomes one of our most important weapons against writer’s block.

There are essentially two types of research. One is what I call focused research and the other is called ambient research. Ambient research is a type of research that most people don’t even know they are doing when they do it. Ambient research usually happens while writers learn something new about a subject while they are doing something unrelated to an actual focused study of that subject. This could be anything from learning a piece of trivia while playing a game or experiencing a new place for the first time while on a vacation. Ambient research is very different from focused research.

When most people hear the word “research”, they immediately think of hours spent studying dusty volumes in the stacks of a local library. Library reading is part of what I call focused research and it is quite useful when authors need to answer specific questions in their writing. However, focused research is much more than simply wading through library bookshelves. Focused research also means that an author might need to interview a key expert in a particular field or participate in a certain activity in order to “really get a feel” for a specific aspect of his or her story such as its plot, setting, or characters. While focused research seems to happen more often for nonfiction writers, I promise that fiction writers will find it just as useful no matter their genre.

We’ll use me for an example dealing with the two types of research since I am an easy target. Like any good author, I write what I love. I am a fantasy author and I also love watching movies and reading books in the fantasy genre. I learn a lot from fellow speculative fiction authors, but I principally read their stuff because it’s highly entertaining. Keeping all of this in mind, let’s say that while I’m watching the Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides movie for the thousandth time that I suddenly become interested in reading more about pirates. I pick up Tim Powers’ book On Stranger Tides, which loosely inspired a couple parts of the movie. After I read that book, I go on to Michael Crichton’s Pirate Latitudes novel because I’m still interested in reading more stories about 18th Century buccaneers—both real and fictitious. This is called ambient research because I have learned more about a particular subject through various forms of entertainment without doing a serious study of it. Some of what I have learned will be inaccurate because the information that I learned came from entertainers instead of scholars; however, some of my new knowledge—like the basic parts of a ship—will be accurate. However, if I suddenly decide that I want a deeper knowledge of the actual pirates who lived in the 1700s, my interest is now intently focused and so my research will be specifically directed toward nonfiction sources such as The Republic of Pirates by Colin Woodard with the specific goal of gaining a deep understanding of my subject. Hence my research will become focused research.

Because I write what I love, I don’t mind doing research of either type because the research that I do—whether ambient or focused—is about subjects that I find genuinely fascinating in the first place. I often like to approach writing a specific story by reading fiction and nonfiction books of a similar nature or subject-matter before, during, and after the writing process. This constant flow of focused research, ambient research, and general inspiration helps me more easily work around those writer’s blocks caused by a lack of knowledge. I also love to use photographs from my and other people’s travels as a guide to help me describe certain scenes more easily. I use focused research in the form of personal experience, expert interviews, scientific journals, and full-on, library-haunting study sessions for those more persistent blockades.

Whatever research you do, please remember that the key to getting the most out of research is to always make sure your stories reflect your personal interests. Making your stories personal and your subject matters interesting will help drive your passion toward them and your passion will help you ensure that your stories are written accurately. Accurate research is one of the best ways to create high quality writing that readers adore, so make it count. Your readers will pay attention to your story’s details and they will complain when something is incorrect. The last thing you want is to be remembered as a lazy writer, so get your details right before you share you work with the world.

For instance, if your story is set in downtown Chicago, make sure that you know what downtown Chicago looks, feels, and smells like. If your story is set in early 19th Century Montana where horses were the main form of transportation, then talk to cowboys about how they care for their steeds. Study horse anatomy, western-style riding, and tack terminology. Then give subtle hints of your new-found knowledge to build your story’s accuracy. Even if your characters set foot in a completely imaginary realm, you should do some research to find out what realistic place and time period most closely resemble the fantasy world you are trying to build. Remember, good writing drops the reader smack-dab into the middle of a story’s scene. Good research should do the same for the author.

Until next time, may we each rewrite our world for the better!

Alycia


The Seared Cookie Report: one Artist/Writer’s Labored Soliloquy (SCRAWLS) is brought to you from the writing desk of Alycia Christine at Purple Thorn Press and Photography with love, art, speculative fiction books, and virtual baked goods for all. Please let me know your thoughts about this particular post and, as always, if there is any subject you wish me to discuss, contact me. Thanks!

What is the Best Tool in a Writer’s Arsenal? The Answer Might Surprise You

Dune_Trek-AC4x6Today I thought I would let you in on a writing secret that isn’t so little. It is one of the most important things I’ve learned as a writer and it is a fact of which I constantly remind myself. It is simply this: writing is a marathon not a sprint, so be patient.

Let me repeat, your writing career is a marathon not a sprint, so be patient and persistent with yourself and your work. Make no mistake that this is a career choice—one that has a long gestation period. I have heard it said that to be an expert in a certain field requires you to practice the associated skill set consistently for ten to fifteen years. For writing, this is particularly true. Most new writers are so excited and inspired about crafting the “next great book” that they try to rush through the writing process instead of enjoying the journey. I know I certainly did. However, most newcomers to the profession have no idea what a long slog they are about to undertake. Almost every person who has ever been inspired by a great book swears that she has a novel or two floating around in somewhere in her head. While that is probably true, most normal people do have the necessary level of patience, persistence, and discipline to contribute the sheer amount of work and time required to empty that story from their brains and hearts into a cohesive collection of chapters.

How much work are we discussing? Well, let us suppose that you write 400 words every single weekday just as I have suggested you do in previous articles. Writing 400 words per weekday gives you 2000 words per week and 104,000 words at the end of a single year. A good average length for a fantasy book, for example, is between 80,000-120,000 words, so writing 100,000 words in a year is very good. If you do finish a 100,000 word novel within the first year of your writing career, then congratulations! Please take a moment to pat yourself on the back because you have just achieved something that most others will fail at doing.

So, now is the time to take your beautiful book and submit it for publication to your favorite publishing house or self-publish it, right? Wrong! Do not make your baby in any way, shape, or form public (yes, that includes posting all of it on your website blog for people to read)! Instead take your manuscript and lovingly file it away in the bowels of your computer and/or in the back your sock drawer for a while.

Now that that you work is safely archived and backed up in case of the Apocalypse, go treat yourself to a little vacation time. Take a few days off from writing. Take a fun trip, paint your toenails, throw a party, knit a new scarf, or whatever else you want to do. You’ve earned it! After all, you have just done something that you weren’t sure you could accomplish a year earlier. Seriously take a little time to celebrate! You will need the time off before you begin the next part of your writing journey.

When you come back from your vacation, sit down and plan your next project. Work on it for a few weeks and give your first novel time to “rest”. I recommend leaving the first novel alone for about two months. The reason for this is because the resting time will help you read your baby with fresh, unbiased eyes. This is extremely important. I am sorry to tell you that when you finally do look at the manuscript, you’ll be shocked to see that it is not quite as perfect as you remembered. There will be misspellings, comma-splices, run-on sentences, clichés, and phrases that make absolutely no sense whatsoever. If you are like me, you will want to bang your head on the keyboard when you realize the amount of edits you need to make.

This is where patience comes into play. While I was writing my Skinshifter novel off and on from 2006 to early 2009, I also wrote other shorter works. Short stories like “Sumari’s Solitude” helped me refine my skills using dialogue and sprinkling in underlying tension. This translated into better and better writing when working on the book. Even so, “Sumari’s Solitude” and other short stories of that time period have each undergone at least four revisions each to clean up their prose and double-check their plot continuity. I just finished my fourth draft of Skinshifter in August 2013 and then promptly sent it off to beta readers to critique it again. My current copy is now the fifth version of the manuscript.

Why would I do this five times? I’m insane, right? Remember that Skinshifter was my first novel—the book I used to learn how to write fiction in the first place. Many authors I know have their first novel manuscript printed and permanently locked in the bottom of a drawer. Most of them have sworn that their first novel will never ever see the eye of an editor, much less a reader. Most first novels are too poorly written to be made public, but they serve as important reminders to their authors of all they achieved and all that they learned.

Skinshifter was not quite to the point of being bottom-drawer fodder, but it was pretty raw when I finished its first draft in February 2009. Due other circumstances in my life, I could not actually pick it up and edit it until early 2011. At that time the book underwent major rewrites in preparation for it to be formally critiqued by a local English teacher. Between her keen eye and my ruthless revision, I managed to make the book presentable to publishers. Or so I thought. After submitting the manuscript for publication and receiving several kind but firm rejections, I decided to drag it back into the editing cycle this past summer to see what I was missing. Thanks to my incredible beta readers, I finally found continuity errors that I had overlooked in the previous three drafts. I am far more confident in it during this round of beta reading, but I also know that there is more work ahead before it is good enough to be published. Such is the life of a writer.

I am not saying that every single story will require five revisions. Some stories need more help and some less help than others. I have about five short story rough drafts which are finished, but which will never see the light of day because their plots are too broken to be fixed. I also have one story that only required a single editing session before it was published. If you pay attention to your story’s needs, you will know when a manuscript is fit for publication. If a story does not feel right, edit it again or send it to a beta reader that you trust. Do this over and over again until the story feels solid.

Until our next meeting, may we each rewrite our world for the better!

Alycia


The Seared Cookie Report: one Artist/Writer’s Labored Soliloquy (SCRAWLS) is brought to you from the writing desk of Alycia C. Cooke and/or Alycia Christine Sears at Purple Thorn Press and Photography with love, speculative fiction books, and virtual baked goods for all. Please let me know your thoughts about this particular post and, as always, if there is any subject you wish me to discuss, contact me. Thanks!

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