The Mechanics of (My) Writing



     I often get asked various questions about how I write, what my approach to writing is, how long it takes,and so on. This piece tries to cover all of these questions.

     The simplest way to describe how I write is the wiseass version: I sit down, open my computer, bring up the file, and write until I run out of story or time.

     Naturally, it's not quite so simple as that.

     If I know what I'm writing – that is, I have the plotline clear in my head and I know the characters and so on – it can be about that simple. For the stories told in what I consider my "main universe" – which includes Digital Knight/Paradigms Lost and Phoenix Rising, but has many other stories written and planned – this is fairly common. I can sit down and start writing any of several stories pretty easily.

     This is because that universe is one I've been working on for over 35 years. I know that universe like the back of my hand. If I'm so tired that my eyes are trying to close on their own, I can still remember key facts about the way things work and finish planning out the rest of a chapter while I'm typing it. If I come to a point in a story where I actually haven't figured out the details, I can usually just keep on writing, confident that my knowledge of how the world works will help me work things out on the fly.

     Thus – for me – the first thing I do with any new story is figure out the world it takes place in. Some people like to start with characters, but for me it's the world – mainly because I have to know what the characters will have to live with, what strange (or not so strange) rules will govern their lives, in order to actually figure out the characters themselves.

     So far in my published or to-be-published writing career I've had to do that five times – first for Diamonds Are Forever (collected in Mountain Magic), then for Boundary, then Grand Central Arena, Polychrome, and most recently for the forthcoming Boundaryverse novel Castaway Planet, which is 200 years farther on and has a lot of new stuff I had to figure out.

     The amount of worldbuilding varies drastically. For Diamonds Are Forever, I actually wanted to leave a possible opening for that world linking with my own, so I was able to steal certain background concepts as foundations for parts of the world which gave me the origins of the Nowëthada and Lisharithada; it was in a sense a bit of a cheat, but it worked fine for such a short novel and by the time I was done I knew a lot more about the world.

     For Boundary there was a lot of scary work to do. I didn't have to design the deep background – it was set in a version of this world thirty years hence – but I did need to come to understand space travel, and the technologies and challenges, to a depth I'd never expected, and figure out how to arrange specific events that would bring the characters together in interesting and exciting ways. Hard SF puts serious constraints on you; no zooming from planet to planet in a couple of hours, not with any tech we have or foresee, anyway. However, it did have the real-world advantage of having many people to consult with on how things worked.

     Grand Central Arena posed a completely different challenge – the need to make a space opera universe that wasn't my main universe.  The core concept that Eric had planted the seed for was easy enough to grow – it fit an old, old idea I'd had many years before – but there was something missing, and it wasn't until several elements dovetailed in my head – DuQuesne's background, a particular set of Roger Dean images, and a few other disparate things – that I understood really what I was building and why.

     Polychrome had the terrible challenge of trying to take a series of children's books written a hundred years ago and (A) resolve key contradictions, (B) construct a coherent world that was respectful of the original world, and (C) create a plotline that would maintain some of the essence of the original while being worthwhile for adults or young adults to read – not a children's story, even though its origins were set in one of the oldest childrens' series written.

     Castaway Planet's challenges involved extrapolating from the Boundaryverse and then creating what I hope is a fairly unique world and set of challenges for the characters developed.

     Characters themselves have many different inspirations. In the Boundary series, some characters were invented by Eric Flint (most notably Helen Sutter, and the published version of Madeline Fathom is really his even if I did invent the name and general outline); others were mine and their origins varied – A.J. Baker is essentially two characters from Digital Knight crossed: Jason Wood and the super-hacker called "The Jammer". Nicholas Glendale is clearly a nod to Dr. Carl Sagan, just in a paleontological setting; and so on. Grand Central Arena of course features characters directly and admittedly inspired by others, with Marc C. DuQuesne being the most obvious. Stephen Fransceschetti and Carl Edlund are direct Tuckerizations of friends of mine; Ariane Austin combines the hotshot pilot template with her namesake Steve Austin. In Castaway Planet we stole a lot of character concepts from the original inspirations – prior "Robinsonades" – and put our own spin on them.

     Familiarity, or lack thereof, with the universe influences how much planning-ahead and outlining I prefer to do. Sometimes I still have to outline – and it's a task I hate with a passion – because my publisher wants an outline first, before they buy anything. In general, though, the outline is a skeleton that may fall apart once the writing starts.

For instance, I just completed Phoenix in Shadow, sequel to Phoenix Rising, and the outline mostly went out the window pretty quickly. As I know that world so well, I didn't even use the outline once I started writing, except to look up names or something similar that I remembered inventing for the outline and didn't want to re-invent. But for the most part, I literally just let the characters lead me through their adventures until they reached the climactic points which I did know.

That latter bit is one of the crucial parts of writing for me. I absolutely must know what I'm heading for, and specifically I need to have in my mind some awesome, spectacular, and/or tearjerking scene that will serve as the climax of the story. I write towards that scene, as a goal. Everything within the story will be focused on serving that goal of reaching that climax, and making sure that every single piece needed to make that envisioned scene work will be there, precisely as required.

Thus, when I was writing Grand Central Arena, I had – constantly in mind – Ariane's throwdown with Amas-Garao and her impossible triumph as my goal, as the thing that made writing all the rest both necessary and worthwhile. I did also have a few interim scenes that drew me onward as they came to mind, such as DuQuesne's Victory, and there were even scenes from later on – one of the climactic scenes in Spheres of Influence was clear in my mind by the time I had GCA halfway written, and I have a couple other similarly climactic scenes in my head for later books in the series.

Similarly, before I even wrote the first words in Phoenix Rising, I knew not only the basics of the climactic confrontation in that book, but a great deal about the final battle to take place in the third book.

This means that my characters are designed towards the plot. They may be fairly detailed as characters, but since I know their destinations, their entire creation process is geared towards making them the kind of people who will end up in that climactic situation. I don't generally constrain the characters much OTHER than that. And sometimes characters do surprise me. Nicholas Glendale was supposed to be a one or two shot character, used and tossed away; instead he became one of my favorite strong secondary characters in the Boundary series. The character Miri in the forthcoming Phoenix in Shadow followed a different path than originally planned; and so on.

"How fast can you write"? Well, when I'm writing, I have typically averaged about 1200 words per hour. Those are finished words, I should note. I am rather unusual as an author in that I very, VERY rarely do "drafts" of stories (unless given specific edits to do by an editor). What you read is, quite often, exactly what came off my fingers the first and only time it was typed.

Given that, in theory if I had the ability to dedicate myself full-time to writing I could crank out about 2.4 million words a year; this is roughly twenty books. Practically speaking, of course, it wouldn't approach that. There are other things one has to do as books are prepared for publication that start to take up time, and as you do more books, those tasks will eat more time. Plus of course you have the work of figuring out just what you're going to WRITE for that many books. In practice, though, I could probably manage 6 books a year without much difficulty.

Of course, I don't have full-time writing available as a choice. My actual time to write per week varies but probably averages, over a year, 4 hours a week; I generally write two books and change per year with that amount of time.

Time is also variable depending on the existence of a book contract. Without a contract, I cannot justify as much time away from family and other obligations, so I get fewer hours to write. With a contract I have guaranteed payment for completing a book and there is direct justification for giving me more hours to write in.

I hope this has given some insight into the way one particular author actually carries out the core function of any writer: writing.






Your comments or questions welcomed!