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An answer to Justine Larbalestier on how to write a novel - Lakeshore
An author of no particular popularity

Jay Lake
Date: 2006-09-07 08:30
Subject: An answer to Justine Larbalestier on how to write a novel
Security: Public
Tags:process, writing
As I recently noted, Australian phenom and all-around magnificent human being Justine Larbalestier has passed on her accumulated wisdom about how to write a novel. Her method would give me fits.

Now here's the thing. This isn't about refutation, or whose method is better, or anything like that. As with pretty much everything else in the creative side of this business, writing process is highly idiosyncratic. One writer's best practices are another writer's idiocies. (More on that point in a moment.) If you're wizened old multinovelist reading this (hi, kradical), you're probably already shaking your head and muttering, "Hey, you kids, get off my lawn." If you're an aspiring writer reading this, you may well be taking notes. It doesn't matter. The whole point of all this natter is to offer experience -- not advice -- from which you can synthesize your own process.

So, my natter. With one exception, I don't disagree with Justine's basic outline, to wit:

  • computer

  • title

  • borrow plot

  • type

  • spreadsheet

  • rewrite

  • first readers


The spreadsheet thing would make me insane. But I'm a very organic writer, my stories and novels driving deep out of Fred's cave somewhere in the quicky stuff at the back of my head. I've made the comment before that reading about process while I'm writing is like thinking about gyroscopic precession while I'm riding a bicycle. Uh-uh. The spreadsheet concept would have the same effect on me -- skinned knees, tears and a trip to the repair shop. But it works for Justine, and it may well work for you.

Otherwise, yah, computer. My handwriting is atrocious beyond measure, to the point where I don't even write checks very often since the advent of Web-based banking. Got to have. However, I strongly prefer to write while wired into that marvelous collection of tubes and trucks known as the Intarwebs. This is a work habit which runs against the grain of the vast majority of recommendations you'll receive, but it works for me. Why? Well, unless I'm in hyperfocus mode (say, during the latter stages of a novel first draft) I have the attention span of a mongoose, for one. If I have something else to do periodically, bouncing into email or IM or the political blogs I follow, it lets me do a quick mental reset and come back to the work refreshed. Also, I often just have to know something like when LaSalles went out of production or who the prime minister in the UK was in 1903. My friend the Intarwebs to the rescue! But I have a work pattern which allows me to integrate that time sink while also being productive. Your mileage may vary.

I'm also not so down on the coffee house as Justine and Scalzi are. My coffee house is air conditioned in the summer, heated in the winter, has a bathroom which someone else has cleaned, and lacks needy cats or rampaging children. Not to mention a ready supply of both food and caffeine. These are good. Given that I could write during a barfight, the distractions of the coffee house are not particularly relevant to me.

(These above two points about writing while online and lurking in coffee houses are my aforementioned idiosyncracies which play as idiocies to others. The spreadsheet thing is just a difference of process and opinion regarding same.)

I'm all for her riff on titles. Call it something -- that can always change. But then I have a deep emotional relationship with titles. I firmly believe a bad title can kill a good story, while a good title can help drag a mediocre story to a workable level. (Though fixing the story would be a better solution.) The nice thing about titles is that they're easy to change. Have one, even if it's only A Story, by Me.

As for borrowing plot, we all borrow. Genre is a conversation, all of literature is. I've read maybe two short stories in the past ten years which felt ab initio to me, and maybe one novel. Borrow without stealing, copy without plaigarizing, and party on. It's been many years since plot felt like a problem to me -- I have other issues around character, for example -- so I tend to slide right along on this one.

Type is nice, too. Especially "The End", which you don't get to type until you've written the rest of the novel. (Unless, of course, it's your title.) The hardest part of any novel is finishing it. If you don't finish it, you can't rewrite, edit or submit it. Until you've finished it, you are a typist, not a writer. For Justine, the spreadsheet is part of typing -- it's how she keeps track of where the story is going and what it is doing. For me, that's the point of the span of control concept (see here and here for more on that). I don't have a very good way of explaining this, but I just keep it all in my head.

To finish my comments on Justine's list, rewrite is for when I get those bits in my head wrong, and first readers are for helping me find the wrong bits.

I think the core difference between my approach and hers is that I'm utterly organic, to, and perhaps beyond a fault. My own experiences in improving my personal relationship with outlines seem to indicate that I'm growing more of an explicit, externalized process. Justine says in her post that the first novel should be seat of the pants. I think I've got very big pants.

What does this mean to you? Most importantly, it means there is no right answer. It means just write the damned novel. It means listen to me, listen to Justine, listen to anyone else whose opinion you value, then ignore us all and do whatever works for you.

But that spreadsheet...ouch...and yes, I'm aware of the irony that I am a spreadsheet monster on the recordkeeping side. Just not on the writing side.
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Laura Anne Gilman
User: suricattus
Date: 2006-09-07 16:15 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
have the attention span of a mongoose,

*chortles, raises hand*

If I'm not distracted, I can't work. That may sound contradictory, but for this hyperactive, borderline ADD child, it's essential. Give the non-creative, non-intuitive parts of the brain something to chew on, and they leave the creative parts alone to get some work done.

My working style seems to fall somewhere in-between yours and Justine's: I'm very much an organic, do-it-don't-overthink-it writer, and every time I tried to track wordcount or whatnot I derailed myself with a nasty crash. But I do work from a pretty structured and occasionally sheeted outline (which often proves to be, like Mapquest's directions, wrong but gives me an idea of where I'm not, at least).

I also tend to fluctuate between actual writing methods: if I'm stuck on the screen, I take it to printout (holdover from my editorial years). If typing doesn't seem to work, I pull out the fountain pens and notebook. I prefer to work in the same place, with cats at food and elbow, but I also have my coffee houses of good writing (actually for me it was a Chinese buffet place where they brought me tea all afternoon and never once bothered me otherwise, once I'd had lunch).

The one thing I absolutely cannot handle while I'm working is absolute silence. Too many years of office work, where there was a constant muttering in the background -- if it's library-quiet I get all twitchy and all-of-me-distracted.

Which I guess proves your point: any system that allows you to get out the goods is a good system.

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Tim Lieder
User: marlowe1
Date: 2006-09-07 19:43 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Hear hear.

I need music, a television in the background or something to keep me going. Or I will end up working on 5-6 things simultaneously getting about a paragraph done on each.

Goes doubly for my day job where I'm currently going through youtube to get this spreadsheet project done.
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desperance
User: desperance
Date: 2006-09-07 16:30 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Hee. Jay is anti-Justine (in a good way), and yet I agree with both of them; which ought logically to put me where suricattus is, except that apparently I am anti-suricattus all down the line where it comes to specifics. I too am organic and don't overthink it, but I track wordcount like that attention-deficient mongoose, I never ever work from outlines even if I've had to write one for the sake of a commission, typing always works and handwriting never...

Mileage varies in at least three dimensions, I guess. Maybe hyperspacially also.

I love the home/coffeehouse debate; one lesson of the last few years is that actually I can work anywhere. Home, coffeehouse; library (and the silence room of the library, where too-loud breathing is a scowlable offence) or pub. Or train, train station, airport, friend's kitchen (while friend is cooking all about me, and asking for help, and asking for advice, and...). Wherever.
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Sherwood Smith
User: sartorias
Date: 2006-09-07 16:39 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Yeah, on whatever works.

Just as a datapoint, the spreadsheet thing would make me insane as well, too. So too would borrow plot. That doesn't mean I haven't--but if I have, my subconscious picked it the plot rose, shoved it down into the manure pile that is my brain, and brought it back out to me as a half-grown lunchbox tree. The front part of the brain might decide what's inside the lunchpails, but the tree is already there.
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Living for the Revel
User: catvalente
Date: 2006-09-07 16:42 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I first thought a spreadsheet would give me hives, as I'm the organic type, too. But I figured I'd try and see what happens, since the structure of the book I'm working on is incredibly complex. It's...not so bad. I use it to record what I've done, not to plan anything out, so it's kind of like a cookie: finish a chapter, fill in pretty spreadsheet bar. Maybe not something I'll always do, and certainly not for a straightforward structure, but I'm not as allergic as I thought.
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User: (Anonymous)
Date: 2006-09-07 17:14 (UTC)
Subject: coffee houses and bars
I love writing in coffee houses and bars if I'm by myself. The kind of communal atmosphere gives me a real jolt, but at the same time I'm still totally alone there. And so I have the space to write. I really do like to write around other people, if they're not bugging me. I've written a lot of stories in a bar or coffee house. Again, something about being surrounded by people is great. Especially because I find myself stealing bits of conversation out of the air, or people's mannerisms. It's really energizing!

I'm with Jay on the spreadsheet.

JeffV
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Jeremy Tolbert
User: the_flea_king
Date: 2006-09-07 17:30 (UTC)
Subject: Re: coffee houses and bars
I'm the exact same way. I soak up the energy, but if people want to talk to me, I get nothing done. I have a bar in the mountains that I'll write at where everyone knows what I'm doing and they give me the space I need to be productive, but when I take breaks, they're friendly and ask me how the story's going.
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Laura Anne Gilman
User: suricattus
Date: 2006-09-07 17:35 (UTC)
Subject: Re: coffee houses and bars
Yeah, it's the white noise (actual and mental) of being in a public, active space where you're still given room to work... the right 'hum' of emergy and you can write for hours.
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David D. Levine
User: davidlevine
Date: 2006-09-07 18:34 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I look at Justine's entry and I have to think that it is a joke, of the common "look, little writers, do it this way and you'll never be competition with me!" variety. But I don't think it is. Well, maybe the several paragraphs on what font to use for the title are a wee bit of exaggeration.

Just for myself, I cannot imagine starting a novel without knowing where you are going. That would mean so much rewriting later on, after you figure out the end, and I hate rewriting. So I outline, sometimes too much. In fact, for my first novel (which had an insanely complicated interleaved time structure) I actually outlined using a color-coded spreadsheet).

I'm just about to start on novel #2 (no really, any day now, honest) and I'm going to try to use a much simpler structure and write more seat-of-the-pantsy. But I'm still going to have a general outline -- a set of bullet points about what happens next -- in my head at least, and probably on paper as well. It helps focus my attention on what needs to be foreshadowed and what I've already covered.
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David D. Levine
User: davidlevine
Date: 2006-09-07 18:35 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
That should have been "seat-of-the-pantsly."

Also, I've never written in a coffee shop, but I get a lot of good writing done on the train to and from work.
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User: black13
Date: 2006-09-08 09:13 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I use index cards for outlining. Each card is one chapter of the novel. If I put something into a later chapter that needs to be set up earlier, I can easily make a note of it on the card for the chapter where it will fit best. And before getting down to actually write, I can shuffle the cards around to see which structure works best.
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Keith R.A. DeCandido: writing
User: kradical
Date: 2006-09-07 18:45 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:writing
Of course you and Justine don't agree. You ask any ten writers about their process, you get twelve different answers. The right way is the one that works for you, which is why I'm glad you stressed that this isn't about advice. *grin*

I, in fact, do most of my work in coffee shops (specifically an Italian bakery/café in my neighborhood). Go fig'. *chuckle*
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Keith R.A. DeCandido: crazed writer
User: kradical
Date: 2006-09-07 18:46 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:crazed writer
Oh yeah, almost forgot.... *ahem*

"Hey you kids, get off my lawn!"
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The Green Knight
User: green_knight
Date: 2006-09-07 19:04 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
You ask any ten writers about their process, you get twelve different answers.

One of 'em is me, obviously.

I just worked out that my current WIP is at a crossroads: if I continue to outline, it will grow into one novel, if I abandon outline and write as I normally would, it will grow into another.

Not necessarily better, but different.
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The Green Knight
User: green_knight
Date: 2006-09-07 19:08 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Spreadsheets are useful tools. If I write out of order, I log each chapter by name - and can see where it goes, and move it around, and fill in the gaps.

If I rewrite, I can track old wordcount vs. new. I can combine scenes into chapters and see whether the wordcount comes out ok before I actually merge files. For my last novel I used a spreadsheet that had a list of each chapter, and underneath the chapter, the name and position of each person my protag met. That way I could keep the names straight and find the buggers when I needed them.

And then there's the circular diagram that helps me to get a grip on the flow of the story when it's done.

(most of the techniques described in [Unknown LJ tag])

So, count me down on the 'in favour of spreadsheets' camp. And I like to see the wordcount creep up...
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The Green Knight
User: green_knight
Date: 2006-09-07 19:08 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
beyond_elechan

Why was that so difficult?
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Rose Fox: untangling
User: rosefox
Date: 2006-09-07 19:51 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:untangling
I'm synaesthetic about plot, which makes it a bit odd for me as I never know whether to plot and then visualize or visualize and then plot. Untangling a game of Planarity (pictured in my userpic) feels like plotting a story. I play 20x30 games of Net in Simon Tatham's Portable Puzzle Collection and when I'm done they look like plots, all the different ways that people intersect on their way to a central idea or moment. I suppose I could use a spreadsheet to track complex plots, but it's much easier if I can visualize them in some approximation of 3D. I went to kathryncramer's demo of Tinderbox at Readercon and have been drooling over it ever since; it makes a lot of sense in my head to organize things that way.

I've learned not to work at home, and to limit my internet access while working. I don't yet know whether that applies to fiction writing, but I suspect it does. I've always been a cafe junkie and do great work surrounded by non-nosy strangers.
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User: ex_benpayne119
Date: 2006-09-07 19:54 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I don't really see the spreadsheet idea as opposed to organicism... I got the impression she was mainly using the spreadsheet post-writing, to keep track of what she'd done, rather than to plan stuff out.

I can certainly see that it wouldn't appeal to everyone, but I like it as an idea in terms of keeping some kind of picture of the novel's dynamics...

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Maggie Brinkley
User: gauroth
Date: 2006-09-08 08:26 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Please may I add you? I'm here via truepenny's lj. I like your posts - and you lived in Nigeria! Me too! Though I left Ibadan before you got to Jos.

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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2006-09-08 12:30 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Add away and welcome. Me, I lived in Cotonou (Dahomey) in 1967-68 as a small child, moved back to Lagos in 1977, to Kaduna in 1978, and went to Hillcrest Academy in Jos 1978-1979. We left Nigeria in 1981. Been to Ibadan, never lived there.
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Maggie Brinkley
User: gauroth
Date: 2006-09-08 16:02 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
We left Nigeria in 1962, when I was eight, and came back to the UK and the coldest winter in 30 years. Quite a contrast!
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User: (Anonymous)
Date: 2006-09-11 08:04 (UTC)
Subject: Pennyoz says
I lived in Benin in 1984/1985 I think it was. Then moved to Port Harcourt. Been to Ibadan. I left Nigeria 87 it was starting to get dangerous then and I was glad to go. One thing that confounds me is with the electricity reliability the way it was, how on earth are all the scams working???? You couldn't even keep a telephone let alone your water supply a well.
Pennyoz
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2006-09-11 13:17 (UTC)
Subject: Re: Pennyoz says
Oh, yeah, NEPA. And the telephone company. That scam question is a very good one. Never made it to Port Harcourt, Enugu, Sokoto or anywhere else in the southeast or east.
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Elf M. Sternberg
User: elfs
Date: 2006-09-08 18:29 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I'm afraid that I'm even more geeky than that. Since I don't use a word processor (which I believe has the same effect on words that a food processor has on food) but a plain old text editor that has no fancy fonts or on-the-fly spell checking or stuff like that, my stories get saved in plain ascii text.

At the top of each file I have tags, prefixed with semicolons that my Import-to-Word handler knows to ignore: What universe, what story arc, if any, and so forth. My filenames have a format: 03_04_Two_Lessons.txt is book 3, chapter 4, title "Two Lessons".

Justine gave me an idea: if I put her metadata at the top of the file along with what I'm already tracking, I can generate her spreadsheet automatically and that'll give me some clue as to where I've been, if not where I'm going.

One thing it can't help with is where I've got my current story-within-a-story format: while my character approaches her life-changing moment, she has been reading a compelling history of the last person who went through this and failed to survive. Each chapter has two plots: What's happening to Irune, and what happened to Arv, and I have to summarize and play "compare and contrast" both plots to make the whole thing work. That's a lot of data to summarize on one line of a spreadsheet.

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Jo Rhett
User: jorhett
Date: 2008-08-30 03:30 (UTC)
Subject: big pants

Justine says in her post that the first novel should be seat of the pants. I think I've got very big pants.

...would have the same effect on me -- skinned knees, tears and a trip to the repair shop.

There are moments, Jay, when I think I enjoy your blogging posts as much as your books ;-)
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2008-08-30 03:32 (UTC)
Subject: Re: big pants
I think I'll view that as a compliment, sir. Thank you. :D
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User: adamsmith33
Date: 2017-02-18 11:35 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I've written some of my favorite stuff in the local coffee house. And I scribble way faster if I don't have to stop and make the espresso myself. ;)
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User: flightstolondon
Date: 2017-02-18 11:37 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Hear hear.

I need music, a television in the background or something to keep me going. Or I will end up working on 5-6 things simultaneously getting about a paragraph done on each.

Goes doubly for my day job where I'm currently going through youtube to get this spreadsheet project done.
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