Category: Writing Process

Writing past your headlights

This article on my writing process was posted as part of a blog tour for What Grows From the Dead. It was originally posted here.

Writing past your headlights

It’s late, and your trip’s been long and difficult. You’re off the main road, trying to follow directions, but they aren’t detailed enough. You’ve never been here, you’re not familiar with the territory, and nothing looks familiar in the dark – just shadows, hints, only coming into focus for an instant as your lights cross them. There’s paint on the road to show the lanes, but some of it is worn away, and the intersections and turns aren’t marked.You’re going too fast for your lights, and if something’s in the road, you’re in for a few moments of either terror or panic as you try not to run headlong into it. 

That’s my writing process. I’m what writers call a “pantser,” somebody who writes by the seat of their pants. That’s in contrast to a “plotter,” somebody who has reams of backstory, character profiles, recipes, history, and a massive, detailed plot outline, somebody who knows what’s happening in each chapter, what beats they need to hit, as they progress towards the plot’s conclusion, along the route they’ve already worked out and carefully crafted step by step.

Those two styles are wonderful in that they both can lead to terrific work. J.R.R. Tolkien was clearly a plotter, almost more excited about creating the details his world’s history and language and legend than he was in the story on which the book rests. Donald Westlake, author of countless mysteries, legendarily hated outlines and just wanted as he wrote to find “what’s next?”

How it works for me is I just start writing, page one, and usually I just write until the first draft of book is finished. I usually have no more than a couple sentences of concept, not a plot, just a setup. I often don’t know who my characters are, or even how many they will be, until I begin to discover them on the page. A pattern I often follow is to write for a bit and then throw myself a curve at the end of a chapter – a twist in the plot, an unexpected appearance, a secret revealed. I certainly don’t try to make every chapter end on a cliffhanger, but those seem to me to be natural moments of heightened interest, nice punctuation marks in the narrative. Often I don’t know what they are or even when they’re coming until I write them. If I’m doing my job right, they also serve as little nudges to keep reading – the reader saying “what’s next?” right along with me.

In What Grows from the Dead, one of those moments that turned out to be central to the story was a “what’s in the box?” moment, one that readers of the book will surely remember. I had no idea starting the chapter what was in the box. I hadn’t even known there was going to be a box until I threw it in as another twist a couple chapters earlier. I certainly didn’t know that the contents of the box would be critical to how the story played out. I did know it had to be something important and maybe a little unexpected given that I’d kind of hyped it up some, but beyond that, I didn’t know until I wrote the last sentences of the chapter what was in there.

I’m sure that sounds chaotic, and it is, but I have a good bit of background in thinking this way. I’ve been doing improv comedy for the past 18 years with a group at a local comedy club, and my love for that feeds perfectly into my writing style. With improv, you start a scene without knowing what it’s about, without knowing where you are, who you’re with, or even who you are. All of that gets solidified as you go, ideally early on in the scene so you can build the relationships and the drama that make the scene get moving and have a more appealing (and if you do it well, amazing and funny) plotline. You’re doing all the elements of storytelling there in the moment, while people are watching you, without a chance to edit or go back or rethink, and it’s just magical when it works. The basic tenet of improv is “yes, and” – meaning I accept what you’ve just added to our world, and here is something else I’m giving back, something that hopefully expands and defines the world, our characters, our relationships, our desires. 

When improv succeeds, it’s absolutely enchanting. In part, that’s because the expectations the audience has are so low – they know you’re making up a scene and a story and a world on the spot, and if you pull it off, even halfway, they’re with you, impressed or even amazed. If you fail, you can just go on to the next scene, and you’ve only wasted a few minutes of people’s time. With books, however, it’s totally different. You’re asking people to spend hours in your world, and there’s a strong expectation going in that the book will be good, that it will be polished, tight, meaningful, lyrical. You don’t get the grace that an improv audience will give you, and you shouldn’t get it. Even if you write a book using the principles from improv, the book still needs to be just as good as what you’d get from somebody with fifteen notebooks full of outlines, backstory, and character sketches.

That’s where editing and rewriting come in for me. I can improv a first draft, see what happens, get to know my characters, come up with a plot and world, emotional beats and a satisfying ending. Once I’ve done that, I get right back in my car and drive that route again, this time in daylight, where I can see appreciate the colors and the leaves and see everything coming. That’s when the world truly takes full shape.

Writing to genre

This article on my writing process was posted as part of a blog tour for What Grows From the Dead. It was originally posted here.

Writing to genre – challenges and shortcuts

I’m here to talk about my mystery book, but I have been publishing books for about five years now, and I’ve branched out from fantasy, where I started, to sci fi, and more recently, to mysteries and thrillers. I love to read in all these genres, but writing them really reveals what different ingredients are needed for each.

With my fantasy novels, most of which are actually also mysteries, I feel like I have the most freedom. I can create new worlds, new cultures, new populations. I can mess with reality using magic and weird forces. I can create people who are very different from people in the real world, and give them all kinds of interesting skills and quirks. I do a lot of research to try to understand how people lived with less technology and in a feudal society, and I try to represent that to the extent that it fits into the story. Medicine and laundry are two areas where I’ve done a deep dive, along with different styles of fighting, because fighting is central to lots of stories.

Sci-fi has a bit more constraint. You need to respect the rules of physics and reality, or at least most of them, and, more than with fantasy, you need to justify where you’re breaking these rules and how. Sci-fi readers can be more unhappy when your worlds don’t make sense or violate basic laws. With the sci-fi books, and with the scientific elements of my thriller, I’ve enlisted physicist and biologist friends to check my work and make sure what I’m saying is at least in the neighborhood of plausibility. There’s also a kind of common lingo with sci-fi that fans know and accept, some of it real, some of it sci-fi – nanites, wormholes, that kind of thing.

With my novels set in the real world, there is, paradoxically, a sense of relief but also a sense of even more responsibility to get things right. The relief comes from not having to invent or explain everything about the world. Readers understand cars and cell phones and cultural references and how people in the modern world live their lives, so you don’t have to explain the society your characters live in at the same time as you’re trying to tell a story. That can make the storytelling much more focused, because you don’t have to digress to explain who the Knights of the Imperial Boot are, or how mineral magic works, or how space warp travel works and is possible. These mysteries and thrillers can be leaner, more efficient, and hopefully more relatable right at the start.

The responsibility part of writing in the modern world is that people can almost instantly tell if you’re getting something wrong. You can’t just make up how something like a hospital or a police station works, because your readers, or at least some of them, will find your errors and be unhappy about them. I should know – as a geologist, I am often annoyed when shows get things like lava and quicksand and Earth history wrong.

That responsibility is a duty, but it’s also an opportunity. When starting to write Got Trouble, I made my main character, Glynnis, knowledgeable about guns, something that I wasn’t at all. That meant I had to learn and research to get that stuff right. I read up whatever I could find, and I watched a ton of videos, which helped not only with factual stuff like loading and unloading and effective range and all that, but also with a culture of gun owners that I hadn’t had much contact with. I also have a friend (and reader) who gave me some great feedback both on how the guns would work but also how somebody comfortable around them would think of them and act. I also had some friends who work in emergency departments help me with how the intake of a patient with gunshot wounds would work. When I wrote a story set on an old sailing ship, I consulted with sailors to make sure I was getting the sail names, the equipment, and the basic operation correct. 

With What Grows From the Dead, I made the main character somebody who had worked as a professor, a life I know very well. But the stuff that happens to him and the things he chooses to do were not familiar at all. I needed to research how police procedure works with search warrants, arrests, defense counsel, and a county jail. I also spent a whole evening learning how to run a meth lab, something that will raise concerns if anybody’s watching my search history. With all the poisons, swords, and other questions I’ve done with the fantasy stuff (e.g. how long would it take somebody to die if stabbed in the gut?), I’m sure I must look like a seriously troubled Google user.

There is a lot that’s common to books no matter whatever genre you’re in. You need relatable characters who act believably, who make choices that fit their situation and their personality. You need the words they say to make sense, to mesh with their values and background, and to be what actual humans say. You need excitement, secrets, humor, longing, adventure, sorrow. Those are the fundamental elements to any human story, going back to tales around campfires long ago. If I do my job, then my readers will find something to relate to as they sit there in the firelight, imagining other lives and keeping warm.

The first draft of Daros is finished!

Woohoo! The first draft of my new novel, Daros, is done. I started it back in July 2016 while I chaperoned marching band camp at Page High.

I finished tonight, at 112,322 words, 88% of them written since last August.

I wrote 5,925 of them today, which is a new daily record for me.

Now for the rewrites, and to fix everything I’ve screwed up. But this feels pretty good.

Nearly there

I’m nearly there with the first draft of my sci fi novel, Daros, begun almost five years ago during chaperoning for marching band camp, then left to sit for four years. I always liked the opening few chapters, so I came back to it again this past August. November and December were a little rough, but I am back on track to get it finished soon.

Contrary to my usual style of not knowing what the hell the characters are going to do next, I’ve got a chapter outline for each of the five remaining chapters, plus the one I wrote tonight. I needed that scaffolding to bring it home safely and to resolve a bunch of plot threads in a way that makes sense and is satisfying. I hope.

“The End” will feel good, but it won’t really be done. Not even close. More like the version of done where you get to start the massive and daunting process of rewrites and edits. But a milestone nonetheless. I’m excited about what it’s become, and I hope others will enjoy it once it’s all knitted better together and polished to a shine. Also, mixed metaphors rule.

Visualizing characters

I love messing around on, and in particular I enjoy playing with their face visualizations. I got a character picture I kind of like for one of my main characters in my Daros book. Her name’s Brecca, and she’s 16, and in pretty far over her head in a tough situation. Not sure this picture is right, and I don’t want to mess with anybody’s ability to imagine the characters for themselves, but it’s fun nonetheless.

df3bf359a72c7497.jpeg (2048×2048)

UPDATE: Nobody much likes this one but me. Here’s one that I like that seems to garner a little more support:

Visualization of Brecca Vereen, main character of Daros

Racism in a sci fi universe

I’m getting close to finished with the first draft of my sci fi novel (tentative title is Daros), and I’m starting to think about cover design. I’ll get actual artists to handle that for me, but one fun part of that is deciding whether to represent the characters on the cover or not. On the one hand, you can create an appealing cover with some kind of action or character represented. On the other, once you provide a picture of a character, you inhibit people’s ability to imagine them how they want to. That includes complex issues like race.

In a book set on Earth, physical appearance comes with a whole bunch of social baggage (and often prejudice and discrimination) that comes from our current society. In a future space-faring setting that still has humans, a few things seem likely:

  • racial categories that are present on Earth won’t mean the same things that they do now
  • the physical characteristics that people present will be more homogenized than on Earth now (we’re already seeing that in the 21st century as migration happens and as love overcomes barriers against cross-boundary partners that were stronger in the past)
  • people who’ve adapted to life on different worlds will potentially be more different from each other (both physically and culturally) than the historical racial and ethnic categories in Earth’s current population (unless there’s tremendous connectivity, uniformity of media, and easy travel)

If all of that is true, then probably bias and prejudice would still exist, and some of it may be appearance based, but it would be addressed toward people from different planets rather than people from regions or nations.

I’m not sure of any of this, and I would hope that a technologically advanced society would leave a lot of this behind, but it’s interesting to think about.

Thoughts on prequels and writing about cops

I got an email from a good friend who’d read both Flames Over Frosthelm and the prequel, Traitors Unseen. Having just finished Traitors, the prequel, he was interested in the themes and ideas that get introduced in Traitors, and wondered how many of them carried over into Flames, which was written earlier but takes place ten years later. I thought my letter back to him might be interesting for folks, so I’ve included a lightly-edited-for-clarity version below.

I also talk about the difficulties in writing about heroic law enforcement members in a fantasy setting while in the real world we’ve had our eyes opened about police overreach and our racial blinders and privilege challenged by the many brave protestors around the country.

SPOILER WARNING: There are some spoilery things here about all three Inquisitors’ Guild books – nothing that would ruin the experience of reading the stories, but some plot points are revealed and discussed. If you want to avoid all spoilers, don’t read on.

Hi, XXX – 

Thanks for reading, and for all of your interesting insights. It is very weird writing books with cops as the heroic main characters now (albeit weird fantasy detective cops). This was a pretty short book, so I didn’t have time to get deep into many issues, and of course I wrote it back in January and released it four days before George Floyd was murdered, in a different world. At least some of the cops in the story are dreadfully corrupt, and the others are (I hope) appropriately outraged and betrayed by that corruption, which I hope is true in the real world (but it can be true in Frosthelm even if it’s not true in the U.S.).

My early readers for drafts of Traitors didn’t think I had provided enough motivation for the bad guys – that they were kind of stock – so that was one of the things I added more of on the rewrite. I didn’t have room for much of it without making the book a lot longer, so it makes sense that it seemed a little rushed. I thought it would be more interesting if they had a semblance of a philosophy, a legitimate beef with the Prelate, and a more interesting motivation rather than just “UNIMAGINABLE POWER!” as so many cheesy villains have, but maybe I didn’t give it enough space to develop.

The connections between this book and Flames Over Frosthelm was an interesting area for me to work on, because obviously they’re reversed in time compared to when I wrote them. The setting and some of the characters overlap (both Cheliaux and Denault are in Flames, and of course Sophie and the Prelate Jeroch are in there too). I had the basic structure of the city and the Guild and the auguries to work with from Flames, but I wanted to do more of a thriller story than a swashbuckling magic adventure for this one, so I was aiming for something more taut and tense. I tried to expand on the Guild practices and structures a little, and to imagine how they’d respond to accusations and internal betrayal, and I also added a good bit on the city and how it was laid out and run, although with the limited space of a novella, I couldn’t do a lot of rich worldbuilding. I also wanted this one not to focus on the Augur’s pool so much, although it’s mentioned. It would have been very hard to tell a new story here in a prequel and then have all of it echo into the Flames book, which I wrote before knowing this one would ever exist.

So, there are some things that I wish I could go back and mention or add to the Flames book now that I’ve written the prequel. One example would be the younger inspectors there would probably know of Denault’s adventure here and comment on it, although it is ten years before, so maybe it’s OK that they don’t talk about it – the young seldom focus deeply on the past, right? Sophie could have mentioned it at some point, though. If you did go back and read Flames again, there’s a good bit of corruption in the city there too, and Jeroch’s in on it, so he’s consistently a morally questionable leader – that carries over. And the nobles in that book are schemers and plotters, so that connects too. And Emerra Denault stands up to the evil Count Marron in the first scene he’s in, so she’s still scrappy and brave ten years on.

You asked about the rings, and whether they exist in Flames. I came up with the rings as a neat plot twist here, about halfway through writing it, and of course they’re not in Flames because I wrote that earlier. The Augur and other characters in Flames should know that it’s technically feasible that the pool can be blocked, even if the rings have been collected and destroyed or banned by then, which is what I imagined happening. They don’t mention it, though, obviously because I hadn’t made that part up yet. The perils of prequels!

They do talk about how the pool isn’t always reliable, though. That’s always been a challenge in these stories – the pool is a very useful tool and would make detective work really easy, so I keep having to limit its power or its use, or separate the characters from it, in order to make for a more suspenseful story that depends on the characters’ insights and brains. If I keep writing these books, that will probably be in the drinking game for Frosthelm – drink a stiff belt whenever the pool is compromised or blocked or unavailable or rendered useless. Maybe it can be like the perennial meetings with Q in Bond movies, or the companions in Doctor Who, or tachyon radiation in Star Trek – so overdone and silly that it feels familiar? I don’t know. I’m winging it here.

I did go through the sequel to Flames (The Outcast Crown) this week, and I had to rethink a number of scenes to make the cops there (who are the heroes) be more principled and thoughtful and not willing to overstep even in small ways. That was a challenge, because I had imagined Boog’s character as a little more impulsive and physical, but that would be a difficult and potentially terrible thing to write about for a law-enforcement character in this new era, and where I want him to come across as a good man learning to be a better man, I don’t want him to do anything close to something hateful or triggering.

The main characters are more or less pure and heroic, but in the early drafts, when they talked about the difficult things they had to do as part of their jobs, they were using some of the same language and the same justifications as bad cops do today, so it felt pretty uncomfortable, even though I thought their motives were solid and just and the justifications more or less made sense to me. I’m a lot more nervous about the book than I was a few months ago. I didn’t really run into that with Traitors, because Emerra is so powerless and so screwed, and she isn’t functioning as a cop for nearly all of the story. I’ll be interested (if you read Outcast Crown) to see if you think I’ve done OK. The scene with the carpet thief in Flames would probably sound a little bad now – they jokingly threaten him with some serious penalties beyond what he deserves, which seemed funny then and is less so now.

In terms of developing a stronger system of justice as the arc of Frosthelm continues, I saw what I did here in Traitors as consistent with the later Guild in Flames, so much so that most of them are horrified when they’re forced to abandon the Marron investigation there, and keep it going anyway. They’re taken over by Marron, but then they rebel and foil his plans, so I saw that as a group of people mostly dedicated to doing things the right way and for the right reasons, which is different in this prequel, where things are more ambiguous and corrupt. And of course the motivating events that Crenn experienced were in a time where things were even worse. So I see a longer-term arc from before Traitors, when things were really bad, feudal-style bad, to Traitors, when there are more rights and legal protections, making things better in some ways, but where there’s still a lot of corruption and intrigue in the city that has permeated the Guild. In Flames, where the Guild is pretty clean, the nobles are still scheming and ruthless, but there they involve the corrupt or oblivious Prelate, which makes their plans legal at least (if not smart or principled or good).

I actually wrote a good bit in the sequel (the new one, Outcast Crown) about immigrants and racism directed against them, experienced through a naive entitled white guy’s perspective who starts to understand it better and act on his new understanding.  In some ways that might have had more resonance in 2017-18 than it will now with the country focused on policing. It was challenging for me to do, and a risk, I think, if people think I’m way out of my lane and hate it as they did American Dirt earlier this year, but I thought it was worth trying.

Thanks for the thoughts – I really appreciate you reading the book and talking about it – that’s the most fun part of this.

One question – did you like Hollick or not? There’s been a pattern in early feedback, and I’d like to see if it holds.

— Dave


I’m in the middle of my first revision pass for my second novel, which I finished last weekend. Here’s my revision command central. The list of chapter numbers, working titles, and revised titles is the left three columns. The next three are elapsed time and start and end dates, so I’m consistent with timing as the story progresses and know how much time is passing for the characters.

The yellow boxes to the right are issues in some chapters that I want to check or correct or do better. Some of them are really minor, while others are things I blew it on the first time through that will take some work to fix.

The gray box on the far right is a screencap of my writing software showing the original descriptive chapter names so I can keep them straight as I rename them to stupid puns.

The colored column in the middle is whether I think the chapter is funny or not – red and yellow less funny, blue and green more. At least to me. I don’t know if there’s anything to be learned there, but I figured I’d note it for pacing and revisions. The dark blue line shall remain mysterious for now. I’ve done 31 of 63 chapters so far, and I’m shooting to have this first pass through it done before classes start on Monday.

Anyone who knows me well knows that I can’t help but use spreadsheets for stuff. Not sure if this is interesting to anybody, but I thought it might be. Blurred to hide spoilers.

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