On writing

Why write novels

A question related to “Why do you write?” but slightly easier to answer, is “Why do you write novels?”

Because we can’t write any shorter.

I read numerous writing advice where they say, “Start off with small steps. Start off writing short stories, and then graduate up to novels.” Sound advice but I, for one, have never been able to do it. Every short story story we have ever written is sitting in our story ideas file, waiting to be turned into a full-blown novel. The characters in these shorter works have stories just waiting to be told, worlds we need to write about, ideas we want to explore. Way too much information to go into a short story.

It’s a pity, because I think becoming known as a writer of short fiction would definitely help us to sell novels—both to an agent and to the general public.

From my own personal experience, I will buy a novel written by someone whose short works I have enjoyed. Having read Connie Willis’ Firewatch and A Letter From the Clearys (okay, Firewatch was a novella), I went out and bought her novel, Lincoln’s Dreams. True Names (another novella) introduced me to Vernor Vinge’s writing.

It’s not just short stories. Any writing will do. I bought Nancy Kress’ books based on her monthly column in Writers’ Digest. I admired her writing there, liked what she wrote, so when I came across Beggars in Spain in a bookshop one day I bought that.

Outside of this, I tend to discover new writers at the library, rather than buy books on spec.

If you can write short stories then do so. Not only does it hone your writing skills, but you have a much better chance of selling a shorter work than a full blown novel, and the credits you get from that short story sale may just help you sell your novel.

On writing

Why do you write?

People ask, “Why do you write?”

It’s a difficult question to answer, and my reply would more be along the lines of, “How can one not write?” rather than a considered reflection on the reasons I write. I just do. I always have.

Sherylyn and I analyse other parts of our writing in depth. Style and method, the how, what and when, but seldom the why. Both of us have always told stories, I suspect we always will.

No-one is forced to write. You can always go off and do something else. Make pots, take up skiing, go out to dinner with friends, read a book.

People write for different reasons. Some people write because they have a story to tell. Others write because because they see it an easy way to make money. (Except in rare cases these people soon find it’s not the case, and go off and do something else.)

Most of us write, I suspect, because we can’t imagine not writing.

Writing process

Do we outline before we write

Do we outline?

Not really.

Isn’t it dangerous not to outline?

Yes, but … you could almost say that our first draft is the outline.

Outlining a story almost always cuts down time to write, and cuts down then number of major rewrites. I suspect it’s a little like making the transition from writing by hand to writing direct to the computer. The process is slower to start with, but the more you do it the more comfortable you become with it, and the easier it becomes.

Some professional writers outline, some don’t. Some do a hybrid of both methods.

For the moment we’re happy to write a very rough first draft, use that as the outline, and expand on that. It’s a long, hard way to write a novel, but it seems to work for us.

I suspect that over time we will outline more, particularly if we ever go professional.

Why don’t we outline now?

Because we don’t really know a story until we finish the first draft. We don’t know what’s happening; we don’t know the characters. We talk about the story a lot while we are writing that first draft. Where it’s going, what’s happening with it.

The main problem with not outlining are the holes in the plot that arise as a result of the story evolving.

A plot thread that was important when you started writing becomes inconsequential. Other, originally minor threads assume greater importance and need to be changed accordingly.

Outlining keeps you organised, ordered, and sometimes I think that the way we go at a book is a little like cleaning house by moving all the junk from one room to another, cleaning that room, and moving the junk somewhere else, but never really getting rid of the junk until we have cleaned the house.

On writing

Killing off your characters

So J. K. Rowling intends to kill off a couple of major characters in her Harry Potter series, according to an interview she did with Britain’s Channel 4. In the widely quoted interview, Rowling says that she

… understood an author’s desire to kill off the main character of a successful series. …

“I can completely understand, however, the mentality of an author who thinks ‘Well, I’m going to kill them off because that means there can be no non-author-written sequels … so it will end with me, and after I’m dead and gone they won’t be able to bring back the character’.”

Two die in final Potter book, Rowling warns, SMH, 27 June 2006

I don’t pretend to know the reasons behind Rowling’s decision to kill off the two characters she plans to, but this is one subject that both we, and our friends who are readers, are very passionate about, and have been for years €”long before Harry Potter arrived on the scene.

Killing off a character in a story is fine, provided it’s a logical and believable part of the story. But killing off characters simply because you are sick of them, or worse, for some belief that in doing so you ensure no-one else can write about them is not only stupidity, it’s breaking a pact with the readers who have supported you by reading your novels.

Arthur Conan Doyle is the most famous author to do this, when he tried to kill off Sherlock Holmes, but he is not the only one.

No author appears to be immune. Even some of our own favourite authors have done so. Ivan Southall, author of the Simon Black series, attempted to kill Simon and Alan off in an unpublished novel Simon Black in Arabia. Peter O’Donnell killed off Modesty Blaise and Willie Garvin in The Cobra Trap. (I confess, I’m like a lot of Modesty fans. I haven’t read the story. I don’t want to.)

O’Donnell, apparently, was one of those people who did not want others writing about his characters after he dies.

Why bother? Why kill off a character just because you are sick of them?

No-one is forcing you to write. Contracts notwithstanding, you can always stop writing about the characters you have grown to hate and start writing about something else. And if you do have a contract…you knew what you were getting into when you signed that contract. If it’s a long one let’s hope you are well paid for your troubles. You signed, you need to deliver. But if you re-sign again afterwards on a series character you know you can’t keep going with, you need to seriously look at your reasons for doing what you are doing.

A reader who has remained faithful to your characters over a number of novels deserves more than an arrogant kick-in-the-teeth decision of, “I’m sick of this character. I think I’ll kill him/her off.”

Respect your readers. Respect your characters.

Who knows. You may even find there’s another story in them. Robin Hobb did with Fitz and the Fool. She says herself that,

“Many readers probably recall that at the end of Assassin’s Quest I was certain that I had finished writing about Fitz and the Fool. Then I found out I was wrong.”

Robin Hobb, Is Fool’s Fate the last book about Fitz and the Fool?

Look what a few years break did for her. We got the Tawny Man, our favourite Robin Hobb series to date.

Writing process

Online novels

An ongoing link to other on-line novels.

John Scalzi’s Agent to the Stars is a comic look at a Hollywood agent who takes on his biggest clients yet. Aliens who want to improve their image. Read this and enjoyed it, although it’s probably not normally my cup of tea. Showing signs of the writer Scalzi will become.

Jennifer L. Armstrong has three on-line novels at Free Online Novels. I haven’t read any of these, have no idea what they’re like.

The Romiley Literary Circle also contains a number of novels.

Douglass Gore’s Faithful is a newer story, with only a few completed so far. I particularly like the way Douglass has used the media (the web) to link outside of the story. Thus you can click on the name of a character while reading the story and find out more about them, and so on.

Writing process

Our fiction

Throughout this blog we’ll talk a lot about our own fiction, commenting on characters, how we did it in other stories, how we’re doing it in future stories, and so on. Here are the stories we’ll talk about, and some of the characters we may mention.

Not So Simple After All (formerly Potion)

Our first, fully completed novel. 140,000 words, five major drafts, seemingly hundreds of minor ones (at least it felt like it at the time). Not So Simple After All took years to write. It’s a traditional fantasy journey novel, for those who like their fantasy tinged with light-hearted fun. Not counting the fact that this was the first major story we ever completed and were happy with, and that we can still read it a couple of years later and not be embarrassed by it, Not So Simple After All also introduced us to the magic of the character who took on a life of his own outside our control. Calderwas only meant to have a cameo role in the first three chapters, but he came, he stayed, and took us with him to places we never expected. (A friend of ours who has read the book says he gets all the good lines.) So much so that we plan a second book based on Calder’s story.

Shared memories

The working title of our second, fully completed novel, going through another major draft at present. This one is 120,000 words. We sometimes refer to it as Roland, after the name of the point-of-view character. This one’s a science fiction, although it started out as fantasy.

Barrain also known as Caid of Barrain.

You’re reading this blog. By now you probably know all about Caid and Scott. This is one of those trans-world fantasies that start in our world and cross over to another, more medieval one. It was also going to be part detective story, but as you will see that’s changing, draft by draft. We don’t know where we are going with that one yet. We should know by the end of draft three. Because it’s an experiment and we’re putting it online, it gets put aside for other writing.


Older even than Barrain, but it’s still tucked away, waiting for a major re-write. Another science fiction. We suspect this may be the first novel of ours that ever gets commercially published as it has a strong story.


Another story waiting in the wings for us to write. We mention this one particularly because it demonstrates how much a story can change from the idea to conception due to the input of the other writing partner. The idea for Satisfaction started out as a slightly risque adult novel. Right now we envisage it as a children’s screenplay.

Writing process

Writing as a team

We write as a team.

Some writing teams share the work more or less equally. They divide the book into scenes and each partner writes their own scenes. We divide it differently, although we can see that changing over time, particularly as we venture into children’s stories.

At present though, the work is divided roughly along the lines of the following.

The idea

One of us has an idea. It could come from either person, it just has to grab both our imaginations and make us think it has somewhere to go.

We discuss the idea until it clicks with both of us. This can take hours, days or weeks, and some ideas go nowhere because they intrigue one of us but the other can’t get interested at all. Sometimes the one who has the idea persists in writing it anyway, because they can’t let go.

By the time we have something we can both work with the idea has changed completely from the original. The initial idea for Satisfaction, for example, was an adult novel. The story we will end up writing is a children’s cartoon. Even so, the germ of the idea is still there, it’s just not the same story.

First draft

The person who has the idea writes the first draft. Let’s say that’s me, in this case.

At the end of each day I hand what I have done over to Sherylyn to read. She reads it off the screen, highlighting any major problems such as bad characters or bad plot lines.

Next day we discuss where the story goes now, and that night I type in the next day’s wordage.

At the end of the first draft we re-read the whole story. Sherylyn goes through it looking for major plot holes and problem characterisation. I sit nearby with the computer and note any feedback she gives verbally. (The worse the story/characters, the more verbal the feedback.)

After she has finished we discuss what has come out of it and how we might change any problems.

Second draft

I do the typing, making changes based on our notes and discussions.

There are some major changes between drafts one and two. The story gets moved around, characters are chopped, new characters added. We make a lot of changes to cover plot-holes, and that often takes us in different directions, too.

By the end of draft two we generally have a story. Rough, but pretty much in place.

These are major drafts, I might add. There are plenty of minor drafts in between, and lots of revisions ongoing.

Draft 3

By the third draft we’re looking at characterisation. Fleshing out the characters to make them more rounded, changing their behaviour to make them behave more in character. Would Scott behave this way? How would Blade react to that? and so on. By this time we have a pretty good idea of what makes these people tick, and we can use that to give depth to the story.

I’m very light on some of the emotions, so Sherylyn often comes in here and starts adding ’emotive’ passages.

Along the way we fill in minor plot holes.