I still like writing by hand. Normally I do a first draft using pen and paper, and then do my first edit when I type it onto my computer. For some reason, I much prefer writing with a black pen than a blue one, and in a perfect world I’d always use “narrow feint” writing paper. — J. K. Rowling
I prefer to take notes by hand because I’m actively listening when I write, in ways that I’m not when I’m typing. Sometimes I choose to handwrite because being able to write with paper and a pen or pencil and a convenient light source makes it possible to write in places where even a Chromebook or iPad are cumbersome.
The primary reason I choose to write by hand that my brain works differently with pen (or pencil) and paper. I’m less distracted by aesthetics (typography, for instance, is not an issue). I often turn to pen and paper (or pencil) when I get stuck, particularly on when I’m writing books, or lengthy research articles. Often, I’ll draft in long hand, then edit in longhand, then keyboard it and edit again before I submit.
Recently, I’ve noticed a lot of other writers also choosing to write in longhand, or print, even when they could use a keyboard. I was surprised by how many of my favorite novelists are prefer pens and paper for drafts.
When you’re writing with pen and paper, you’re working in the same direct mode you use to tell a story to children, and for a first draft, that’s maybe not a bad thing. — Joe Hill
J. K. Rowling deliberately chooses to write by hand, though as she notes, she prefers narrow-ruled paper and black pens. Neal Stephenson, in a now defunct interview for Barnes and Noble (quoted here) notes that he started writing his novels with a fountain pen with Quicksilver, the first volume of his Baroque Cycle. Stephenson said
What I was noticing was that I’ve become such a fast typist that I could slam out great big blocks of text quite rapidly — anything that came into my head, it would just dribble out of my fingers onto the screen. That includes bad stuff as well as good stuff. Once it’s out there on the screen, of course, you can edit it and you can fix the bad stuff, but it’s far better not to ever write down the bad stuff at all. With the fountain pen, which is a slower output device, the material stays in the buffer of your head for a longer period. So during that amount of time, you can fix it, you can make it better, you can even decide not to write it down at all — you can think better of writing it.
I think that’s true. I noticed that the amount of time it takes for me to formulate a thought into a sentence, because it’s slower to read the paper than the screen, often means that I realize that it’s not something I want to write, that the idea or sentence isn’t ready for committing to paper. ItÆ’s less a matter of the internal editor interfering, than one of my “inner ear” noticing that those aren’t quite the words I want, In the time it takes to hesitate before committing the words to paper, my brain supplies other, better words. In other words, there’s less to edit or delete. Stephenson comments on that too, observing that the process of editing is often easier with pen and paper:
Editing, strangely enough, is quicker and easier with a pen. Because drawing a line through a word is just faster than any sequence of grabbing your mouse and highlighting the word and hitting the eject key. That act of editing leaves behind a visible trace of the word that you decided to change, and sometimes that’s useful; you may want to go back and change your mind about that. Finally, I find that writing with a pen is a physically healthier activity. There’s actually more range of movement involved with it than there is sitting with your fingers on the keys for hours at a time. So I just physically felt better when I was using the pen rather than typing.
Jonathan Carroll, famous for his contemporary fantasy and slipstream novels, notes that:
Handwriting anything makes me think hard about what I really want to keep or throw out. Because the process is generally slow, I’m thinking all the time while my hand moves across the page. While using any kind of keyboard device, my fingers are whizzing much faster than my mind can think and that is a dangerous thing if you want to write it right.
I find that the experiences of novelists in terms of their writing process, is true of my much less interesting process as well, when I’m writing scholarly or academic pieces or even when I’m writing pieces that I know are destined for Web publications; I think differently, and write differently with a pen in hand. As Joe Hill says:
Finally, in a notebook, you’re stuck with yourself. You’re cut off from your games, the internet, Twitter, Facebook. The only thing you have to entertain you is your own imagination.
What about you? Do you write by hand? Have you ever tried switching to pen-and-paper (or a pencil!) when you’re stuck? Is handwriting part of your process? If not, consider trying it.
You completed NaNoWriMo and you have at least 50k words of rough draft. You’ve put it aside since then.
Now it’s time to edit and revise.
NaNoEdMo is National Novel Editing Month. It starts March 1. The idea between NaNoEdMo is that you spend the month of March editing your draft. Instead of counting words edited, the goal is to spend 50 hours revising your novel. It’s free to join here, and joining provides community benefits, including an active forum and lots of support with other writers revising and editing right along with you. There’s lots of advice and help as well as commiseration.
You can even get a certificate for completing your 50 hours. The rules are pretty simple. Basically:
You have to log your editing hours at least once every 7 days in March until you reach fifty hours. That is once between 1st-7th March inclusive, once between 8th-14th March inclusive, once between 15th- 21st March inclusive, once between 22nd-28th March inclusive and once between 29th-31st March inclusive; making a total of 5 times and totaling fifty hours or more. You can log your hours as much as you like but you must have at least one log in each period until you reach fifty hours.
They define editing as:
Editing is defined as changing previously written material. Editing does not include writing a completely new novel. It does not include planning or researching. It does include anything from correcting the grammar and spelling to substantial rewriting of the novel.
That means that your novel doesn’t have to be one that you wrote for NaNoWriMo. It also means that you can continue your 50K novel; keep in mind that 50K is a pretty slim novel by modern standards, so fleshing it out as part of editing is a reasonable idea.
If you want some suggestions about how to edit your own work, many writers have found Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King full of practical advice about how to edit, what to edit, and why you need to edit.
Being a writer almost guarantees that you’re a reader, too. Reading for a writer is often a great way to give your back-brain time to figure out What Happens Next, and reading can provide inspiration for both technique and plot. Plus, it’s fun, even if finding the time to read (and write) can be a challenge. Maybe you’ve already started a 2017 Writing Challenge; a reading challenge might be the perfect companion (or help you kickstart your writing for 2017). You still have time to join one of the 2017 Reading Challenges.
If you’re looking for something that’s manageable and fun, but still a challenge, consider the AW Book Club forum’s 2017 AW Reading Challenge, which challenges you to pick twelve categories from a list and read twelve books in 2017 with a goal of reading some books that challenge you. There’s lots of support to cheer you on, suggest what you should read next, and discuss the books you’ve read.
The 2017 Bookish Reading Challenge includes a monthly prompt designed to kill your TBR stack. “At the start of each challenge, we’ll post a list of recommendations from our own TBR piles to inspire you. But if you hit a month where the challenge doesn’t apply to you, we dare you to pick up a book from your TBR pile that breaks you out of your reading comfort zone.” You can see the Bookish month-by-month challenge prompts here.
GoodReads.com is offering the Goodreads 2017 Reading Challenge, a very flexible challenge; you pick the books you want to read and how many, and GoodReads will help track your reading for the year, letting you know how many you’ve read, and whether or not you’re on track or falling behind your goal for the year (or zooming ahead).
The 2017 POPSUGAR Reading Challenge offers 40 book selection prompts to help diversify and expand your reading 2017, with a goal of reading 40 books, but there’s an “advanced” prompt category with twelve additional books, for a total of 52 books in 2017 (yep that’s a book a week). There’s a printable file you can download to help you track your books, there’s an active GoodReads group for lots of community support (and reading suggestions). The book suggestions range from “A book with a cat on the cover” to “a book by an author who uses a pseudonym.”
The Sirens Conference emphasizes women and fantasy literature, and they have their own Sirens Reading Challenge. The challenge requires you to read 25 books in all, with specific books being drawn from the GOH at this years conference, books related to the theme of the conference and and specific categories, with a lot of options. The goal is to read 25 books by October 1, and score a bragging button for your Sirens profile. There’s a Sirens Challenge GoodReads group for support and discussion of the books you’re reading.
Joe M. McDermott is the author of seven novels and two short story collections. His latest novel, Fortress at the End of Time, comes out on January 17, 2017, from Tor.com. He holds a BA in Creative Writing from the University of Houston, and an MFA in Popular Fiction from the Stonecoast Program of the University of Southern Maine
What made you think of using a monastic system in a universe with clones and an ansible in The Fortress at the End of Time ?
I think too many of the futures that I read about create a strange sense that everyone’s soul is going to the same place when they die, and theological controversies only exist in that they help the plot along or not. Spirituality is such a wild and wooly field of human energy, and I hoped to try and capture a sense that faith and organized religion and atheism and agnosticism will all still be rattling around people’s heads even when we’ve extended our reach into the Sagittarius Cluster.
Did you have a playlist for The Fortress at the End of Time?
I wrote much of the book’s first draft longhand while working at a bookstore. We played, mostly, the local public classical radio station. I recall a lot of Edvard Grieg, Bach, Tchaikovsky, Mozart, and Beethoven
What was it like attending the Stonecoast Program MFA program and working too?
It was interesting. I think that a low-residency program is a much better approximation of what a writer’s life is going to be like upon matriculation than the traditional dedicated, full-time program. As a writer, we have to be masters of time management to keep our lives functioning while we are also running these odd side careers in the corners of the day.
Any advice for other writers about time management and juggling life, work, and writing?
White boards are very useful when you’re trying to keep organized. Also, technology can help a lot. I find Google Docs really useful, because I can access any file anywhere I happen to be, so I can be working a little if I’m sitting in a waiting area, or sitting in my office. Anywhere with Web access becomes the place I write my next thing.
I notice you regularly write sonnets and post them to your blog. Why sonnets?
Sonnets only pretend to be poems. They’re paragraphs, really, but prettier.
Who is your second favorite sonnet poet (after yourself)?
What’s your writing environment like (your work area and tools of choice)?
I’m restless. My work environment will be whatever room or coffee shop or library I’ve set up in at the moment. Getting stagnant happens if I linger too much in one spot. I’m in a room that we’re calling my office, for now, but it’s more like a giant pile of books and art supplies next to a desk that happens to have the computer on it, today.
What have you read lately (in the last year or so) that you really liked?
I just finished Jerusalem by Alan Moore and it’s a breathtaking masterpiece that ought to win some awards, if folks are brave enough to soldier through it. It’s gorgeous, and wildly inventive, and tries to rewire what a narrative is and does, and I love that. It’s full of unforgettable lines, scenes, and ideas, like a massive feast of setting and theme.
Do you have any particular favorite books about writing?
I’ve read a few that I thought were okay, but only one stands out above the rest: Wonderbook by Jeff VanderMeer is the best of the bunch. It’s the textbook for the class you wish colleges offered. The inclusion of the visuals really enhances the text in surprising ways, and helps shift the notes of the text around in unexpected ways. Vandermeer is a modern master, and his erudition and cohesion and constant doubting on the subject of writing is immense.
What’s your favorite charity?
I often donate to the SFWA Emergency Medical Fund, because I am uniquely aware of how precarious American healthcare is, at the moment, for artists. I also regularly donate to the Catholic Church’s refugee work, and a local no-kill animal shelter, where I got my own wonderful pup who had been rescued and nursed to health off the local shelter’s kill list by this very charity: San Antonio Pets Alive!
Sometimes we all benefit from writing something other than our WIP, or writing with a goal other than Finish the Book, something that provides a bit of structure, and maybe, a supportive community of sufferers writers. A writing challenge is a great way to encourage yourself to write regularly, or as a warm up exercise before you hit the pages for your WIP. And this is a great time to start participating in one! Journaling is a habit that many writers have found useful. It can be a way to “break the ice” for the day before you begin work on your WIP. This site offers a list of 365 daily prompts. Ray Bradbury’s 52 week short story challenge to aspiring writersA Round of Words in 80 Days (ROW80)describes itself as “the writing challenge that knows you have a life.” There are four “rounds” every year; each round lasts 80 days. Your goal can be anything you like as long as it is measurable (e.g. number of words/pages, specified amount of time to spend on writing per day/week, number of pages edited, etc.). Once you have settled on a goal, you write it up on your blog and link to it on the Goals Post in the ROW80 Facebook Grroup. Then you “check in” on the following Wednesday and Sunday via your blog and the Facebook group. 750 words a day is about writing 750 words a day, every day. It’s a great way to start your writing session. The Writing Cooperative has a flexible 52-week writing challenge with one rule: you commit to writing a thing (anything!) each week. It can be anything, but you’ll be part of a supportive community of other writers also writing a thing a week. If a weekly challenge is a bit much for you, consider a monthly writing challenge to write a short story in response to a prompt. If you’re a book reviewer, consider the 2017 Review Writing Challenge. Set a personal goal for how many reviews you want to write in 2017, post ’em on your blog or Good Reads or Amazon or wherever and track your progress. Or you can make up your own challenge; maybe you want to write a blog post a week, or send a postcard a week or write a journal entry, or 1000 words . . . what’s your writing challenge?
Not everyone wants to write 50K words of fiction in November, the basic requirement for NaNoWriMo. That works out to 1,667 words a day, every day, for thirty days. Not all of us are writers of fiction, or have the time and space to write that much every day (more or less).
National Non Fiction Writing Month (NaNonFiWriMo) also known as Write Non Fiction in November (WNFIN) is an alternative for people who don’t write fiction. You can register here if you want to have a community of your own while you write non-fiction in November.
AcWriMo or Academic Writing Month was founded by academic Charlotte Frost of PdD2Published in 2011 as a way to encourage academics and scholars to produce a 20K word (or more) academic monograph during November. Currently the rules stipulate that you set your own goal (hours, words, or another milestone) and join. It’s a great opportunity for thesis and dissertation writers, people who want to draft a journal article or academic writers with a book idea. There’s an active AcWriMo Facebook Group and a Twitter hashtag #AcWriMo.
NaNoBloPo is a challenge to write a blog post for every day in November. The challenge actually runs for all twelve months of the year, but November is the biggest month in terms of participation. There’s no length requirement, and that pictures count. While NaNoBloPo assigns a theme for each month, and also offers daily writing prompts, these are optional. You can write about anything you’d like. NaNoBloPo is now sponsored by BlogHer, and while there’s a Facebook Group, I’m not seeing anything recent; that said, there’s no reason you can’t do it yourself. You might find the WordPress.com daily post prompts helpful.
750 words a day runs all year, but they feature a special November challenge. The challenge is designed to motivate people to start a daily private journaling habit. The challenge starts at midnight on Nov 01, 2016 and ends at 11:59pm on Nov 30, 2016. Write (at least) 750 words every day for this month. The words can be anything, as long as they add up to 750 of them.
Are you engaging in an alternative writing challenge for November? Possibly a personal challenge? We’d love to hear about it the comments.
NaNoWrimo 2017 starts on November 1. If you’re new to NaNo or National Novel Writing Month, the goal is to write a novel (50,000 words) starting November 1 and finishing by 11:59 PM November 30. Completing 50,000 words makes you a winner. 50,000 words is quite an accomplishment.
Today I want to focus on three tools for planning. Pen and paper, Scrivener, and Evernote. They’re all three viable options, and they work well together.Pen and Paper
While it’s not kosher to start drafting your novel, you can certainly start making lists of scenes, notes about plot, setting, and characters, or ideas you want to work into the work thematically. Pen and paper can work really well for this because they’re portable. You can take one with you to jot down ideas where ever you are.
Some writers not only use notebooks to store their written ideas, they include images they’ve clipped from magazines or tourist brochures, maps, and other visual inspirations. You can use your everyday composition book, a slightly upscale version (for those fountain pen users) or you can use a scrapbook notebook, or the classic Moleskine notebook. Once NaNo begins, a notebook makes it easy to take notes about where you’re heading plot-wise even when you’re away from your keyboard. There are many writers who write their entire novel by hand; a second notebook for, well, notes, can be useful for them as well. One writer I know likes to use a multiple-color pen, color coding ideas for different characters or themes, or to annotate previous notes as a character develops.
Another advantage pen (or pencil) and paper offers is that you can have your notebook next to you as you keyboard, as a way to quickly jot down ideas without stopping to open a new file.
Evernote is an app designed for note taking and research. It’s available for pretty much any Web browser as an add on, and there are apps for Android, iOS, OS X/macOS and Windows. Evernote is designed to let you open up a note and start typing, or you can “clip” and save Web pages, images or .PDF files to your Evernote notebook. The apps and Web plugins for Evernote all sync, so you can have the same information available pretty much everywhere—even at a library or on your phone or tablet, as well as your computer.
You can even take photos with your phone (including photos of documents you’ve written) and upload them to Evernote.com. A basic Evernote account is free for two devices, which means you can use it on your laptop and on your phone, for instance. You can still logon to Everynote.com via pretty much any Web browser, too.
Scrivener from Literature and Latte is really a writer’s toolkit. It’s designed to let you plot, plan, outline, or brainstorm in the same environment in which you write. There’s even a cork board planner with digital index cards. You can store .pdfs, images, text files and web-clippings that you need for research and inspiration right in Scrivener. There are built in word-count and daily tracking tools, and tools to add notes to yourself as you write. A name generator, and lots of other ways to brainstorm, ways to track your research and ideas, and then get everything out of the way so you can just write.
Scrivener comes with a number of pre-built templates (and you can easily create your own). The Novels template includes worksheets to help with character sketches and settings, for instance. And now, with the release of Scrivener for iOS as well a for OS X/macOS and Windows, you can sync Scrivener files between different devices via DropBox.
If you do decide to try Scrivener, you might start looking at it now. There’s a built-in tutorial, lots of excellent videos (at least watch the ten minute Introduction to Scrivener). I can also heartily recommend Kirk McElhearn’s Take Control of Scrivener 2 book. It covers the latest versions of Scrivener 2 for macOS/OS X, Windows and iOS.
Storytime for Kids began as an initiative from Denny & Lies Velthuizen, two parents in the Netherlands who wanted to encourage parents to read more to their kids. They created an app for smart phones (Android and iOS) that would make it possible for parents to always have a story at hand to read to their children. The Dutch version was a rousing success, and inspired the Velthuizens to create and English version of the app, and an accompanying website.
You can search or filter stories based on a variety of criteria, including subject (dragons, or princesses, etc.) and time it takes to read it. The Dutch version is available now for iOS and Android.
You can submit your own stories to be included in the app; while you do not receive pay, neither are the Velthuizens, and you are supporting literacy and inculcating the joy of reading. You can also request your stories be removed at any time. For more information, see Storytime for Kids Questions and Answers, and you can find more information on Facebook as well.
It’s perfectly legitimate to mull over ideas, maybe do some free writing or brainstorming or outlining or basic plot crafting ahead of time; that’s not cheating. There are lots of ways writers “plan” their story crafting; whatever works is right for that particular writer and story, and it varies from writer to writer (and sometimes, even from story to story). Here are some possible tools and techniques:
Pen and Paper
For hundreds of years, writers have been using notebooks or paper of one sort or another to jot down ideas, snatches of dialog or scenes to flesh out later, to brainstorm or mind map and to free write. One virtue of a notebook (or index cards) is that they’re portable; you can use them anywhere.
Some people like to use notecards or post-it notes instead of a notebook, possibly color coding based on character or plot line, because cards and post-its can easily be moved around to reflect the bit you’re working on, or to consider a different arrangement of scenes.
Outlines, which can be standard “classical” outline with headings and subheadings, or simply a list of plot points, or details plot summaries are helpful as planning tools for many writers. You can use a WordProcessor (checkout Microsoft Word’s Outline View) or any text editor like Note Pad, of course, or a dedicated app just for outlining, but there are inexpensive and free alternatives.
Oak is a free in-browser plain text outliner that’s useful for quick, short outlines (there’s no built-in way to save; it relies on your browser’s cache or copy-and-paste).
Workflowy is an interesting, free for basic personal use (250 items per month), web-based list-making tool that is surprisingly easy to use, and flexible. A fair number of books began in Workflowy. There are apps for Workflowy (iOS, Android and Chromebook) as well as the Web version.
The Outliner for Giants is free for basic accounts (5 outline/1,000 nodes per outline) but a paid account is just $10.00/year and allows backup via DropBox or email. You can login with a Google or Facebook account. You can use The Outliner Of Giants in many browsers and devices/OSs (there’s a Chrome browser extension), and there are a number of templates to get you started. It’s really easy to export your online outline into your word processor or even a Google Doc.
Fargo is a free outliner/list-maker that relies on DropBox to store data.
Note Taking and Research
Many people use a more specialized note-taking tool or digital notebook app. Note taking apps typically handle text, outlines, images, and allow you to organize your notes in lots of different ways. They let you incorporate data from the Web, for instance, if you’re setting your story in a particular location, you might want to stash photos of the area, or a map, in your notes.
Basic note-taking apps include Microsoft’s free multi-platform OneNote (which works well for outlines or free-form notes), or the Notes app included with iOS 9 and Mac OS X El Capitan.
Evernote is perhaps the ultimate research notebook. First, you create am account (basic accounts are free) on their site. Then, you can clip notes from the Web, including pictures, as well as write notes in Evernote. You can use Evernote via your web browser or using an Evernote app for OS X, iOS, Android, or Windows. Many writers use Evernote to store information about locations, for instance, or to write character notes and rough plot summaries, because it’s easy to write a quick note on one device, and have it saved and available everywhere. A basic account is free.
A calendar is a useful tool for planning a story, in terms of things like timing, or the sequence of events in a particular timeline. Sometimes it’s useful to track each character’s personal timeline via a dedicated character calendar. You can easily generate a calendar from a spreadsheet, or make a dedicated calendar in Google Calendar or iCal or Outlook, though if you’re writing before the Gregorian calendar became the standard European calendar, or you’re using a setting that requires a Jewish, Chinese, Hindu, or other calendar system, you may need to be a little creative. Consider using a project management tool or spreadsheet instead of a standard calendar if you need to know where various characters are and what their doing a particular time.
Consider using an album in Flicker or Photobucket or Pinterest to store inspirational images or images that help stage a scene or a location. You can store location or building or room images, or maps, or all sorts of images
The Scrivener Toolbox
Scrivener from Literature and Latte for OS X and Windows is a much loved toolbox for writers, and a long-term sponsor of NaNoWriMo (since 2005). It’s an enormously powerful and flexible app, with a bit of a learning curve, but it’s designed so you can use just the parts that you find useful, and ignore the rest. There’s a basic word processor that’s built in and that exports easily and let’s you track word counts for a doc a session or a day. There’s a corkboard for working with and organizing ideas. It allows you to keep all your notes and research and your ms. in one place, and searchable. It supports backup via DropBox. It’s particularly useful for drafting now and organizing and revising later, or for people who write scenes out of order. There’s a generous free trial, one that won’t expire until December 7, 2015, and that is by far the way to start; people either love or hate Scrivener. And there’s a special offer for NaNoWriMo, including a special version of Scrivener and a discount of 20% for NaNoWriMo participants, and 50% for those who finish.
Do take advantage of all the support for Scrivener, including video tutorials.
Scott Hawkins is forty-five and works as a computer programmer. He’s been a member of AbsoluteWrite since 2006. He lives in the Atlanta suburbs with his wife and seven dogs. The Library at Mount Char is his first novel. Scott has also been instrumental in keeping Absolute Write’s server running for close to ten years now.
What was different about writing and publishing a novel versus writing and publishing a technical book?
Just about everything was different. For me, writing the technical books was very much like writing a couple dozen research papers back-to-back. That can be satisfying in its own way, but it’s not really the sort of thing I’d do for fun.
When fiction writing is going well I think it’s the best thing ever. I wrote the bulk of The Library at Mount Char over a period of maybe three months, in the summer of 2012. It was all I could think about. I was burning vacation days. On weekends I’d get up at two or three in the morning and write until six at night. In that period it was like the floor dropped out from under me—I was totally immersed, and I couldn’t type fast enough to keep up.
That said, there was a pretty long preparation period leading up to those three months. That part had a lot in common with technical writing. It was very much a “drink coffee and stare at the screen until drops of blood form on your forehead” process.
What’s your writing environment like ? (Where do you write? What tools ?)
I just moved into a new place with a semi-finished room in the basement. That’s where my office is. I work on a Windows 7 PC. I can’t really type on a tablet or laptop—my hands are too big.
Mount Char was done with MS-Word, a spreadsheet, and a bunch of Miquel Rius spiral bound notebooks. Miquel Rius makes great stuff—the only place I know to get them is Amazon, but they have plastic covers and color coded graph paper. I use Uniden micro-fine rollerball pens (black ink) and/or Pentel 0.5 mm mechanical pencils with HB lead for handwriting notes.
Lately I’ve been experimenting with Scrivener. It’s got some neat features, but I’m not completely sold on it yet. Probably this is just inertia because I’ve been using MS-Word for so long.
What’s your writing process like? Are you an outliner, a pantser, do you keep notes on characters . . .
I generally start by trying to make up random scenes without worrying too much about how it all fits together. I don’t work in order. With Mount Char, the first couple scenes I came up with were a guy going out for a jog, and a neighborhood picnic that went bad. Those ended up pretty much dead center and near the end, respectively. I also do little character sketches, or notes on setting, stuff like that. When I’ve got around forty thousand words of scenes that feel like they have a pulse, I lay them out and try to arrange them into some sort of narrative.
Then it’s a question of adding connective tissue to hold the scenes together, and polishing. Does each character want at least two things, preferably conflicting things? Do they sound distinct from each other? I try to make sure that no one likes anyone else—remember how in Empire Strikes Back every time two characters came on screen they’d hug, or whatever? I hated that. I thought the first Star Wars where they all hated each other was a much stronger script.
I also try to be absolutely ruthless about cutting stuff that doesn’t work. The slush pile does not give a crap how much time you spent trying. The only thing that matters is whether it works. I have literally 70,000 words of different versions of the first chapter of Mount Char. That’s not an exaggeration. I worked on nothing else but that one chapter for something like six months.
The last thing I did before submitting Mount Char was cut. The completed draft came in at something like 155,000 words. I read somewhere that the upper limit for a first novel is 110,000 words. That turns out to be misinformation, but the exercise of cutting helped the book a lot. I eventually got it down to 125,000ish, and it was much, much stronger. Going forward, I’m going to make a point of cutting every first draft by twenty percent.
Does it feel different to you to write code versus writing story?
What do you wish you had known before you wrote The Library at Mount Char that you know now?
I’m surprised by how strongly the advance readers have reacted to the violent scenes. That was a blind spot on my part. Violent scenes just don’t bother me at all, not in movies and certainly not in fiction. To me they’re sort of like Christmas decorations—they help set the stage, but they’re pretty much emotionally neutral. The evidence indicates that that is not in line with majority opinion.
My agent had me tone down a couple of scenes before we submitted it to editors, and my editor had me tone down a couple of others. I figured that if they both agreed the violence was a problem I should probably listen, but I was privately a little worried that the end product would be hurt by being too watered down. That was a miscalculation on my part.
I think the ability to write viscerally horrifying stuff is a useful tool to have in the chest. I’d argue that violent scenes tend to focus the reader’s attention in a way that few other things can. But going forward I’m going to make an effort to be more aware of the likely effect a scene is having in an average reader. Stuff that I think of as a 5 or 6 out of 10 might seem more like an 8 or 9.
That said, even knowing what I know now, I probably wouldn’t have toned the violence in Mount Char down much more. Not all books need to be PG-13. There’s plenty of PG-13 entertainment available, and I may well write some of it myself in the future. But this was a violent story. If I hadn’t alienated a few people in the telling, I think I’d be doing it wrong.
What kind of background reading or research did you do for The Library at Mount Char?
Well, in the early stages I watched a lot of femme fatale movies—Malice, The Last Seduction, Body Heat. You can kind of see that influence in the first couple of chapters, but it didn’t really play out the way I was initially expecting. It never does, honestly. For me research mostly just confirms that the brilliant idea I thought I had was in fact kind of dumb
But it is fun.
Is there a soundtrack or playlist for The Library at Mount Char?
As a matter of fact, yes. You’re the first person to ask that. I’m really not a very music-oriented guy, but I have seven dogs, all of them big. A lot of times when I’m writing I like to put on something to drown out the ongoing squirrel alerts.
I have exactly one song per chapter, and I listen to it on continuous repeat—usually for several hours at a time. I like it loud. My wife has asked that I do this with headphones on.
The chapter where you meet the librarians was Tusk, by Fleetwood Mac. The chapter where the burglar gets introduced was Sing, Sing, Sing by Benny Goodman. The big fight between the protagonist and the antagonist was Dead Man’s Party, which I’m pretty sure I’ve heard more times than Danny Elfman at this point. Crazy on You by Heart—the live version—got a whole lot of play. Towards the end I made an MP3 that had just the first 45 seconds or so, and listened to that on repeat.
And just because I really want to know, is Petey OK?
As it happens, I’m working on a short story for my Website that answers that very question. SPOILER ALERT.
Petey’s fine. He ended up with a lady in Detroit who’s taking good care of him.
Any particular books about writing that you’ve found helpful?
Dozens. I’ll buy any on-writing book that I see. Some are better than others, but I always learn at least a little something.
Far and away the very best one I’ve found is Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass. If you want to write commercial fiction I can’t recommend it strongly enough. Maass is himself a successful literary agent, and he puts out a lot of writing books. They’re all good.
I also think it’s important to learn about the business side of things—that’s what brought me to Absolute Write in the first place. Janet Reid’s blog and QueryShark are both excellent for getting a feel about how the business works.
What have you read in the last year or so that you were impressed by?
For fun I read a lot of nonfiction, business books and biographies. There’s one about the collapse of Enron called The Smartest Guys in the Room that I really liked. Michael Lewis’ latest, Flash Boys, was interesting. Regardless of whether you’re a Mike Tyson fan, I think everyone will agree he had an interesting ride. His biography Undisputed Truth was a good read.
As far as fiction, The Girl With All the Gifts had an interesting take on zombie stories. There was a novella written by Stephen King and Joe Hill together called “In the Tall Grass” that was as good as anything I’ve seen from either of them—they were not screwing around with that one. That is a horror story.
Last year I picked up one called The Orphan Master’s Son at the airport, of all places. It’s kind of a fable about modern life in North Korea. It won the Pulitzer Prize. My God that book is amazing—it’s like getting hit by a sledgehammer every twenty minutes. It’s absolutely pitch black dark, but everyone who aspires to put words in a row for a living should read it. That is how it is done.
What do you wish someone would ask you that they haven’t?
“So, Scott, can you tell us a bit more about your wife’s role in the process?”
Thanks for asking! My wife Heather truly is a key player in this, and I rarely get a chance to give her props. She’s not a writer herself, but she reads a ton, probably more than I do, and she can point out the exact paragraph where something stops working. That by itself is ridiculously valuable, but it’s also true that she isn’t one to mince words. I’m one of those people who if you say something like “this is good, but” I often don’t hear anything after the ‘but.’ So having someone with a good eye who’s prepared to be, ahem, candid, is a gift from the angels.
When she and I first started dating I had a first-draft-ish version of my third novel. I kind of weaseled her into reading it. She made it maybe twenty pages in, then it set it down. Eventually I asked her what the problem was and she said “well, the first bit was okay, but right about here—” points to a particular page “—it started to suck.” That’s more or less a direct quote.
I said “hmm.”
Then she said “fix it and I’ll take another look.” We went back and forth for a while about what, exactly, was sucking, then I took another pass. Eventually it got to a point where that book got a bit of love from agents—not quite enough to take me on as a client, but I did have a couple of “send me what you come up with next” golden tickets.
I gave her the draft of Mount Char on Labor Day a couple of years ago. When she said it was good, I knew she meant it. And when she said the third act sucked, and I needed to fix it, I knew she meant that too.
What’s your favorite charity?
My guest dogs come from We Are Rescue. We Are Rescue is a no-kill animal rescue organization