On Writing

In 2009, as I was waiting for my brother to finish his third edit sweep through my third novel, Too Late For Later, I began to jot down some of the key writing concepts that I had learned over the previous 4 years. During that time, I had written literally thousands of pages covering 3 novels and 3 informational manuscripts, not to mention the dozen or so other manuscripts that I had written previously.

Those few bulleted points that I had scratched onto a pad of paper soon blossomed into almost 200 pages of Writing Fiction For The Rest Of Us. The reason I say in the beginning of this book that, "...it's exactly the kind of book I wish I had when I set out to write a novel" is because I had no formal training in crafting fiction. If you're a writer, I suspect you're like me: you write because you love it. Unfortunately, without some organizational steps to follow, what we tend to write isn't good enough for publishing. The reason it's not good enough is because we just haven't been exposed to a logical progression of all the rules that we do know so that what we write makes sense. Oh, it makes sense to us; just not to a professional editor or agent.

But then I hadn't been writing to get published. I wrote (and still write) just because I love it. Well, that was until I was about 200 pages into Too Late For Later and showed it to my brother. He looked up at me and said, "So, you've learned how to write, eh?" That hit me like a brick because at that instant I realized that I was a good writer. But more, I realized that the reason I had become a good writer was because I knew what the rules of the game were, I knew how to follow those rules in a specific sequence, and I did the work necessary.

I believe that writing a good novel is based on having expertise in two core principles. The first deals with the glue that holds the novel together, the story construction mechanics. These are things like: spelling, grammar, phrasing, etc. Other than some key constructs that you need a really good grasp of, you don't have to be an expert in this stuff, nor do you need to sweat it as you write because you'll come back and fix whatever is wrong during the editing process.

The second core principle is that you need to fully understand how to construct your novel in the following four major steps:

  1. Decide on the story and craft the plot.
  2. Write the story as a series of scenes.
  3. Revise iteratively.
  4. Edit iteratively.

I didn't write Writing Fiction For The Rest Of Us to be published. I wrote it for me. I'm the type of person who feels that if you can't teach something then you don't know it. So after hearing my brother acknowledge that Too Late For Later was good enough to put out there, I wanted to be sure I understood how I got to that point. I wanted to be able to know exactly what process I needed to follow to write good fiction. And not because I wanted to get published. I wanted to know that I hadn't just stumbled through a field of mines and made it safely to the other side by luck. I wanted to know that I fully understood why my writing had gone from absolutely horrible to potentially publishable.

I'm a software engineer. I've spent 25 years looking at very complex business issues, identifying their key components, and then crafting a logical solution to the problem. It was only natural that I would want to analyze the writing process in the same way. I realized that being a good writer doesn't necessarily mean that you can teach someone else to be a good writer. I had read all of the books on creative writing I could get my hands on - around 30 at that particular time. They all teach the components of writing, but I didn't see that they accomplished teaching the way of writing.

If I buy a build-it-yourself car, for example, what do I expect to get with all of the parts? I expect a set of directions that not only show me how to assemble the wheels onto their axles and how to attach the axles to the frame, but I fully expect that those directions are going to tell me when to put the wheels together and when to attach the axles onto the frame. If I don't have the when part of that, i.e. the sequencing, the way of assembly, then I'm probably not going to end up with a very good car; try putting the axles onto a fully assembled car as it's sitting flat on the ground...

That's how I approached Writing Fiction For The Rest Of Us. I looked at it as not how to write a novel, but rather what the steps were I should take in order to end up with a novel. The fact that it took me a couple of hundred pages to do this (and only about 15 of those pages are used to cover the last two points) is an indication of the complexity of the overall task. However, each piece taken in sequence is just a simple component. Put enough simple things together in the correct sequence, and the results can be amazing.

I'm writing this part of the web site before I get published, so this could all be gibberish - though I doubt it. Whether I get published or not is not the issue. What is at issue is: are the steps that I have identified reasonable and logical? I may just not be good enough at putting the words themselves together to be a published author - only time will tell. I write this now in expectation of getting published, but won't feel bad if I don't. I know that at least I understand the process of writing and feel good about the writing that I now do as a result.

My advice to you if you are a writer is to write for yourself and not for publication. If you can step back from your writing process and identify the steps you will need to assemble your thoughts into a compelling story and if you have the ability to put your words into your own unique voice, then you may just get published. But don't write to get published and don't quit writing if you don't get published. Getting published has nothing to do with writing.