I get questions from readers from time-to-time about the writing process. I thought it might be worth putting some of these out for people who are contemplating being authors, fiction or non-fiction. These are not hard and fast responses carved in stone, but simply my responses based on experience. Don’t accept these as gospel, they are merely my responses. Other authors I’m sure have completely different answers that may be just as right – for them.
Here’s the most common ones I receive from readers/would-be authors:
Do you write out a detailed outline to work off of for a book?
Generally I do. Some authors don’t. Some of my chapter summaries are little more and a two of three sentence summary. For fiction, it helps me estimate how big the book is going to be. My chapters tend to be between 2.5 and 5k words in fiction, so knowing how many chapters I have allows me to estimate the project’s length. Also for fiction, it helps me see obvious issues, like a character not getting mentioned or on-screen for too long of a gap. It also helps me see where pacing might be a problem. On a new project, after I created the outline, I realized that I had no real action taking place for two chapters – just people talking. That drove me to a change.
For non-fiction I find the chapter breakdowns are a must. They help organize your research materials which is critical when writing military history or true crime.
I am not locked into the outline. If I come up with something that warrants a change, or a new chapter, I do it on the fly.
Where do you start?
For me, it either begins with a great character idea or I mentally get a scene in my head that pops (to me) and from there, the rest of the story gets flowed out. Example: I have a novel coming out where I came up with one scene with two characters that I thought was cool. It tells you everything you need to know about this character and the strategy involved. From that one scene, the rest of the book was easy to craft. That scene happens now, but in the middle of the novel.
Sometimes it is the character. I have one coming up where I wanted a character based on Jack Churchill of WWII fame. I want a character like him. Now it is the matter of figuring out how he would fit into a broader plot that has been suggested. Oddly, understanding this character’s ins and outs compels situations where he will fit in.
What are the hardest parts to write?
I have tried to narrow my response to three things I find challenging to write.
The opening of the book. I like stories to start with an event – be that a battle or in the case of true crime, it can be the discovery of a body or a murder. In one case, my daughter and I began with something different, meeting a profiler and getting his perspective. You have to start off with a compelling reason for readers to want to read more. Some may bail if you start out poorly.
The end of the book. Ultimately you want and ending that leaves the reader satisfied. You don’t have to wrap up every loose end – sometimes that is done intentionally. It gets a little tricky when writing true crime books on cold cases, because the crimes remain unsolved. That doesn’t mean that you can ignore giving the reader some degree of closure in the form of summary as to where the cases remain.
For fiction, I try and put in a twist of some sort. Sometimes it is big, sometimes it is nothing more than a small revelation. It is as much about bringing closure for the reader as it is for the characters of the story. It is a fine balancing act between the two.
Changes in the character arcs. Characters grow, they evolve, their perspectives change. If they don’t, they are dull. I work on arcs for my characters as much as I do the outline for the story. Each character has to grow in some way, or devolve. Writing the scenes where a character’s path changes is tricky. If you don’t do it right, the reader feels that you are not being true to the character.
In fairness, some readers never can wrap their hands around changes in character arcs no matter how you justify and explain it. They are so invested in their perspective of the character, they refuse to accept change in any form. It is both a compliment and a struggle – but such is the nature of fan bases.
If you have questions, feel free to submit them in the comments. I will do another post in the future.