Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Guest Blogger Richard Tongue and Discovery Writing

When I first began to write seriously a few years ago – having spent about a decade poking around – I bought the usual selection of 'how to write a novel' books. (All of which have long ago been donated to charity shops, but that's another story.) They all had in common the requirement to come up with a detailed outline, a plan to follow while writing. I sat down to start...and couldn't get anywhere. Putting together an outline that even remotely satisfied me was a difficult enough process to begin with, but when it came to translating that into an actual book, I failed. I've got about a half-dozen half-finished manuscripts from those times knocking about, none of which will ever see the light of day. (Pretty much anything I liked from them has been cannibalized for other books in any case.)

Years of frustration before I finally worked out where I was going wrong. Because I had plotted everything out before I'd got around to writing, “It was a dark and stormy night”, the story was finished in my head. I knew how it ended, who lived and who died, who got the girl and who was left to stew for the sequel. There wasn't anything satisfying in that. It came to me that I needed to take the journey I was going to take the reader on myself first, but that I couldn't script it; I had to live it as the reader would, one page at a time. I didn't know there was a name for this until recently: Discovery Writing. And in this way, I've written three books in three months, where before my output was effectively nil. So...how do I work?

Well, just because I'm making things up 'on the fly' doesn't mean that I don't need to do some preparation. I'm blessed with a memory good enough that I can remember the previous books in the series I'm writing pretty well, but that doesn't mean a good read-through of the last book isn't necessary. Usually the core idea of the 'next book' occurs about half-way through the book I am writing, so I let that percolate around in my head for a little while. The absolute first step is to make a few lists – not of story ideas, but of names, places. That's critical if you aren't going to go mad trying to remember 'who that guy was'. It's better to go overboard with writing character names at this point, even though you might not do anything with half of them, it saves time later in the process.

Then – the cool idea. There's always something I want to see in each book, usually a series of somethings, and they give the core framework that I want to hang the plot around. Take the novel I'm finishing up as I write this, 'Not One Step Back', - I knew the ending of the book first. The rest had to be created to get to that point, ticking off a series of story options. With a series that has an arc, progress needs to be made along that plotline; the individual arcs of characters need to be pushed as well, which generally suggests scenes, dialogue, background to be fitted in. I keep this stuff in my head mostly, but this can also easily be written down.

Once that little bit of preparation is done – which for me usually means two weeks' thinking time and a day actually putting together the lists – I start work on the book. I find it best to set a deadline, but that's just me; I've started my last three books on the first day of each month, and that's something I think I'm going to stick to. The trick then is to write and keep writing; try and get into the heads of your characters, and let them guide you where they want to go. You know what the destination is, but they can tell you how to get there. Now the hardest part of this whole process is beginning book one; at that point, the characters do not yet exist. You will be surprised. (I certainly was. The series was supposed to be from one POV; by the tenth chapter there was another one I hadn't been expecting.)

Roll with the punches. Characters that at first conception you liked will turn out to be less interesting to write; ones that you were not expecting to enjoy will come to the forefront. An example from the first book, 'Price of Admiralty'; half the book follows the adventures of a group of Triplanetary Espatiers (Space Marines, basically – but don't tell Games Workshop's lawyers) on the surface of a planet, but a lot of that wasn't in my original conception. I found I enjoyed writing them, and, well – if you enjoy writing something, it's more likely that it will come through to the reader enjoying it as well, in my experience. The character of 'Orlova' went from having a sub-plot to having half the book to herself, and has continued to push herself forward – she developed a good double-act with another character who was originally meant to simply be name-dropped, but as a result has developed into a major character in her own right. This happens.

The plot will twist itself around, as well, in unexpected ways. That's part of the fun, but it
requires you to have an idea of where you are going. By fairly early in this process – if not at the start – I personally need to know what the ending is. Details might change, but I need to know where things end up, because that gives me a problem to solve – a problem that I can only solve with the tools available to the characters themselves. Of course, at some point, you will run out of steam.

This happens. During each of the three books I've written in this way, I've had to pause at a point because I've written myself into a corner. Don't try and force it – just stop and spend the day thinking about what you are doing. By this time I'm usually well into the book, so I can start working out where I need to go to get to the end – and this is when I often do put together a short outline to organise my thoughts, but I've never done this earlier than half-way through the book. It was at Chapter 18 this time that I stumbled for a day.

The main thing is to finish the book. Tidy it up later; I always do – but working this way, it is possible to get from 'I have a neat idea' to 'I have a workable first draft' an awful lot faster than if you spend weeks or months plotting out; and that means that the initial enthusiasm for the project stays, and hopefully makes itself felt in the book.

The last thing I'll say here is that this isn't for everyone. All those books were given away because they weren't helping; pushing myself onto set patterns ended up being restrictive to me as a writer, stopping me from developing. I don't think anyone can give you a 'write by numbers' text; after a certain point, everyone needs to find their own path. (Yes, I think I just told you to ignore everything written above. That's what I mean by discovery writing – you never know where you are going to end up!)

Richard got his start as a writer in the role-playing industry, running a series of magazines and fanzines around the turn of the century before the cold, bitter light of reality crept in, and he was forced to find a ‘real job’ working as a media monitor; nevertheless, the bug never actually stopped, and finally he decided to take a year out and see what he could do with it. As a result, he is currently the author of the ‘Battlecruiser Alamo’ series of books, available on the Kindle.

For more on Richard and his writing, check out his blog HERE.

1 comment: