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Writing habits

by Abby Goldsmith

Between life and work, I manage an average of 3 to 12 hours of writing per week.  This used to be more during my college and unemployment days.  I constantly hunger for more free time.  I listen to music, usually film scores or techno (ambient music without lyrics) that fits the mood of the scene I'm working on.  During this time, I'm completely immersed in an alternate universe and get startled easily.

Why don't you put more of your work online?

99.9% of my fiction writing is offline.  Most publishers consider ANY public sharing of your writing as being "previously published", even if it's on your own website.  That messes up a writer's first publication rights in ways I don't quite understand, but would rather not deal with. 

The process of creating a novel

Some writers prefer to develop the story while writing it (Stephen King is a notable example of this type).  Other writers prefer to develop the story in meticulous detail before writing a word (John Irving, for instance).  I admire writers in the former camp, but I'm no good at planning on the fly.  I need to spend a huge about of time in preproduction.  I'll watch an entire novel series play in my head before I jot down a single note.  I believe I spend more time fantasizing stories than writing them down.

Great, original concepts don't come easily to me.  I doubt they come easily to anyone.  Unfortunately, those are the only types of concepts that I can get excited about.  Where do these concepts come from?  I read Wikipedia, I listen to people, I remember things of interest.  Eventually some of those things congeal into a seed of a story.  It takes time.  My best ideas come by stealth, when I least expect them.  Of course, I don't have time to write them all, so I keep a text file for future reminders.

Concept is not enough.  Once I have a cool concept, I'll spend months brainstorming, just obsessing over the story whenever I have a spare moment.  I automatically go into story mode when showering or driving.  I liken this process to sculpture.  The original concept is a lump of clay, which I refine in my mind until a story takes shape.  The first draft of my manuscript is from the gut.  I write it quickly and enjoy it immensely.  I've heard that some writers hate the first draft and prefer revising; I suspect these writers don't play the entire story in their heads before writing it down.

Revising and editing

When I have a finished first draft, I let it sit for a few months.  This lets the idea cool, so I can look at it with somewhat fresh eyes.

Then I make sure the story works as a whole, with no inconsistencies.  I visualize it.  I read scenes out loud, especially dialogue.  This is a good way to pick up on awkward phrasing and to improve pacing.

I'll reread the story several times, picking out every typo and grammar error I can find.  I want to give my first readers the impression that I care, that I'm professional.  Then I'll fork it over to a critique group.  Outside feedback is important, because writers get too close to their work to see some problems.

Finally, when the story is finished, I annoy everyone around me by stressing about finding a publisher.  And I move on to the next story.

Character building

In fiction, I prefer characters that have a lot of depth and personality.  This is something I'm still learning to do, but I'll share what I've learned thus far.

One way to make an ordinary character interesting is to go the Stephen King route and exaggerate situations where the character's defining conflict or personality trait must emerge.  In one of the opening scenes of The Tommyknockers, Gard gets drunk and offends all the elite society he was hoping to impress, then goes on a bender and nearly kills himself.  This scene serves no plot purpose, but it does show what type of man Gard is, and it sets him up as both pathetic and likeable.  We've all made fools of ourselves at some point in our lives.  Most people identify with feeling ashamed, even with that moment of suicidal self-loathing.  So when the actual plot begins and weird shit starts to happen, the reader is comfy inside Gard's POV, as if he's an old friend.  King gets the reader and the POV character to become intimate.

Many mainstream writers introduce the characters as the conflict begins, as they face the first attack of their enemy.  Michael Crichton, Dan Brown, and Dean Koontz work this way.  This is a more expedient method, but I think these types of characters have the disadvantage of not feeling quite real.  There's something generic and forgettable about them.  To use an artist's metaphor: It's the difference between a rough sketch and a rendered illustration.  A rough sketch can be quick and to the point, but most people are drawn to colors and intimate detail.

When I wrote the beginning of my Yeresunsa saga, I had to make a choice between these two methods of introducing characters.  I chose to delay the inciting incident of my plot in order to fully render my main characters.  I felt that this was important due to the weird, unusual nature of my characters.  They're hard to summarize.  I wanted to take the reader out of reality, step by gradual step, rather than cramming in a potentially confusing scene right off the bat.  I felt it was important to show my characters in their strange lives before the plot twists them into even stranger situations.  Some people say I made the wrong choice.  The standing rule among editors is to start with plot and reveal the characters while in action.  Now I'm doing a rewrite, trying to make a compromise between fully introducing these characters and starting the plot immediately.

More things I've learned about writing