Yesterday I was talking about the new military SF novel. I should have mentioned that I am experimenting with a new writing method. That may explain why it has been so much fun.
Normally I am an outliner. The corpses of unfinished novels littered my early career. I started off on short stories, and in those days I always found them easy to write. I could hold the whole idea in my mind, write the first draft in a few days and move on to the next project.
Things fell to pieces when I tried to apply the same technique to novels. Starting at a run and winging it just did not work for me on longer books. They were just too big and too complex. They took too long and it was too easy to lose momentum. Once that happened the project went on life support and was never resuscitated.
Reading Jack Woodford’s Trial and Error saved me from that. It laid out a clear, easy to follow path on how to write a novel. I just did what he recommended. Book after book came along, if not effortlessly, at least achievably.
Since then my process has been variations and refinements of that strategy. Have some sort of outline. Attack the project in discrete chunks. Work through things in a linear fashion till it’s done. Over the years, the tools have improved but the core system remained the same. During my professional career, I’ve never been a pantser, somebody who just makes things up as they go along.
The current SF novel started out as a scene and a voice. I just kept writing, because it amused me and I wanted to find out what happened next. I had a rough idea for a character and a setting. I had the idea for a first scene. The character just took it over.
We had a man pinned down in a ruined building in a devastated alien city. He’s being attacked by hundreds of armed militiamen. A chaingun-equipped gunship straffs him. High-energy artillery blasts away on his flank. He has only one bullet in his antique pistol. And yet he’s threatening his attackers. As the scene developed it turned out his confidence was justified. I just kept writing.
Another weird thing was that I did not move on to the next scene in chronological order. The next thing I know our hero is in the tunnels beneath the city. He’s hunting for an alien doomsday device and in the company of a very attractive woman. How did he get there? No idea. I do know that the scene proceeded intriguingly in a way that made me laugh. Again I kept writing. One scene followed another in a logical fashion. Before I knew it I had another 12000 words.
Old habits die hard. I broke out Scapple, did a scene breakdown and worked out a rough outline of the story. I did not put in huge amounts of detail though. I left areas blank for exploration. I’d been enjoying seeing this new world first through the eyes of the characters.
This approach even affected my method of writing. Normally I write detailed scenes and chapters. The scenery is in place behind the characters. I describe things in as much detail as I am likely to use in the final draft. Sometimes more. Often I have to take things out.
This time I have been racing ahead, putting down action, dialogue and any striking details that hit me between the eyes. I am just writing as fast as I can trying to keep up with the story the character is telling me. I do this in the first draft. Later I go back and infill the details, and any new stuff that occurs to me in downtime. It means there is a real sense of progress every time I sit down to write. I am also writing scenes out of order when I feel the urgent need to set them down.
It’s like I am looking at the pieces of gigantic jigsaw. I am starting to see the ways the parts fit together.
The strange thing is it feels like the world is in my head already. Something’s been bubbling away down in my subconscious for a long time, waiting to get out. Stephen King once described writing a story as being like chipping a fossil out of a rock. It’s already in there, you just have to get it out. I’ve never felt that way about a story before. It’s an interesting experience and I am curious to see where it takes me.
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