While I’ve been lucky enough to be a full-time author for a few years now, I’ve never had any formal training in creative writing. My “system” for writing a story has evolved out of trial and error. I can’t say for certain my way is particularly efficient or likely to produce a masterpiece, but it’s worked well enough for me. So, I decided it might be worth writing it all down so that aspiring authors, or curious readers, can see how the sausage is made at Casa De Lallo.
My hopes (assuming I don’t run out of steam) are to take you through every step of a book’s development from writing to publication and promotion. I make no claim of being an expert, but I am technically a professional. I wouldn’t call this a how-to. This is more of a how-I-do.
Step 1: The Bird’s Eye View
I’ve certainly written stories where I didn’t plan anything out beforehand. They’ve got a shot to come out good, but more likely they’ll be a bit aimless for a while and need some serious revision to flow properly once they’re complete. Thus, I find it useful in any project to at least get an idea of where we’re starting, where we’re ending, and who’s involved. All if it can change along the way as better ideas come along, but just getting those written down is a great way to know what you’re getting into.
For me, writing a book almost always begins with good old pen and paper. Maybe it’s because my first three books, The Book of Deacon Trilogy, were written as one monstrous longhand tome. Maybe it’s because the slower rate at which the words come out and the inability to revise them easily forces me to develop an idea a little, then commit to it. Regardless of the reason, I find that ideas flow most swiftly when I’m holding a pen and writing on paper.
Let’s talk specifics for a moment. The only real requirements here are comfort and quantity. You want something that’s convenient for you to write with, and sufficient to get your ideas down. For me, that means a black pen with a fine point. (Something in the 0.5 mm range.) I’m partial to rollerball or gel pens. The ink type and tip width are important for me, because as a lefty who wasn’t really taught the proper way to write left handed, I have a terrible tendency to drag my hand across anything I write in pen. Rollerball and gel pens with fine tips tend to dry very quickly and indelibly, meaning I don’t have to consciously lift my hand as I write. Color is arbitrary, but I just think black looks better. Sometimes, I’ll throw in red for corrections/notation.
Since I’m an author, and thus writing is my living, I decided to treat myself to some fancy pens. I’ve got a few machined from brass, and one machined from aluminum. A brass pen has a nice weight in my hand, and I feel like a big shot when I write with it. They’re all made by Karas Kustoms, though the exact models I have may have been retired. But truth be told, my favorite pen of all time is the Pilot P-500 Extra Fine. I buy these things by the box and usually have a few within reach.
Of less importance is the paper, but I’ve got preferences here, too. A top binding is my favorite, since not having to deal with a binding on either side is handy. I like spiral so I can flip a page and write on the other side without tearing it out or waste any space if I intend to leave the pages in the book. Perforated sheets are fine for note taking if I’m going to discard or separate stuff, and a nice sturdy clipboard is handy to remove the need for a table or desk. In certain special situations, I’ll go for a quad-ruled page (graph paper), but that’s usually when sketching is involved.
Today, I’m starting The Book of Deacon 5. (That’s the working title. I usually don’t know the official title until I’m doing a revision or planning the cover.) If this were a completely original story, I’d start brainstorming with what sort of setting I was interested in writing, or what sort of characters. Since this is a sequel, the process is a little different. I obviously already know the setting, so we can skip that bit, and naturally most of the main cast will be returning in some form or another, so we’ve got that handled.
The overall story comes next. Again, we’re working with a sequel, so it’s usually useful to figure out which dangling threads from the previous story I’d like to tie up. If there aren’t any good threads, I’ll look at where we ended the last one and see where that momentum might carry us. Sometimes things got wrapped up nicely, or any threads would need some time to “ripen.” In those cases, which I sort of consider to be the case this time, I’ll just look at someplace I haven’t gone and see what fun can be had in that direction.
Since I know the overall direction I want the story going, there are a few “arc beats” I can pick from to include here, things that will move me closer to the conclusion of the multi-book storyline. Which ones I choose will determine how much longer the series will run before I make a major change to it. Beyond that, this is where I’ll write down ideas I have and identify the possible problems so I can start coming up with solutions.
“They haven’t gone to X location yet. Let’s have them go there. What reason would they have? Who would be there? How would they get there? What would be happening back home?” If you ask and answer enough of these questions, and the answers are interesting enough, you’ve got a plot. If you can’t answer or the answers aren’t interesting, ask different questions.
The things to keep your eye on, particularly if the story is more than a book or two into the series, are as follows. You want everything to follow logically from what’s come before. The course of the world and the lives of the characters can’t just abruptly shift to suit your whims unless there’s a potent force from the outside to facilitate it. You don’t want things to be repetitive, obviously, and you don’t want them to be contrived.
From here, I like to divide things into threads. Typically, this’ll boil down to which characters are grouping up and why. Eventually these will become parts of a mini-outline, but for now they’ll probably only get a sentence or two. What role do they have in the main plot? What’s the sub-plot they’re dealing with, at what points do they cross with the main plot?
Sometimes I’ll take a moment to decide what growth and change we’re expecting to get out of our characters in each thread, generally that’s obvious from the obstacles.
The last step here is to list any lingering problems/elements I need to work out. If you’ve got a line like “They have something the other people want,” but you haven’t decided what that thing is, make a note of it here, and any other lingering problems. Having them separated out will make it clear at a glance what you should be chewing on once you’re done for the day.