Ask a Writer #5

Welcome back to my “Ask a Writer” blog segment! For this week, I’m once again addressing a pair of questions from a couple of my Twitter followers who want to know about something that’s actually quite an interesting concept that varies wildly from person to person: the writing process.

@_carmenadams_: What is your writing process and are you the type to plan out the story first or so you just sit down and write whatever comes to mind?

@J_L_PIPPEN: Did you ever find that, despite having a plan, the story would take control and change direction while you wrote?

First of all, thank you both for asking these questions! I hope you don’t mind that I tied them both together, but I think my explanation of how I go about my writing personally gets to the heart of both of them.

Generally, when I have an idea for a story, I come up very quickly with solid concepts for the beginning and the end. I know how I want to introduce the story to the audience, bring in the characters involved, and set up the plot for the overall journey that’s going to take place. In addition, I usually have a pretty good idea of where I want things to end up by the last page, what becomes of the characters I’ve introduced, any kind of climactic moments, and the resolution of the particular story’s narrative tension. So in that sense, yes, I do have very precisely mapped-out beginnings and endings for my books when I’m in the planning stages of writing them.

It’s the middle part–basically all the rest in between–that’s a little fuzzy. If what you mean by asking about my writing process is partly whether I take notes or make outlines, then yes, I do. All the time. Whenever I have a new idea of some kind I’ll make sure I jot it down, sometimes in a precise location if I know a chapter where it could fit or a point in the story it makes most sense to be in. Since I was quite a note-taker and outliner in school, those habits have somewhat carried over to my writing: I’ll usually group a few bullet points under each chapter heading summarizing what I want to have happen in that chapter (the major developments) and keep track that way. I also can pretty quickly figure out how long I want the story to be just because most of my grand, big ideas fill things up and then it’s just up to me to fit in the little details as I go along.

But, and this is where the second question comes into play, if you’re asking if my notes are any more detailed than very vague generalities, the answer is no. I don’t make plans for dialogue in any given chapter before I sit down to write it (unless there’s a particularly good line, or gag, or joke that I’ve thought of and made a note for beforehand), and I just kind of let things flow and see what happens. This often results in a lot of changes from what I originally thought things were going to look like, as I have a tendency to ramble on a bit in my writing and make chapters much longer than I thought they were going to be. What can I say? I have way, way too much fun creating, so I can’t stop sometimes. This can force me to push certain developments or other parts of the story that I was sure were going to be incorporated into one chapter into the next, or another entirely. Plus, I often switch around my chapter orders chronologically because I’ll discover that certain events don’t make sense as early or late in the story as I thought they did.

For example, I’ll use a chapter of Jack Ferguson Strikes Back (the sequel to Camp Ferguson I’m currently developing) to show you what I mean. In said chapter, bad-boy anti-hero Drake goes back in time to the Wild West to recover a very powerful magical artifact that greatly furthers his character development in the story (not too many spoilers!). He also ends up getting in a fight with an armed gang of desperadoes and uses the magic of the artifact, a flaming sword, to single-handedly defeat them in a display of his bad-assery and magical prowess. I also know I wanted to introduce the ancestors of several of my main characters into the western setting as a running gag and make fun of some of the genre’s tropes, along with a time-travel gag where Drake runs into his own ancestor–by all accounts a trusting, generous, and kindly man–and influence him to turn cynical, selfish, and more like the Drake we all know and love. Those are the bullet points I start with when I’m writing the chapter. But beyond that, I don’t really know what’s going to happen: I just try to put myself in the headspace of the character I’m focusing on (in this case, Drake), and let his adventure unfold naturally. Most of the time I get so into the dialogue and come up with enough ideas while I’m writing that these things generally write themselves. I also try to keep an eye on chapter length while I’m writing and if it looks like a certain part is dragging on for too long, I either go back and cut it in editing or simply see if I can shove some of the material I haven’t used yet further back into the story.

The inspiration to create this chapter came from my desire to have a solo-Drake adventure, as he’s one of my favorite characters to write and I felt he’d been sidelined a bit in the early chapters of the story. I also wanted to reassert for the audience the fact that he is indeed a very skilled and powerful wizard, and the recovery of the Dragon Sword (that’s what it’s called) constitutes a huge plot point for reasons I’m not ready to go into right now. Obviously who else would wield the sword but Drake, who loves fire magic? It made the most sense for him to be the one to find it. I was also dying to throw in a time-travel story (trust me, it makes sense if you read the book), and the Old West is so ripe for parody that it’s something I’ve always wanted to do. Drake already sort of styles himself as a gunslinger, so he fit right into this narrative I was trying to create. Thus all the ideas came together, and a chapter was born.

A big part of my writing process, especially with Camp Ferguson, is that I’ll get inspiration from certain other works that I’ve consumed and want to use something related to or like them in my own story–usually in a sort of satirical or parody format. For instance, in Jack Ferguson Strikes Back, I knew I wanted there to be a chapter where the main characters attempt to escape from Camp Prospero in a parody of something like The Great Escape or Hogan’s Heroes. I had no idea of the specific details or how I was going to do that. But then the other day, I was randomly thinking about another one of my favorite movies, Ocean’s 11 (probably because of the remake coming out), and suddenly a lightbulb went off in my brain: how cool would it be to make the escape attempt like a crime job, where one of the characters goes through recruiting the others as helpers in a satire of the Ocean’s 11 style? I could combine the two ideas into one super-idea and it would still make sense. So how deep did I want to go with this? Did I want to have this character coming back as though out of prison–in this case, the camp stockade or confinement to quarters? If so, let’s work backward: how would it make sense for something like that to have happened in the first place, and can I drop the seeds of it in earlier chapters? And most importantly of all, which character would make the most sense to put into a role like that? I’m not going to answer all of these questions, by the way: you’ll have to read the book when it comes out to find out how I did it.

Of course, I acknowledge that this probably isn’t everyone’s writing style, and wouldn’t work for all people. I’m just trying to give you a little insight into how I do things. While I can certainly appreciate people who meticulously plan and outline their stories from beginning to end, that kind of thing just isn’t me. I like to let things roll, with a few general guidelines to follow, and just see what comes out. Sometimes this results in some rough edges that need to be smoothed over, or jarring transitions that need polishing up. But hey, that’s what the editing process is for.

Catch you all next time!

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