What’s your process?

I missed last week’s entry partly because I didn’t have anything interesting to talk about. Having been informed that as long as I write about something in an interesting manner, people will probably still read it, I will endeavour not to miss future blog entries. It was also suggested to me I do a ‘cost diary’ of my week as well as break down what it is I do as a self-employed author each day. Good suggestions, so I am forced to concede that another contributing factor in missing the blog entry was my laziness, as it appears there is plenty I could be writing about.

This entry, thought, is about ‘my process’ as an author. A couple of people have asked me about it, in a variety of ways and wordings but it boils down to the same question; how do I come up with a story and then write it?

To write an answer to this question, I began in the same way I do before starting most ventures; slumping in my chair, looking at my desk in an unfocused, slightly sightless fashion and breathing slow enough that I could well be hibernating. At least, that’s the physical manifestation of me being deep in thought. Not a compelling image, and certainly not sculpture worthy beyond the real of satire. I’ve been told I look faintly depressed, but this is not the case. The cogs are whirring, and rarely have any dust to shed before they work properly now that I’m doing this writing schtick full time.

Personally, my stories are born at their climax; the final scene, the battle, the confrontation appears in my mind like something out of a well funded film. The hero, the villain, and their struggle. It’s not always a fight, per se, but it is a confrontation of some sort wherein a dramatic finish occurs and a resolution is reached – usually a good one, for the heroes, but often with some element of cost or loss. Because I cannot apparently write purely happy stories.

Then I develop flaws for my characters, and how they overcome or circumvent these flaws. Flaws define our behave much more than virtues, I find. Or at least, that’s my conclusion from human observation, writing characters and creating them for role play games. I often find myself asking “why wouldn’t my character do X?” rather than “why would they?”, because the answer to the latter is usually, “because they want to and have no reason not to”. Sure, you can apply some sophistic arguments to this approach but ultimately they amount to little; if we can do what we want and it doesn’t cause us problems, why wouldn’t we? And problems can be “because it hurts other people”, before anyone makes that challenge. If I don’t have a problem with hurting other people then it’s not part of the equation.

Developing these flaws and traits often creates back story, or development opportunities, that are worked into the plot. The story sort of writes itself from their, with the exception of complex twists which involve multiple characters acting to cause them, where several different approaches have to be considered. Even then, I usually decide on a juicy plot twist and then alter it so the characters involve cause it to happen believably. All that’s left after this, preparation wise, is world building.

In my mind, there are two options; derivative or individual. Neither is worse than another; derivative does imply it is inherently of lower quality. One must simply accept that when using a derivative world involving orcs and a dark lord that direct comparisons can and will be made to other such words that came before it, in this case an example being Lord of the Rings. Borrowing ideas can help shore up the gaps and details in a world quickly, so that you can get on with writing your actual story; everyone knows orcs are big, brutish beings predisposed to violence and wickedness because stereotyping occurs in fiction at least as much as in real life. However, by importing these ideas you are limited in how much you can truly make them your own; people will reject differences they see as being too far from generic model you are using. On the flip side, an individually created world can bring new myths and legends, whole new wondrous races and beings, into the mix and you can claim true originality, but that side of the coin is cursed with difficulty both of standing out as truly different and also the demand for high quality and completeness of design. It’s all very well creating a brand new race, but if they essentially function identically to the popular accepted image of elves in fantasy fiction then you’ve not made something new, and your work could be called derivative in a truly negative sense.

Usually I take the individual route. It gives me more power over my creation, and ultimately I’m a closet megalomaniac so this suits my personal flaws better. I then demand of myself that I create a two things to define my world; a creation timeline, and a creation myth. They can be one and the same, but that accepts that myth and fact are closely married in this world and that can present both problems and opportunities. Once I choose whether the world was made or evolved, I then decide if there are ‘gods’ and if so what form they take. A pantheon? Rival entities? Are they known or unknown? Do they act, or are they silent? Are they many, or a single one? If single, does it have aspects that are misinterpreted as different entities? Are they malign? Friendly? The list of questions goes on, but it’s fairly quick fire. For example, if the world evolved naturally and the answer to the first question is ‘there are no gods’ then I simply have to construct a few religions based on gods that can be inconsistent, because they aren’t and never will be ‘characters’; they’re simply ideologies with a representative graven idol. The other questions are still easy enough to answer, as the world history usually involves answering a lot of the questions, or answering these questions quickly models the world history. All I focus on is that the world design be rich, broad enough to inspire interest while deep enough to inspire questions. Knowing the answer to these questions will create a solid world that will support your story through its twists and turns. Uncertainty or inconsistency will provide no end of problems. Once you have a solid world design, begin writing; you can add or subtract things later as needed, but overly complicating it early on can restrict what you’re able to do.

Which brings me to the final part of my process; purges. I have deleted roughly twenty percent as many words as I write, and I’m not talking about minor spelling or grammar errors. Whole chapters occurred, whole arcs, entire characters, have been written and then scoured from their reality because I decide they aren’t suitable, that they don’t fit, or they just don’t work. I would advise any author that deleting swathes of a book is not a mistake, especially if you keep a record of what you delete. Just because something is written does not make it permanent; we are truly gods of the worlds we create, with ultimate power to rewrite them as we see fit. Do so. Once they’re published it is much harder to make sweeping changes to a world while maintaining integrity. The ‘retroactive continuity’ has become common, and strongly implies the acceptance that mistakes were made somewhere down the line that were too big to be solved with new writing and so drastic measures had to be taken to solve them. Sure, these usually take the form of new writing, but a lot of it has a deus ex machima feel to it and unless your readers are fully on board with accepting anything you write without question, this isn’t a good way of writing, especially about major characters or plot points. Yes, it sometimes can be done well; ideally it wouldn’t need to be done at all. Prevention better than cure, and sometimes a cull can remove a parasite from a population. You love your creation, otherwise you wouldn’t keep writing it; cut out the words infected with low quality or unsatisfactory work so that the whole can live and be stronger for it.

At least, this is what I tell myself when I don’t want to delete something I’ve written. Mostly I immediately accept that if I don’t feel it fits, my readers most likely won’t and they’ll view my work less favourably as a result, so the offending section is expunged with a vengeful self-loathing.

This, in a very general way, is my process. Target of five thousand words a day, making sure I watch and/or read something of the same genre for about two hours a day as well to keep inspired, focused and aware of what I do and don’t want to replicate and emulate, and be compared to. Five days a week, should be a novel in a month. There are days I have to sit down and redesign plot, characters or, worse case scenarios, worlds which can delay this. After my initial burst of work on Thunder and Lightning, currently with beta readers, I’m slowly my expected completion rate down to a novel every six weeks. Still ambitious, but without drive we tend not to go anywhere.

I’m hopeful that it pays off. I’m optimistic that it, given time. I’m pragmatic in that I don’t let these other thoughts excuse slowing down or ‘taking breaks’ in writing schedule. Faith in oneself is necessary for ventures like this, and true confidence can only come when someone questions their ability and reaches a conclusion thereafter. And I’m confident of my ability. Now if only I was so dedicated to going to the gym…

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