One of my friends (@InspectorCaracal
over on tootplanet.space) asked jokingly about the secret of finishing things a few days ago.
There isn't a secret -- that's the joke -- because writers will happily go on at great length about their particular processes. It's been almost two years since the last time I babbled about mine, and I need an excuse to procrastinate on my current WIP, so now looks like a good time to do it again.
I find the process question fascinating, because I have wanted to be an author since I was a smol child. I started writing my first attempt at a book when I was 14 or so. I finished my first draft of a book when I was 35. I finished a final draft of a book for the first time when I was 44.
In the three years since then, I have finished and published six more books, finished editing a seventh, and finished drafting an eighth.
I want to emphasize one thing right here: if you always wanted to be a author but so far you've never been able to finish anything, THAT DOES NOT MEAN YOU NEVER WILL. Yes, eventually you will have to finish things in order to be an effective author. But you need not be discouraged or give up on yourself based on your past failures. You can still become that author who publishes three or four books in a year. I say this because I have, so I know it's happened at least once.
Still, when I hear people say, "I just can't get anything finished", my reaction is "MAN I TOTALLY REMEMBER FEELING THAT WAY. FOR AGES AND AGES." Like the span of time where I wanted to be an author and write books and yet did not work on anything long enough to finish it is WAY LONGER than the tiny fraction of my life where I go "Okay, I'm going to write this book" and then somehow I ACTUALLY DO. In a reasonable period of time.
For my own amusement, a timeline of various milestones in my writing life:
1985: I started my first serious attempt at writing a novel: Draco. I'd made at least one other start, but this was this first time I made it past the first few scenes.
1987: By now, I had written over 100,000 words on five different unrelated novel ideas. I had finished none of them.
1988: I actually finished two things this year! Neither of them were novels. One was a very short story ("The Bribe", <2000 words) and the other a novelette ("Heartseeker", 10,000 words)
1989-1999: During this period, I finished five more short stories, four of them contemporary fiction that I only wrote because a writing class required it. I started and abandoned several different would-be novels.
2000: Jordan Greywolf told me about Sinai, an RP MUCK where he ran games. I joined and started running games there -- and, relevantly, often seeing story arcs through to completion when I was involved in them.
2002: At this point, I had written about 200,000 words of fiction over the course of seventeen years of "I want to be a writer", and had about a dozen abandoned projects. I decided to go back to one of these ideas and finish them. I picked Prophecy, a book I'd started writing in 1991, and embarked upon The Master Plan(tm). I wrote an outline for Prophecy and set a writing schedule. I also sent the parts of Prophecy to Greywolf to read as I wrote them.
: I started writing Silver Scales
as my fun side project while working on Prophecy. I hated writing Prophecy
a lot. Most of the time that I was writing Silver Scales
, I enjoyed it. I never wrote an outline for it. Silver Scales
was the first of many works that serialized as a work-in-progress for a small group of friends. That "serialize every WIP for a small group of friends" habit persisted through 2014.
2005: I finished the first draft of Prophecy and the first pass of revisions on it.
2006: I finished the first draft of Silver Scales..
2009: I finished twelve short stories this year. I'd begun and abandoned another ten or so different novels since finishing Scales. Three of those abandoned efforts were more than 10,000 words long. I hadn't tried a detailed outline for anything since Prophecy. I decided to try outlining a project again.
2012: I finished another nine short stories. I started and abandoned in short order another couple of novel ideas.
: It'd been seven years since I last finished a novel. At this point, I had written almost a million words. I had finished two books (although not complete revisions for either). I had finished a whole lot of short stories. I decided to write a romance because playing through the Sith Warrior arc in Star Wars: the Old Republic a second time was too much work just to see the romance arc with Malavai Quinn. I finished writing the first draft of A Rational Arrangement
by the end of the year.
: I finished the second draft of A Rational Arrangement.
I also revisited one of my abandoned books, Golden Coils,
and resumed work on it. I did not do a private serial for Golden Coils. A Rational Arrangement
is one of the last works I serialized while I was writing.
2015: I finished the final draft of A Rational Arrangement and serialized and published it. I wrote/finished Further Arrangements, a collection of three follow-on novellas. I felt guilty about writing only ~50,000 words when two years before I'd written ~220,000. I decided that 2013 represented a high water mark of productivity that I would never achieve again.
: I finished drafting three books: The Moon Etherium
, The Sun Etherium
, and Golden Coils
. I also started a fourth book, Fellwater
. I wrote a total of 347,000 words. I also finished editing The Moon Etherium
: I wrote some more of Fellwater
and then abandoned it. I also started and abandoned PollRPG
, an experimental work-in-progress serial based on poll responses. I revisited one of my abandoned book ideas from 2009 and started over on it, resulting in the first drafts of Demon's Lure
and Angel's Sigil
. Total words: about 220,000.
2018 year-to-date: I finished edits on Demon's Lure and Angel's Sigil. I revisited an abandoned outline from 2015, and wrote and then did first-pass revisions of Frost. I've begun work on The Princess, Her Dragon, and Their Prince. Total writing as of 6/21: about 135,000 words.
I can draw a bunch of lessons for myself from this. These may or may not apply to anyone else: all advice is a reflection of the person giving it more than anything else.
Write Books I Want to Read. I spent 3+ years working on Prophecy because I thought it would be cool, not because I wanted to read a book like it. I thought "books like this don't exist" and didn't realize "no, they exist, but I don't read them because I don't like them." I even changed the ending on Prophecy in an effort to make it more to my taste. But I disliked writing this book in part because I didn't particularly want to read it. I like re-reading parts of it, but as a whole it wasn't something I looked forward to with eager anticipation. This is one of the key takeaways for me.
I Still Abandon Projects: I think of 2018-Me as a disciplined, motivated writer who keeps working on things even when she doesn't want to, and who finishes projects even when they're a slog. But I abandoned two projects just last year.
Abandoned Doesn't Mean Forever: My self-image is "once I start, if I don't see it through to the end via steady work, then I'm never going to finish it." But of my ten complete drafts, over half (Prophecy, Silver Scales, Golden Coils, Demon's Lure, Angel's Sigil, and Frost) were completed after three or more years of being ignored. Even if I wrote 350,000 words in every year, I'd still come up with new ideas faster than I can finish them. That I decide "now isn't the right time for this" doesn't mean I will never come back to it.
Finishing Things is the Best Way to Learn to Finish Things: Two things helped me a lot in Learning to Finish Things. The first was running RPGs alongside Greywolf. Greywolf was very keen on wrapping up story arcs and campaigns. I'd been roleplaying for over twenty years by the time I started gaming with Greywolf, but "finishing campaigns" wasn't a thing that ever really happened in my experience. GMs burned out, or players did, or the GM didn't know how to wrap up the story, or hadn't really had a story in mind to start with, just "stuff happens", or all of the above. Greywolf visualized games in terms of narrative arcs, and encouraged me to do the same. He also promoted the idea that "even a mediocre ending is better than leaving it in limbo". Players had a lot of influence on the outcome of an RPG, and a GM might not be able to arrange a dramatic finish to the plot. The GM could always arrange some conclusion, however. I sometimes whined and balked at finishing an arc, but he gently coaxed me through and offered lots of encouragement and assistance. I finished a handful of major and minor arcs with characters in Sinai, and brought three different long-term campaigns to a conclusion. After I managed to pull off endings when I literally couldn't control or predict what most of the major characters would do, writing endings where all of the characters were under my control felt a lot less intimidating. I learned so much from Greywolf, y'all. He was both an inspiration and one of the first people to encourage me and offer constructive, targeted advice on solving specific problems.
The second thing was writing a lot of short fiction. Writing the tarot stories was particularly useful in this regard, because I discovered I could take three random cards and build a little narrative around them. In addition, since these were short, they took much less time and dedication to finish. So they were quick and satisfying and gave me confidence.
Portable Writing Devices Are Magic: I got my first phone with a keyboard in 2007 and even though it didn't improve my ability to actually finish things back then, it improved my word count immediately: I won my first Nano in 2007 and wrote half of it on my phone. In 2016, I got a laptop and that vastly improved my editing speed. The ability to write and edit while not sitting at my desktop with all of my desktop distractions is way more useful than I realized before I had devices that let me do it.
I Don't Revise Until I Reach the End: When I first started writing, I would re-read and fiddle with existing text constantly. I still re-read to a degree, but I've cut back on it. I feel like re-reading before I've finished writing is an indulgence that lowers my willingness to edit once I am done. Further, any edits I make before I finish the initial draft are unlikely to be substantive, and if they are substantive they might just be things I change my mind about AGAIN before the end.
"Don't revise until you're done writing" is a common piece of writing advice that I have followed without much thinking about it for the last 15 years or so, however. I'm not entirely sure it's a good idea, given how much I dislike editing. On the other hand, I don't dislike editing now as much as I did even two years ago, so writing and editing are much closer to at a balance point with one another.
Outlines Work for Me: I waffled on this one for a long time, because I wrote Prophecy with an outline and wrote Scales without one. I thought my success with Scales meant that I could figure things out on the fly and I didn't need an outline. This is arguably true, but an outline makes things easier.
I prefer to Write Events in Order: Even though I outline my books now, I don't adhere to my outlines that closely. The benefits of writing out of order are mostly that I can work on the scenes I'm motivated to write at the moment. For me, these are outweighed by the drawbacks: mostly that I will need to do more revisons/rewrites because once I get the earlier scenes done, I will find ways in which the later ones don't fit after all. But also that I will find it more tempting to contort earlier scenes to fit the narrative I already made for the later ones. Eg, I might realized in writing scene 5 that the setup for the already-written scenes 7-10 doesn't make sense for my characters after all. If I force the characters to follow my original script, the whole book can come across with that "characters being dumb or acting out of character for narrative purposes". The Demon/Angel books went way off script because of this: the things that seemed reasonable in the overview stopped making sense when I was in the details. But since I was writing in order, I could just adjust the script.
Serializing Works-in-Progress Is a Localized Peak of Excellence: A "localized peak of excellence" is from a mountain-climbing analogy. If you climb to the highest point of the mountain that you are on, you will find that to climb a higher mountain, you have to first climb down. Hence, a "localized peak": you are not as high as you can possibly go, but you can't keep climbing up from where you are.
When I first started sharing my works-in-progress in 2002, I found it a huge boost in my morale. I loved having instant feedback and friends cheering me on. I was motivated to write more because I had an audience waiting to read the next scene and speculating about the direction of the story. Comments were my incentive to write.
But there were drawbacks, too:
~ I was using my most enthusiastic readers as cheerleaders. That meant they weren't offering critical feedback on my work, and were less likely to want to re-read the story in order to offer advice for revisions or corrections.
~ Once I posted a scene, I often stopped writing until I heard back from a few readers.
~ I became a lot more reliant on feedback; if I didn't get a few comments on the latest post, I'd become dispirited.
~ It made me feel like a flake who couldn't finish things. This one is more complicated, because I did finish several things that I serialized. But I wrote in spurts, and I posted things as I wrote them. The experience of my readers was "she was posting every day for three weeks but she hasn't posted anything in the last month." Every time I stopped writing for a week or more, I felt as if that slowdown was magnified by the existence of an audience to watch it. I abandoned a book at 80% finished in 2017, and that doesn't bother me at all. Every serial I left unfinished feels like a failure. Taking three years to finish drafting Scales felt like forever. Taking 8 years to finish drafting Demon's Lure and Angel's Sigil felt irrelevant, because no one else saw that abortive initial start in 2009.
~ I was more likely to incorporate authorial mistakes into the narrative. Sometimes I did go back and revise scenes when I forgot to put something in, but I also lampshaded continuity mistakes or added explanations in to cover for them. This isn't always bad, but it's something I could so without an audience if I thought it would benefit the story, and something I am more likely to do when it doesn't, if I have an audience.
~ It encouraged me to write longer: I wanted to have "something to show", so I'd write something, even if it didn't further the narrative. If readers asked questions about something, I'd write about that, even if it wasn't important to the story. This is another "sometimes it works out for the better" case, but still.
~ Negative feedback when I was in the middle of writing a book was a major deterrent to writing more. I can use constructive feedback on outlines and on finished drafts, but criticism in the middle of the draft is generally counterproductive for me. I have too many voices in my head telling me "this is terrible and not worth finishing" to afford to give them any encouragement.
Ultimately, I decided I didn't need the cheerleading badly enough anymore, and I gave up serializing works-in-progress. I gave it another try with PollRPG, and ran into the same problems all over again.
Amazon Is Better at Selling My Books Than I Am At Giving Them Away: when I ran serials, my peak for commenters was, I dunno, ten or maybe twenty different people over the entire course of the serial. The reader numbers per LJ stats and the website were considerably higher, but it still peaked at maybe a few hundred unique visitors per post, IIRC. The Moon Etherium was much less successful, with no more than a couple dozen readers. Whereas all of my books have sold over a hundred copies through Amazon, and A Rational Arrangement has sold over a thousand. I feel like I'm doing a much better job of reaching my audience by selling books than I was by running free serials of them.
I Work Better with a Lot of Scheduling Flexibility: Writing 200,000+ words on a few different books per year is a thing I can do without too much effort. Writing 500 words every day of a specific project turns out to be so much harder. PollRPG really emphasized this for me, because I couldn't write a buffer for it (since the polls influenced what happened next.) I would much rather have the latitude to write 3000 words one day and none the next, or to write on unrelated projects, or edit instead of writing, or whatever.
Goals Are Useful: In particular, slightly-underachieving goals. I want goals that require some effort to beat, but not enough effort to be daunting. I love blasting past my goalposts, whereas not reaching them at all is dispiriting.
I Never Do the Right Kind of World-Building Beforehand: These days, I try to do somewhat more world-building before I start writing. This consists of things like "general history of the setting, relevant nations, relevant languages spoken, type of government, kinds of technology/magic available". I make character notes beforehand and set out some guidelines on how the major ones speak.
I am afraid of world-builder's disease so I rarely make more than 10,000 words of notes, including the outline.
I inevitably get to the end and realize that I have basic continuity problems stemming from "I didn't know X when I started out so I made it up when I came to it only that would have affected twelve other things but I didn't think of them at the time and now it's all a mess and I need to fix it."
One of the problems is that some times I did determine X beforehand, but in the process of writing I changed my mind about it.
Anyway, world-building for me kind of comes down to:
~ make up what seems like enough of the world
~ write the first book
~ do all the other world-building it turns out you needed after all
~ edit the first book
~ be glad at least that's all settled for the next book
~ write the second book
~ crap this is in a new part of the setting I don't know enough about
I Like to Have Multiple Works in Progress. I am not a "start Book A, write until finished, revise, wait for first reader feedback, complete final draft of Book A, and ONLY THEN may I begin Book B" kind of author. Yes, I do struggle with the compulsion to Write Shiny New Thing Instead of Boring Old Thing. But it really stopped feeling like a problem in the last two years. Now I'm more like "well, it'll be good to have a head start on the next thing and also I will still go back to Boring Old Thing and finish it." I don't know how to explain the difference except that it seems to pan out? I don't expect to finish every abandoned project I've ever started; Fellwater, to use a recent example, may never be finished even though I have the rest of it planned out. (A big disadvantage many of my abandoned works have is that I have no clear idea of where I was going with them, because they were begun before I started consistently making complete outlines first.)
Also, I do less "I'm not going to write anything for weeks/months and then when I decide to go back to writing it will be Shiny New Thing" than I used to. I switch tracks quickly now.
Last, I think it's useful to give my first readers a month or more to finish reading and for me to be less immersed in the book before I do my final revisions. Working on a different project lets me make use of that mandatory stop-futzing-with-this-book period.
Congratulations to those of you who made it to the end! \o/ Tell me, what are your favorite parts of the writing process? What parts of mine would you avoid, and why?