Secrets of a Complete Improviser: The Beginning

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Laer Carroll

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Some people plan their stories so completely that writing them is little more than stenography. Some completely improvise the story from a simple idea. Most of us combine the two approaches in various ways.

I'm on the Completely Improvise end of the spectrum. It has worked for me for 13 books and 9 shorter stories for a dozen years. My income has slowly increased during that time. Recently I began to think about just what I do to accomplish this mild success. Some of you may find those thoughts useful.
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Every story for me begins when I'm thinking idly while doing something routine. This is most often when I'm slowly coming awake some morning. An image appears and I put it into a sentence.

IMAGE Hmm... "The object drifted in interstellar space for a good fraction of a million years"

Where did it come from? Hmm... ", debris from a colossal war or stellar disaster or mistaken experiment."

Interstellar space is a dangerous place. Hmm... " It suffered deterioration from interstellar radiation and hypervelocity micrometeoroids. Yet it protected its delicate cargo perfectly."

Perfection is impossible. Hmm... ". Almost. Time inside it could be slowed but never stopped."

At this point I realized that I was retelling the beginning of the Superboy/man Supergirl/woman story, a clichéd idea. I opened my eyes, got out of bed, made myself buttered toast and iced tea, and began my usual day of work as a pro writer.

Yet the ghostly paragraph I'd written haunted me. To lay the phantom to rest I swiftly copied it to a virtual blank page. And was arrested. What comes next? Well, this?

"The many tides of the void sent it drifting on a complex path that sometimes neared stars and gas giants and microscopic black holes with the mass of planets and predatory space-traveling life forms and other dangers. Each time the object's threat evaluator discreetly steered the object at a tangent away from the danger."

With that the ghost completely possessed me. I wrote obsessively almost my every waking moment for seven weeks, gaining inspiration at each step the way I began. This was lying in bed each morning and half-dreaming, or doing idle activities such as fixing a sandwich, or strolling in a mall window shopping and girl watching. The book done, I published it on Amazon and went on to something else, convinced I'd given a failure to the public.

Imagine my surprise when at the end of the month it had brought in over $2000. And the next over $3000, then back to $2000+, and $2000+ again and so on for diminishing returns for the next several years.

Though those figures don't tell the whole story. They include sales of my previous six books, revived with the success of THE EONS-LOST ORPHAN, to the tune of about 20% of the total.

Why was ORPHAN such a success? My writing style was the same, as was the subject. I was still telling superhero tales, albeit realistic ones. My orphan, for instance, is only about a dozen times as strong, fast, and tough as an ordinary human. Her real superpower is that she was genetically engineered to be a brilliant scientist and inventor and engineer.

Too, unlike most superhero tales, my orphan only rarely indulges in deadly action and rarely explicitly. In one scene she kills seven terrorists in one short paragraph offstage. It is her intellectual feats that are the core of the story. Those are the ones I detail at length.

Another failure of the usual pattern of superhero stories is that I spend a lot of time on the ordinary side of a life as a superhuman. She spends time with her family, she gathers friends to herself, they go to work every day, they have fun times, and their lives are ordinary. What, I continue to wonder, is the APPEAL of this book? I remain baffled.

Whatever that appeal, the sequel performed just as well and in the same pattern. As did the second sequel. Each written the same way: completely improvised. And in end I discovered, on the very last page of the third book, that I'd written a trilogy. That there was at its spine one complete story arc, one that I did not foresee but which was clear to me only after the book was done.
 
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ChaseJxyz

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My idea process is pretty similar. I'll get a random idea and then develop it if it's promising. I'm trying to only have 3 "open" projects going at a time, otherwise I'd have a million WIPs. I am never at a lack of ideas lol

I also get wanting to write something that fixes "failures" of something or other. One story that I otherwise love has a villain who does absolutely horrible things and his reasoning is that he's face blind and it bothers him so much he'll child experiment them to death? As someone who is faceblind: what? It can be really embarrassing making these "basic" mistakes but there's plenty of ways to work around it.

The big reveal happens when the MC lies and says they're someone else, which only made me go "bro their hair and height and voices are totally different? How did you make this mistake?" The whole everything was so stupid that I made an "antagonist" who's faceblind, so they honestly do not know that they're going after the MC. It's gonna be tricky to handle that info/tease that reveal but "eff you I can do this better" is a very powerful motivator 🙂
 

Paul Lamb

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I like that you begin your day with iced tea (I say as I drink my own morning iced tea).

Many of the ideas I've developed into (or added to) my stories come to me in the same way you describe. While I am mindlessly busy with something else, the image or sentence or character just arrives in my head. The hard part for me is developing them.
 

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I can't really improvise for crap most of the time. That's when my words-per-hour tend to tank, and when I start to consider abandoning projects. I think part of it is my self-editing and filtering (probably not the best word) tends to increase during those times. I tend to need some idea of what I'm doing to be able to function. (Although, I guess, that really comes down to high-level vs low-level improvisation. If I know the overall story, I can do the low-level improvisation to hit the points along the path. However, I tend to struggle if I don't know the overall direction or have a real chain of events.)

Are you saying you didn't proofread or get second opinions before putting your books on Amazon? That part really interests me. Because I find everything outside of drafting a bit of a chore. If I could make money and not do that other stuff, I'd be golden.
 
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Laer Carroll

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I never get second opinions. I don't care what others think of my creative endeavors or problems. No one is as hyper-critical or capable as I am.

I proof-read at several levels. One is automatically via the word processor I use: MS Word. It's crude and limited but still very helpful.

When I write I have my word processor set up so that each page looks as it will when published. I want to get some feel for the visual blocking of sentences, with a variety of lengths. And the visual look of each paragraph and how they relate to each other. So in a way I'm already proofing at a very low level.

Another place I proof is after each chapter, after it feels pretty-much done, within a day or three. A second is after each major part of a book, of which there are five to ten parts. I do those only after letting the part sit for a few days, during which I'm working on anything else.

And finally when the book is done and has a few weeks to get some distance from it. I create a proof copy, complete with front and back cover and interior frontage such as a BOOKS BY and a dedication, and have it printed out. I inevitably find problems I could not have before.

Further, Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing does a low-level quality check of each submitted manuscript. It finds typo and constructs like double w0rds such as "and and".

Bottom line: whole lot of proofing going on.
 
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mccardey

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Bottom line: whole lot of proofing going on.
To be fair though, you do still have some typos... (yes, I just checked one of your Read Insides ;) )

ETA: I always think I'm error-free. I never am. Extra eyes are essential, because our brain sees what we expect it to see.
 
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mccardey

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Absolutely. We can approach but never attain error-free. EVEN when we have beta readers and copy editors.
Hmmm. Most of the books I read are pretty error-free. (I'm a merciless noter of other people's errors...)
 
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Helix

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Hmmm. Most of the books I read are pretty error-free. (I'm a merciless noter of other people's errors...)

Same. Most of the trade-published books I've read have been error free. Professional editors working for trade publishers are pretty damned good at picking up typos, malapropisms, poor punctuation etc.

I do recall one novel set in the 1800s, where the narrator referred to the shallow end of the gene pool, but that's a different type of error.
 

CMBright

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I have seen the occasional obvious typo in professionally edited and published books, but never more than one in a given novel as far as I can recall.

Some of the free self-published ebooks? Some are so bad from formatting to riddled with so many typos and grammatical errors, it is not worth the free price tag to attempt to read.
 
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