Jay Lake (jaylake) wrote,
Jay Lake
jaylake

An answer to Justine Larbalestier on how to write a novel

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.
Tags: process, writing
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