[process] Writing the novel a different way

I realized yesterday afternoon that one reason Calamity of So Long a Life is hitting the page more slowly than my usual pace a first draft is a new phenomenon I’ve never really encountered in my own writing process before.

Exclusive of the actual plot synopsis, I have 50 pages (literally) of continuity notes, backgrounders, a cast list, a places list, and so forth. As I write, I keep stopping to check things which I generally know are there but want to get right. Or I stop to update the cast list because new named characters just walked onto the page, otherwise four months from now I’m going to either wonder who the heck Halle Wirkkala is, or I’m going to name another minor character Hailey Wirkkala by mistake. Or I stop to check the description of a planetary setting. Or I stop to…

You get the drift.

Every world I’ve built up til now, I’ve largely built on the fly as I wrote. That’s a short story writer’s technique, and I’ve made it work even across multivolume series. Not utterly so — many notes were made on the clockwork Earth before I ever started drafting Mainspring, but that amounted to five or ten pages of cosmology and weird pseudophysics. But by and large, I simply sorted things as I went along.

This led to, among other things, the memorable and annoying problem in the first draft of Trial of Flowers wherein I rotated the Burgess’ palace 90 degrees about halfway through the book. An enormous amount of directional information, setting detail, character action, even things like the angle of shadows, had to be reworked with excruciating care to repair that.

On a project as monstrous as Sunspin, I can’t afford to make errors that basic, that require so much retooling. The simple fact of the matter is I’m going to do it anyway. This stop-and-start drafting is a way of minimizing the frequency, scope and impact of those errors.

It also has the odd and possibly desirable side effect of riding my brake a bit as I write. I’m thinking more at the line level in first draft. We shall see over time if this approach pays off or not, but I suspect I’m fairly committed to it.

Interesting stuff, challenging my own span of control and revising my process in motion. Feels a bit like changing the oil and rotating the tires on my car whilst driving down the highway.

Do you write with a lot of background detail pre-planned? How big an issue is this continuity process for you, at short lengths or long?

7 thoughts on “[process] Writing the novel a different way

  1. mrsmica says:

    I usually don’t take setting notes on novellas and short stories, but I can see cases where it would be essential. All it would take is a hard scifi story, a story with more named background characters, or even a story with more indepth visual description, and you’d need more extensive notes, beyond just the plot. And even in some of my short stories I have done dumb things like spell a character’s name differently half-way through in the first draft. I think you’re right that using notes only minimizes these kind of mistakes, but imagine how horrendous it would be to edit a 150k novel draft where side characters change their gender and no one can remember if injuries are on their right or their left.

  2. Shlomi says:

    I’ve got three novels and several story ideas all in one universe (and a whole language, but that’s another story.) Got to the point that I gave in and set up a (closed) wiki for it, so I could check names, places, things, time lines, etc.

    But hey, maybe it’s a byproduct of aging, not complexity? (Just trying to find the ointment’s fly, that me!)

  3. Griffin says:

    Thanks for asking for your reader’s opinions, Jay.

    The Last Captain, my first SF attempt, came in at 125,ooo words. I hit a huge speed bump at about 8o,ooo words struggling with continuity errors and a general plot malaise (A function of plotting on the fly). I managed to break it down after a conversation with a friend and first reader, it was like a light switch was flicked on in my headspace. The continuity errors were still there, and had to be eliminated one by one, but the plot snapped tight.

    With regard to dealing with continuity errors: when I used Word I had three lengthy list-like documents, one for characters, one for acronyms and political organizations, and another for general world-building, timeline and history. Lots of back-and forth to different documents. Trying to keep the notes files up to date was somewhat hard, too.

    I started using Scrivener for the final draft of the novel. That program is exceptional for organizing notes and research. Two of the most useful functions I found in its use were:

    1)The window panes. You don’t have to shift between documents as you reference them. One is in the top half of the window, the other in the bottom. You can scroll through both without minimizing or putting the other in the background. Thus, you can have that section on the breeding habits of non-euclidean xenomorph amoebae open at the very same time you are writing that hot alien-shagging scene.

    2) A robust search/kill-and-replace engine. You can have one draft open in a pane and go through the edits and remarks your agent, editor, or first readers had and correct them in the final draft in the pane below at the same time. If you choose to, you can kill and replace through all the associated documents of the piece, including your notes. I had to do a name change of a main character, having written the book not knowing the name was almost the same as a computer game character of some popularity. Not only does Scrivener kill and replace the name, it also does all the possessives for you as well, a nice feature.

    There are some other clever features, but those are the two that were of immediate help to me.

    With novels, or short stories in the same universe, I don’t believe I could keep track of it all without pulling what little hair I have out (and massive delays).

    I gues this sounds a bit like an advert for the program, but it helped to answer so many of those continuity questions, I had to go there.

    And there you have it: my two cents.

  4. Cora says:

    The only planning I do before beginning to write is brainstorming possible characters, rough background, plot twists, etc… I used to do this on paper, now I use either Word or some kind of mindmapping program. I don’t do this with every piece. If the inspiration is strong enough, I just dive in and start writing.

    I don’t outline and I do very little to no research beforehand, depending upon the nature of the text. If I’m writing e.g. a story about airships or a story set during a particular time period or in a specific place, I will do some background research beforehand. But most of the time, I simply dive in and do whatever research is required, as I go. If something comes up in the middle of writing, I usually put something in brackets like [Find out how this works] and put it in later.

    For short stories, I usually don’t have additional documents at all. If it’s a novella or novel, I will eventually accumulate background information, e.g. a list of characters with full names and some information, a timeline, photos relating to text, floorplans, maps, copies of articles, etc… relevant to the background, etc… All of this background information goes in a separate folder on my harddrive, if digital, or is collected in a binder, if physical.

    I don’t do timelines, characters lists and the like until I am well into the novella or novel. For example, I wrote a good chunk (about 10 to 15000 words) of my current WIP, before I knew the names of all characters (one of the two protagonists was very reluctant about revealing her name and went by XXX) or the exact location where the novel is set. This is unusual, however, normally I have a bit more information.

  5. Anne Lyle says:

    This is why I write a skeletal first draft, consisting mainly of dialogue and action (almost like a script) – I can then worry about the fine points of description when I do the revisions and decide whether a scene is going to stay or not. Of course this doesn’t get around the need for consistency when doing the second draft, but since I’m usually describing real locations in my historical fantasy, details like geographical orientation are pretty much decided for me! I guess if I ever get round to writing any secondary-world fiction, I will have to be more careful 🙂

    1. Griffin says:

      I like the idea of skeletal drafts, but I don’t think I could do it…

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