How I Write
People are always curious about the writer’s process. It can be terrifying for some because many will use how we choose to write as evidence that we don’t deserve to write. It is also common to just not know. For people like me, however, who know everything, and more importantly, think about ourselves all the time, it’s not all that hard to parse it out.
First it starts with an inane idea:
A boy is secretly in love with a girl. When they find themselves in pitch black darkness, he kisses her, knowing she would reject him if she knew who he was.
It could be an event, like above. It could be a line of dialogue. At lot of times it’ll be me taking my fantasies way too seriously, asking, “Okay, so I fight off all the ninjas who attacked my office, but how the hell was I able to do that? I don’t know how to fight ninjas. I just got winded from standing too long in high heels. Well, I could have been possessed by a ghost who was a warrior in his life and he can fight in heels just fine.”
The ideas generate from two places: One, personal daydreams, or two, what ifs. Technical, curious questions. Would it be easier to jump off a moving motorcycle or out of a moving car? Could Pride and Prejudice be romantic if the characters’ genders were reversed?
This leads to the next most common question an author will get. So, if the fantasies can start from a personal daydream, are the characters me?
There a scene in When Harry Met Sally in which she is talking about her sexual fantasy. She describes a man coming up to her and ripping all her clothes off. Harry asks what he looks like, and Sally says, “He’s just kind of faceless.”
Yep. That’s pretty accurate. See daydreams and fantasies, perverse or not, are vague, undetailed, and ungrounded. The characters aren’t real to me, the situation not well defined, and the moment I decide I might want to write about something, the scene actually shifts in my mind’s-eye to third person. The image is different. It stops being a fantasy and starts being a story. Adding in details ruins the ethereal effect. And I know myself pretty well, so often I can’t motivate myself to do the required actions. A guy grabs me and kisses me in the dark? I’ll probably be incredibly awkward about it. Because I’m incredibly awkward. Or I might be pissed, because, honestly, I don’t like being touched. Also, why am I there? How do I know him? Why the hell would he like me of all people? The answers to these questions would change continuity with my own life. I’d have to change reality, and, for whatever reason, that doesn’t work for me. When I decide it’s going to be a story, the rules immediately have altered. The world inherently becomes more developed, and everything changes. I insert my stock characters, which are generic, faceless, white people, thin, scrawny, with brown hair. The men are beardless, the women have long ponytails. I have no idea what they’re wearing. These details can change immediately by any little decision I make, and the following process can happen so quickly, that I’ll never officially picture them as these “typical” people.
In the case of the “dark kiss” (also my working title—I have so many projects on my computer that I always need a working title, long before I have any idea of what I’m actually going to call it. I generally name it the first thing that comes into my head, so when I look at the document on my desktop, I’ll immediately remember what it is) the character who-will-later-be-known-as-Faldor is white man, tall, with black hair down to his shoulders. The character later-known-as-Jocelyn is still generic brown haired girl, but I picture her as shorter than average.
Setting and Images
After I have this idea of what is going to happen, there are some obvious questions that come along with it.
Where are they?
Why are they there?
Why would she not think it was him?
Why would she let someone kiss her?
Why would he kiss her? What does he hope to gain, what does he think would happen?
Usually, I vaguely define the location in my mind. I see a giant tunnel, an underground cavern. Maybe an underground tomb like they have in Europe.
A basis of the fantasy is that he can see her perfectly in the dark and she can’t. She is dependent on him because of her blindness, making her grab onto him to lead the way. She’s vulnerable, which is, for whatever reason, always sexy to me. And this encourages him, which gives him more motivation to think that it might actually be okay to kiss her. She’s hanging on him after all. So another question is why can he see in the dark?
Originally, I was planning on a non-descript demon. Demons are the race that I use whenever there are non-specific powers for a supernatural human. But I’d already done that in a previous novel, and I was looking to be more interesting. So what races can see in the dark? Well, luckily, I was looking through my Dungeons and Dragons models and realizing just how many drow figurines I had. And then I thought, Oh, duh.
Poof. Faldor is now black.
Controversial Decision Making
Drow are, for those of you who don’t speak geek, dark elves. They generally have dark skin, white hair, and red eyes. They live, according to the Wizards of the Coast (the company that produced Dungeons and Dragons and its based-literature, who have also copyrighted the term “Drow”), in what is called the Underdark, living beneath the surface in a violent and matriarchal society.
This decision made me happy for several reasons. I’ll painfully start with the obvious; I’d be a liar if I denied wanting to look like I’m not racist. I won’t pretend that I immaculately open-minded or colorblind, but I will say that I think of myself as a high-minded individual, and I want others to think that of me. Because of course I do. That being said, I legitimately want there to be more diversity in books, and having a non-white love interest should be way more common. Having a non-white anything should be way more common. Also, by this one decision, Faldor got about ten times sexier to me. Not because black men are inherently more sexy than white men, but because he started to be real. Generic looking characters inspire generic personalities. So he has black hair. That’s all I know. He is—having not taken any actions yet—interchangeable with all the other black haired white guys I’ve written about. Which is the other thing. After around five books, I really got sick of just writing pretty white characters. You get to change hair colors. Woo. Can’t even really go into facial features all that much because beautiful is kind of limited. The obvious solution was to stop limiting myself.
Still, I need to have inspiration to change their skin color, which is upsetting. I hope one day my impulse will lead me to a more open-minded decision, but I think in order to get there, writers today need to establish a more congruent normalcy in having diversity. Then, honestly, I think the next generation will naturally be inclined to do it.
Not only did I have a much better defined image of who Faldor was (still unnamed at this point), but because of the actual drow culture, I knew a few things about him and the world. I knew that I wasn’t going to follow the typical rules of the dark elves. For one thing, I couldn’t actually use the word drow, and probably not the word Underdark without their permission. Secondly, I didn’t want to be writing a Dungeons and Dragons book and be limited by the world. For one thing would require a lot of research through a bunch of books that can contradict each other, being written by thousands of different writers. The rules in Dungeons and Dragons handbooks are deliberately made for gameplay, and if I were to abide by their restrictions, it would be obvious that I was making a Dungeons and Dragons world. Which would mean that I would have to either get Forgotten Realms to publish the book, or be sneaky about what I was doing. For another thing the Forgotten Realms books are typically a boys’ club where I just don't see a romance selling very well.
I wanted to maintain the idea that they lived underground. Because it’s cool. I wasn’t so sure about the matriarchy thing. I’m currently reading the Drizzt book, Homeland—bought after my decision to change Faldor’s race—about a dark elf. While I am enjoying the world R.A. Salvatore created, I don’t like the thought of Faldor living there, I don’t like the idea of writing about it myself. Violence is fine, but unmotivated sadism is hard for me to do well, or be interested in talking about. I have a hard time deviating from lore; I’m a huge continuity whore, and I’m exactly the sort of person who screams at a movie, “His tie was red in the book!” So I don’t want to be too much like the lore, but I don’t really want to change it either.
Right now, I’m about 20,000 words in, and Faldor has obviously left that world behind. Why and what his experiences there were doesn’t entirely need to be discussed yet. I am exactly the sort of writer who will avoid answering a question until I have to, and then figure it out, which sometimes shows a lot in the actual writing. I like to know these things out as early as possible, but it’s more important to me to keep writing and then get discouraged by answering a question I don’t want to. Usually, in fact, they smooth themselves out over time, and it’s just up to editing to go back and make sure it’s consistent throughout the story.
All I know is that there is an Underdark-like place where Faldor came from. I also know a little about his past, because he clearly left his home behind, and whatever that reason is says something about him.
I know that he’s probably a good warrior, because dark elves are known for their fighting skills. Which I am keeping. Because it’s cool. Also because I have the propensity to make weak Everymen, which is something I’m trying to get away from, so I’ll say that Faldor is a damn good swordsman. And, hell, that elves in general are stronger than humans. That’s correct with some lore, and I see it as benefiting me in the future. He, however, is not a strong, dumb brute, because I hate that.
Faldor, in my mind’s eye, has become more developed. He’s taller, broader shouldered, his hair is longer. His eyes are more narrowed. Still have no idea what he’s wearing.
As for the girl, who I still know nothing about, I need to figure out why she would let Faldor kiss her, why she wouldn’t know who he was, and why Faldor believed she hated him.
There has to be more people in the tunnels. She doesn’t know who she’s grabbing on to. Whatever they’re doing, they brought a large group down there.
This book I wrote some of the scenes out of order. I love writing out of order, but I have a hell of a time of it. I struggle with knowing what the audience has already figured out, and I’ll be revealing information that seems, to me, will probably be revealed a lot earlier. For this book, because I was in the middle of another novel when I got the idea, I wrote what I was inspired to, what images I had in my head, so that I would remember them when I finally got back to actually work on it.
The first scene I wrote was the actual kissing scene. The process of actually making the story concrete is where I best figure out what I don’t know and what’s going to work or not.
So the scene begins with a lot of people searching for something in a dark tunnel. (What are they searching for?) This, however, makes it even less likely Jocelyn would kiss Faldor back though. If he could anyone of those men, the less romantic it would be for her and the more likely it was that someone was just trying to cop a feel.
She would obviously speculate on who it was, so the clear answer is that there is someone in the group she would want it to be. The wishful thinking would lend to her risk taking and kissing the stranger back.
At this point, Golden’s name was Will, and he was just some standard hero figure. He had blonde hair, because a Will I know in real life has blonde hair, even though I’m pretty sure the name popped into my head because I was reading Clockwork Angel; it is definitely not the Will I know. That’s all I know about him at this point.
I hate naming characters. Labels are extremely influential, and I can’t settle until I get them right. I usually end up trying not to name side-characters (mistake), and only giving names when they actually need to be said. I tend to just jam in a name to sit there until I want to take the time and find a better one. Usually, I’ll be testing them out, because maybe I’ll grow to love them.
My favorite site is BabyNames.com. I’ll just keep looking until I find one that doesn’t sound made up, but isn’t all that common either. I believe I found Jocelyn there. Will was a name I pulled out of my ass. Faldor, I think I made up.
Jocelyn I’m still not sure if I’m going to stick with. It sounds like a pretty, graceful name, which isn’t how I identify Jocelyn of my story. Also, I’m not sure it fits with her heritage. Clearly the story is an alternative universe, and so the evolution of a name within a culture is different than it would be in ours, but I still am thinking about changing it. As of yet, I’ve just had a few characters comment on how the name doesn’t really fit her.
I also realized immediately that Will’s name needed to be changed for several reasons. One, it wasn’t inspiring any sort of personality. Two, Jocelyn and Will are the names of the protagonist and the love interest in A Knight’s Tale (unintentional… I think). Jocelyn, I believe, is also the name of the mother character in City of Bones, written by the same author as Clockwork Angel (though I did not know this at the time.) I know you’re thinking this doesn’t matter, but it’s one of those things that if a reader catches wind of it, he may very well jump to all sorts of conclusions. (I read a lot of bad reviews at GoodReads, and this happens a lot.)
I don’t like actual, real life names all that much, but after coming up with Faldor, I realized that I could really play with the naming process and all the different races. Faldor is given a typical elf name. Jocelyn and Will, who were both human at the time, are given a typical human name. Golden was the name I came to when I realized that Will wasn’t human anymore…
“ The dark elf watched her flail her hands out in the dark, frozen to not strike something. Feet planted, shoulders rigid, she groped the air. Faldor moved silently across the room as Will headed forward. Though he could not see in the pitch black, he marched ahead with confidence. The other two men stumbled about noiselessly as Will disappeared into the dark. Faldor, instead, waited behind with Jocelyn.
She moved forward to where Will had been, feeling for him. The girl turned before her hands collided into Faldor’s chest. Still, he did not move.
She planted them firmly on his shirt, one sliding up to his shoulder, the other then patting his collarbone.
“Will?” she asked.
He said nothing.
Instead Faldor reached up and held grabbed her hand. He led her down along the tunnel.”
And… now what?
In order for me to write on, I have to figure out what they’re looking for, and I have no freaking clue. I start questioning who Will is. He clearly cares more than everyone else about what they’re trying to find, so what does he want? Why do these two faceless other men care? Why are Faldor and Jocelyn joined up with him? Obviously it’s important. Probably something to “save the universe,” but if I don’t want to be typical, I’m going to need to dig more into Will’s past.
So I asked the question, how do Will and Jocelyn know each other?
I go back to my stash of ideas.
Many times the “inane ideas” that start the concept aren’t enough to illicit a full story. I have so many concepts that I can’t possibly write them all. The way I solve this problem is that I’ll save them for later. I have a lot of “how they meet,” ideas stored up, so I just look to them to see which one would fit.
I have this image in my head that I find hilarious. Know up until this point that I had no problem revealing events in this story, spoiling the plot because this book is what I call my “Chill out” story. I don’t take it as seriously and just have more fun with it then the ones I am attempting to get published. That being said, if this story is published at one point in the future, and you are from the future (Hi! Who’s president?), and you haven’t read the story, but are planning to, STOP READING THIS PART. It will ruin the joke.
Anyway, the image is based around the idea of the fearless adventurer going to the mouth of the dragon’s cave, prepared to face a beast of epic proportions, and walking in to see the dragon in human form, sitting there, reading a book.
That’s the perfect way for Jocelyn and Will to meet. So, Will the human hero becomes Golden the dragon. I decide that elves have fantasy names, humans have human names, and dragons have “descriptor” names, like Ruby, Sky, Golden, etc. (This might, of course, change at any time.)
Characters (and again)
Why is Jocelyn at the cave in the first place? Treasure, probably. I like that, but then I think back all kind of princess jokes I have about being sacrificed. Considering we already have a dark elf and a dragon, it’s clear this is heading into satire territory, so I have the ability to take it in that direction. Why not use all my saved up jokes?
I don’t see Jocelyn as being a princess. For whatever reason, it just doesn’t fit for me. But I could see a king sending someone else in his daughter’s place. The “greedy” thing still lingering from her wanting treasure, Jocelyn becomes a thief, imprisoned, and let out only to sacrifice herself in the princess’s place.
Here’s the thing. I’m starting to get a good grip on who she is. I don’t want her to be stupid, or typically vulnerable. What makes the moment between her and Faldor most romantic is that it’s unusual. Why else wouldn’t he have tried it before? Secondly, if she is a doormat, Faldor’s actions could be construed as predatory. If the readers perceive her as being able to take care of herself, as being able to stand up for herself, then her choosing not to is more about her allowing herself to take a romantic risk and less about her being a weak idiot.
She has started to develop as an image for me. I already decided she was short, but because she was in the dungeon for a few months, she’d also be sickly looking. She’s malnourished—was before the imprisonment—so eyes look bigger, has a small bust, small waist, and higher cheekbones. She looks younger to me, which means that, despite no baby fat, there is some roundness to her face. Her eyes are sharper, expression harsher. Her hair is now a lighter shade of brown.
I mix who I want her to be with who she has to be, keeping in mind that I’m in risky territory. I am the first person to hate female characters in movies, annoyed by the current trend of “MILF with a bazooka.” (i.e. Strong women who are always responsible, always have the answers, are smart, beautiful, and powerful, always cleaning up after the men’s messes, taking care of them, rarely shown at their worst.) Freakin’ Freudian, if you ask me.
After writing for so much time and considering the characters that I really can’t stand (Black Widow, Pepper Potts, the recent movie version of Irene Adler) and the ones I love (Buffy Summers, Xena, Hermione), I am conscientious about the conclusions I came to: She can’t get away with being an asshole, and she can’t think she can get away with being an asshole.
Immediately I had a good idea how the story was supposed to start. It began where she was being told she would pretend to be the princess, and her reaction—or lack thereof—was imperative.
“ The bag ripped off her head with a douse of cold air. Jocelyn was impatient, but her expression came from a mouse dropping of sincerity and a shit storm of exaggeration.
She didn’t dare speak, insanely hoping the ropes cutting her wrists and the oversized burlap hat was a way of saying, ‘We were wrong. Out you go.’
When she saw those staring at her, she was glad she kept her mouth shut; she stood face to face with not only the king, his knights, and his courtiers, but the lovely princess as well. It was the one group she’d consider cramming it for had she known. It was a miracle.
Jocelyn paused and blinked. She bowed, the restraints of the warrior’s strong hands making it barely more than a nod.
‘Do you know why you are here, criminal?’
She bit her tongue, mostly because nothing coming to her mind was worth it. ”
From that point on, the story came clearly and easily. I knew what the main objective was—to get Jocelyn to pretend to be the princess—and the obvious conflict—She didn’t want to, and she wasn’t going to let it happen.
Most of my story comes from me trying to convince the characters to do something. Often times, it’s just about helping them realize they could do it, but just as often it’s about making them do it when they really don’t want to.
I need to motivate Faldor to fall in love with Jocelyn. I need to motivate Jocelyn to have the behavior that would make Faldor think she hates him. (While I like the love-hate relationship thing, I do think it’s a cliché, so I used Jocelyn’s obsession with Golden to pull Faldor and her apart.) I need to motivate Golden into joining their group, and give the whole group and external motivation to keep them from focusing on the obvious in front of them (and keep the reader interested.) In the beginning scenes, Jocelyn doesn’t really know what will happen to her, but the Ardenians (a group of barbarians who are gathering girls for the sacrifice), have a horrible reputation, and she knows it won’t be good. She’s a survivalist first. She can let horrible things happen to her, but when she doesn’t see an escape, she panics, does the first impulse that comes to her mind. I knew this about her early on, and I knew the moment the king told her, “It is your honor, Jocelyn of the West-Winds, to serve your lordship on this day,” that I had pissed her off, and she wasn’t going to come easily.
Which is a good thing, because, she’s much more interesting angry.
But it did lead to several questions. How can I convince her to go? What can she do to stop them? The honest answer was they could physically force her easily. She knew that. If she fought, she’d lose. But there was nothing to stop her from telling the Ardenians that she wasn’t really royalty, and while that would probably have led to them trying to kill her, both she and I saw her being able to escape more easily in the battle than at any other time. Most members of the court were worried about it too, especially because, whether she lived or died, it would bring an attack by the barbaric warriors, and everyone was deathly afraid of them. Why else would they agree to giving up their daughters?
So how could I stop her from talking and possibly getting herself killed? Well, it’s a world with dragons and elves, so why not a little magic?
“ ‘The spell,’ the wizard said, waving for the guards to follow, ‘cannot prevent you from being a horrible little girl. But it will make you do so intelligently, as though you weren’t raised with cattle.’
A hand locking hard on her arm, a guard pulled her along. She went, though slower than they would have liked.
‘And the previous purpose of this spell?!’ she shouted, trying to force hysterics even through the dehumanizing gloss of words. ‘For what reason could it exist other than this foolishness?!’
He knocked on the large doors. They opened, and he smirked back at her. ‘It was originally a language spell… meant to help dignitaries translate between foreign nations. I just tweaked it. Heightening a person’s native vocabulary is much easier.’
Jocelyn glowered at him as she was dragged past and through the exit.
He brightened with another thought. ‘And the great thing is the spell was deliberately made to prevent the speaker from accidentally cursing, which means that you are now limited to ‘oh my goodness,’ and—’
The door slammed shut.”
And the good thing is I get to be as ridiculous as I want with vocabulary without people saying, “No one actually says that word.”
Figuring out conflict is relatively easy if you know what your characters want. If they want for nothing, then it’s damn hard to prevent them from getting it.
Plot is one of the things that doesn’t just come naturally by flushing details out for me. While the next few scenes came easily—I clearly knew what needed to happen next all the way up until the moment in Golden’s cave, I still wasn’t sure about the big picture. Whatever the characters were searching for in the tunnels is clearly what’s important. It should tie in with the Ardenians and why they are making sacrifices to the dragons. Good news is, whatever that reason is, would clearly bring Golden into it.
I figured that the Ardenians themselves were probably the “group” I was imagining, so whatever happens after she reaches the cave means they would have to become less of the enemy and more of allies. Whatever Jocelyn wants—really what Golden wants—is the same as what the Ardenians want. Golden’s ignorance of the sacrifices (otherwise I couldn’t legitimize him being a good person very easily, and as the point of the story is turning out to be about Jocelyn’s irrational hero worship over true love, he does need to be less complex, more straightforward in his goodness than Faldor) means that someone is trying to get the dragons involved. Who is that person and why is he doing it?
The sooner I figure this out, the sooner I can start revealing information to the audience. This makes it less likely I’ll have an info dump, and make them feel like they’re moving forward. As I said, I procrastinate on finding the answers to questions, and most of my second and third drafts are about taking the answers I eventually found, and putting pieces of them in earlier on. Actually, no, I’m pretty much doing that up until the end.
So I have some vague notion: Someone somewhere wants to destroyed the world—or something. Somehow by convincing the Ardenians to sacrifice the region’s princesses (I’m picturing this as a fairy tale-esque Germany-like, pre-middle ages). How does that work? Well, the Ardenians are from the north, so it helped to lure them down into the area. The dragons are appeased, and probably on the Ardenians side now, so the villain(s), are probably trying to create an army. The royal lines are also, allegedly, messed up, though I suppose the ones with sons aren’t.
And that’s all I got.
While it’s beneficial to figure out these things early on, some answers will reveal themselves if I don’t spend too much time thinking about it. Either by means of writing it out, or when I’m in the shower, thinking about something totally different.
All I know right now is that the whole “attack on the world,” thing doesn’t interest me, and I need to come up with something more unique to what I care about.
Outlining and Logistics
So, last but not least, it comes to the question on how I organize all of these thoughts. I rarely do. I have outlined books, and I have appreciated the results of outlining. But in the same vein that trying to force plot doesn’t work as well as just contemplating it, and knowing what I need to figure out does, trying to sit down and say, “Ideas, come!” doesn’t work for me. I usually end up doing bullet points towards the end of the story when I have so many ideas that I need to remember to conclude.
The ideas themselves can come all at once, or over a period of time. Most of them show up when I’m already elbow deep in a scene and realizing what needs to happen and what isn’t working. So, I rarely am able to plan a good portion of the book in advance. When I have to do so, I usually grab another person and we brainstorm together. Talking about it out loud tends to induce inspiration for me.
I do write every day. My target is five-pages a day, though for the last three years, I’ll do National Novel Writing Month in November, which, for the month, switches over to word count. For Writing Month, it’s 1,666, but I usually try to do 2,500.
I do count my blogs as part of my page count. They are much more fun. I love ranting about writing. The thoughts are already there, I just need to put them down.
When editing, I prefer to have one day off to sit there and do it. I tend to do 100 pages a day on these occasions. Sometimes I’ll try to do 30 pages a day, and sometimes I’ll count that as my writing. Sometimes not.