Saturday, February 9, 2008

My Method, My Magic

I think one of the most frequently asked questions about authors everywhere is how do they do it. How do they go about writing novel after novel? What is their process? I know that it is one of the first things I look for when I visit an author site. As a writer, part of my curiosity is to learn from the published masters. However, it's mostly just a curiosity as a reader. Do they have a regimented schedule, or do they write fiendishly a when the muse strikes, cramped over their keyboard, spewing words and scenes and chapters? Laurell K Hamilton writes a self-imposed number of pages a day, starting at the beginning of the book and always moving forward. Diana Gabaldon writes scenes as they come to her, picking whatever she's inspired to write, then piecing them all together later. Karen Marie Moning gets up at the ridiculous hour of 4:30 a.m. to write until lunch, then edits in the afternoon. Everyone's method is different, yet every one of these authors produces New York Times bestsellers. They only tying theme between every author's schedule is consistency. They write every day. They set their own goals (page length, word count, time limit) and they meet it. Every day.

Figuring out my own method was part of the fun. When I first started writing Temple, I would write a scene, maybe two, then go back and edit them. Then I'd write another, find a new direction I wanted to move the story in, and have to go back to edit the first part of my story to fit. I did this over and over again for several months. I'd just get everything as I liked it, realize that my plot was shallow or my character inconsistent or any number of other problems, and I'd stop, go back, and fix everything. There was very little forward process. I was driving myself nuts.

I decided that maybe novels were not my thing. Maybe I needed to work on something shorter. I'd just taken a short story class in college and had done really well. Having only 12 pages to fit an entire story in will really make you pare down your thoughts and story arc. However, short stories don't sell. Or maybe they do, but not to me. I've never purchased a magazine that includes short stories, and the only compilations I've purchased have been mandatory ones for class. If I didn't want to read them, I couldn't expect other people to.

One thing that does sell and that I enjoy are screenplays. I took a class and wrote a screenplay the next semester. I learned that my dialog needed some work and that most of my joy in writing comes from creating worlds and thoughts, none of which get a big part in a screenplay. More importantly, I learned how to storyboard.

Storyboarding, at least for me, is taking my book scene by scene and jotting it down on note cards. It means I had to know my entire story before I started writing. Suddenly the nebulous ideas of a woman who has some magical power and must save an empire weren't going to work for me. I needed to know what her powers were. I needed to know about the empire and why it was in danger. Freewrite after freewrite uncovered more and more facts about Areia, my main character, and the city she lives in called Suan'me. I build up a place where she would go to train: the Temple of Shadow and Light. Friends and enemies came into the scenes. The more I learned, the more note cards I was able to fill with scenes until I realized that I had too much novel for one book. I had a trilogy.

Only when I had the entire first book mapped out and every scene documented, did I begin to write (again). (The second and third book are on note cards, too, but their structure is still flexible depending on the edits of the first book.) This time, I didn't go back to edit. As often as I could (meaning 2-7 days a week) I would sit in front of my computer and write. At the end of each day, I would leave myself a note to remind myself the next day where I wanted to take the next scene. I did this for two years. Granted, my book is 1,300 pages long, so it took me a little longer than a person who might have been writing a nice 75,000-word novel. At it's final length, Temple is 413,771 words long.

Some of you might think my method takes away some of the magic. If I know what's going to happen in the story, what's the point in writing it, right? Fortunately, I've never thought that way. Knowing that the two lead characters in a novel are going to fall in love and most likely be married by the end of a book doesn't stop me from reading a romance. Nor does knowing that good is going to somehow overcome the seemingly insurmountable obstacles and defeat evil stop me from reading a fantasy novel. The pleasure comes from specifics—how will they fall in love? how will a character evolve? how will they deal with each trial? Writing a scene for me is much like that. I don't always know what a character is going to say when I begin a scene. Many times I've had scenes take a different twist than I planned, or had characters react differently than I had decided they should. And for me, since I love my characters and spend so much time with them, it's nice to know that even though their going through some terrible things in the moment, I know the outcome.


Amanda said...

Wowee, girlfriend! That sounds like a whole lotta work to me! How'd you get so industrious when I'm so lazy? It's not fair. :)

Kate said...

The other good thing about your storyboarding notecards: when you're famous, museums will have more of your artifacts to display.

Rebecca Chastain said...


I'm sure you're just as industrious about something you're passionate about! Especially if it was something you were trying to build into your full-time job.


That's a wonderful vision! I'll be like a very alive, very famous Jane Austen, and everyone will want to see every scrap that I've written. Maybe the apartments I've lived in will have plaques posted outside the doors that say "Rebecca Chastain lived here" or "Rebecca Chastain wrote her first New York Times Bestseller here", and fans everywhere will flock to see what the view out my window looked like. Thanks for the inspiring vision!