How I Write: The Craft of Wordsmithing

It is an odd thing to say at 70 years old that I am learning how to write. In my professional career, I have done a lot of writing, but the material was mostly short form. What we are talking about here is learning how to write long form novels and blog posts on a regular basis. I have been trying a number of different approaches to evolve a process that works for me. As part of that learning process, it seems to me that it would be useful to capture what I do.

To be clear, what I am talking about is the process of actual writing. In an earlier time this would been called “putting words on the page.” This is the activity that in years past might have been accomplished with parchment and quill pen, with a typewriter, or with a keyboard and screen. In my case, I am using dictation followed by revisions using a keyboard and screen.

And to be equally clear, what we are not talking about is “pre-writing” activities such as outlining or rehearsing the contents of the chapter as part of preparing to write. We are not talking about research. We are not talking about those distractions such as reviewing my RSS feeds, handling my email, reading Twitter, catching up with Facebook, or anything else that I might be doing while purporting to “write.”

As I said, the nature of material that I am writing now is different from what I have written in the past. The material in the past was short form, typically less than 2000 words. Now I am writing chapters that are 2000, 3000, up to as many as 9000 words in length. The associated strategy and tactics are quite a bit different. The biggest issue that I have had is that when I wrote the shorter form material, my expectation was that my first draft was going to be fairly well ordered and cogent. Yes, of course, I was going have to go back and revise the material but the revisions would not take up the vast majority of the time that I took to produce the material. I have found that in producing these long form chapters, I can generate the words quickly using dictation but that the revision process seems to go on and on and on.

When I started this process, I struggled because I kept wanting to produce good material on the first pass. I would dictate a sentence, realize it was not quite exactly what I wanted to say, and go back to fix it immediately. That broke up the flow and consequently slowed me down. What I have evolved over the last several months as I have learned how to write in this new way is the following:

  • I dictate the initial draft of the material, typically following an outline that I wrote and thought about for some time. I rehearse the contents in my head during other activities such as exercise. My expectation is that the result is going to be very rough. I have learned to dictate with my eyes closed. I do not want to see what is showing up on the screen. If I have a sense that what I’ve just said is not quite right, I repeat the material. I may repeat the material five or six times before I think that I have said what I want to say in the way that I want to say it. Each of the attempts ends up being captured by the dictation software. I just keep on going without stopping to edit whatever it is I just dictated. I find that I can generate a lot of material quickly. What I end up with, however, is a “steaming pile of words.” Typically there is good stuff in this pile but there is also a lot of dross that needs to be removed. That’s the next step.
  • I make multiple editing passes through the material. I remove the repetition. I fix the spelling. I remove redundancies in how I expressed things. What I have found is that if I limit the objective of a particular pass through the material to a very narrow operation, I can maintain my focus as I revise the document, complete the editing operation very quickly, and add value. The document is still very rough at the end of each of these passes, but if I have done each pass properly, the document is significantly less rough than it was before I started the pass.
  • I am not shy about re-working the material. Because the words were generated quickly and with fairly minimal effort, I find that I am not particularly attached to the words. If they are not working, “off with their heads” or something like that. I do keep a “scrap pile” of material that may be of future use even if it does not belong in the current document. I also use source code control tools to capture each version. Some revisions go astray and must be reverted to a past state.
  • I add new ideas. Going over the material as many times as I do, I become very familiar with it. And very frequently I think of new ideas which I want to inject into the material. In a very real sense, I am shaping the rough clay into something different from what I really started off to create. The chapter that I did after visiting Pearson’s Falls developed at least two extra dimensions, the notion of the cage and the notion of the cathedral, as I revised that chapter. Neither notion was present when I started the chapter but both notions emerged out of the revision process as unexpected additions. I think that they both added considerable value.
  • At some point I put the document away to let it rest for a while. The contents of the document can become so familiar that my mind knows what it says so well that it becomes incapable of seeing what is really there on the screen. After a week or so, I can come back to the material with fresh eyes. Another trick that I use is to have Dragon Naturally Speak read the document back to me. A different part of the brain is involved in listening to the document and things that I have overlooked in reading the document suddenly become obvious, generating more items to fix. Finally, printing the document out on paper, reading it on a different device, or generating a webpage can freshen up my perception of the material.

One thing that I’ve noticed about this process is how similar it is to the process of creating software.

Both processes have the notion of goals and objectives. A well-managed project to develop a piece of software should have clear and consistent written goals, objectives, and requirements. I have goals and objectives for the novel but I have not quite figured out how to write requirements as crisply for the novel as I would like. I continue to think about this issue.

Software has the notion of design and architecture which specifies in broad strokes how the software will be structured. I certainly have done that for the novel. In fact, I’ve done it several times as I’ve gotten smarter about what it was I was really trying to accomplish.

If the software is of any size, the software developer should decompose the functions of the software into manageable chunks. It seems to me that same thing is true of a novel being decomposed into chapters and scenes. In software we try to build a functional version of this manageable chunk, build a set of tests to ensure that the chunk really functions as we want, and worry about the nonfunctional aspects only after we have figured out that were doing the right thing in the right way. There is not a great deal of value in worrying about performance or reliability or other similar aspects of the software until we are sure we understand exactly what that software should be doing. The analog for the novel is that we should worry about character and plot first, and then worry about the language used to expose the characters and plot afterward.

Developing a piece of software in this way is an exercise in continuous learning. The accomplishment of each new task or activity teaches something new about the software. This enhanced understanding should inform how you handle future activities and tasks and should encourage you to rewrite, re-factor, and polish previous chunks of the software. Every software project that I have ever worked on that the client regarded as excellent has been the result of extensive revision. The same is true of the elements of the novel.

If amount of revisions somehow guarantees excellence, then I am well on my way to a magnificent first novel. Working on one chapter inevitably suggests changes for chapters that I worked on earlier. Reading about how to use a particular writing technique reveals holes all through the novel that demand revision. It is said that a software application is never done, it merely escapes. I am getting the sense that the same thing is true of a novel.

For me it is necessary every once in a while to step back and capture the details about how I am learning to write. Writing down the lessons that I have learned solidifies the learning. And I think it is important to put this material out where people can see it. I found in my professional career that the anticipation of giving a presentation about a particular topic forced one to read, study, understand, and master the material much more than would otherwise be the case. That effort did not always guarantee you that you would avoid making a fool of yourself but it was a way to improve your odds quite a bit.

I am a continuous learner. I like to learn and the profession I was in demanded that I learn new technology almost every day. While writing is not as fast moving as technology, I am just starting out. There is a whole body of technique and approach that I am just beginning to grasp. I am very far from running out of new topics to master. What you have here is just a snapshot along the way. I expect that there will be future snapshots in which I can say, I am smarter than I was yesterday and dumber than I will be tomorrow.

The First Journal Entry Is Available

I have just posted the first of several journal entries. As described in The Journals of Eric Stapleton these entries are the by product of the world building that I have been doing. I have tried to make them entertaining as well as informative. Depending upon how the book emerges from the bits and pieces of my writing, these entries may or may not make it into the final book. In other words, read them here or miss out entirely.

The first entry can get gotten to from the list in The Journals of Eric Stapleton or directly via Journal: Beginnings.

It is Time to Put Up or Shut Up

The title of the blog says that I am a writer.  And I have written some interesting blog posts. I have have been writing my novel with some diligence. Parts of it are good, parts are only so so, and a few parts are very good.  At least this is my opinion. My wife who has been reading along thinks that some of the chapters are very good as well. That might not matter to you but it matters immensely to me.

At some point in the process the baby bird has to struggle up on the edge of the nest and fly into the sky. Or fall screaming to the earth to die. OK, it has been a long day and my rose-colored glasses are caked with sardonic cynicism. The point of all this is that it is time to show the world some of what I have been working on.

Last weekend my wife and I were visiting in North Carolina. North Carolina is known for its beautiful waterfalls. We went off to visit a waterfall that my relatives had not seen before. It is Pearson’s Falls. It is beautiful. It is about the most non-commercial attraction that I have ever been at. The one item upon which you can spend money on is a $0.25 post card. There is a selection of one. Pearson’s Falls is owned and maintained by The Tryon Garden Club. The link to the web site just a few words back is well worth visiting. They have videos and pictures and much more.

The head of the falls is located in a gorge cut by the water running down from the top of the hill. It is a bit of a hike up the hill (given that the average age of the group was around 74) but we had brought stout shoes and walking sticks and were rewarded with a wonderful morning. I knew from the first few steps that I had to write about the experience. The protagonist of my novel, Eric Stapleton, had to visit this place.

Over the next few days, I drafted and revised a chapter in the book. As is often the case, the contents of the chapter twisted and turned before becoming what it is now. It started out as an inconsequential decoration and became a key turning point for Eric’s development. I had heard other writers (how cool is it that it is “other writers” rather than just “writers) say that the words sometimes go where they want to go, despite the intentions of the author. I had mocked them, “whose fingers were on the keyboard?” That was then, this is now. The fingers may be mine but the ideas that flow through them sometimes seem to come from a dark place deep in the cluttered vault that is my mind. More than once I have marveled at what has shown up on the manuscript screen.

In any case, the chapter can be found at Escape, in Asymmetric Time. While not exactly essential, you can read at the master page for the novel, The Shepherd of Arisa, about some background that may add some seasoning to the chapter. That page has the same link as just above, and will have additional links as new chapters show up.

Please enjoy! I will probably post a new chapter every couple of weeks.  I also may publish some of the chapters of the background “bible” that I am writing to keep track of the world that I am building. My guess is that some parts of the bible will make it into the book but it will be said of the rest of the chapters that “they also serve that stand and wait.”

Building my Universes, One Word at a Time

I am in the process of writing a novel. More precisely, I have written the first draft of the novel and I am now busily patching the holes in the novel. The novel is story about a man named Eric Stapleton who is pulled out of his world during World War II and inserted into a future world that is in many ways radically different. It involves time travel, largely because I love time travel stories and because I think time travel provides an interesting background for examining other things. There are, of course, characters, conflicts, drama, and various plot twists. This particular blog post is not about any of those things. This post is about building a universe, or more properly because the story involves parallel timelines, multiple universes.

I spent the majority of my career before my retirement, building software systems. Most of these software systems were large and complicated with many interacting subsystems. Even in those relatively rare cases where there was a clear set of requirements, there were competing aspects that need to be balanced off against each other. Ease-of-use oftentimes was played off against security. Reliability and availability often played off against raw performance. Multiple players with different roles played off against the need to have a consistent approach for future maintainability. There was never one way that was the right way.

On the better run projects, we asked the question “what does done look like?” That is, when we are all done with the project, what things will be true? We used the answers to that question to drive our process. I use the plural form of answers because the answer might well change over the course of the project. Virtually every project that I was involved with was something that cut new ground. No one had ever done a project exactly like this or in some cases even close to this. Often, we had to muddle through. In other words, the project would pick a likely direction, take a couple steps in that direction, stop and look around, and decide how we wanted to change direction. We might end up retracing our steps (“throwing away the code that we just wrote”) or just making some adjustments in the direction we wanted want to go. The project would take a few more steps, stop and look around, and use the knowledge to make more decisions to adjust the direction. Rinse! Repeat! The idea here is to get the maximum amount of information that you can with the minimal amount of investment. The phrase often used today for modern Internet projects is “fail fast!”

There are an awful lot of parallels between this approach and the process of writing a novel. When I set out to write the first draft of my novel, I had a pretty good idea of what the plot was going to be. I knew what chapters I wanted to write. As I wrote those chapters, I made adjustments in my outline. The most common of adjustment was to split chapters into two or three smaller chapters. I had in mind a specific objective or “single responsibility” for each chapter, in the sense of what information I want to impart and how I wanted the plot of the novel to advance in that chapter. Some chapters tried to do too much and got too big. I went through and split those chapters into smaller chapters such that each of the chapters would have a specific objective. In the real world, principles like “topic sentences” and “single responsibility” are routinely bent and often broken. These top-down decompositions of information are appropriate for imparting information in a form which is readily digestible. Writing a novel is a bit different from that. In works of fiction, the texture of the words and the emotions that they invoke are oftentimes just as important as the “objective realities” of plot and place.

But I’m writing a science fiction novel. What that means is that the plot and the emotional context of the action within the novel are set within a world that while “made up” must have some internal consistency and logic. It is just not reasonable to say that anything could happen at any time for any reason. If there is magic in the world, there must be laws about how that magic can be used and what the costs are for making magic. There cannot be a free lunch. Works of speculative fiction such as science fiction and fantasy must abide by some set of laws for physics, chemistry, economics and magic.

And indeed the need to operate within those laws oftentimes drives the plot. We can kill the dragon which is laying waste to our lands, but the “logic of the universe” requires that we have to sacrifice one of our own to accomplish that. Who and how shall we pick? Do we have the right to force the sacrifice? What will be the Implications of the sacrifice once the corpse of the Dragon lies moldering in the field? How will people live with what they have done?

What I have been worrying about over the last couple of weeks is the mechanics of time travel. As I was writing the first draft of the novel, I was sketching out how time travel worked within the universe that I was building. The difficulty is that it was merely a sketch of some concepts that changed over the course of writing the various chapters. The result was inconsistencies between various parts of the novel.

One of the biggest problems was the chronology. The story takes place over several millennia. Rather than take time to calculate dates and durations as I was writing, I just made up some numbers. As a part of my world-building exercises, I am going back to figure out exactly when things happened. There are several hundred dates in the narrative that need to be nailed down. These dates have to stand in certain relationships to each other to make the story work properly. I started off with a simple Word document to keep track of all this, graduating to an Excel spreadsheet as it got more complicated, and finally to a C# program with some moderately complicated logic to generate the dates in the spreadsheet. This is probably more work than is really necessary but I spent a major part of my life engineering software and I cannot escape the habits that I have developed over that time. Internal consistency is to be strived for if never actually achieved.

The chronology, in turn, grew out of a need to write the back story of time travel. In the first draft of the novel, I had passing references to the history of how time travel had been invented. There were obvious holes and inconsistencies in my narrative. In an attempt to sort those out, I have written over 50 pages about the history and principles of time travel. I am still the process of completing this.

There are three other aspects of the novel which will probably get similar treatment, perhaps with a little bit less detail.

The first is the concept of total surveillance. In this future, everything is recorded and is available to anyone who wants to take the time to look at it. The notions of privacy in the sense of hiding things from other people are nonexistent. There are several points in the plot that hinge upon the existence of this complete record of everything. I suspect I’ll end up writing 10 or 20 pages of background material on this. But then again I thought that the time travel background would be 10 or 20 pages and it’s going to be at least 60 or 70 pages.

The second aspect is the extensive use of artificial intelligence. In the future that I am constructing, great parts of how the society works are handled by artificially intelligent machines. There is no great “over mind” that is out to destroy or even control human beings. The artificial intelligences are there to help but again with everything there are costs that ultimately must be paid. I’m in the process of reading several books on artificial intelligence and I suspect I’ll end up writing 30 or 40 pages of back story in this area.

The third aspect is an economy of abundance. The machines produce virtually anything that an individual might want. There is no economic reason why people have to work, but they work anyway for psychic rewards. This abundance changes the way that society works. It changes how the plot advances. I expect to write another 10 to 20 pages about this topic.

There are several reasons to go through this world-building process. First, it is just fun to do. One of the things that has attracted me to science fiction is the notion of “if this goes on, what will happen?” In other words if we extrapolate certain trends, what is likely to be the final outcomes for each of these trends? The outcomes for society as a whole, the outcomes for individuals, and the impacts of those outcomes on day-to-day living. Second, it is the desire or perhaps an obsession to ensure that the future that is described is one that is coherent in the sense that it is entirely consistent. I have certainly demanded that consistency from the authors of the books that I have read. I certainly do not want to fail a consistency test for my own work. Third, I think that it is important that the plot, and the universe in which it takes place, fit together. In my experience, really good science fiction involves characters trying to navigate through the logic of the constructed world. What are the politics of time travel? What are the technological implications of a world in which the overwhelming majority of the infrastructure is handled by artificial intelligent machines executing software that was built millennia ago? What are the psychological implications of a world in which everything is known and there is no place to hide? What are the implications of an economy of abundance? How does it affect the people in that world and how those people in turn affect the world?

The final question is how all of this back story affects the completed novel. What I have to do is figure out how much of the stuff will actually show up in the final draft of the novel, how much will be alluded to, and how much will simply be knowledge that I have as I write the novel that informs the text but is not really visible to the reader. Clearly, I have to be able to show the reader the parts of the world that are critical to how the plot unfolds and how the characters are affected. But I also have to create a sense in the reader that there are things around the corner or over the horizon that are unseen but still present and affect the world in which the narrative takes place. And that is one of the things that makes all of this so much fun.