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How I Write


A friend over on Google + suggested that this riff we had going about writing and plotting would make an interesting blog post so I decided to heed her advice, and try to put this in a coherent form.

This all began because I got a call from GRRM (George R.R. Martin for those who might not be familiar with that abbreviation.)  Anyway, I’ve become a bit of a pinch hitter for George and Gardner on their various anthologies because I can produce a story rather quickly when necessary.  This is a skill I really honed in Hollywood, though having to meet filing deadlines when I was a lawyer also helped train me in this habit.

What I had to start with was the theme of the anthology.  Dangerous Women.  Okay.  At first I was completely flummoxed.  A world, nay, a universe of stories was open to me with the result that I couldn’t think of a single thing.  Contrary to what people might believe having boundaries and limits actually makes for better writing.

Then I decided I would place the story in either my Imperials universe or my Edge universe.  Imperials won out.  Maybe because I’m writing an Edge book right now, and I was in the mood for space opera and aliens.

So, how do I plot?  First I figure out what the story is about.  Not the nuts and bolts and twists and turns of the plot, but what it reveals (one hopes) about the human condition or at least the condition of the main character.   Then I start to outline.

I had the general plot — a woman beguiles the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and empties the treasury, but I realized a frame would make this story work better, and  from there I figured out the opening scene.  A note about my flaws as a writer.  I usually start a story or a book or a script too soon.  So often I will write the opening scene, but in the rewrite I will throw it out, and use scene 2 or even the third scene as the opening.

Finally, I look to the end, and get that firmly in mind.  Usually I’ll have the concluding line in mind before I ever start.

If this was a novel or a screenplay I would then break it into acts.  For a short story I think of it like a thirty minute episode with only one act out and six to seven scenes.  

Next step for me is to figure out the big scene that anchors the end of each act, and of course the big climax that ends the story/book/script.

Once those are in place I plot backwards, looking for the scenes that will take me to those big moments.  These are generally important scenes that advance the plot or reveal some interesting character trait.  They are my “tent pole” scenes.

Daniel Abraham wisely says that writing is all about information control.  When does a reader need a particular piece of information?  You want them to be anxious for it before you provide that nugget.  If you give it away too early it leaves the reader feeling flat, and they can even feel that the writer is contemptuous of them.  No reader likes to be spoon fed.  However if you wait too long they become frustrated because they want/need an explanation, you’re hiding the football, and they get irritated with you.  

Determining when a particular bit of knowledge needs to drop comes with experience, and for me it’s a rhythm thing.  Words forming sentences forming paragraphs, forming chapters, etc. is like music.  There’s a balance and a flow and a rhythm to a well written book.  I plan for the crescendos and for the pianissimo moments.  You can’t play everything at the same level and expect to hold your readers.  They need to take a breath too.

This doesn’t mean you have scenes that are just there for a break.  Every scene must advance the plot or give the reader/viewer some deeper understanding about the characters and how they feel about each other and their place in the world.

You also start to get a feel for when information needs to drop by reading people who plot well, or watching movies that unspool elegantly.  You should study them because there is a formula (and no, that’s not a dirty word) to any writing form whether it’s a script or prose, and those formula work for a reason. You can break those rules, but you need to know and understand the rules before you can break them.

Finally having outside readers is also very helpful. My writer’s group tells me when things are taking too long to unspool, when they, as readers, are becoming impatient or bored.  When they don’t like a character.  And believe me when somebody says they hate your main character you have a problem and need to take notice.  Unless that is your intent, but having a loathsome protagonist is a tough thing to pull off.


3 Responses to How I Write

  • Juhan says:

    This is very-very interesting, thank you! Especially the part about plotting: I’m always fascinated by just how differently various writers approach it. (I myself can do three-dimensional characters, but I pretty much suck at plotting.)

  • heather webb says:

    Great post. Thanks for sharing your process. It makes sense to me on so many levels;D

  • Melindas says:

    Thanks for the feedback. I’m never sure if this helps, or just seems overwhelming to people. I have to saw that working in Hollywood made me a much better prose writer.

    Another tip I brought back from Hollywood is that I use different colored pens for different characters. Then I can see if someone is dropping out of the bottom of a script or a book. If you look at the board, and suddenly green cards disappear you realize you’ve lost track of a character.

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