Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Guest Post: The Writing Process - Adam Christopher

I'm very pleased to announce the very first guest post here at I Will Read Books. My first guest author is none other than Adam Christopher. Adam's debut novel, Empire State, will be published by the end of the year by Angry Robot Books. It's a science fiction/super hero noir and you can find an excerpt from Empire State over at I really look forward to reading Empire State.

You can find out more about Adam on his web site or on Twitter (@ghostfinder).

The idea for this post came after Adam posted some word count stats on his blog, which seemed to suggest that the novel he was working on would be finished in 60 days. He explained to me that it was not quite as easy as that, and that there are several phases involved in the life cycle of a novel. I wanted to know more, so he very kindly agreed to explain more about his writing process in a post for me.

Over to Adam...

If there is one thing that is true about all writers, it’s that each and every one of us does it differently. While publishing is a business and writing is a job, writing is also an art and a craft, and with anything like that, once you’ve got the basics down, it’s mostly a journey of self-discovery.

What follows then is just the way I do it. I’m sure there are writers who, coincidentally, will find themselves mirroring my method almost exactly. I’m equally sure there are writers who will throw their hands up in the air and wonder quietly how anybody could possibly write like that.

That’s the great thing about writing. There is no wrong way to do it, and there is no right way to do it. But, a caveat: for some people, discussion or description of the writing process is enough to drive them bananas. Similarly, writing “rules” – although, of course, there are no such things – can sometimes get people hot under the collar. Well, horses for courses, YMMV, so it goes.

So if you don’t like hearing about the writing process, stop here. As it happens, I am interested in the process, and so is Erik, who invited me to talk about how I write novels.

For those readers remaining, pull up a pew and make yourselves comfortable. There’s liquor in the cabinet over there, although you’ll have to ask Erik nicely for the key. This is his house, after all.

Ideas are easy and ideas are free
A novel starts with an idea, and fortunately, ideas are the easy bit. The one question any writer loathes to be asked is the classic “where do you get your ideas from?” That question – and I apologise to those who do ask it! – is kinda missing the point. I have more ideas for books than I can ever possibly write in my lifetime. I have a corkboard on my office wall which is covered with index cards, each card featuring the idea for one novel, and at last count I had enough there to last the next fifteen to twenty years of my career. Ideas are not the issue. Story is the issue.

I remember a convention panel a few years ago where an audience member asked how people can write something as long as a novel, because he had an endless supply of great ideas but everything went wrong and came to a crashing halt around page three. The answer was a good one: don’t confuse an idea with a story. An idea is the spark, the central concept on which a novel is built, but it isn’t a story. A story is plot, character, change, conflict, need, and a bunch of other stuff that I’m not even sure of myself.

My magic corkboard of ideas might be overloaded with index cards, but I generally have a feeling for what I want to write next – an idea will give me a feeling, and will swim around in my thoughts for a while. Eventually it’ll become a little bit of an obsession, something that I think about constantly. All the while I’m usually working on something else, but this is the point where I start making notes.

The outline
My attitudes to outlining have changed over the years. I used to be convinced that you needed to have a detailed outline of a novel before you started, because if you didn’t you ran the risk of making it up as you go along, and I thought you could tell when that terrible fate befell an author.

I’ve relaxed a bit since then, but I think a strong outlining habit is not a bad thing. Once you get a number of manuscripts under your belt, you’ll know exactly how much pre-planning you need to do.

I’ve discovered that I work best from more of a skeleton outline than a detailed breakdown. I start off by making a list of events and scenes – my idea will have morphed into a beginning, a middle, and an end by this point, and I’ll have some ideas for cool sequences or events that I want to happen in the story. By making a list, I can put in the key points with gaps between, then play around with the order of things. Once I get the key concepts in I can start filling in the gaps, linking the events up until I have a plot.

This works for me because I tend to deviate from an outline when I start writing – characters will begin to do their own thing, developing a weird sort of semi-sentience to start making their own decisions and plotting their own course. When this happens, I know the story is working. Too much time spent outlining is a bit of a waste for me, because the chances are the story will go off on a tangent anyway.

Draft 0
I write a manuscript by piling in the words until I’ve got everything down from beginning to end. I don’t edit as I go, because the chances are something will happen later in the story that will need re-seeding back through earlier sections. Therefore editing chapters or sections as I go would be a colossal waste of time because I’ll just have to edit them again anyway. I’m also a firm believer that you cannot see the whole story until you have reached the end. But that’s just me.

Scott Sigler has a phrase that I’m particularly fond of. He said writing the draft is getting the clay on the wheel. This sums up my process perfectly – I call my first draft “draft 0” for a reason. It’s usually too long, and it’s messy, and a lot of it will suck. But once I’ve transferred the novel in my head to the page, I can get to work. Draft 0 is my source material, from which I carve the novel out.

For this reason, draft 0 is a fairly swift process – at about 2,000 words a day I can get a 100,000-120,000 word manuscript done in a couple of months. Once this is done, I save it and then move to the next project. It’s important for me to forget as much as possible about the manuscript, so when I come back to it later it’s with a fresh set of eyes.

... to be continued next week

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