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Jay Lake
Date: 2011-01-06 05:33
Subject: [process] Writing the novel a different way
Security: Public
Tags:books, calamity, mainspring, process, sunspin, trial, writing
I realized yesterday afternoon that one reason Calamity of So Long a Life is hitting the page more slowly than my usual pace a first draft is a new phenomenon I've never really encountered in my own writing process before.

Exclusive of the actual plot synopsis, I have 50 pages (literally) of continuity notes, backgrounders, a cast list, a places list, and so forth. As I write, I keep stopping to check things which I generally know are there but want to get right. Or I stop to update the cast list because new named characters just walked onto the page, otherwise four months from now I'm going to either wonder who the heck Halle Wirkkala is, or I'm going to name another minor character Hailey Wirkkala by mistake. Or I stop to check the description of a planetary setting. Or I stop to...

You get the drift.

Every world I've built up til now, I've largely built on the fly as I wrote. That's a short story writer's technique, and I've made it work even across multivolume series. Not utterly so -- many notes were made on the clockwork Earth before I ever started drafting Mainspring, but that amounted to five or ten pages of cosmology and weird pseudophysics. But by and large, I simply sorted things as I went along.

This led to, among other things, the memorable and annoying problem in the first draft of Trial of Flowers wherein I rotated the Burgess' palace 90 degrees about halfway through the book. An enormous amount of directional information, setting detail, character action, even things like the angle of shadows, had to be reworked with excruciating care to repair that.

On a project as monstrous as Sunspin, I can't afford to make errors that basic, that require so much retooling. The simple fact of the matter is I'm going to do it anyway. This stop-and-start drafting is a way of minimizing the frequency, scope and impact of those errors.

It also has the odd and possibly desirable side effect of riding my brake a bit as I write. I'm thinking more at the line level in first draft. We shall see over time if this approach pays off or not, but I suspect I'm fairly committed to it.

Interesting stuff, challenging my own span of control and revising my process in motion. Feels a bit like changing the oil and rotating the tires on my car whilst driving down the highway.

Do you write with a lot of background detail pre-planned? How big an issue is this continuity process for you, at short lengths or long?

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Fluttering Things: participating
User: moxie_raqs
Date: 2011-01-06 13:53 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I spend a lot of time percolating ideas. I might jot down a page of notes, and the idea will simmer for a while.

Then I do some sort of plot outline. Often I don't know how the middle goes until I clearly know the end, which occurs around the beginning of the middle.

Then the research starts. I love mythology and symbols. My first novel was about angels, and I spent seven months researching, making character sketches, reference sheets, heirarchy structures, etc. The first draft then took about five months. My second, thematically, was dense in Tarot and Gnosticism, so again -- months and months of research and outlining... in this case I think I spent eleven months on research, and then six months writing the first draft. Each chapter was named after a card in the Tarot deck, and therefore followed the themes of the card's meaning so the outline was a real bitch, but I was so glad to have it once I was really cranking out the Awful First Draft. Both were very spiderwebby in terms of when characters' storylines intersect, metaphorical consistency, subplots, etc.
I'm working on a novella now, which is significantly shorter than the above-referenced beasts. I frantically scrawled a page of notes when the idea came to me, and then let it simmer while I worked on another story. Then I put together an outline, but I couldn't force myself to write before I had the characters' names. Nothing sounded right, so I spent a few days researching names, found the right ones, and could start writing. I never actually reference the meaning of the names -- which are Basque, so I'll be very surprised if many people know them off the tops of their heads. I wrote for a week, got stuck, had an idea about flowers (for the graves) and then spent another two days researching flowers and their meanings to add that theme to the story. The first draft took exactly two months... so that was four days of research to two months of writing.
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Kari Sperring
User: la_marquise_de_
Date: 2011-01-06 14:25 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
The background mostly lives in my head. Details get scrawled down on scraps of paper which then congregate on my desk and can never be found when wanted. They also get jotted down in bold at the base of whatever file I'm currently writing in.
With my historical work, there are also books piled everywhere with slips in them marking places that I need to reference or refer to (usually with barely legible annotations on the slip as to category). Your system is a lot more sensible.
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User: madrobins
Date: 2011-01-06 15:43 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Until I started writing the Sarah Tolerance books I could (largely) keep my continuity straight without assistance, whether I was writing short or long. Now, for the Tolerance books, I have a growing file of names, places, descriptions, and other ephemera that I have recourse to. On the other hand, if I need a bit of research or have a continuity question I'll sometimes plug in a flag character (XX or something like that) and just plow ahead, so as not to lose the flow. I go back later and drop in the information when I'm revising. I found that I did this (and did much more research) with the Italian book just completed, too--but there I was working in an historical context about which I'd known almost nothing before I began, and I felt deeply wobbly about the place and continuity.
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User: torreybird
Date: 2011-01-06 16:13 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I used to think that fast + good == win. For a variety of reasons, including the complexity of current projects, fast isn't practicable right now - which I've been struggling with.

If I can't go fast, so then I can't win, then why should I play?

Because I'm a writer, and I write. Now it's time for me to write doggedly, exactingly - which isn't fast... YET.

I'll win later.
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User: irismoonlight
Date: 2011-01-06 19:33 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I have come up with a "kit" of files that I use for revision (characters, plots and subplots, one-page synopsis, scene sheets, notes, timeline, outline). Had I found one of those organization programs I'd probably be using one, but these are simple word processing files and that works for me.

Revisions would be far faster if I would or could use such order for drafting. I seem to need to get the story on the page before I really know what needs to be in all those files, at least at this stage in my skillset. Also, writing from all that pre-configured information feels less fun and less creative, even though I know it's the same creativity, just in a different order (and would probably be incredibly worth it on the pain-reduction-in-revision side).

I'd be interested to know how doing the work in advance changes the the writing for you.

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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2011-01-06 20:37 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I'd be interested to know how doing the work in advance changes the the writing for you.

So will I... :)
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User: jetse
Date: 2011-01-06 20:40 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Multiply your new approach by ten, apply it to the line level, as well, and you have me writing a short story...;-)

OK: I exaggerate, but not by very much.

We've had this discussion before, way back when. For a while, I thought process depended mostly on the person, i.e. the writer her/himself. But I'm slowly coming around to the viewpoint that it can also depend on the work *itself*.

Seems obvious in retrospect, but not when you're in the middle of writing. Because not all my short stories were written painstakingly slow: the one you published in TEL : Stories (Gaudí, Cons & Spires), wrote itself, after an inspiring long walk through Barcelona, even with obstacles. I hadn't brought my laptop on that trip (which was very short), so wrote the story on hotel stationary.

Nevertheless, normally an idea or a sudden inspiration is not enough for me to write a story: if I can't remember that burst of inspiration a week later it most probably isn't worth writing *fiction* about (non-fiction: OK). Only if the story won't let go after several weeks (or months) will I sit down and start writing it.

Then, after I know what it's about and how it's gonna end (and more), it will go down on the word processor. Painstakingly slow, as I can't switch off my inner editor, and paragraph by paragraph, often sentence by sentence gets written, rewritten and polished.

Since I do exactly know where I want to go to -- even if not *how to get there* -- internal inconsistencies are minimal, apart from the big things I don't see (forest for the trees effect), and that's why recently I use trusted sources to critique my stuff. I happily pay them: since I can't live off short story writing anyway, I figured that the few stories that do get published might as well be as good as I can get them.

As to writing a novel: obviously I've got no experience, and if my short story writing is anything to go by, I'd probably have a 'Chris Priest' schedule: about one novel every five years. Not that I wish to imply that my writing is anywhere near Chris's level, far from it.

Oh well, as some social commitments got cancelled, I might just finish a few critiqued stories this Sunday.
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User: msconduct
Date: 2011-01-06 23:55 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Because I write with someone else, we outline scene by scene. One of the things that stops this being dull is to develop the large bits of background detail first, but to discover the little bits as we go along. This keeps continuity problems to an acceptable level too.
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User: dinogrl
Date: 2011-01-07 07:40 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
You may want to check out The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande.
Here is a clip from the Colbert Report: http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/369994/january-05-2011/atul-gawande
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