John Irving or Stephen King?

The writing methods of John Irving (The Door in the Floor) and Stephen King (The Shining) couldn’t be more different. Both seem to have strong views about the right way to write. Last year I read King’s, Stephen King on Writing and was blown away when he talked about his writing process, but was even more impacted by how strongly he feels about it.

According to King, organization kills creativity.

John Irving, on the other hand, takes an approach that would make King’s eye twitch in barely contained rage and frustration. Irving’s first action is to write the last line of his book. He then outlines and defines every step that will be taken to lead the reader from page 1 to that culmination.

I developed my own writing style before I knew anything about King and Irving’s methods. In fact, I had never heard of John Irving until I’d already published my second novel. I ran across a YouTube video of a speech he gave where he described his writing process. It almost perfectly mirrors my own.

Later, when I read Stephen King on Writing and I learned how the master does it, I found myself asking, “How is that even possible?” (He starts with a blank page and just writes.) Of course, Stephen King is a writing savant. He could write a 1,000 page novel with one thesaurus tied behind his back.

My process can best be described as organized, linear creativity. I invent my characters and the things that happen to them in a series of brainstorming sessions, then I use an organized, methodical approach to refine those broad ideas into specific details.

When discussing my writing approach with readers and budding authors, I describe it by saying, “I don’t write novels, I write scenes.” This is because I outline my ideas down to the scene level during my planning and organization phase. Then, when it’s time to start cranking out the prose, I only have to write one scene at a time. It is specific, finite, and relatively small. I’m not overwhelmed by the intimidating scale of several hundred blank pages and the pressure of having to come up with a novel’s worth of creativity on the spot.

Most importantly for me, though, is I don’t have the fear that I’ll start down a creative path without knowing it will end well. Because I’ve already determined the plot, sub-plots, character development, protagonist-antagonist conflicts, setting, etc., I can write one scene at a time knowing it will all fit together in the end.

Q&A: Character Development

Q: How do you tap into your own experiences and memories when writing characters?

A: I don’t deliberately scan my memories or experiences for character traits or actions, although there have been times when something interesting happens to me or someone says something in conversation and I make a mental note of it, “I should use that in one of my books.” I’ll make notes of it in Evernote to save for later use. I also keep a paper notebook and pen nearby to jot down ideas.

Q: How do you write characters that are very different from your own personality or values?

A: There are times when a writer has a character do or say something they personally find reprehensible or ill-advised. If a character isn’t very bright, you make them do and say things that you know will produce a bad outcome. Although I’ve never taken acting classes, I think actors would make good authors because they have the ability to put themselves into a role that is dissimilar to their own personality. Those without acting experience, like myself, must simply use some creativity and ask, “What makes sense for this type of character to do in this situation?”

Q: Do you have a specific or formal process for developing your characters?

A: The initial genesis for my characters is based on pure creativity or chance. But once I have the seed idea for a character, I flesh out their background and personality using a formal process. In the Research section of Scrivener, I create a new card for each main character with sections for appearance, goals, background, personality traits, fears and motivation, etc. I even make notes about where the character lives, who they’re related to, and so forth. It’s similar to making a character sheet in a role playing game, minus the stats and equipment. I often refer to these character cards while writing

Q: Is there a method or formula you use to differentiate your characters and make them unique and memorable?

A: Once I have character sheets for each main character, I read through them to make sure they aren’t too similar to other main characters. I even make sure the names of main characters don’t start with the same letter as others, or share too many physical similarities.

Q: Do you live vicariously through your characters?

A: I think it’s human nature for authors to do this to a certain extent. One of the joys of being an author is I get to create an entire world and fill it with characters that are exactly what I want. That gives me a certain feeling of power and control. There have been times when I’ve given my characters certain lines of dialog that is witty or brave. I’m a witty guy, but not until well after the fact, when it’s too late. Through my characters, I can have them do the cool thing at the best moment. In the end, however, my characters are their own individuals that are separate from me and have their own set of problems. I’ve yet to write a character that truly was an extension of me.

Q: Do you have a process to test your characters and their personalities? Do you read them like actors or play-test them at all?

A: Reading character dialog out loud, preferably with someone else acting out the other characters, is a fantastic technique for giving the book life. It also helps the author make sure the dialog flows and isn’t disjointed or out of touch with the action at the time. I, however, never take my own advice and only read their dialog in my head, alone. I also rely on the feedback of my editor and beta readers and modify dialog accordingly.

Q: Do you ever create characters specifically to be matched in some way to other characters? Or do you create them individually and let the chemistry happen organically?

A: Although I don’t think characters should be too similar to each other, I don’t create one character and then think, “I really need another character to counter this one or play sidekick.” My characters are created individually. Having said that, however, I do give my characters some traits or personality quirks that are unique to them with an eye toward what my other characters are like. I prefer to let the chemisty between my characters happen organically, as it would in real life.

Q: Are you drawn to characters more by what they say or by what they do?

A: I enjoy writing dialog, especially friendly banter between characters, more than writing action. However, I don’t like to spend too much time reading a character’s thoughts. To me, Moby Dick was one of the worst books ever written because it is needlessly verbose compared to the action that’s actually taking place. I like books with a lot of stuff going on, at a fast pace. So I guess my answer is I’m more drawn to what characters do than by what they say.

Q: What makes a good villain?

A: To me, a villain has to be evil, but not necessarily in a direct way. Sometimes villains are good from their own perspective, and the definition of what makes their actions evil depends entirely upon the perspective of who’s affected by it. I think Vilos Abbelard, a key villain in Ohlen’s Arrow and Ohlen’s Bane, is that way. When you read about what happened to him as a boy, his actions as an adult make sense. I like the idea of the reader being able to sympathize with the villain, at least to a certain extent. Perhaps the villain takes their reasonable motivation a few steps too far, but deep down they’re people just like us.

Q: What makes a good hero?

A: Have you ever known someone that was really good at everything they tried? To me, those type of people are the most annoying to be around because their ubiquitous success only makes me feel like my flaws are highlighted even more. For that reason, I like heroes that are flawed, perhaps very flawed, and their success in the story requires the help of a lot of other people. I don’t believe in the success of the story’s hero simply by virtue of being good or pure. In fact, I’d argue that the best heroes are the characters that are more flawed than the villain. It’s uninteresting, however, if the hero succeeds by virtue of mere chance. They have to struggle to get their success, but in the end, they earned it honestly.

Three types of writers

When I meet people and they find out I’m an author, I tend to get a few different reactions. Over time, I have come to the subjective observation that there are three types of people when it comes to writing a book.

The Busy-Body

I have a great idea for a book but I just don’t have the time.

This is the person who is filled with enthusiasm and hopeful desire to become a full-time novelist. They have an idea — or a dozen ideas — for a book of simple or even epic proportions, but there is something missing. They are all motion and no direction; they never put pen to paper and actually do it.

The Doubter

I could never write a book. I’m just not creative enough.

The irony about this type of person is they are often very good at writing from a mechanical standpoint. They are well-spoken and their written word is precise, articulate, and well-structured. They also tend to be voracious readers, and have a keen eye for discerning the difference between great writing and bad writing. These folks suffer from self-defeating doubt, however. They won’t even enter the race because they are utterly convinced they would never win. I’ve met several editors that fit into this category.

The Achiever

I’ve written six books in the last five years while working a full-time day job.

These are the folks that don’t categorize themselves or define their own level of creativity. They just sit down at the keyboard and write their stories anyway. It has been said that writing a book is like eating an elephant one spoonful at a time, and these are the people that show up with a big appetite and when it’s all done, wipe the corner of their mouth with a napkin, belch once or twice, then say, “Okay, bring on the next one.”

Sharpening the saw

If I had six hours to cut down a tree, I’d spend the first four hours sharpening the saw.
– Abraham Lincoln

Many people have a simplified, glamorous idea of what its like to write a book. They envision a writer sitting in some kind of artfully decorated home office, surrounded by numerous overloaded bookshelves, looking out of large windows at an idyllic natural scene, a Moleskine notebook and fountain pen sitting next to a laptop or perhaps even an old Underwood manual typewriter. The words of their masterful story flow out of them in a linear fashion like a natural spring on a mountain side, pure and never-ending. They reach the final page, lift it exultantly out of their typewriter or click “Save” on their laptop and then close the lid, scoot their chair back with a big smile on their face, and then reach for a bottle of 18-year old Scotch and a glass tumbler.

That’s not how it goes. Not at all.

Writing a book is a project just like any other. It is a process that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It requires planning, followed by an execution of that plan. There is forethought, a roadmap, and multiple phases and steps. It is a project just like any other.

From the initial moment when you take the broad idea of, “I’d like to write a book someday” and graduate it up into reality by declaring, “I’m going to write a book starting today,” all the way through the final step of your book being available for retail sale, there are four main phases you will go through:

  1. Planning
  2. Writing
  3. Editing
  4. Publishing

Notice I haven’t mentioned anything about selling a book. I see that as part of a separate process in the overall lifecycle of the book. For the purposes of this post, I’m talking specifically about the writing of the book itself.

Of those phases, writing can sometimes be the shortest in duration. For me, planning and writing both take about the same amount of time, approximately two months each. Editing and revising the book takes 3-6 months, and publishing takes about a month. Abraham Lincoln’s math may not directly apply to writing a book, but his point is still valid. Spending an adequate amount of time planning your book will make the writing and editing phases take less time and effort, and more specifically, the more you plan your book, the less revision it will likely require.

To me, the planning phase is the most fun. It consists of three sub-phases.

  1. Conception
  2. Research and consolidation
  3. Plot event list

I start with a broad concept, usually in the form of brainstorming during conversation with a friend. This can occur at any time, however. It’s when an idea pops into your head and you take the extra step of fleshing it out in your mind and then writing it down. You create an ‘elevator speech’ of your book’s High Concept. The product of the Conception sub-phase is a 25-words or less written statement that describes the book.

Research and consolidation involves fleshing out the high concept, perhaps by expanding on the topics it touches upon. I write down the main characters, places, and key events that will occur in the book. I also write down notes of the motivation for my main characters as well as major turning points in their development. This is a lot of free-writing, where I write thoughts and ideas down into a notebook or in a note-taking app on my computer or tablet. These are often written in the form of a question. “How will Ohlen know the cru’gan are hunting him? Does he find tracks or hear something as he moves through the forest?” Finally, I read through all my notes and consolidate them into definitive points, making decisions about what ideas to keep and which ones to discard.

The output from the third and final portion of the Planning phase is a Plot Event List. This is a list of single sentences, each describing a separate scene in the story, and are listed in the chronological order they will appear in the book. Many writers call this a plot outline, but since I don’t list it in outline format, I call it a plot event list.

Special Tip: If you use Scrivener like I do, each sentence in the plot event list becomes a scene within Scrivener. I create new scenes, one for each event, and then type that scene’s sentence into the scene’s note box. Then when I start the Writing phase, I open up each scene and read its description, telling me everything I need to know to write that scene.

Because I spend a lot of time creating a rock solid plot event list, when it comes time to writing the book itself, I don’t write the book … I write a scene. Then I write the next scene. And so forth. I can even write the scenes in any order I wish, since I resolved continuity and plot resolution issues when creating the plot event list.

The Editing phase is rather self explanatory. I have the completed rough draft of the book as my input, which goes to my editor for plot-level review. At this point I’m not worried about the mechanics of the story (grammar, spelling, punctuation). Based on that review, I make any needed revisions to the story. That revised first draft then goes to a group of beta readers to get their feedback. Did they like the story? Were there any issues with character development or pace? Are there any scenes that were too descriptive or not descriptive enough? Then I revise again.

Once that second round of revisions is done, I consider the plot locked down and then turn over the manuscript to my editor for mechanical editing. This is where we fix the grammar, spelling, punctuation, and other functional aspects of the book. After that is done, I usually give the book yet another proofreading, sometimes hiring a second editor for this step.

Finally, I go through the Publishing phase. This involves final design updates to the cover, purchase of ISBN numbers, and submission to the various online e-Book publication sites. It can take up to a week to format the book for e-Book publication.

Writing a book is as simple as C, D, E and F

I have been working as a programmer since I was 16. In my career, I have been paid to write code in 25 languages on 8 different major platforms. Being a programmer isn’t just about writing code, it’s about being organized.

Being a writer has a lot of parallels.

When writing a large application, software developers go through a C D E F process. Each letter represents a different phase of the project: Conception, Design, Execution, and Finalization.

Writing a book isn’t just about putting words down in sentences, paragraphs, and chapters. It’s that, for sure, but that’s just the Execution phase. Do you see where I’m going with this?

When I start a new book, I begin with the Conception phase. I keep a notebook or my iPad handy and I jot down ideas as they come to me. These are often single sentences that describe scenes or characters. I have also written down lines of dialogue. Once I have some big ideas and have decided to run with one, I spend some time brainstorming more detailed ideas along that book’s theme.

After I have conceived my book idea and written down the main ideas of what the book will contain, I organize and flesh out those concepts into a plot event list. This is the Design phase.

A plot event list is what many authors call an outline. I don’t call it that, because it’s not in outline format. Mine is a list of single sentences, each describing an individual scene. I then organize those sentences into the chronological order they will appear in the book. (I don’t group scenes into chapters until I’m actually writing the book.)

Once I have the plot event list finalized, I turn to my favorite writing tool, Scrivener. I create a text card for each scene, and copy-past the scene sentence into that card’s notes field. Once Scrivener is all set up, I begin writing Chapter 1, page 1.

I have now entered the Execution phase. This is where I actually write the book. Because of how I have organized my plot event list into separate scenes within Scrivener, I only have to mentally and creatively worry about one scene at a time, rather than worrying about the entire book. This also helps prevent Blank Page Syndrome. It also allows me to write scenes out of order if I need to.

Once the book is written, we move into the Finalization stage. This is where I hand off my manuscript to my editor for a plot level review. She reads what I’ve written and gives me feedback on what happens in the book. This includes identifying plot holes, inconsistencies, and areas that need to be expanded based on their reader’s curiosity. I then make revisions based on that feedback and turn the revised manuscript back over to the editor for another plot review. I also hand the book over to 2-6 beta readers for their feedback.

Once revisions are made, the editor goes over it again, this time for a line edit. This is where the mechanics of my writing is critiqued and corrected: spelling, grammar, punctuation, etc. Nothing changes as far as the plot goes.

The last part of the Finalization phase is publication. I submit the book to my various outlets (e-book publishers, like Amazon.com and iTunes, etc.) and then announce its availability to the world through social media and my blogs, including this one.