I emailed him back and gave him the best answer I could: I write.
What a completely crap answer, and somewhat of a dodge. That’s the answer every writer always gives…and it’s really not very helpful. Of course, write…duh…but sometimes the actual writing is daunting. You’re excited when you type that first word, but then you think of the 79,999 words you still have left to right and you think, how can I possibly write all those words?
Until recently, a lot of my time spent as a writer was looking at a blank screen thinking I’m never going to write anything as beautiful as Peter F. Hamilton or as fun as Ernie Lindsay.
One of the biggest issues I had with my writing is that I lacked detail and my characters and scenes were very black and white. Example: Jack jumped over the candle stick. You understand what is going on, but that doesn’t make for a very interesting scene. I would write a scene like this and think, everything about this sucks and no one is going to like it…trash!
What I didn’t understand then, was that these first words are just my first draft and it’s allowed to be shitty. The second draft is where you flesh out the story, and so is the third, then you start cleaning it up in the fourth and fifth drafts.
I was reading a post by science fiction writer Jamie Todd Rubin the other day and read something that made everything I’ve ever read about writing make sense. I’ll paraphrase: “The 1st draft is for you (the writer); the second draft is for the reader.”
I’ve read many books on writing since deciding to take my writing seriously, and all of these books have good material on structure, plotting, character development and so on…but not a whole lot give advice on the actual writing part.
The all say the same thing: just write.
So after I gave the exact same answer, I decided to sit down and actually think about what I am doing to write my stories.
It came to me, as most of my great ideas do, in the shower. But I’ll skim over those details…
It appears that he is writing a bunch of fragments, clumping them all together and then going back to flesh them out later. If you’ve ever read any of his books then you know when I say, “flesh out” I mean he fleshes them out. His writing is always extremely descriptive, to the point of being beautiful. He has a real talent for painting memorable vistas and vivid landscapes with his words. I just assumed that all that description and detail flowed out of him in some endless stream of words, never once did I imagine his work being crappy and bland.
This is where the light bulb came on.
Yes the first draft is trash, it sucks and no one should ever read it…ever. It also doesn’t have to be “complete.” Get the basics of the story down: who, what, where, when, why and how, then go back and fill in the details.
The details are what always killed my writing. I could see the scene in my head, but after I’d get it down on paper, it wouldn’t look correct. I would work endlessly on that scene for days and never get it right, become frustrated and shit-can the entire project instead pushing through and going back later to fix it.
So…back to the shower (and not like that either…sickos)
There I was, pondering the method and it came to me: My style of writing was like that of a painter creating a piece of art. He doesn’t start with the color, he starts with a sketch and then progresses through several stages, until eventually, at the end he paints a masterpiece. I decided to apply this idea to my writing:
First stage: “The Idea” For me this is where I sit down, brainstorm, and jot everything down. I use Scapple for this and during this stage I am outlining, plotting, and creating my characters.
Second Stage: “Penciling” Turning those ideas into words (really crappy words) but by the end you know where the story is going end and how the characters are going to get there. (You are just telling yourself the story)
Third stage: “Shading” This is where you add detail to your scenes, expand on the dialogue between the characters, you are creating scenes that when your audience reads them they will see what you see. (This is telling the story to your readers)
Fourth stage: “Color” This stage is adding the touches that will make your work shine: more detail (but not too much!), putting everything together so that instead of several different beautifully written scenes, now you have a beautifully written story.
Fifth stage: “Clean up” This stage actually happens simultaneously with the Third and Fourth stages. This is where the “Red Pen o’ Death” appears and ravages your manuscript. You’ll be hitting the delete key a lot, trying to figure out how you could possibly write such crap, but that’s okay, everyone does this. By the time you get to the Fourth stage, you should be fairly proud of your work.
Bam! That’s ten minutes of your life you’re never going to get back! You’re welcome. And now that you’re done reading my ramblings, go and find out what works for you. There is no one “absolute” method to write a book. You might like some parts of mine and parts of someone else’s, take the parts you like, smash them together and make them work for you.
Once you figure out what works for you there is only one thing left for you to do: WRITE.