Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Since you don't outline, how thoroughly do you plan out your characters and story before you begin the first draft? Do you do much more than superficially edit as you go?

I get a lot of questions about outlining and organic writing. I’m not sure why people are taught to outline as if it is the right way or the only way to write. It’s such an unnatural approach to the creative that I really don’t understand how or why people go that route.

So, to address these two specific questions, I don’t plan out my characters very thoroughly at all. Instead, I put them in interesting situations and see how they respond. Sometimes they’ll surprise me in how they act or demand a bigger part in the story, so I try to be honest and let them be.

This approach is similar to the way that JRR Tolkien wrote. As he noted one time, "A new character has come on the scene (I am sure I did not invent him, I did not even want him, but there he came walking through the woods of Ithilien): Faramir, the brother of Boromir."

Tessa did this to me in The Pawn. At first she was a rather one-dimensional snide teen girl, but the more I wrote about her, the more interesting she became. By the time I started working on The Rook, she had vied for a bigger part in the story and I had to give it to her.

The key is responding to the story as it unfolds, being honest, keeping it believable, letting the characters act and develop naturally, and go where the thread of the story takes you.

As far as the second question about editing, I continually revise and edit as I go along. Typically I will print out several chapters that I’ve been working on, as well as the new ones I’m writing, and read them through to start my day. I will edit them, rewrite them and tweak them as the broader context of the story becomes clearer.

So, allow your characters the opportunity to flex and adapt and grow, adding quirks and inconsistencies, pushing them to the limit to see how they respond, and then letting the story shape them even while they shape the direction of the story.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

When you were first starting out, did you ever have any self-doubt in your writing ability? If you did, how did you deal with it?

I’m not sure if the self-doubts that have lurked around the edges of my consciousness since the very beginning of my career will ever fully disappear. Despite how many books I write, I still approach every project with a trembling hand.
Will it be any good?
Will people like it?
Will I ever actually finish it?
Will it be better than the last one?
Over the years I’ve written more than three dozen books and hundreds of articles, but still I don’t have the confidence in my ability that you’d think would come naturally at this point.
Maybe that’s encouraging to aspiring writers, and maybe it’s disheartening. Depends on how you look at it—on the one hand, the apprehension might never go away, but on the other hand, you won’t be alone in feeling that way.
However, there’s a paradox to all of this. Intermingled in with all that hesitancy there has to be a certain sense of confidence in the process, or we wouldn’t know where to begin each day. And also, there has to be a certain degree of ego.
After all, every writing project is in a certain sense an exercise in egotism. When I write a novel that will take someone ten hours to read, and I encourage that person to buy it, I’m basically telling her that there’s no better way for her to spend ten hours of her all-too-short time on this planet than reading my story. If there was something better, I wouldn’t feel right trying to get her to read my story than to do that other thing.
If that’s not egotism, I’m not sure what is.
The truth is, if you like long hours in solitude, emotional turmoil, constant self-criticism and bouts of heart-wrenching disappointment, you’ll make a good writer. And if you can actually tell an engaging story, you might just make a great one.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Can you share some insight on how best to determine when to stop doing research? How much is enough? It's so fascinating to learn more, I could keep going forever it seems!

Over-researching a novel is common, and it’s an easy trap to fall into. It happened to me when I was writing Placebo.

I was researching quantum mechanics so that I could render that part of the storyline, and finally I realized that I’d read more than enough books, watched more than enough documentaries, and visited more than enough quantum mechanics websites to last a lifetime. I remember stopping in the middle of a book, just shaking my head.

I’d gotten sucked into doing the very thing I’ve warned aspiring novelists not to do. That’s not the only time it’s happened, but it was the most recent and the most jarring.

So, how do we avoid that? When can we tell if we’ve done enough research? Here are three guidelines. Remember:

1. You’re writing a novel and not a research paper. Story matters more than anything. Readers aren’t coming to your book for information, but for entertainment. Resist the urge to show off how much you know—or how familiar you’ve become with Wikipedia. Yes, you’ll want to get the details right, but you don’t have to become an expert on every aspect of your tale—you just have to know the people who are. Brain-picking is not only essential, it’s also fun.

2. Research is an ongoing process that needs to happen while we write our novels, not beforehand. As we write, we will always come up with questions and have to go back to the Internet, the library, or the expert that we dug up somewhere to verify information. Don’t look at research as a separate part of the writing process or as something that precedes it, but rather as something that parallels it.

3. Believability trumps accuracy. In other words, as long as we can come up with a stunning believable scene that even those who are experts in the field would accept, we don’t have to make the events possible, accurate, or well-researched.

I usually visit the location that my novel is set in early in my writing process. Then, when the story has taken shape, I will usually go back to the location again to fact check what I need to in order to nail down the details, the drive times, the sunset and sunrise, and things of that nature.

If you ever start wondering if you’re researching too much, you are. Put all of that aside and get working on your story.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

How much time is the process between the first ideas for a story and writing the first word of the actual novel on paper? How much time do you spend working on the idea before you start writing the book?

For me, the first idea that I have IS the beginning of my writing. Since I’m an organic writer and don’t outline my novels, I’m not sure of any other way to look at it. I believe in pursuing rabbit trails that the ideas take me down. It’s all part of the creative process.

In his book “On Writing” (which I recommend), Stephen King compares writing a story to unearthing an archeological dig. He believes the story is intact and he’s just there to brush it off and uncover it.

This is a helpful illustration for me of the writing process. I find an idea and I brush away at it to see where it might lead, and then I think of something else that might be clearly related or that might be quite different indeed. Then I brush that off to see if they’re connected in some way that hadn’t been apparent at first, or if maybe they lead me into a different direction entirely. Every idea is a doorway to the next.

I’ve been collecting ideas for years and have them in my files on my computer. It’s really not possible to track backward to the genesis of the ideas that I use in my books, but usually writing a novel takes me six months to a year and all that time I’m continually looking back over my ideas to see which ones I can weave into the story.

I have first tier and second tier ideas, character traits and quirks, discarded ideas from previous books, scene descriptions I’ve come up with while I’m sitting in traffic, and so on. At this point in time I probably have hundreds of pages of scrap ideas.

Writing a story is not a straight, step-by-step process. It’s always an interplay of responding to the unfolding narrative, going back and forth from my idea files to the story, and watching how everything merges and reforms itself into the final product. It’s a dance, and I’m just here to help introduce the two partners, and then listen to the music and watch them take it from there.