Tag Archives: creative process

When it comes to writing, how much planning is too much?

I might be one of the few writers who look forward to editing a rough draft.

I won’t deny there’s something invigorating about the first trip through a story.  Even with the requisite chapter outline, a certain amount of magic occurs during the first draft.  Characters climb up off the page and take on lives of their own.  The story wends in a slightly different way, sometimes concluding in unexpectedly manner.  Subplots and themes emerge.

Pure, uncensored creativity pours forth.

But it seems few people have the same enthusiasm for a second (or third or fourth) draft of a novel.  It’s not hard to see why.  If the first draft allows the writer to indulge in a carefree orgy of imagination, a Wild West of whimsy, and a devil-may-care series of experiments, then the editing process demands the writer to abstain, rein it in, and exorcise a host of demons.

At the start, the writer writes the story he wants to tell, plain and simple.  His prime concern is getting ideas onto the page.  It doesn’t have to be great or even particularly good; it just has to be done.  A beginning, middle, and an end are helpful, but, really, if some loose ends aren’t tied up, so what?  The editor will sort it out, after all.

Which is why many writers cringe at the thought of going back through their work to evaluate what works: The party is over, and there’s a heck of a lot of cleaning up to do.  In addition to fixing broken furniture, the editor nurtures underdeveloped elements and axes the stuff that just gets in the way.

It’s a big responsibility…some might say, a burden.

Tempting though it may be to describe writing as creative and editing as analytical, I believe the same spirit of ingenuity and inventiveness should permeate the editing process. And the same intoxicatingly high level of energy.

For someone (like me) who basks in the brainstorming process, geeks out on organization, and approaches problem solving scientifically, editing can present a pitfall of a different sort.  Whereas some writers struggle with a rewrite because “there’s nothing like the first time,” I procrastinate before diving into the second draft for an entirely different reason:

I absolutely love to write about my writing.

Consider how many words I typed while in the planning phase for the first book in The Soul Sleep Cycle: 30,864.  That included four character profiles, a partial outline, and a generic “notes” document that contained everything from explorations of character motivation to pushing through dead ends in the plot to researching the science behind the sci-fi.  The investment of 30,864 “planning” words resulted in a 73,256-word first draft.

Upon finishing and then reviewing the first draft and soliciting beta readers for feedback, I wrote 15,624 more words while debating how I would solve eleven overarching categories of problems and a total of 103 individual issues in the MS.  The final draft of If Souls Can Sleep ended up at 91,557 words.

So to get to a 91,557-word novel, I wrote 46,488 words in supplemental works—more than 50% of the final work.  (And that’s not including first draft.)

I have no idea whether or not that is normal.  Or practical.  Or if there is a “best practice” when it comes to planning and repairing a novel.

Here’s where I start to worry: Having recently read through the first draft of the sequel to If Souls Can Sleep with my most avid fan/harshest critic/wife, I came up with thirty-seven categories of big-picture problems and a total 233 individual issues that range from “should so-and-so get more screen time?” to “so-and-so doesn’t make a credible red herring…fix that.”

Simple algebra suggests that if it took me 15,624 words to solve 103 issues, it’ll take about 35,344 words to solve 233 of them.

Again, whereas some writers might balk at the task, I’m all too eager to open my sequel notes file and begin solving each and every one of them.  My problem is that the rewrite of book two will face an indeterminable a delay while I’m wearing my editor’s hat.

It begs the question “How much planning is too much?”

The easy answer is an author’s gotta do what an author’s gotta do to whip a MS into a publish-worthy state.  If a writer can do all of the planning in his head, so be it!  But for those (like me) who hope to avoid a third draft by getting his ducks in a row before beginning the second draft, a lot of time and effort will be required.

A rule of thumb states that a writer needs to know far more about his characters and plot than the reader ever will so that he can write with confidence.  After all, a reader will notice the hole resulting from when the writer doesn’t know.  The paradox is that it’s equally problematic if a writer puts everything he knows into the story.

How much planning is too much?  I imagine it depends on each author and each book.  Rules of thumb aside, there are no definitive laws when it comes to the craft of fiction writing.  No perfect formulas for planning and editing.

Which brings us back to “an author’s gotta do what an author’s gotta do.”

So even though my many extraneous words will never be seen by anyone but me, I have to believe they serve an important purpose.  My novel will be better because of my background knowledge.  In my experiences, shortcuts lead to dead ends.

And if I have to delay the second draft in order to spend another month writing about my writing, well, that’s a punishment I’m all too willing to accept.

So how about it—am I a literary freak of nature?  I’d be grateful for any other writers’  insights below!

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Choosing the perfect name for your baby (or villain)

Sorry, Team Edward.  Looks like Jacob wins this round. 

The Social Security Administration recently released the top baby names for 2011, and Jacob took first place for most popular boy’s name for the thirteen year in a row.  As for girl’s names, Sophia stole the top spot from two-year champion Isabella (not to be confused with Bella). 

I know this because I can’t not click on an article about baby names.

Before you chalk my compulsion up to an overzealous paternal instinct, let it be known that my preoccupation with appellations took root long before I had any notions of becoming a father.  In fact, I probably spent as much (if not more) time paging through baby name books back when I was in high school than when my wife and I were expecting either of our children.

Undoubtedly, my interest in names was born from a need for names.  I was creating an entire world, after all, and when detailing a timeline that spans many, many centuries while at the same time juggling dozens of storylines taking place in the present, a guy requires character names.

550 of them, to be exact.

While drafting character profiles wherein family members’ names are noted; history files that list the lineage of monarchs, heroes of yore and other movers and shakers of yesteryear; and short pieces of fiction that need a chambermaid here and a barkeep there, it can be bothersome to step away from the work in progress to search for an appropriate moniker.

So I created the Namepool, which in its current incarnation contains 308 names.  Need a name for that knight who probably won’t survive the first big battle scene?  Sir Erasmus Fenwick is at your service.  A black-hearted wizardess to throw some spells at your protagonist?  Lilah Davelle will make him wish he hadn’t wandered down that dark alley.

Even after I transitioned from sword-and-sorcery fantasy to speculative fiction set in modern-day Earth, I found it useful to maintain my Namepool.  After eliminating the more archaic/medieval-sounding names, I ended up with a streamlined list of ninety names.

The funny thing is some of the names already cast the faint shadow of a character waiting to come into being, such as Sunny (short for Persephone), who may or may not get infused with nanotech-based AI sent from the future, and Mr. Nightingale, who decidedly does not have good bedside manner.

A character’s name can serve as an element of characterization in of itself.  Go ahead and add some ethnic flavor.  Give an old-fashioned character a name from a long-gone era.  Or, better yet, reverse expectations by giving him/her a very contemporary name that defies his/her personality.  Sneak in a literary reference.  Foreshadow his/her fate by selecting a name with a meaningful origin.

(Nota bene: The Social Security Administration’s website is great for researching which names were popular in a given year, if you’re a stickler for realism.)

Of course, my obsession with names manifested when it came time to name my daughter and son.  While planning for “Number Two,” my wife and I came up with our own list of favorites independently (my list had forty boy’s names and twenty-four girl’s names).  We cross-referenced our lists to see if there were any overlaps and then ranked the combined list, winnowing it down to a shared top ten. 

Then the negotiations and campaigning began—which was probably for the best, judging by how “creative” some of my character names end up being.  Consider the following doozies from my Renegade Chronicles days:

  • Solophat Emorgus
  • Alabalyn Thoranon
  • Zorroaster Legireac
  • Drivbethelle Bleu
  • Fortunatus Miloásterôn
  • Saerylton Crystalus

When I look back at some of the “candidates” I thought of for my own kids, I can’t help but cringe.  (Orion?  Really?)  But that’s the beauty of inventing new people for the page versus the real world: You can bless or curse a character without feeling too guilty about it.  And if Ebenezer Skelton doesn’t like it, well, I blame his fictional parents.

Names are powerful.  They can elicit emotions, often unintentionally.  Don’t believe me?  Try reading through the birth announcements in the newspaper without drawing any conclusions about ethnicity, socio-economical situation, and likely future profession.  Then realize that, if you’re an author, your readers are going to do the same thing with the handful of syllables you toss onto the page.

Of course, you’re pretty safe with naming your werewolf Jacob.  Those traditional boy’s names never go out of style.  And worry not, fans of Twilight’s melodramatic vampire: At least Edward clocked in at number 148.

And I’m pretty sure that little girl named Cullen at my niece’s soccer game wasn’t just a coincidence.

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Friends and family of writers, beware

A fiction writer’s rap sheet can get quite extensive.

Perhaps pride is our biggest flaw.  The stories in our heads, well, not only do we think they are worth our time to tell, but also we think they are worth your time to read.  Not only that, but you really ought to pay for them, too.  Oh, and let me sign that first edition hardcover for you.  You’re welcome.

Of course, no one can force you to read a book…excepting literature professors.

Unfortunately, we’re also chronic kleptomaniacs.  Joseph Epstein said, “Every writer is a thief, though some of us are more clever than others at disguising our robberies.”  He was referring to minor counts of plagiarism—an apt description, a novel turn of phrase, a treatment of syntax that (with a minor tweak) we could pass off as our own brilliant invention.  We read like crazy so that our writing becomes better through osmosis and untraceable tricks.

That kind of stealing is mostly harmless, I suppose.  Certainly, it doesn’t really affect you non-writers out there.  So what if after reading Tolkien, I suddenly start composing quasi-archaic run-on sentences?  Or if, post-Palahniuk, my penchant for short and incomplete sentences explodes?  No harm, no foul to the general populace.

However, the thievery doesn’t end there.

As much as we weavers of fiction would like to believe that our brains are the birthplace of magnificent, magical, and altogether unique ideas, that’s simply not true.  A wiser man than I once said, “There is nothing new under the sun.”  It’s worse than that, though:  The human mind is incapable of unadulterated innovation.  We can’t create, only assimilate; can’t conceive, only reconstruct, rearrange, and revise reality as it already exists around us.

That’s where all of you unsuspecting sources of inspiration come in.  We’re always watching, you know.  We need material.  Anyone can throw together a character.  Flip a coin, roll the dice, or just jot down the first thing that comes to mind, and you’ll end up with a fake person with his or her own hair and eye color, a height, a weight, an occupation.  But in order to assemble a multi-faceted human being, you need much more than a random combination of traits.  We writers crave details.

And surely you won’t mind if we steal a few from you, our closest friends, our family members, hapless passersby…

There was a student in my women’s lit class whose name I never learned.  I had no occasion to ever speak to her, but I haven’t forgotten her eyebrows.  By my best approximation, each one of her perfectly symmetrical eyebrows formed its own 60-degree angle.  I haven’t yet given one of my characters 60-degree eyebrows, but someday I just might.

What’s-her-name will never know if I steal one of her body parts for my fiction.  But other crimes are harder to hide.  Names, for instance.  If I use your name, please don’t read too much into it.  Just because you share a first or last name with a character doesn’t mean he or she is based in any way on you.  (Maybe I just like the sound of the syllables.  Or maybe your name means something you never even realized.)

The same goes for physical characteristics.  That may be your nose, your tattoo, your scar, or, yes, your eyebrows on the page, but it’s somebody else’s accent, hobby, and hometown to complete the composite.

Honestly, I can’t say whether you should be honored or horrified.  What I can say is that I’m grateful for the insight about your career, the catchphrase you didn’t know you had, the mannerism that transforms my one-dimensional extra into a rich, memorable supporting character (though there is danger in that…).

Don’t worry.  We would never exploit your flaws.  Your secrets—bad or banal—are safe with us.  In fact, we take great pains to camouflage our crimes.  We want the world to think we came up with it all ourselves, remember?  Anyway, there is honor among thieves.  We won’t tell anyone that the ugly couch in chapter three belongs to you or that your foibles have given a certain antagonist his softer side.

We’ll never tell…if you won’t.

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