Tuesday, January 3, 2012

What's your writing style?

The article below originally appeared on this blog in February 2010. I have altered it somewhat to refresh it, but I decided to keep the original twelve comments, since they add some additional insight into writing. I hope you enjoy it, and I hope you'll share your writing techniques by leaving a new comment.
I read a post on Cordelia Dinsmore's blog this morning that got me to thinking about how we write. It brought a question to mind, and I figured this would be a good venue to ask it.

The question is simply this: How do you write?

Do you start with a well-developed idea, pencil in a plot line, create character models, outlines, scene-by-scene synopses? Or do you begin with the barest hint of an idea and let the story and the characters develop as you hit the keys? What do you do?

I’ll be the guinea pig on this one. Even if you’re eccentric and quirky, when you read my method, your process won’t seem nearly so weird, I’m sure. At least I don't think it will seem so weird. I guess we'll have to see about that after you make your comment.

When an idea floats into my head from wherever those things originate, I think about it for a couple of days. Sometimes a couple of months. In the case of Lost in the Bayou, it turned out to be over fifty years before I actually got started. But that's an exception, for sure.

During that incubation period, I jot notes while sitting in the McDonald’s drive through, or waking up in the middle of the night. You never know when an idea might sprout in your dark subconscious and push its way into the light of awareness. I figure out what the protagonist wants, and what is preventing her/him from getting it. I come up with a setting that works for the situation my characters are about to find themselves in. I figure out who the rest of the characters are—most of them anyway. And how they're related to my protagonist, or antagonist, and what their individual agendas might be.

After I have a general idea of the plot, I consider which point of view would make the most sense for the writing and provide the reader with the most enjoyment. I sometimes write a few pages in first person and then alter it to third to see how it sounds or what advantage a change in POV might create. I play with the idea for a couple weeks, making notes, figuring things out (somewhat) and then start writing Chapter 1.

Before I write very much, and after I've gotten a better concept of my characters, I switch hats and become a casting director. I figure out the perfect actors for each of the roles I’m creating for the movie that’s going to play out in my head as I write the story. I surf the web for photos of the actors I’m imagining in those roles. I print them out and tape them to the wall beside my computer, with their character names on them, so they can be there ever second of the day as an inspiration. I try to imagine the characters saying the dialogue I’ve written (until I get to the point in the story where they start speaking for themselves and I have to type as fast as possible to keep up with their words. It's surprising sometimes how much they know.)

Sometimes things change—and sometimes it's for the worse. Maybe that brilliant idea for a sub-plot suddenly fizzles when I realize there is no way in the world my protagonist would get into such a ridiculous situation. Or the villain is way too smart to fall into that lame trap. So I have to rethink it. If I’m lucky, an even better solution emerges. If I have written a lot of material when I discover the faux pas, a few, or several, changes may be required. So I head back to Chapter 1, page 1. I typically edit as I write. It is an obsession I am trying to change. It's resisting. As my mentor, Stephen King says (over and over) in 11/22/63, "The past is obdurate."

Eventually, the first draft is completed. I email it to Kinko’s and have a copy printed. Then, I sit on my front porch in the sunshine, drinking my morning coffee from my mug with all the Australian creatures on it (yes, I do know what a bandicoot looks like! Thank you, Trish.) and I start reading while my purple pen scribbles marks all over the pages. Edit mode. I sometimes wonder what I was thinking when I constructed a particular sentence and used specific words that could have been so much stronger and exceedingly more visual. I remove all of the unnecessary dialogue tags. It's amazing how many you can do without. And on it goes, until I have an even better version than the original “masterpiece” I thought I had created.

Now, it’s your turn. I want to know how you write. How do you start? What’s do you do? Give us any unique aspects of your writing efforts. Do you listen to music? Do you have a special coffee mug, or a hat you wear when writing? Our readers' mind’s are hungry to know.


  1. When an idea comes, I jot the, usually, one line bare idea down. I let it roll around in my subconscious for how ever long it takes to take shape, less than an hour or a month. Then I start to expand on the idea, which includes raw notes on characters, the MC, at least.
    Then when that character startings speaking, I do character development, facts, backstory and the like.
    I don't do outlines or plot out scenes. These are somethings maybe I should do, but I've been writing productively without them.
    As I'm working up the characters and filling in the story line, I do light notes on what the story will be, but, I'm just keeping up with the story, so if it goes differently than I think it will, its not a problem. Then I just start writing. =]
    I do listen to music, though when I am deep into writing mode, I don't actually hear it, but it continues to block out ambient noise and helps keep me focused. The music I listen to changes with the story, scene, or just my mood. There is a base playlist I turn on, whenever I sit down to write, then if it feels wrong, I'll change it x] It has a lot of Darren Hayes, actually-from Affirmation, Truly Madly Completely, The Tension and the Spark, This Delicate Thing, then an experimental type he did with a friend under the name We Are Smug, then there's also The Used, Black Veil Brides, Kristin Hersch, Mustafa Sandal, Tarkan, Garth Brooks and Patsy Cline xD
    I don't really have something that I /need/ to write, but I have a necklace I did that I wear sometimes when I write. And of course I have Twitter open in a tab.
    That's about it for me, I'm new at the more dedicated side of writing, keep that in mind ~.^

  2. My process is much like yours. Once an idea hits, usually for a character, but sometimes a story idea, I'll sit and think. Sometimes for a long time, just working up ideas. Once I know who my main character is and everything about hm, plot develops. I write a pretty detailed plot outline, developing more characters along the way. AFter a while, I'm ready for chapter one. Next comes the printer and a red pen. Then rewrites. Rewrites. And more rewrites.

    And, yes. I do sometimes where a hat.

  3. Sometimes my ideas originate with the name of a character and I have to wait for her to tell me who she is and what sort of trouble she's in. Other times I have a vague plot in mind but no cast. Either way, the ideas percolate in my head until I'm ready to sit down and begin outlining. I have to have an outline, even if it's just a bare-bones outline.

  4. Well, Michael, I've read some of your work, and however you do it, it's working.

    But the cast of characters thing cracks me up. Although I must admit, I can see my characters clearly in my mind. I just don't go looking for the cast the way you do.

    I'm very scattered in my approach - often I dream up the idea, and then build on that. Sometimes it doesn't work. But I don't ever outline - period.

    Usually, once an idea takes shape, I lay awake at night while my characters have conversations and scenes play out in my head. Then if I get up and try to write them down, they fizzle - so I usually keep them all in my head until I have time to work things out, then I can get them down in a more coherent order.

    Music? No. I prefer total silence when I'm writing, and it's hard to obtain that - so I often work late in the night.

  5. How do I write? Well, I sit at my desk surrounded by books and dolls. Yes, dolls. I have a mouse, a kangaroo, a lanky fairy, a mermaid and I even have a Molly doll. I never have to think about what I’m going to write. As soon as I start typing it just comes. I always have so many ideas running through my head. I get ideas from the Australian wildlife in my garden as well as from my guinea pigs. Animals are so beautiful and so full of personality. I’m a volunteer for a wildlife rescue and have the privilege to look after some of the most beautiful little creatures in the world. I mainly do phone rescues from my home phone, but also care for injured animals and birds when needed.

    I live in a beautiful valley in the wetlands of northern NSW Australia. When I go for my daily bush walk, I always get inspired by something. I sit on a log by the riverbank and gaze at the water or go for a walk through the forest. I wander around the many dams and along the dirt roads. Sometimes I see things that inspire an idea for a story, like a rusty car deep in the woods or a knobbly old gum tree. We have many derelict cottages in our valley. One day I ventured inside one and found it to be full of old furniture. In one of the bedrooms there was a yellow cot and an old wooden bed base. I used that for a scene in my latest manuscript.

    After looking after a bandicoot that was attacked by a cat, I was inspired to write a story from a child’s point of view. I was getting a little frustrated by people complaining about our local bandicoots digging up their gardens. I tried to explain that bandicoots eat the bugs off their plant, not the plants, but they still complained. Some people let their cats out at dusk and dawn and that’s when all the little critters come out of their nests so I felt I had to have my say, but I don’t want to preach to children. I just want to make them laugh and entertain them. I also want to pull at their heartstrings. So I added a lot of humour and emotion to the story. That wasn’t hard. I’ve been writing about my Molly for four years now so I know who she is. I tried to imagine what she would do if she rescued a bandicoot form a neighbour’s cat. The rest was easy. She took over my life and wrote the rest herself.

    I do the same with all her stories. I’m writing a series of stand-alone books with Molly and all the same characters. Molly is only eight and some people think she’s too young for MG, but I hope her antics will entertain older children as much as they entertains my critique group. She’s a scruffy, impulsive, accident prone child who speaks her mind, but always ends up in trouble.

    The first Molly story I wrote was from my memories of my childhood. I was such a weird child, but I wasn’t aware of it back then. When I say weird, I mean weird. I did some strange things when I was seven. I was so accident prone. Things used to break around me, but I never did it on purpose. I have written them into a Molly story, but haven’t submitted it to an agent as yet and I’m not sure that I will. I don’t know why, but after one mischievous thing I did, I went home and told my mother. I made her promise not to punish me first. But as soon as I told her, she banned me from playing with my best friend. It wasn’t something naughty, just stupid.

    Now to music. Umm, well I listened to Michael Jackson's Ben when I wrote the first Molly book. That inspired me. Whith the second manuscript, I was inspired by the song: Somewhere (A Place for us)
    From: Westside Story
    By: Leonard Berstein & Stephen Sondheim. The words just seemed to fit with the story and makes it a real tear jerker. LOL.

  6. There are often times when I wake up during the night with ideas or images, so I write down as much as I can (without waking my husband who just doesn't understand how this works). From that, I build the scenario that will carry the character(s) from beginning to end. I rarely outline but I do work notes quite a bit. I love to listen to music, and as someone mentioned above, I don't actually listen to it - it just provides a soothing environment. Once my characters start talking, I can't seem to stop. Often, I'm still writing a two or three a.m. But there's nothing I'd rather do.

  7. My writing has changed so much during the past ten years. Now that I have more time on my hands, seems I write less. I need structure. When I wrote my one published book, I started with a vague idea and built on it. It has always been my custom to write the first two or three chapters with nothing but the vague idea, and then sit with pencil and paper and begin to plot seriously. I do listen to music but not just anything. I listen to Concentration: Maximize Your Productivity by The Arcangelos Chamber Ensemble and Focus: Clarity, Creativy, Vitality by the same. Of course, I zone out so the music is in the background of my mind. I really wish I could outline in detail. I'm trying to learn how. For my latest project, I'm typing one scene after another until I reach the end of the book. It's a very linear method. One line for each scene.
    Jane goes to town to buy recorder.
    Bailey appears in the store.
    Confronts her about illegal recording.
    Word fight.
    Mason enters and comes to her rescue.
    Dog jumps from store owners lap and nips Bailey on the ankle.
    Threatens law suit.
    Jane and Mason leave store.

    I took a plotting class that showed us how to do this along with other plotting methods like the 3 act structure and Hero's Journey.

    With my published book, after I got the first three chapters down, I took 12 sheets of paper to signify each chapter, and began plotting. I haven't been able to do that since. :( I've lost my way... and I'm searching.

  8. I, too am a "revise-as-I-goer." It's getting worse with experience, because I'm more and more aware of how to make things better. So this is my challenge with my current WIP: Quit looking over my shoulder and press on.

    I write at night when the house is quiet or very early in the morning (often these times merge ;)

  9. Interesting post--I'm doing a series on plotting a novel over at my blog.

    First a get the idea, examine it with several questions (this includes marketability and pov, etc.). Then I make my playlist that's riddled with theme music for the story. I visit my characters and get a feel for who they are and a bit about their motivation. Then I write everything I can think of about the plot--sort of a loose snowflake method. Big plot changes, little ones, etc. Then I visit my characters again and do a more in depth sketch. Then I do a chapter by chapter outline, in which I say exactly what's going to happen during that scene and from which point of view. Then, yay!, I'm ready to write.

    I don't enjoy editing that much or revising, although I know it's necessary. But that's why I put so much work into the first draft.

  10. Let's see. The first novel I wrote began with a dream I had. A very vivid, long and engaging dream about a cousins wedding. I was so intrigued by it that I thought, "hmmm, that would make a great book." And I started writing. I wrote non-stop for an entire year. I wrote in class, at work, while I was at home, all the time. I didn't stop until I hit 900 pages. Then I had a couple of friends begin reading it, in our critique group, of three. You two know who you are. And it turned into three books. Only the first is complete, but I'm still working on the other two. It's based in Italy so I listened and listen to Italian music.
    For the second book I started I listen to a variety of JOhn Mayer, John Legend, and a mix of Italian and Greek music. Those are really the only things I listen to, when I'm writing.

    As for characters, For the trilogy I chose a group of guys I met in Italy on a train from Rome, though they have evolved into hotter guys, and a lot of my family members and friends, we'll see how that works out. I had the hero picked out for the second book before I began writing, since it too was based on a dream.

    It's funny how my ideas have come from long, vivid dreams. I love it, and hope others will too, someday.
    Dialogue was difficult for me at first, then when my critique group suggested more dialogue, I went to the extreme. I'm still working on that one. I have edited the first complete manuscript at least 3 times, blah. It is very, VERY, VERY long at 130,000 words so I've been tryign to cut it. I'm now down to 128,000, not much but I'm halfways through the editing, AGAIN.

  11. When an idea shows up, it either shows up hard (as in the muse hits me over the head with something heavy), or it trickles in. Ideas that hit hard get the most attention. I'll jot down notes whenever possible about everything: characters, settings, plot points, etc. If I can't start writing right away, I'll cultivate the idea myself - feed the muse, as it were. I'll lay in bed for an hour after waking up in the morning and just daydream on purpose. I'll seek out music that works with certain elements and daydream to that.

    Eventually I'll have enough to write an outline or a rough synopsis and then I'll tackle the thing. Occasionally I'll tackle the thing without outlining because the whole outline is in my head already, though I do always end up going back and writing a summary.

    Only on very rare occasions (twice) will I leap in without an extra thought of where something is going and what other characters are involved aside from my main one or two. Then I'll write like a madwoman and make stuff up as I go.

  12. I've only just realized a good way to write. :P I couldn't figure out forever why my writing was flat or forced. The only good things I wrote were short and vague, like short stories and poems, but I hate short things. I'm too into description.

    Finally, I figured it out. Something gives me inspiration, like a book or a movie or a song, and I brainstorm for a while. Usually, I end up with a few pages of background like names and descriptions. I might draw my characters' faces or the setting, just to flesh it out and really get to know what I'm working with. There's usually a few pages of rather bad writing as I figure out how I want the characters to sound, and then I'm off. If it's a story that has any potential, it sticks with me. There have been tons of "potentials" that have fallen to the wayside because it was more a current trend than something I was passionate about.

    The best part of the story writing process for me is watching the story develope. For me, the story is usually very vague to begin with. There might be a few possible ties and infinite ways to go, but once I get more than 15 pages in it begins to write itself. Characters take on a life of their own and demand to be written. (It leaves me feeling slightly mentally unstable. But then, that is the life of a writer, no? We gotta be kinda off our rocker in order to get in someone else's head.) A good story can sit in my mind for days or weeks and still have all the qualities it did to begin with.

    One of the essential elements, though, is music. It fuels my muse and sets the tone for my writing. It flavors whatever I write, leaving what could have been a fanfic novel as an earthy twist on an alternate reality, or turning the flat, usual sci-fi novel into a portrait of every young woman's battle with insecurity. Without it, I have a very hard time writing (which is probably a flaw I should work on. Itunes does not always decide to co-operate...)Currently, my WIP has me tethered to Evanescence, Linkin Park, and Flyleaf. Strange yes...but good for angry angsty girls. :)

    I've got to second (or third or w/e :) ) Michael's cast thing. I like seeing what my characters look like. it makes them more real. Before, I would base my characters off real people, but that tends to backfire when you write the romantic interest as your crush and then get denied. It doesn't bode well for the storyline (or a fourteen-year old's self-esteem haha). The cast of characters makes much more sense. My only issue now is that I have no photoshop for one of my main characters (for which I am going insane.... :( )

    Ultimately, though, it is the book which dictates the process. Each time, I have a different experience. The process for me is much more explorative than most, it would seem. There is rarely more than a ghost of a plot that grows and evolves on its own. It's part of the excitement of writing, for me. It's the adrenaline junkie in me, waiting for the surprise around the literary corner rather than the twist on the roller coaster. :)

    Stevie Grace

  13. For me, stories invariably start from an image, an image so strong that it saturates my brain and heart and won't fade...which no doubt comes from a background in visual arts and having a primarily visual approach.
    All the rest unfolds from that first image, usually in pictures (or 'movies')which then translate into living, breathing characters, scenes and plotlines.
    I don't tend to plan very much, other than having an idea of the end a story is heading for, and outlining chapters one or two chapters ahead of where I'm writing. I enjoy writing scenes free-form (and fixing them up later - often they're a bit fragmented)and love that continuou creative moment.
    To get me into the 'mood' of a scene I'll play very scene-specific music (which can range from classical to rock). Often, where there are multiple viewpoint characters, there'll be a piece of music that becomes each character's theme, and I'll put it on whenever I start a scene with them, so that I'm instantly back in their 'reality', so to speak!


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