I am not a writing coach. I am not a writing teacher. I can’t tell anyone how to write. So much for disclaimers. What I can do is share my process. Writers are always sharing their damn process. Most of us love to huddle over a cuppa and tell each other ad nauseam how the heck we do it. In my younger days, I used to talk about sex like this. Now I’m in my sixties. Nuf’ said.
If you are someone who writes by the seat of their pants, this essay is not for you. Stephen King, the grand Pooh-Bah of pantsing is holding court elsewhere and maybe he’ll let you buy him a beer and you can talk about us mere mortals who must prepare everything that we write in order to earn the name author.
You know that the name author comes from the word authority, right? When you write, you are an authority over what you write. You become the god that sees everything and everyone in the world you write. And why would you write about anything unless you took this position?
But it’s not as easy as sitting down and just letting the words rip, is it? Wish that it were so. Writing is hard work. It means getting a good idea (that’s not easy either) applying process and doing the preparation before you ever write a single word of prose.
Process: For me this is the Larry Brooks template. I sketch out that structure with first plot point (inciting incident), mid point (the protagonist becomes the warrior), second plot point (against all odds, the protagonist sprints toward resolve) and ending. Yep, I don’t write a word until I know the friggen’ ending. And it is on this framework that I hang my preparation. I’d like to believe that discovering your story gets easier, but I don’t think it does. I’ve sat in enough Larry Brooks classes, listening to broken manuscripts to know that knowing your story is what separates the women from the girls.
The Dreaded Synopsis: The first time I had to write a damn synopsis, I about pulled my hair out. I couldn’t do it in a half page. I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea of boiling 80,000 words down to 300 in order to tell you my story. Now, I write out a synopsis as a matter of fact. Do you know your story well enough to write a synopsis? If not, you need to begin again. An early synopsis will hit the first plot point, mid-point, second plot point and resolve. I don’t discover the story as I am writing along. I am aiming for the milestones along the way which my scenes must support.
Robert McKee tells the story of the great film, Casablanca. The script was about 100 pages. The treatment for the film was about 300 pages. What? That story was so well-known to its authors, scene by scene that once implemented, it became a classic that would never fade away. Novel writing, if we respect it, should be the same–careful, thoughtful preparation.
Preparation: I am in my office with door closed. I snarl at my dog if he looks at me like he has to go out. “You just went out. Go lie down.” Don’t dare knock. Don’t dare interrupt. My nose is pressed to a yellow legal pad. My hand is cramping. I am writing out everything I know about the character, who they appear to be and who they really are. This involves pages of questions. Some things I circle. Some things I cross out. I begin to see scenes and since I know what my plot points are, I know basically where I have to steer the car. At the end of a couple of hours I have filled pages and pages of questions and answers. This exercise will go on for weeks.
It’s all about the questions and “what ifs” at this point. Who are the people surrounding the character and how do they reveal the character? What do I know about my life experience that can inform this character? If the antagonist is involved in criminal behavior what non-fiction book do I need to look at to help me? (I like Sean Mactire’s Malicious Intent for such things.) And on and on it goes until I finally see how to construct the four sections of the book. Then I begin a scene list and from there a sketch of each scene, carefully placed so that the sequence of scenes slowly ramp up to the plot point climax.
Prose: Finally! It’s hard for me. I like to play with words. I love to construct sentences and paragraphs. I delight in whatever cleverness I can muster. But delight to soon, and you are screwed. Writers, especially rookies, like me, must remember that readers like your stuff not because of clever sentences, but because of good story. At the end of the day your good writing is just the prerequisite and your story is what matters.
Lost in a sea of yellow legal pads and questions that demand answers, I work on a new story for new novel. As much as a whine about it, I can’t imagine myself doing anything else. Process, preparation and then prose. That’s the work and I do it every day whether I want to or not, striving for excellence. Craft and the very best that you know you can do. Constant study. Read everything. Watch films. Always be looking at and for “story.” It’s not just the novel you are writing, it’s a friggen’ lifestyle. I labor under the belief that this is how I become better at my craft. “Do the work,” says Mckee, “and the results will follow.”