Ask Correia #12: The Writing Process

I got another Ask Correia Writing Question on Facebook.  Cool. I love these.  And by popular request from the last time I did a creative writing seminar, I’ve now grouped all the Ask Correia posts under the Best of MHN tab above.

Hi Larry, I was wondering if you could go over your technical writing process in more detail. Do you come up with a plot and characters then develop a basic outline? Then fill in the outline with more details and subplots. At which point do you get to writing? Thanks. – Felix

That’s a good question, Felix. Let’s see if I can get out of my Nyquil addled, flu-haze long enough to form a coherent response.

I don’t think that there’s one right way to do this. In talking to other authors, I know that we’ve all got different methods. I think the real key is finding the one that works best for you so that you can start producing books. I’m going to share a couple examples.

The IDEA  

For me, books start as a general big idea. “Wow, it sure would be fun to write about X!” I’ve said before that ideas are everywhere. (in fact, there’s another Ask Correia post about where to get ideas from)

Monster Hunter International started out because I loved B-movies and guns, and as anyone that has ever watched a monster movie knows, most of those would be over in a couple of minutes if the protagonist was armed and had a clue, and I thought it would be fun to do something from that perspective. Armed and smart protagonists in a classic B-movie monster setting.  That was the general starting idea, but I hadn’t fully clicked yet. Sometimes an idea needs time to percolate and connect with other ideas that are floating around in your head.

Then one day I read the following quote-  “You know what the difference between me and you really is? You look out there and see a horde of evil, brain-eating zombies. I look out there and see a target-rich environment.”  Boom. Suddenly it clicked.  My armed protagonists would be doing this as a business, and as a small business owner, I understood that world too. That’s how MHI was born in my head.

The Grimnoir world started on a dare. Some English student at BYU didn’t want my opinion on some subject because I was only a lowly “Contemporary Fantasy” writer instead of an “Epic Fantasy” writer like the other authors on the panel. Well, screw you random dude. Nobody tells Larry Correia what genre he’s in! So I asked Brandon Sanderson, who was on the panel and who is one of the leading grand masters of Epic Fantasy what exactly an Epic Fantasy was. He told me what the general criteria was, so I set out to write an “epic fantasy”. After  a brainstorming session with Mike Kupari, I went and created a series that has been described as the League of Extraordinary X-Men meet Dick Tracy as written by Raymond Chandler only with more ninjas.  Whatever… It is totally awesome. Take that anonymous random English major!   

I tell that story to point out that sometimes your initial idea will morph as you write it. That’s fine. Take it to where it needs to go to be awesome. Don’t feel constrained by anything other than: 1. Is it Awesome? 2. Can I sell it to somebody? 

I have a novel I want to write based on a conversation with my wife about reality TV shows involving African warlords, and a sword and sorcery epic based on a scene that I came up with only because I had the song Waiting for a Train from the Inception soundtrack playing in the background at the time. Ideas are literally everywhere. Take the ones that excite you the most and start playing with those worlds in your imagination. Once you’re so excited that you’re just bursting to write about it, that’s when you need to really get to work.

The CHARACTERS

Which comes first, the characters or the plot? That’s a chicken and the egg kind of thing. Sometimes you’ll have the characters formed during the idea phase. Sometimes you’ll have an idea for a plot, but no idea who to populate the story with. Either way is fine. Just run with it.

With MHI, I had the basic idea/plot well developed before I had even thought much about the characters. The protagonist of MHI is Owen Zastava Pitt. I did not have him developed at all when I started. (see the other Ask Correia about Mary Sues, because sometimes writing what you know can come in really handy).  However, some of the supporting characters of MHI had existed partially formed in my head for quite some time. Since MHI was my first real writing project, it probably isn’t the best example of how to do it, since you learn new tricks and improve your skills with everything you write.

I love developing characters, even when I don’t know where I’m going to eventually stick them, or even which book, or series to stick them in.  I have a couple of characters that are floating out there, partially formed, just general ideas that I think would be fun to write. Whenever I think of somebody that would be interesting in a particular situation, I just kind of file them away for future use. They may end up as an arms dealer in the D6 world or they might end up as a creature dealing with MHI, but the personality stays the same. 

Other times you’ll be writing and you’ll come to a scene where you need to add a character. The PoV character’s car is in the shop, and it would be very helpful if the mechanic was a character capable of sharing some piece of valuable back story.  Okay, then take a look at the scene, think about how important it is and how much work you need to put into that character, and go from there. If they’re not that important, they’re just not that important. If they’re pivotal, give them some thought.

The beauty of word processors is that these characters aren’t set in stone. If you write in some minor character to fill a niche in chapter 3, and by the time you’re getting close to the end you have a brilliant twist idea, you can go back and add that character to chapter 7, develop them in 8, and then make the readers cry at their inevitable betrayal in chapter 12. Have fun with it. 

Holly from MHI is a good example of this. She started out in my head as a very minor throw away character. (mostly because if you haven’t realized it by now, every single character in MHI started out as a typical B monster movie character trope, and she was Hot Blonde Girl of Moral Flexibility). However, she turned out to be interesting, and a deep and entertaining back story formed as I wrote about her. By the end she’s a major character that readers really like.

Lorenzo from Dead Six (coming October 2011 from Baen) was a tough one. This story was originally written on the fly as an internet serial. I needed a character personality that was fully fleshed out and ready to roll. Mike and I were taking turns, writing about 1,000 words a day, one after the other, and posting the rough on the internet as we went. So I didn’t have a lot of time to mull him over. But luckily I had a handy character personality laying around in my head that seemed to fit. Lorenzo is basically a rogue named Ozzie from a D&D game I played in college. I took him out of a fantasy world where he was robbing dragons and stuck him in the middle-east in modern times so he could rob terrorists. Problem solved, and the character turned out to be an absolutely perfect fit. Plus it is really fun to write from the perspective as someone who is described by another character as a “self-absorbed, godless, narcissist.”  

Of course you’re going to flesh out these characters as you write. They’re going to grow, change, and adapt to your story. Don’t be afraid to explore that, but remember, they answer to you, not the other way around… Which brings us to…

The OUTLINE vs. FREE WRITING

There are two basic methods to writing. You can either outline or you can free write. Outlining means that you come up with a general framework for your story first.   Free Writing is when you take your basic idea, and then just start writing to see where it takes you. Both work. There are extremely successful writers that do either.  I’ve done both, but I’m primarily an outliner.

Once I’ve got a basic idea and some characters that I’m going to use to explore that idea, I sit down and make a skeleton. My starting outlines are usually only a few pages long, and often times there more just random thoughts and paragraphs of information for me to ponder over. The closer I get to starting however, the more I tend to know what I’m going to do. I usually know what’s going to happen as far as the beginning, middle, and end, and basically how I’m going to get there.  A usual outline for me will only be a few pages at that point, and will sometimes just be a list of basic scenes in their approximate order.

I’m not slavishly devoted to my outline though. The story itself is more important, so as I’m writing, if something in the outline doesn’t work, it gets tweaked. The outline is just a suggestion. The story is what is important.

Dead Six was 90% Free Write. I just kind of jumped in on Mike Kupari’s internet thread and we took it wherever it went. Sometimes my character was reacting to what his did, and then his was reacting to what mine did.  Our total planning consisted of a few e-mails back and forth consisting of “Hey, what if I do this? Will it mess you up if I do that?” Yet, somehow it intertwined perfectly and turned into a great story.

The advantage of Free Writing is that it is fun, and can come really naturally, and nothing reads better than writing that just flowed. The disadvantage is that sometimes Free Writing it becomes very easy to write yourself into a corner and get stuck.  Usually when I meet somebody who says something like “I started this really awesome story, got halfway through, and now I’ve got writer’s block!” The vast majority of the time it is because they were Free Writing and blundered into a story dead end. If that happens, you just need to be analytical about it, back up, and think it through to decide what you’re trying to accomplish.

My friend Brad Torgersen (who is an extremely talented author) once said that he loves to Free Write short stories (which he’s sold a bunch of) but he can’t write novels that way because there is just so much other stuff involved. I know other people that can Free Write a 200,000 word epic and make it awesome, so I guess it depends on how your brain is wired.

Basically, I’m a loose outliner that then fills in the blanks with free writing. Whatever works for you, run with it.

The NOTES

Once you’ve gotten started, I find it really helpful to make notes as you go. If you were to look at the rough drafts of one of my manuscripts, and you scrolled to the bottom, you’d discover several pages of what appears to be nonsense. These are things like lines of dialog that I thought of that didn’t fit at the time, but might be great later. Or possible character names, or interesting places, or factoids, or “Gee whiz, wouldn’t it be neat if it turned out Steve’s grandmother was a mermaid?” kind of stuff. Sometimes there will be items down there that won’t even appear in the book, but may make it into the sequel. (Agent Franks, anyone?) or it might even be an idea that was great, but didn’t fit the current story, but is so awesome it might get spun off into its own book someday.  (And Franks gets to be the star of Monster Hunter Nemesis)

Also, if you’re writing something convoluted or complicated, it might not hurt to start a sort of character bible or fact sheet. I’ve got about 40 pages of notes on the Monster Hunter universe. Mostly because there is a lot of history and a mess of characters.  (this is for the 7 MH books that I’ve got planned so far) This becomes even more important when you’re collaborating with another writer. Mike and I have an extensive list of every character in the D6 universe that we’ve ever mentioned, and basic data about them. This is really important because we’re often stealing and writing each other’s characters, so we have to keep our facts straight.

The RESEARCH

This is also the time where I will do any absolutely necessary research for the project. I’ve got another post about research, but basically get as familiar with the things you need to get familiar with in order to get started. You don’t need to know everything, because otherwise you’ll spend all your time researching and none writing.

Super Writer John Brown is currently working on a thriller. The protagonist is a former Green Beret who is then convicted of a felony and goes to prison.  John has been interviewing ex-cons and I put him in contact with one of my Jack Bauer type friends in order to get his facts right about Special Forces things.  Not only does research make your book read better to people that have a clue, but it is also a great way to get good ideas and little bits of story flavor.

If you’re going to have a book with lots of sword fighting, you need to at least learn a little bit about sword fighting first. But don’t put off writing the book because you’re not an expert on sword fighting yet. You can always start writing and then leave a big question mark when it comes to the specific factoids that you haven’t learned yet.

The BEGINNING

Are your notes perfect? Do you know every character? Is your outline perfect? Have you got a masters degree in the subject matter? Probably not… Good. Go write already!  Don’t wait too long trying to get your ducks in a row. Get going. Strike while you’re excited.  Set aside some time and start typing.

Seriously, go write something.

The WORK

Here comes the dirty little secret of this business. Writing is hard work. Now, work can be lots of fun, but it is also work. You need to set a schedule, put your butt in the seat, hands on the keyboard, and friggin’ TYPE STUFF. 

This is the part that stops most aspiring writers. They have a great idea. They’re enthusiastic as all get out. They sit down and start writing… and writing… and writing… and about 40,000 words in they discover that this is HARD.

Yep, now finish the book.

Give yourself time to work. Don’t kill yourself over it, but you have to put in the time to produce words.  The reason I’m blogging right now is because I’m too sick and high on cold medicine to work on my current novel. I’ve got a killer deadline looming, but a man has to know his limitations.

Writers write. If I have only a limited amount of time, that’s when I’ll go back and edit bits and pieces or tackle small scenes. I save the good stuff for when I’m in the proper frame of mind. If I’m working on a part that’s not clicking, I’m not going to stop the whole project until it does. Nope. I’m going to skip ahead and write the next scene that I feel like writing. I can always go back and fill in that earlier scene when I feel like it.

Writer’s Block is a filthy lie. If somebody says they have Writer’s Block, they’re either being lazy and they really want to go play some Call of Duty, or they’re working on something that they’re just plain not interested in. Okay, fine. Stop that particular project that is boring you and go work on something else instead. If you’re absolutely stuck, go Free Write something to see if you can kick up the creative juices.

Let me tell you though, once you become a professional, and you’re doing this for a living, it doesn’t matter that you don’t feel like writing a particular thing at that time… Because your publisher has paid you an advance for that book and it is now on the schedule to be released at a certain date. You like having a job? I bet you do… Try telling your boss at your current job that you have Accountant’s Block and you just don’t feel like completing these taxes.  “Oh, I’m sorry you’re having a cerebral hemorrhage, sir. I’ve got Brain Surgeon’s Block and I just can’t perform right now.”

See? Put your big girl panties on and write the darned book.

You put in enough time, eventually you’re going to have a finished book.  Yay!

The EDITING

Allow me to channel the Old Spice guy. You finished the book. Now look at the book. Now back at me. It has problems. Now back at your book. See the problems? Don’t be scared. Now look at me. You can be like me.  Look at the book. Now edit the book.

I haven’t even looked at your manuscript yet, but I can already tell you that there is something wrong with it, and I’m not just talking about your spelling or poor punctuation. (heh… Don’t let that stop you. I absolutely suck at teh grammars and I’m a New York Times bestseller!)  There are going to be issues. That’s okay. There are always issues. That’s what editing is for.

When you’re finished, give yourself a little time off. I should have the second Grimnoir novel done by the end of the month. Then I’m going to take a few weeks off while I go on book tour, so that I can come back and hit it again with a fresh perspective. It is hard to edit your work when you’re too close to it.

What if the whole thing is crap? So what if it sucks? Your first book is going to be rough. You can either make it better (if possible) or write a whole new one. Did Michael Jordan win the first game of basketball he ever played? (I don’t know? Maybe? Bad analogy…) There is no such thing as wasted writing. All writing is practice. The more you practice, the better you’re going to get. 

Don’t get too attached to your words. Let’s say that you started writing, and you created a 10,000 word prolog that you think is just awesome… But then as you’re going along, you discover that it is pointless to the story and doesn’t add anything to the book.  CUT IT. 

I know that hurts. That’s okay though. I’m a professional and I’ve had to cut whole scenes when my editor didn’t like them. That’s life. This is a business. You need to be a professional… No editors like working with the “sensitive artist” types. Screw those guys. They usually write one good book, win a couple of literary awards, and then drift into obscurity because they can’t knuckle down and produce. If you want to make a living writing books, treat it like a job. That means if you need to put your feelings aside and take an ax to some of your scenes, do it.

That said, just because you cut something doesn’t mean you should just throw it away. Just because those ideas don’t fit in your current project doesn’t mean they’re useless. You might be surprised what you can use later. My first novel wasn’t Monster Hunter International.  It was a thriller called Minute of Angle. Don’t bother asking.  You will never get to see it, because A. It wasn’t that good. B. I went ahead and stole all of the good bits, scenes, lines, and characters from it and stuck them into the much better Dead Six and its sequels Swords of Exodus, and Project Blue.  Bob, the conspiracy theorist FBI agent was the main character in MoA and he became an important supporting character in the D6 novels. Remember, no writing is ever wasted.  

Once you’re a professional, you will have a professional editor. Mine have been Toni Weiskopf or Jim Minz. Both are sharp and both know what makes a good book better. I love working with them. I just did the Monster Hunter Alpha edits based on Jim’s critique and he had a few items that drastically improved some scenes. Those were some of those “Dur, why didn’t I think of that?” kind of moments.

Before you’ve got a publishing house with a pro editor appointed to you, the best thing you can do is form your own Reader Force Alpha. Find a group of people that you trust to let read your rough draft. I’ve talked about alpha readers before. Remember, don’t trust any one person too much. You’re looking for general ideas. If your mom really hates your book, it doesn’t make your book bad, it just means that it isn’t your mom’s thing.  My wife isn’t a fan of the Monster Hunter universe but she really likes Grimnoir. Everybody is different.

A lot of writers I know love being in a writing group. That’s where a bunch of aspiring writers get together to go over each other’s stuff, offer critiques and feedback, and so on.  I’ve never been in a writing group, so I can’t really comment on how they work.  I know several of my friends that are very successful writers belong to writing groups or started out that way.  The above mentioned Brandon Sanderson, Dan Wells (I am Not a Serial Killer series from Tor), and Rob Wells (Variant series coming soon from Harper Collins) all came from the same writing group. (yeah, no pressure on the other guys in that group, I bet!)

The GETTING BETTER AT THIS STUFF PART

You are going to learn things as you write, and you’re going to learn more things as you edit. Don’t give up after you finish the first book. While you’re shopping it around to publishers, now is the time to write the second one and start planning the third one.

Go to Conventions and Writing Conferences. Listen to writers and learn from their bag of tricks. Network. Meet other writers and aspiring writers. Read lots of books. Read more books. Read books outside of your genre. Read books that you think suck and are lame so you can see what not to do. Think about your weaknesses and then read authors that are strong where you are weak, to see how they do it.

The SELLENING!

Now the hard part. Selling the darned thing. I’ve got another Ask Correia about this very topic. Basically, it is really tough to sell a manuscript to a publisher, but it is totally doable if you’re willing to work at it.

That’s basically the whole process. Wash. Rinse. Repeat. Cash royalty checks and be awesome.

This episode of Ask Correia has been brought to you by Nyquil! The nighttime, sleepy, stuffy-head, aching, runny-nose, hallucinate, and wake up on the lawn in your underwear medicine!

11 Responses

  1. Thank you. I’m currently publishing a novel, one chapter at a time, on my blog – and not trying to sell it. I started it after reading MHI. It’s not monsters and guns, but your words were echoing in my head when I began.

    Your tips are greatly appreciated. I put together a list of bullet points – just plot points, things I’d like to have happen – and when I get enough of them, the next chapter writes itself. Nice to know others do the same things.

  2. Dude. You have random notes in your stories about my mom possibly being a mermaid? I told you to keep that quiet…

  3. there’s another Ask Correia post about where to get ideas from
    Schenectady. Everyone knows that.

  4. This was a great list Larry, and much appreciated. Actually quite the confidence booster also. Thanks!

  5. Larry,

    Awesome “Ask Correia” post as usual.

    Thanks for this part I feel validated now.

    “Writer’s Block is a filthy lie. If somebody says they have Writer’s Block, they’re either being lazy and they really want to go play some Call of Duty, or they’re working on something that they’re just plain not interested in. Okay, fine. Stop that particular project that is boring you and go work on something else instead. If you’re absolutely stuck, go Free Write something to see if you can kick up the creative juices.”

    I find that after I’ve written a 30 to 40 thousand words I HAVE TO get away from the book for a bit and write something else.

    I used to think I had writers block, but what I found is that I got tired of the story and needed a break to recharge the “magic” that the story held for me on page three.

    Later,

    Matthew Mayner
    (AKA Moose1942)

  6. [...] Leave a Comment Posted by warpcordova on April 18, 2011 I was reading Larry Correia’s most recent post on writing and how there is no such thing as writer’s block and I found myself thinking (Yes, button [...]

  7. Hi Larry. Here is another ‘Ask Correia’ question for you. How do you approach worldbulding? Did you approach it differently for Hard Magic vs MHI? How do you expand your universe as you write more books (e.g. From Elves to elves and orcs to the history of elves, orcs and Fey)?
    -Scott

  8. My son is learning about the writing process Great post for us to review together.

    Brandy aka Lil’Momma

  9. So, I love your books, I love your articles, and I find these writing guides super helpful. Also, I’m an accountant (or will early next year after I graduate) with an extremely overactive imagination. I’ve always loved writing. I have written pages of notes, detailed character backgrounds, and lists of ideas, but one thing is missing.

    How do you work up the courage to start writing something significant? I don’t know if I can explain it any better than that. I know I have a tiny bit of talent; I know I have ideas that could be interesting; I have people around me that encourage me to just start writing; yet, I can’t seem to bring myself to do it. I don’t know if it’s because I don’t want to waste my good ideas while I’m so inexperienced or if I’m afraid of letting other people into the strange, exciting world that is my mind, or if it’s something else entirely.

    Sorry it’s so long.
    TL;DR: How do you muster the courage to start writing?

  10. [...] Correia, novelist extraordinaire, covers this on his post about “The Writing Process.” Says [...]

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