This was originally written on my old blog and I’d thought I’d lost it. It turns out it was one of the very few items I’d written off-line and then posted to that blog, so I still had a copy of it. I’d commented at Yorick von Fortinbras’ site and that reminded me of this. So, I went looking for it as I think it was one of my better posts related to writing. Making a comeback from June 2009, I present the post “How do I write? Let me count the ways…”.
Okay, I’ve had a couple very small pieces printed and I have posted to acclaim both solo and in concert with others, but I am by no stretch of the imagination yet to be considered an established writer. Yet, I am asked about writing from time to time or people want to talk to me about writing. So, I’m going to put down here how I write. Keep in mind this is how I work, and while it may not work for you, it might still help you get past those sticking points.
It’s as simple as that, really. Really really.
I keep telling people that ask me how to write a story, “Just write it.” My point there is to just write it, get it down, don’t worry about spelling, syntax, whether it’s possible or not, if it’s written properly for your intended audience, or any of that stuff yet. The idea is to just write and get it down and to worry about fixing it up, polishing, and re-arrangement afterwards. You might break the story down into chapters and have some idea what’s going to go into what chapters, but it’s more critical to get it from your mind to the writing media than it is to get it from your mind to the media in perfect form. If you spend the time to get it down right, you’re going to lose track of what you’re trying to write, what the story is, and your characters will desert you. If not your characters, your train of thought. You know, that line of thought you had that had the wonderful sequence of events that would result in that awesome climax, that perfect story? Yeah, that. Gone. Because you spent too much time getting everything in the first few sentences, paragraphs, or pages grammatically correct.
Sometimes I’ll just put down a bunch of lines, not really an outline but in psuedo-outline format. For example, a line for the chapter, a line saying what I want to do here. Maybe I’ll add an indented line with some specifics. Maybe I’ll return to a line and expand it into a paragraph. Nothing necessarily coherent yet, I’m just getting my ideas down in whatever order they come to mind, hopping back and forth in this pseudo-outline. Maybe it’s more a table of contents than an outline. Again, I’m not worrying about grammar or keeping the timeline accurate, I can move it all around and do editing any time I run out of things to put down. One of two things will happen as a result: Either I will wind up with pretty much an outline that I can work off or I will wind up with a written out story or whatever as I go back and forth filling in stuff. That outline will grow into the actual story I present in writing as I flesh out each area, developing each line in that outline into a paragraph, then a page, then a chapter or whatever. It may become the actual story file I work in, it may become part of my notes file, or it may just remain a pseudo-outline I use to track what I want to write. It’s just another way of getting going: you can either start writing, or start jotting.
The point is, get it down, clean it up later.
As the above indicates, I don’t necessarily write things out in order, either. I don’t worry about where they go into the timeline of what I’m trying to write out. Well, I do, but I’ll happily jump back and forth within that timeline. I may be driving along or working on something else, then start thinking about something I’d like to see happen to my characters, start working that out, then when I get a chance I start entering it into the comnputer as fast as I can. I’ve got this book I’m working on, and while chatting with my son that evolved from one book into a series of four books because of something he said during conversation. And guess what? I’ve got Book 1 Chapters 1, 2, 3, 5, Epilogue and Book 2 Prologue “done”. Done, as I’ve said above, doesn’t mean finished, polished, and ready to submit to a publisher or print. It simply means done as in I’ve got it down in writing. Some of those are indeed checked for grammar and spelling and tweaked and so on, but that’s because I got them down and don’t have to worry about them at this time. I may have to modify them later on, add stuff, remove stuff, change the wording, whatever, but they’re down and I’m defintiely not going to be forgetting them now. Now if I could just figure out how to get my hero out of that trap he’s in, I could get Book 1 Chapter 4 done, too, and get going on Chapter 6. However, I think I’m going to wind up doing Chapter 6 or whatever before I figure out how to do Chapter 4 in a way that’s believable.
Like I keep saying, get it down, clean it up later.
One of the greatest wailings I hear has to do with “I’ve got so much up here in my head and I can’t type fast enough.” That’s exactly why I keep telling people to just get it down, on paper, on the computer, on a tape or digital recorder, with voice recognition software, whatever…just get it down. You have to find the method that works best for you but get it down. For me, right now, that’s to just sit and type without worrying too much about the typos or grammatical mistakes. I can touch-type well enough that I can just kick back in my chair, stare at the wall, up at the clouds, or at the distant mountains and type away. By staring away from the laptop, I essentially remove from my consciousness any observation of typos and grammaticals so I can just focus on what I’m trying to write, what I’m trying to say, what I’m trying to get down.
When I pause at a dead end, or when I’m done getting what I want down, that’s when to go back and see all those typos and grammatical errors and maybe realize I don’t touch-type as well as I thought. But you know what? SO WHAT. The thing is you got it all down, didn’t you? You got down what you wanted to happen, you know what you were trying to say, you know the path your thoughts were taking, you know where the story is heading, it’s all down there now. Now, no matter how much you go back and work on it, tweak a word here, fix a grammatical error there…you’re not going to lose what you were trying to write.
Let’s say it together: get it down, clean it up later.
So what if you wind up with 240,000 words or more? Once you have it all down, the characters can’t pull any fast ones on you, and you’ll be able to relax and really see what’s necessary. But while you’re writing it? Maybe you can, but I can’t. So I just write. I should also repeat that I don’t care about my typos and grammatical errors yet. I just want to get it down in whatever format I happen to be working in. You never really know what’s going to happen further along in your story — you just think you do but your characters will do things that surprise you if you’re not careful. If you’ve cut it now and something happens later on in the story you didn’t expect, you may either have to work it in later or try and re-write it. So, I say to just get it all down and later on those pesky questions can be addressed. Even though I see those questions now against some chapter as I’m writing my thought is just get it down, worry about editing that chapter later on.
The thing is, especially with writing stories, your characters will develop a life of their own, and they will start doing things you didn’t originally plan on them doing. If you constantly worry about grammar, typos, whether or not that part goes there, will what your character does here have an effect later on or can you cut it out, all that editing stuff, your characters will give up and just become words on a page. Kayakers have a saying, “go with the flow”. That applies as well to the writing process: just go with where your characters take you. You’re the god of that universe, you can strike them down later on, re-order their lives, do whatever you want with them. But only if you get it all down first.
Put another way…if you’re worrying about word count issues and need to cut back, if you just have to ask yourself if this chapter contributes anything towards what happens later on, if you’re asking will Baddy use Second’s freezing up against him and if not, then will her being in that battle contribute to her stature or future actions? If you’re busy with those questions and don’t have the entire story down yet, how the heck can you decide? As I just said, your characters will take on a life of their own if you let them. If Baddy will use Second’s actions against him, then you need the background somehow. Now let’s say you worried about all that, got it sorted out, then started writing the next chapter in your magnum opus. And the next. And the next. And several chapters later, you’re in the groove, you’re flowing, you’re burning the midnight oil like there was no tomorrow…but wait! Baddy just did to Second something and now you can’t remember what the justification is, what the background is, you just remember you had something earlier. You leaf back through your previous chapters, you get to that chapter where you spent all that time polishing it. Think you’re going to remember all that you removed, modified, destroyed? *insert hysterical laughter here*
What is it I keep saying? Yeah, that: get it down, clean it up later.
That’s how I write: in lots of ways, but the most important thing I’ve learned is to just get it all down and save the editing for when you’re done or when you’re at an impasse. That’s the time to let your creative side take a break and let the logical side take over. It’s really interesting what can happen when you do the editing…sometimes the break from writing triggers a line of thought that I otherwise wouldn’t have had and with that my writing impasse is over. However, one thing I have learned while doing this is…never completely delete anything until the final word is definitely, flat out written. I try and write in an editor that allows me to include strikeouts. If I substantially change something, and we’re not talking typos here, rather than deleting it I strike it out. That way, I can always go back and see what I originally put down, and maybe it was there for a reason I’d forgotten while editing. Heck, it could even have been there because in some dark recess of my mind I was formulating an event happening later on and knew I would need that there. By crossing it out instead of deleting it, when I eventually do write that later event, if I really do need that back history happening way back there, I can simply restore it and maybe edit it to flow better. The key thing is, I got it down, I cleaned it up later without deleting, and I didn’t have to try later on to write it again: it was already in there, ready to go.
Oh, yeah, that’s also how I address grammaticals. If it’s a grammatical tweak such as the difference between “its” and “it’s” or “they’re” and “there” I’ll go ahead and fix it, but if it’s a significant change in the sentence structure, it gets the strikeout treatment instead. That’s especially true with poetry and songs in my writing. There may be a reason I wrote it that way, there may not, but it’s written that way because of the mood I was in at the time. So, it stays as a strikeout or whatever until the final edit before submission. For that matter, I will save my writing into a separate file before I start my final editing where I will actually be deleting stuff. The original filess with the typo fixes and stikeouts I keep intact for several reasons: I don’t know if I might wind up needing something and there’s always the possibility the second edition can include stuff that was cut in the first edition, replacing other stuff that’s seen to be less useful after all. Finally, the original is also a record of sorts of how I thought and worked my way through the writing process for that story. It may even contain ideas for another story, but which I removed from this particular story for whatever reason.
New mantra for you readers! Chant with me: Get it down! Clean it up later! Extending is always harder than chopping!
So, there you pretty much have it. How do I write? I get it down, clean it up later, and don’t really remove anything from the documents until the final edit.
Is that going to work for you? Who knows? You may find this works perfectly for you, you may find you can edit as you go without trouble, you may find that you can remember everything you wrote for this story, you may find keeping successive editions of a file instead of using strikeouts works better for you. I’d say there’s 6,788,066,378 different ways of tackling this writing problem as of the time I wrote this blog. So, think about it, see what you might be able to use to help you write, experiment to find what works best for you, and go for it. But at least…
Get it down! Clean it up later!