My Writing Process – Do I Even Have One?

A friend and a fellow writer told me the other day about obtaining Post-Its for use in her plotting process.  She suggested that I write down my plotting process, if I had one.  I do have one, but it’s hard to pin down and describe.

The best way to describe my method is pantsing with a minimal amount of plotting. I come up with an idea, play with it, stretch it here, compress it there.  Instead of scribbling it on paper, I do it all in my head.  When i have a rough mental list of scenes I want, I dive in and start writing.

That is exactly what I did for my latest project.  While I’m waiting for some feedback on my novel, I decided I’d write down some of the characters backstories.  Right now I’m not planning on publishing that, and just wanted a written reference on hand.  A couple of people have pointed out that the backstory could be a novel in and of itself.  This backstory was something that had been rattling in my head ever since I conceived of the character. So I opened a file and started typing merrily away.

It was going well.  I pounded out eight thousand words before grinding to a halt.  Something wasn’t right, and I couldn’t put my finger on what.  I tried to force my way through this blockage.  Words were typed, but they were the wrong words.  Monday I had a toothbrush moment.  Followed immediately by a face-palm moment.

By rushing into writing without outlining, I had made mistakes that I cannot write my way out of.  I would have caught them much earlier if I had taken an evening to do some outlining.  Of those eight thousand words, I may be able to use roughly one-third to one-half.

So I have spent one night putting down most of an outline.  It’s not complete, and there are holes in it.  But it is more of a game plan than I had earlier.  And it taught me that despite how bright and shiny the idea is, I need to stop and do some prep work before I dive in, no matter how well I think I know what is going on.

Writing Excuses Season Ten

One of my favorite podcasts about the craft of writing is Writing Excuses.  Hosted by Mary Robinette Kowal, Howard Tayler, Brandon Sanderson, and Dan Wells, they live up to their tagline “Fifteen minutes long, because you’re in a hurry, and we’re not that smart.”  I disagree with the ‘not that smart’ bit.  These people are extremely smart. Each episode is a wonderful blend of education and humor on topics as diverse as outlining, worldbuilding, characterization, plotters versus pantsers, and the state of the industry.

Season Ten they changed the format.  It’s still fifteen minutes, and still just as educational and humorous.  But now they are presenting it as a master class, much like the ones that you can attend at conventions.  Two podcasts will be lessons on that month’s subject.  The other two are wildcard episodes to keep things mixed up.  I have been paying close attention to all of the podcasts, and I plan on doing all the assignments.

January’s lessons were about ideas, where they come from, and how to cultivate them.  For a while there, I wasn’t sure if I would come up with any ideas for short stories.  Lesson one proved to be a revelation.  Much to my surprise, I have come up with more than the five required for the assignment.  Some of them won’t work as a stand alone story, but I know where I will be slotting them into my novels.  Who knows.  I might have a novella or two if the ideas pan out.

February’s lessons are about characters. The first assignment is to write a scene walk three characters through a scene without directly stating their job, hobby, or emotions.  And they have to perform a dead drop.  I thought this would be simple. Two weeks and I’m still working on it.  I’m liking what I’m writing, so I might modify it and use it for a scene.

I recommend anyone who is interested in writing as a craft to listen to Writing Excuses.  I doubly recommend listening to Season Ten and doing the homework.  I am looking forward to the upcoming lessons.

Me And My Word Count Spreadsheet of Doom

In the last week and a half, I’ve been using one simple trick to writing consistently.  Yes, I know that sounds like a click bait headline, but it really has worked for me.  I’ve done over 4,000 words in ten days.  It doesn’t sound like a lot, but my output for the same time period a few weeks back was zero.  What is this trick that has sparked my inspiration?

A simple, twelve line spreadsheet.

Spreadsheet begun with a new project on June 5, 2014.
Spreadsheet begun with a new project on June 5, 2014.

I’m thinking of calling it my Word Count Spreadsheet of Doom, because everything sounds better with melodramatic names.  It is similar to the concept of The Magic Spreadsheet. The Magic Spreadsheet is designed to be public and has a ranking system that will gradually increase your daily goal.  I prefer for now to keep my word count private for the moment and not worry about ranking.  I’ve tried sites like Written? Kitten! and 750 Words but they haven’t stuck with me for some reason.  This spreadsheet has.

My set up is as follows.  I have set myself a goal of 250 words a day on whatever story I am working on at the time.  My blog posts do not count towards the daily total.  Otherwise most of them would fulfill my goal alone.  In the spreadsheet, I set an automatic formatting rule based on that number.  When a number is below 250, the text turns red.  All other figures are in black.  My goal is to minimize the amount of red I have on the document.  I have a calculation that says how much I have written total for the month and year, and what my daily average calculated over a month and over a year is.

I’m still figuring out my plans going forward.  I plan on inserting notes when I don’t make my count explaining why I failed, so I have a history to figure out exactly what stops me from writing.  Once writing 250 words is no longer a challenge, say after a month, I will double it to 500 words and pick a new color.  Then I will be trying to minimized that color.  I’m not going to track how many words I’m writing per project.  I’m not that obsessive… yet.

Filing Off Serial Numbers

“My publisher is putting out a call for M/M stories.  Do you have any fanfic that could be polished?”

This question sent both a thrill and a shiver through me.  I’ve written a lot fanfic.  Fanficition is commonly defined as “stories about characters or settings written by fans of the original work, rather than by the original creator.” Most of what I have written is still online in various places.  (No, I will not say where.)  I have a few stories that I didn’t get around to posting, and immediately thought of one that I had toyed with the idea of transforming earlier.  It was a gen story, but could easily be converted to a M/M story.  The deadline for submissions is in October, so I have some time to get it ready.  But exactly how do you convert a fanfic to an all original story?

The stage I am at now is referred to as filing off the serial numbers. I am doing a deep edit of the story and marking down wherever I find any reference to the television show it.  Those sections will have to be rewritten completely.  I will have to come up with new names, new backstories, and in some cases, new plot points.  I need to remove anything that ties back specifically to the television show it was based on. In many ways, it is easier to start writing from scratch than reworking an existing story.

Can it be done successfully?  Yes it can. The most well known recent example is the Fifty Shades of Grey series.  I am not expecting this story to be anywhere near as successful as it.   How successful will it be?  We’ll have to wait and see.

Fanfiction, Or That Other Writing

My first forays into writing were writing fanfiction.  The quick and dirty definition is that it is a fan-written story involving characters or setting of the original work.  They are often posted to people’s blogs or to archives such as The Archive Of Our Own or  I wrote fanfiction for twenty years, but I’ve been telling myself stories about missing scenes or making up little ‘what if’ scenarios in my head long before that.  I no longer write fanfiction, but occasionally I do read some from various fandoms.

I’m sure some people are wondering why I’ve “wasted my time” writing fanfiction for the last twenty years, since I can’t publish it for money. (With the advent of Kindle Worlds, that is changing for better or for worse. That is another post.)  I don’t see writing fanfiction as a waste of time.  I wrote what is referred to as an alternate universe fanfic.  Instead of sticking with a strict interpretation of the show’s universe, elements are added.  For an example add magic to a police procedural.  I spent time learning how to create rules for ‘my’ world, as well as create characters and plots.  At the same time, I couldn’t stray far from the original show’s premise or characterization.  It is a tricky tightrope to walk.

There are also bad habits that I am in the process of breaking.  Because my fanfic readers have at least passing familiarity with some aspect of the show, I could get away with short-hand descriptions of the setting.  As an example, if I were writing in the Star Trek setting, I did not have to describe the bridge of the Enterprise beyond specifying if it was the NC-1701, A, B, C, D, or E.  Once I say those words, the physical layout and design style of the conn, tactical station, science station, navigation all spring to mind.  The compliment of crew members, tactical abilities, uniform styles, and the species of those on board are all implied.  Canonical past events can be implied, or reminded of with a one sentence summary.  What I remind myself is that I need to include those types of details and learn how to properly describe them.  Otherwise, my setting, my plot, my action all takes place against a white wall.

My policy, at this point, is that I’m not going to erase what I’ve posted off the Internet. (As if anything can truly disappear once posted. But like I said earlier, that is another post.)  I will not deny it’s mine if someone asks if I have written a specific story.  But I am not going to go out of my way to promote it.

Do I plan on converting my fanfic into original fiction?  At this time, the answer is no for stories that are on the Web.  I have had people suggest I do so long before Fifty Shades of Grey became a phenomenon.  Later on I may put in the research and rewrites that are required.   I do have a story that has never left the confines of my hard drive that I am figuring out how to convert into something original.   I’ll look harder at that once I have my first novel completed.

Compulsive Editing Syndrome

I’ve noticed something happening slowly and subtly, a new habit creeping into my day-to-day life. Last Wednesday was when I noted it consciously for the first time.

This time of year is a dreaded time at work.  It is when we have to do the thing that causes the most horror and angst among my coworkers.  We are filling out the dreaded self-evaluation forms for our annual review.

I detest these forms.  I never know how to fill them out properly.  Due to my self-esteem issues, I have a hard time mentioning anything that was considered above and beyond the normal workload without me thinking that I am bragging. My process is to pull out last year’s review, copy it, make appropriate changes and updates, and then email it off without cringing too much.

Last Wednesday I opened up the previous year’s file and began reviewing it.  I shook my head and said to myself, “Look at all the use of the passive voice.”  I spent an hour filling out the form, updating it here and there with projects I had completed and new ones I had taken on, but mostly changing passive verbs to active and weeding out awkward phrases.  After spellchecking and one last look over for further alterations, I sent it off to my boss.

That was when I realized that I had edited the review much like I am editing my book. It’s not the first time I’ve done that.  Emails, even quick ones to friends, are starting to get this treatment.  I haven’t gone as far as editing other people’s work, unless they have asked me to.  I’m being more careful about word choice on things I am crafting for my non-novel related projects. (In fact I did it three edits in the prior sentence alone.)

Will rewriting my annual review lead to a better review?  I don’t know.  I won’t be able to make an apples-to-apples comparison because of several changes that have taken place in the previous year.  But it will be interesting to see what the feedback will be.

Guest Post – Perspective on Tapdancing

I’m up in Seattle this week on vacation, so I’m turning my blog over to my friend, Elanor Hughes. She is currently writing a historical fantasy. Her home on the web can be found at Writing in the Dust. Thanks Elanor! – Sheryl

Hello there readers of this blog, I’m Elanor Hughes. Sheryl is on vacation right now so she asked me to write something reasonably interesting to entertain you while she is gone. One moment while I figure out how to tap dance and type at the same time. Here we go:

My legs beat out the rhythm of the song in counterpoint to the music of the jazz band pounding away for me, bright and exciting. It was a tune so amazing I was sure I’d fly right off the stage if we lost our step at the wrong moment. My feet were flying fast, swirl, step, swirl step, each in the opposite direction my arms made tandem wide swings, slide, slide. Swish.

Can you hear the music, feel the effort of the dance though you’ve never tapped a single step in your life?

Feet flying in a furious rhythm the tap dancer moved in counterpoint to the music of the jazz band pounding away so brightly. It was an amazing tune, if they played a wrong note she might make a wrong step and fly right off the stage. Her feet were flying fast now, swirl, step, swirl, step each in the opposite direction of her arms made tandem wide swings. Slide, slide. Swish.

She slid to a stop at the foot of the stage on her knees, chest heaving under the bright lights without moving. After a momentary pause, the audience roared their applause and she stood to take her bow.

Now you can see only see the motion from the outside and speculate on the way the experience happens from the inside.

It’s a really simple moment, no dialogue. No great work of art either. But I did my best to make them as similar as possible to illustrate why you might want to choose to use first person over third person. The same exact event happened, but you experienced it in two very different ways. The first, you are in the driver’s seat, not controlling the action but at least experiencing the action. The second, you are the audience watching the action happen. Both have their place and both have their strengths for different types of stories. They also both have their weaknesses.

The story I’m working on right now is from first person perspective. When I first started it I didn’t actually plan to write it first person when I began outlining, researching and creating character sketches. However, the day I sat down and started writing it just felt right. So I went with it, and it’s served me very well for this story. It’s not about tap dancers, thank goodness. That is a blog for another day, when I’m ready to explain it in depth on my own blog. Probably next month. Feel free to check it out.


Thoughts About Outlining Vs. Discovery Writing

Or as Melissa Snark put it, Writing with a plan or flying by the seat of your pants. Plotters vs. Pantsers. It’s an interesting piece that echoed some thoughts I’ve had recently.

I hear mostly about these two types of writers. One type develops outlines, knowing what events are happening when. Everything is meticulously crafted ahead of time, so that once the act of writing has begun, it moves forward without concern or worry about what is supposed to come next. Then there are those who look at a blank page, apply fingers to keyboard, and see where the words take them.

I’ve discovered that I’m evolving into something between the two, a discovery outliner. I’ve been using an outline, but I’m not a slave to it. I am using it as a guide to follow the major plot points of my story, but within the framework of that scene I leave myself free to explore. It’s led me to make some very interesting discoveries about my characters’s motivations that I hadn’t considered when I was writing the outline. If I feel the discovery I made is significant enough, I will adapt the outline.

Would I write an entire novel that way? No. I have attempted and quickly realized that I needed some sort of structure to keep it from becoming a tangled mess. Once I started putting some structure into the story, it was easier to keep things moving forward without discovering I was constantly repeating myself. Would I write strictly by outline? No, because sometimes my ideas evolve in such a way that they will not fit the outline. The trick, which I’m still learning, is to tell when to keep to the outline, and when to ignore it.