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A few weeks ago, I started work on the first draft of Barnum’s Revenge (the sequel to Fur-Face). My approach to writing the two novels couldn’t be more different.

Back in 2003, when I began work on Fur-Face, I had no idea what I was doing. Aside from tax returns*, I hadn’t written any fiction since leaving school (with a less than impressive academic record) at age 16. I knew it was going to be about a boy who meets a talking cat that only he can hear, but otherwise I had no ideas for the characters, storyline, locations or overall plot. I just sat down at the computer and started to type.

Since then, I’ve finished enough first drafts to know that I can write novel-length fiction, but if I want to make a career as a writer, I also know I need to figure out an approach which allows me to finish a good quality first draft in a short(ish) period of time.

Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate the time-saving value of a detailed outline, and I’ve learned to set aside (or even give up on) projects when necessary. Personally, I’d rather find out something’s not going to work in the plotting stage than after spending months working on a first draft.

Of course, it’s an outline not a contract, so I’m always open to changes during the actual writing stage, but I won’t start typing the first draft unless and until I have a definite plotline and a full understanding of what I want to happen to the various characters and how the events of the story will change them.

For Barnum’s Revenge I’m trying two approaches I’ve never used before.

I call the first one ‘Let your sub-conscience be your guide.’ When I find myself struggling to come up with a great description, clever simile or piece of dialogue, instead of staring at the screen for ages, trying to think of something there and then, I just type in ‘[INSERT GREAT LINE HERE]’ and move right along. More often than not, the line I’m looking for comes to me later, when I’m not even aware I’m thinking about it. Putting in [CHECK THIS LATER] also helps.

The other new thing I’m trying is to work on a scene out of its linear order if I find myself getting bogged down (I measure progress by scenes completed, rather than word count). So far, it’s proving quite helpful. Just this morning I worked on a scene which takes place near the end of the book (in which I managed to use the line: “I wouldn’t be getting away with it, if it hadn’t been for you meddling kids”).

How about you?

In what ways has your writing method changed since you first started?

*Just kidding about the tax return thing, honest!

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Jul. 20th, 2011 05:10 pm (UTC)
My writing method's changed inthat I used to write and now I don't. Just kidding. Sort of.

I've always set out and started writing. The difference now is that I keep track of the details and try to plot a bit ahead, like driving at night; you can only see what's in the light of the headlights. Beyond that, it's all dark.

My question to you (and anyone else who does this) is how do you write scenes out of order without worrying things in earlier scenes will change everything? If you write scene 36 and then go back and write scene 27 and discover something major happens that affects the rest of the story, you then have to rewrite any scene you've written after scene 27. I would think that could get a bit confusing. But I'm naturally confused anyway!

Thanks for another great blogpost!

Cheers, mate!
Jul. 20th, 2011 08:37 pm (UTC)
Asimov did it by using three typewriters.

With my WWII bomber novel,
I usually knew what part of the day each scene had to take place,
but I also kept notes on each character;
If he died, when?
Which guys were Jewish? Catholic? Protestant?
All that sort of thing;
I used a spiral notebook and loose-leaf binder with pockets.

I think that if you have a pretty good idea
of where it's going and how it's getting there,
then filling it in out-of-sequence won't change it;
but keep notes and use search phrases to verify that,
and be prepared to make changes if you must.
Jul. 20th, 2011 08:44 pm (UTC)
'...how do you write scenes out of order without worrying things in earlier scenes will change everything?'

A fair question. By the time I start on a first draft, major story changes are unlikely - I find it's additional background stories and minor sub-plots which tend to bubble to the surface once I start the actual draft.

I guess an equally fair question for non-outliners is: 'If you write scenes without a detailed outline, aren't you worried you might come up with a great plot idea halfway through the first draft that requires you to rewrite everything from scratch?'
Jul. 20th, 2011 09:05 pm (UTC)
Uh...yes. And it's bloody annoying really. This neverending book I had been working on was finished in December 2009 and then I saw a movie that made me want to change the second half of the book. It made the story better, but it meant rewriting more than half the book.

That's why I said I use the headlight method, plotting a bit after what I've written. Not that it works every time, but it works for me well enough.

I tried outlining an entire novel and when I was done outlining, I had no interest in writing the story.
Jul. 20th, 2011 09:25 pm (UTC)
'I tried outlining an entire novel and when I was done outlining, I had no interest in writing the story.'

I remember you making that same point about losing interest at the panel/Q&A we did in East Brunswick a few months back.

It happens to me sometimes too, but I look on it as a good thing. If I'm not excited about the characters and story after I've mapped everything out, that tells me either something's missing or the idea just plain stinks. I'd much rather find that out after a couple of weeks working on the outline than after a few months writing a first draft :)

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No longer in print but there are still some copies floating around out there

No longer in print but there are still some copies floating around out there



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