Writing process

I joined a writers’ workshop

I may have bitten off more than I can chew, writing-wise, but I have signed up for a writers’ workshop.

It’s the first face-to-face workshop I have ever attended, so I’m not sure what to expect. We’re all SFF writers and we meet bi-monthly to talk about the progress of our novels.

Why did I do it, when I could be at home writing?

Last year I did so little writing I felt I needed a kick-start.

I think that because I have to meet people face-to-face in this workshop it will force me to produce something. Normally a deadline gets the adrenaline going and helps to push the words out.

Anything to get back into the writing mood.

Writing process

I’m procrastinating

Nothing quite stops my creative juices like a house full of visitors. Particularly at our house, where the office is open to the rest of our house.

I love our open office. It’s a separate room in the centre of the building, with two doorways but no doors. You can’t close it off. It’s also the only room with computers, and the only one with internet access.

At this time of the year our house is an open house, with lots of friends and family passing through. I love that, but it makes it easy to procrastinate about writing. There’s always someone wanting to use the internet, or playing games. If you sit down to write there’s always a child or two peering over your shoulder to see what you are doing. Sometimes I wish I could just shut the door.

Instead, I am using it as an excuse not to write.

Before the end of financial year I had a lot of work deadlines. May and June were total write-offs as far as novel, and even blog, writing was concerned. That’s understandable. The work that pays the bills always takes precedence.

Now, however, I’m just putting it off. I need to get back into the habit, and I’m finding excuses—like visitors—not to do so.

I don’t have to write on the PC. I can write longhand in a notebook if I have to. I have done this often enough when the writing is flowing.

Writing this blog post is a start. Let’s see if I can push myself back into it from here.

Writing process

Read your novel aloud to improve your writing

In Rework and Edit, in the BBC’s Get Writing section, Barbara Trapido says:

Here is my best advice for editing and revising. READ EVERY WORD OUT LOUD.

Barbara Trapido, Rework and Edit

While the prospect of reading a full 100,000 word novel is more than a little daunting, the advice is sound. It’s amazing how clumsy some word groupings can be.

Even if you don’t read the whole novel, reading aloud just the passages you are having problems with can also help.

You will find you skip words, or say them in a different order, or replace some words with others. If you stumble over words or phrases you will often go back and reword them so that you can say them, which you wouldn’t do if you were not reading aloud.

It’s a good idea to have someone else listening, or to tape your reading, so that they can pick up on things you don’t.

A truly useful exercise.

Writing process

When do you know your novel is not going to work?

For most us, starting our novel is the easy part.

An idea comes, or old ideas suddenly click together, and you start writing. The first chapter or two is good.

I myself have dozens of novel beginnings that I have started and stopped. Some of them are just waiting for time to complete them. Others are simply dead—sitting in the equivalent of my bottom drawer (the Ideas folder on my PC). At what stage does one realise that these ideas have died?

Even though we write mostly as a team, Sherylyn and I determine the novel rigor mortis factor a little differently.

Sherylyn will write the first few pages and then hand them to me. It’s raw, unedited and very first draft. If I don’t like it she dices the idea then and there. If I do, she keeps writing to see if it’s going to work. We know by around chapter three whether it’s working or not.

My criteria for liking or disliking the story are the characters, first and foremost, and whether or not the idea intrigues me.

As for me, I tend to write the first three to five chapters. By then I know if the story is or isn’t working for me. If it’s not working, it goes into the bottom drawer, Sherylyn unseen.

If it is working, I go back and do a rough first edit before I hand it over. If Sherylyn likes it, we keep going.

Neither method is perfect—Sherylyn had no say in Shared Memories, for example. I just couldn’t stop, and I would have written it anyway. Luckily she likes it. And some of Sherylyn’s ideas that would make really good stories die an unnecessary early death, but that’s what the bottom drawer is for. We can always revisit an idea.

On writing Writing process

Novel progress report: forgotten research

I was reading through our research notes for Barrain earlier today.

Some people say you do not need to research fantasy novels. Others say you need to research thoroughly before you can write.

We research some things. For Barrain we researched a little forensic science and some police procedures. After all, we have a body that has been dead for some time. We need to know what the corpse would be like. Also, given that it’s fantasy, we need to know where we are going to deviate from the standard dead body. Not only that, we need to know what the police will do and how they will do it.

Barrain is set in Australia. There is no reason for this, except that we are Australian. Here is the local police information about forensic science.

Here’s a summary of what they say about forensic investigation in Victoria.

The duties as shown on CSI are a combination of three different positions as performed in Victoria … A detective … is really the investigator in a case. The detective will … process the scene by taking notes and photographs and then collecting any items for analysis and submitting them to the Forensic Services Department. [Detectives also call out the crime scene examiner if required.] … The forensic scientists are specialists, not experts in every field, i.e. there are separate specialists for flammable liquid residues, DNA, Drug Analysis, Documents, Fingerprints, etc. … there are no jobs available in Australia like those depicted on CSI. It shows a combination of duties performed by Crime Scene investigators, Forensic Scientists, detectives and others.

Victoria Police, Forensic Science

We checked on this months ago, and have it in our research file.

Yet what did we do when we wrote the forensic science portion of Barrain? We forgot this, and made it more like something out of CSI than something our local police would have done.

I think we watch too much television.

Writing process

Keeping track of people and places in the novel

How do writers keep track of who’s who in their novels? What about timelines? How complex do their notes need to be?

Some people write complex biographies on their major characters before they start writing. They know where their characters are born, whether or not they have a mole on their back, who they grew up with and each lover they have had. Others never record anything about them at all. These people rely on memory, or re-reading their novel. We come somewhere on the lighter side of in-between.

We do not start off tracking characters. We begin with an idea, a character in a situation, and start writing. We’re lucky when we start if we even know what our character looks like.

In Barrain, for example, we had a vague idea of Scott as one of those trendy young people with blonde hair and modern clothes. Caid had large green eyes—a cross between a cat and an elf —and that was about it. We started writing with that.

We’re a quarter of the way through the story now, and have so many characters and locations to keep track of that we need to do something about it.

We need a list. We do this in a Word document (if I start it), or in an Excel spreadsheet (if Sherylyn does). It’s a simple table, and it’s very basic.

Partial list of people in Barrain, with level of description

The list should be in alphabetical order.

It’s a simple list, very basic, and we don’t go into any real detail. Personal appearance is noted where it is important. For example, the colour of Scott’s eyes compared to Caid’s (and the other Barrainers) is important, so that is noted, but we don’t mention Mather’s hair colour, because it’s not.

Around the same time we start implementing a timeline. This is usually a spreadsheet, with the timeline across the top, and people along the left.

Time increments depend on the time frame of the story.

Basic timeline

I have simplified the timeline here, but you get the gist.

To date, these simple character lists (people, places and things) and the timeline have worked for us and as we go on through the story and the drafts they become invaluable.

Writing process

Could you write your novel using voice recognition software?

How much would your writing change if, instead of typing or writing it, you dictated it?

As a teenager all the science fiction stories I read agreed on one thing. Computers of the future would be voice operated.

The personal computer is 30 years old now, and voice recognition has come a long way, but most of us still communicate with our computer via the keyboard and mouse.

I believe I can see the future of the mouse—replaced by touch screens—but what about the keyboard? Will it ever be replaced by voice?

According to the Writer’s Blog, novelist Richard Powers claims to have dropped the keyboard in favour of dictating his novels into voice recognition software. (Original link from Lorelle on WordPress.)

Voice recognition is not without its problems, though.

I recall, during last November, Future Boy decided to try voice recognition to write his NaNoWriMo novel. I don’t know how he went.

The technology has certainly improved enough to make voice activated writing possible, but what about us? Do we actually want it?

I remember the work it took to train myself to type words straight onto the computer, rather than writing them on paper first, and then transcribing them. Even though I was a touch typist, and used to the PC from my coding days, it took months to train myself.

In the end I succeeded. So much so that now I find it more difficult to write longhand.

Will the same happen for voice recognition text?

I honestly don’t know.

As we writers know from our writing, people don’t speak in real life the way they do in books. I definitely don’t write like I speak.

I repeat myself when I talk. I use ‘um’ and ‘ah’ a lot. I waffle. I definitely cannot ‘tell’ a story anywhere near as well as I can write one. Other people I know, who can tell beautiful stories, can’t write them.

Most people can become competent at something with practise. Toastmasters is the perfect example of this. You may not be the world’s greatest speaker by the time you finish their sessions, but you will certainly be a better speaker than you were when you started.

Training is the same. I am a competent trainer, because I run regular training courses. I am not a ‘good’ trainer, though, in the way that someone with natural teaching skills is.

I suspect voice activated writing would be the same.

When, or if, voice activated input arrives in the mainstream, people will gradually switch over to it, the way we switched from pen-based writing to keyboard-based writing. It will take practise to get used to, but most of us will eventually become competent at it.

What might change, however, are the naturals at the top of the writing tree. Those who can ‘tell’ a good story, but not write it, will now have a natural advantage over those of us who can write a good story but not tell it.

Writing process

The mechanics of writing: Backups, revisions and how many documents

I thought it might be a good time to talk about some of the housekeeping tasks associated with writing. The most important of these, of course, is backups.


I know people who never back up their work. It sets my teeth on edge when I talk to a novelist who has been working on their book for two years and find they have not backed the file up once in that time. Not so much because they haven’t backed it up, but because knowing that if they lose that one file they lose two years work.

I would be absolutely shattered.

I know that back-ups are boring, and take time out of writing, but consider what you might lose if you don’t have them.

You need to back-up to cover:

  • A corrupted file—what if your word processor crashes in the middle of typing and you can’t get the novel back?
  • Computer failure—your computer dies, or your hard drive crashes, or your computer-savvy son decides to reformat the disc for you, or your computer gets stolen
  • Human error—you accidentally delete the file.

In an ideal world I would also include more dramatic scenarios here, like your house burning down. If that happens, then the least of your worries will be the novel you spent two years slaving over (at least initially). Any good back-up recommendation should include considering this as well. However, here we will just consider computer failure or human error.

How we back up our novel

Here’s what we do. You may find it excessive, but it works for us.

We have a folder named for the novel. In this case, Barrain. Underneath this we have the latest draft. It’s a word document. The document is named for the novel and the draft. For example, Barrain_Draft3.doc.

In the Barrain directory we have a sub-directory called Backup. Each night before we open the document, we copy the current Barrain_Draft3.doc into the Backup directory. We then rename it to include today’s date at the start of the file name. For example, 20070222_Barrain_Draft3.doc. We write the date in YYYYMMDD format so that the files are ordered.

Note that I said we do this before we open the document. The problem with doing it from within the word processing program is that you must do a ‘save as’, save the file into the backup directory with the new name, then close the file, and open the original again.

If you are anything like me, you’ll forget to do the second part and start typing in the backup file. Then the next day, when you open the Barrain_Draft3.doc file, all yesterday’s work is missing.

It may seem excessive, but this way we have a complete version of every day’s work.

Once a week I copy the latest version over onto one of the other network PCs (one of the advantages of having a home network), and every couple of months I copy it onto a flash drive instead.

For some people, this might be overkill, and it probably is, but it works for us. Disc space is cheap compared to two years lost work.

Most important for us though, is that it’s a habit.

Develop a habit of making regular back-ups.

Writing process

The mid-novel writer’s block

It’s the perennial question asked of writers … “Where do you get your ideas?” and most writers I know go totally blank on that question. I know I find it hard to answer. Ideas are everywhere. A news item can give you an idea, a dream, an overheard conversation. Ideas come from anywhere and everywhere.

It’s not the initial story idea that causes problems, however. It’s the ideas you need three-quarters of the way through a story, where the white hot excitement of telling the tale has abated, when you’re so deep into the story you think it, dream it, eat it, day and night.

Then suddenly you get stuck. You know, roughly at least, where the story is going, but you haven’t the foggiest idea how to get to the end from where you are. Your writing stops. Your mind goes around in circles, day after day. I know what I want my character to do, but how does he do it? How can I get him from here to there and remain faithful to the story?

You write pages. Dozens and dozens of pages. Hundreds, even thousands of words, and erase them all.

The writing stops. You sit at the keyboard and nothing comes.

You try to force yourself to write. You can’t. Type and delete, again and again.

You find yourself writing the same thing over and over. Mostly it’s notes about what has to happen, rather than the writing itself.

You try to skip the section for the moment and go on to write a later part of the story. You can’t, because what happens in this section is pivotal to how the rest of the story works out. Every time you change your mind about what happens in this ‘blocked’ section you have to rewrite the following sections.

Finally, you get some tortured words down on paper. It’s messy, it’s rough, and it’s a relief.

Sometimes the whole process takes as long as it took to write the first three-quarters of the story, but it’s done, and you can finally carry on with the story.

Later, when the story is completed, and polished for the umpteenth time, you re-read the novel again. That section you agonised over, that section you stumbled on and couldn’t get the ideas for, often turns out to be insignificant in the story (relatively speaking).

Writing process

Writing for the US market

In the first instance, we try to sell our novels to the American market.

Why would we do this when the Australian market for fantasy is so good at the moment?

The Australian market is extremely difficult to break into. I’m not saying it’s impossible—we’re still trying—but it’s a very small market. Once you have pitched to the small number of agents who accept submissions, and to the even smaller number of editors who do, you have nothing left.

The US and UK markets are bigger. We chose the US market.

As Australian writers though, just how much should we change our work to suit the American market?

I’m not talking tone here, but the little things that are different between countries that may make an American reader go, ‘Huh?’. Or the spelling, or even the size of the paper we submit on.

In BARRAIN, Melissa goes around to the boot of the car to get the backpack Scott takes on the hike with him.

If we pitch this story to US agents and publishers, should we make the boot a trunk?

What about spelling. Australian spelling favours English spelling rather than American. Colour rather than color, grey rather than gray, cheque rather than check, and so on. Or as one poster on the google answers site puts it, “gray is a color, grey is a colour”.

I also tend to favour ‘ise’ endings, rather than ‘ize’.

Even paper size is a question. If I am trying to sell to a US market, how much do I damage my chances by submitting on A4 paper?

I don’t know.

I don’t know how much difference any of these things make to trying to make a sale.

We don’t bother worrying about these things when we write. Before we submit something to the US market we run it through a US spell checker, but that’s about all we do.

If I found out that the paper size really harmed our chances, I might order in some letter size paper, but haven’t done so to date.

As for words like ‘trunk’. I’d probably leave them for the agent or editor to tell us to change before we touched them.