Ask A Wendigo: “Just What The Fuck Do You Do, Anyway?”

Time then for another installment of, Ask A Wendigo. Or WWCWD. Or Interrogate The Penmonkey. Or Hide The Salami. Wait, that last one might be different? Whatever.

Want to ask me a question about writing or storytelling? Then here’s the link.

Once again, two related questions came in around the same time:

The Mechanical Doctor Anonymous asked:

“Chuck, something that I’ve been wondering about is the mechanics of your writing. I generally start out with pen on paper. I do a little light revision on that paper before typing it into the computer. From there, I save successive drafts as separate files until I’m done. At that point, I keep the separate files, but get rid of the original paper draft. What does your process look like, and how much do you keep after you’re done?”

And Mister Crankypants asked:

“On the subject of “how much do you write every day” your answer is superficial. 2-4k of new content. That’s, what, a few hours, right? Then there’s the blog stuff — maybe a couple more. Take time off for lunch, take a shit, or a shower, whatever. Before you know it the whole day is gone. When does the stone polishing happen? What about the 150k words you wrote months ago & have forgotten about completely? When is there time for that? What about planning? How to you keep track of it all?”

To me, both questions are asking a fairly straightforward — and completely complicated — question. That question is: how do you write? Or, just what the fuck do you do around here, anyway?

Setting aside all the non-writery stuff I do (hover over Twitter like a hungry fly, play with my 1-year-old, stalk and kill mutant caribou, drink coffee, drink gin, gloomily masturbate), I suppose I can get into the nitty-gritty of my overall “process.” But here is where I must throw up (*barf*) a warning:

YOUR PROCESS DOES NOT NEED TO LOOK LIKE MY PROCESS.

What you do needs to be what you do. For me, writing advice is always and forever just a polite suggestion, not a gospel carved in a brick which is then used to bludgeon you about the head and neck.

If something works for you, adopt it.

If something does not work, discard it.

That said, let’s rock.

The Out-Of-Control Idea Factory That Is My Brain

I’ve said similarly before, but the big question one should ask an author is not Where do you get your ideas? but rather, How the hell do you make your ideas stop? Because my brain is like a moon colony force-field constantly being pinged by fiery spears of idea debris. I can’t stop the ideas.

The spigot is busted. The water just keeps running.

I take any ideas that survive the Identification and Scrutinization Process (which is to say, I take a long stare into the idea’s dark heart to see if there’s anything there or if it’s just a hollow wiffle ball rattling around my skull-cage), and I write those down. This is a somewhat broken part of my process because I fail to have one consistent place where I organize this material. Sometimes the phone. Other times a notebook. Occasionally I input ’em right into Word. I completely fail at having my ideas wrangled into a single enclosed space. I do eventually rustle ’em up and throw ’em together, but it takes me far too long to do so.

The good news here is, ideas that continue to bubble up to the surface regardless of their scattershot rag-tag nature are usually the ideas that matter most to me — they demand my attention instead of scurrying away.

The Chalk Outline

I outline because I must, not because I particularly enjoy it. I am a pantser by heart, a plotter by necessity — without outlines, my novels spiral drunkenly toward utter incoherence, breaking like a dropped cookie.

The way I outline is different for every book, but here’s the general gist of it:

I figure out my major story turns, broken out into acts.

Then I start jotting down plot beats — this happens, then this happen, then that, then this. Maria dies. The unicorn ascends to the Aluminum Throne. John steals the Camero. The end. How many of these beats I outline isn’t preset; I just keep going until the thing is done. The beats are generally large and sequence-shaped rather than small and scene-flavored. The key thing is to make sure I hit all my tentpoles — meaning, those plot events that are needed for the story to stand up and not collapse upon itself.

Sometimes I use spreadsheets.

I don’t generally outline much in the way of character or dialogue or even the bigger, broader story — because I have a hard time with plot, it’s important that I get the story sequence down right from the get-go.

Those other pieces I prefer to discover within the outline. Though once in a while I’ll write down three key character elements that mark the arc — meaning, the character’s transition from A–>B–>C.

I outline whenever I have time. Afternoons, nights, weekends. I often outline a number of novels far ahead of the writing; I’ve long had a rough outline for the third Miriam Black book, The Cormorant, f’rex.

The Actual Writing

For writing, I tend to begin at 6AM and end around noon.

As noted, I write 2-4k per day, most days. Toward the end of a project I may see as much as 10k in a day.

I write the actual book inside Microsoft Word, though my (admittedly slow) transition to Mac may see me soon writing a first draft in Scrivener and then porting over to Word for edits.

(If I’m writing a script, I use Final Draft.)

I have to unearth the “proper” font for every project. It’s one of my few writing rituals.

I write nothing in pen because my handwriting looks like the bloody footprints of a wounded sparrow. Or, if you prefer a different metaphor: the sloppy hieroglyphics of a meth-addled Pharaoh. YOU DECIDE.

Upon each new day of writing I like to read over the last scene or chapter just to freshen myself up. At the end of each day of writing, I tend to jot down a couple quick notes for the following day’s efforts.

I also like to stop writing in the middle of a scene instead of at the end. I used to try to get to a conclusion point but I find cutting in the middle gives me unexpected energy to jump back into it.

I work in one file on my actual computer, but I save multiple copies across DropBox, one per day of writing. I also have a backup drive that my file goes to. If I’m feeling particularly paranoid, I’ll email it to myself.

I also save obsessively. Every five minutes I hit the save hotkey. This, erm, “saves” me a lot of frustration.

I do not write new blog content during the week, usually. That’s reserved for the weekend.

To Fix It, You Must Break It

That is a thing I believe about writing and, in fact, most things: to fix something, you sometimes gotta break it. And editing is often about breaking a thing apart — I realize I’m repeating myself, but it’s my bloggy and I’ll reiterate if I wanna: writing is when you make the words, editing is when you make them not shitty.

I edit in the afternoons. A couple-few hours every day, provided I have a project to edit. I do not edit a story as I go, but only after it’s complete. (Once in a while if I identify a problem very early on I’ll do some major rewriting before I finish, but for the most part I find to be productive I have to churn and burn through the draft before I get to the editing phase, where the story is truly born.)

Ideally, I let the story sit for a month or three.

At that point I tend to do a pass on my own, and get a second draft out of it.

I then move that draft onto… well, whoever. Readers. Editor(s). Agent. My toddler. Your Mom. Etc.

I do my own notes and expect notes back using Word’s Track Changes function. Comment bubbles and in-draft redlines are key to my process. No word processor I’ve found has this function down outside Word.

How badly I edit the story really just depends on the story. Blackbirds saw years of writing and rewriting, but when I actually had a finished draft, very little of it changed from that draft to the one that published.

But Popcorn, the first book of my upcoming YA trilogy (“Heartland”), saw a year’s worth of rewriting. I wrote it the month before my son was born, and spent the rest of the year hammering it into shape at the behest of my agent. And the edits I’m sure are far from done — I’ve got new edits coming in from my editor at Amazon Children’s Publishing. (And I’m very excited to see those.)

Post-Coital Shame

A project is never done but there comes a point when I say, “It has to be done whether I like it that way or not,” and deadlines really help to form that critical and creative Rubicon.

When I’m done, I send it off to whoever needs it (agent, editor, a cat in a spaceship orbiting Pluto), and that’s that. I feel a wave of excitement and triumph and sometimes reward myself with “something” (new music, ice cream, a cat in a spaceship orbiting Pluto), and then somewhere thereafter I feel a sense of post-masturbatory shame — like, a great yawning emptiness brimming with the ghosts of shame and guilt and creative undoing, all of which are nicely mitigated by me going back to the beginning (idea! outline! writing! editing!) and riding the storytelling carousel around for another go.

*insert creepy calliope music here*

And that’s it.

That’s my process.

Every book is different, of course.

And every writer is different.

Now go and find your own process. Plant a flag. Buy intellectual real estate.

And dance upon the gassy corpses of anybody who said you can’t do this.

Because fuck those people right in the face-holes.