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How I Write

There are a wide variety of processes that different authors use to create their books. I can’t say that any one is better than another. Everyone has to choose the way they work best. Here is a little insight as to how I create stories.

One thing is universal. Writing any fiction, especially a novel, requires dedication, time and perseverance. Most successful authors will advise that you write every day, even if you only produce a paragraph. If you write a page a day, in a year you have the first draft of a novel. You are also intimately immersed in your story and charters. This allows you see the relationships of story and people clearly so that the work remains consistent.

Writing every day is good advice, and it is best to strive for as a goal. Of course, very few writers work every single day. We take vacations, enjoy holidays and spend time with our friends and family. I do take breaks. We all need them. Still, I work almost every day on articles, blogs and books. I take a paper notebook and a pen with me everywhere I go and write when I am waiting for a plane, a bus or a meeting. I began my fantasy novel Half Awakened Dreams: Volume II of the Carandir Saga on a spiral notebook in a restaurant when I was having dinner after a pod cast conference.

Some authors outline their stories in generalities or details. This can be especially helpful when writing mysteries or thrillers because these kinds of stories contain puzzles and the author has to organize all the pieces.

I have never worked from an outline. An outline can be used to assemble thoughts and elements, but it can also be restrictive. My preference is to start with an idea and perhaps a vague sense of where I’m heading, though none of my novels have actually opened the way I initially conceived them or finished the way I envisioned.

I allow the plot and the characters to grow organically. As I write, the process of creating the plot and characters suggest things to me that I had not thought of when I began. A plot can take off in an entirely unexpected way. As I become more familiar with the material, characters can expose aspects in my mind that were not thought of before. I usually have no idea of what will happen until I come to that part of the book. It’s like I’m watching a movie in my head and am constantly surprised by turns of events. If I had started with an outline, I would either be restricted in letting my imagination expand so that I would be forced to follow the outline or I would have had to constantly adjust the outline which would be double the work. I’m a little lazy, so I just write it once.

There is a symbiotic relationship between plots and characters. Plot places characters in situations where they must make decisions that expose their essence and the changed character’s subsequent actions alter the plot. For instance, say a character is planning to paint the kitchen on a Saturday. A call comes from a long lost relative. This causes the character to realize the lack of time spent with an aging parent. The character abandons the idea of painting the kitchen and pays a visit on that parent, an action that can bring about more character revelations and plot elements.

Now, I just created that on the fly. I knew I wanted to demonstrate the relationship between characters and plots, but I didn’t know how I was going to do it. I started with a character planning to do something, then the notion of an interruption by a forgotten relative came to mind, followed by the idea that this causes an emotional dilemma in the character who reflects on a neglected parent and that causes the character to abandon the original plan. In other words, I just made it up as I went. It was an exercise in discovery. If this story were to continue, it could offer the ability to explore any of the characters and dig deeper into their thoughts and emotions. The plot would unfold as the characters interacted. Poof. You have the beginnings of a novel. If anyone wants to take this idea and run with it, please feel free to do so.

Some writers work in chronological order starting at the beginning of the story and continuing until they reach the end. I initially start my books this way, but as soon as I have a foothold, I often realize that there are scenes I will need, though I may not know where they will be put. Instead of continuing ahead, I will stop from time to time and create those scenes out of the chronological timeframe.

They may be small, standalone plots that I will insert in whole someplace during the first draft or even in subsequent drafts. They may also be entire subplots that take place over an extended period of time. I might insert these in full or break it up and place the pieces in different spots as they are needed to move the plot forward or give insight to characters and their motivations. As I move through discovering the story, I will see where a previously written piece should fit in. Not all of this material will be used. Nothing can go into the finished book that does not move the story forward and enhance the characters. No matter how well written something is, if it does not contribute to the book it has to be left out. Be prepared to rewrite your novel in multiple drafts and allow yourself to change anything during the process.

This can be difficult for many beginning writers. They see the time and care they took and are afraid that if they discard any material they will not have enough to fill up their novel. Everyone who wants to write on a professional level must realize that all authors have an inexhaustible source of material within them. Their imaginations can manufacture new plot devices and new character interactions with just a little concentration. At 320 pages, Dragons Unremembered: Volume I of the Carandir Saga is 100,000 words in length. I threw out over 700,000 words of material. Entire plot lines, lands, peoples, legends and more sit in file folders that no one will ever see. Some of the material was just plain bad and had to go. Some of it bordered too closely on Tolkien’s elves and dwarves. I wanted original material without either. Other scenes were very well written but did not fit into the story.

Mark Childress, author or Crazy in Alabama, says to, “Kill your darlings.” If it stands out, if it draws attention to itself and takes attention away from the plot and character, get rid of it, no matter how much you love it. Remember, there’s always more where that came from.

Writing Gender Neutral Prose

For several decades, writers producing technical and nonfiction material have struggled with how to compose gender neutral prose. Before the 1970s the word “Man” was often used to mean all people, male and female. Likewise, the word “He” was used to mean a specific person who was either female or male. Instructions in manuals would read, “When the operator sees the red light flash they must press the blue button.” This created a fender imbalance in the language and implied that women were merely extensions of men.

Since then, society has looked for ways to be gender inclusive in writing. The first attempt was to write, “he or she.” Alternatives have been “she or he” – “he/she” – “she/he” and “s/he.” These were often rotated so that each gender reference alternately appeared first in sentences .

Not only are these phrases awkward, they persist in pointing out gender inequality by making a distinction. In addition, there is the question of who goes first, the male or the female reference.

Some people have suggested introducing new pronouns that are gender natural. None have been adopted. Even though the English language is very malleable and changes occur frequently, there are some words that are highly resistant to change. Those words include pronouns.

Others have suggested that the plural pronoun “they” be use in a singular sentence, such as, “When the operator sees the red light flash they must press the blue button.” This is simply not grammatically correct. Mixing singular with plural in a sentence sounds and reads wrong.

So, what is the solution? I have wrestled with this for years in writing articles, business documents and technical manuals. I suggest that writers always make their sentences plural unless they are speaking about a particular person, as in, “When operators see the red light flash, they must press the blue button.” There is no need for the ungainly “he or she” or to break grammar rules by combining plural and singular in a sentence. This is simple, flows seamlessly and does not bring up images of gender imbalance because there is no gender reference when writing in general terms.

If writers speak of a particular person, they may use "he" for males and "she" for females, as in, “Mary drove her car to work” or “Tom picked up his dry cleaning.”

There can be cases where a specific person being described does not want to be associated with a gender at all. A sentence could read, ”Feglarglata got into the car and drove to the store.” A problem arises if you want to say that a specific person drove to the store in a car owned by that individual.

This is simple when writing in first person. “I got into my car and drove to the store.” Pronounce such as ‘I’, ‘me’, ‘you’, ‘us’ and ‘them’ are gender neutral.

In the third person you might say, “Feglarglata got into the car owned by Feglarglata and drove to the store.” Repeating the individual’s name avoids any gender specific pronouns, but it is a little long winded and a bit awkward.

The sentence could also be written, ”Feglarglata got into its car and drove to the store.” This works, but addressing a person as ‘it’ sounds harsh and impersonal.

It is possible to write a complete story without any reference to gender and not get bogged down. Consider this tale.

Feglarglata owned a car and drove it to the store. It was a short trip and the scenery was pleasant. After finding a parking space near the front door, it was a quick walk into the store to buy some bread and vegetables for the party that evening. Feglarglata was looking forward to seeing new and old friends alike. There would certainly be an enjoyable game of charades.

The trip home passed the old city hall that had been converted into a community center. Childhood memories surfaced of days spent playing softball and making crafts.

At home, the groceries were put away. A quick inspection of the kitchen and living room showed that everything was ready for the party.

The doorbell rang and Grylke walked into the living room sporting a wide smile. The old friend said, “I have been looking forward to this. I saw the others at launch and they are all coming”.

The two of them shook hands. Feglarglata said, “Can you help me bring some chairs in from the kitchen. We should be able to finish before anyone else arrives.” As soon as they were done, the doorbell sounded again.

Just the (Necessary) Facts: Researching historical fiction

Historical fiction requires the same command of writing craft as is found in any genre. In addition, writers of historical fiction must conduct intense research into the people, objects and locations of the time being written about. Authors must become immersed in the subject while building stories and characters that create unique books.

Research can take many forms; books, newspapers and magazines from the period, lectures, museums, videos, archival films, interviews, search engines and physical journeys to the places where the book takes place. I used all of these in researching a historical novel. Traveling to the actual location and visiting museums gave me the feel of the place and provided context to period exhibits. Travelogue lectures and videos were like guided tours. Archival films documented specifics about clothing, transportation and current affairs. The Internet gave me details about temperature, population, landscape, customs and festivals. Original and microfilmed copies of period magazines and newspapers filed in gaps concerning everyday life, anxieties and hopes. The advertisements were very interesting because they highlighted desires and morals of the time.

If done thoroughly, research will produce volumes of notes. Yet, authors will only want to use a fraction of the facts they gather. Some might question this after making such an investment in research and think that they need to include everything they have discovered because it is so interesting. This is a mistake. A historical novel is not a text book. It must contain just enough details to set the novel in the time period without overwhelming the reader. Too many facts distract the reader from the plot and character development. It’s important to reach a balance.

Consider a paragraph that uses extensive historical facts, such as, “Aaron opened the door of the 1962 Chevy Impala and sat in the driver’s seat. It had C pillar styling that was not offered in the 4-door hardtop. The engine was a 409 cubic-incher that only came with a standard transmission. It was a true legacy to Swiss race car driver Louis Chevrolet (1879 – 1941) and his partner William C. Durant (1861-1947) who started the Chevrolet Motor Car Company on November 3, 1911. Aaron knew this car would win the race and save the orphanage.”

All of these fact are real, and may be of interest to car enthusiasts, but it is far too much information for the majority of readers. That Aaron has found a fast car that will win a race to save the orphanage is lost in the words. It would be far better to write, “Aaron opened the door of the 1962 Chevy Impala and sat in the driver’s seat. Surly, the big 409 cubic-inch engine would win the race and save the orphanage.”

That is not to say you should leave out all the facts you discover. One of the things readers seek in historical fiction is a sense of the time and place. Descriptions of houses, rooms, clothing, transportation and implements create the feeling of a time gone by, but you should be selective in what you include. I wrote a historical novel in which I needed to get some lye that would be used in a future scene into a character’s pocket. This was both setting and foreshadowing, so it needed it to be memorable but subtle. I choose to have another character make soap while the main character helped. I researched soap making and learned many details. I used very few of those facts in the scene. The description of soap making consists of a general overview that gives the sense of making soap in the time period while leaving out detailed specifics, except for one. The character making the soap uses one type of lye over another, explaining that it makes softer soap but has a more violent reaction when exposed to water. The main character ties some left over lye in a handkerchief and puts it in a pocket. The fact that the lye was more active was very important to the plot a few chapters later.

When writing about actual historical figures, you cannot change known, historical facts. Marie Curie discovered radium and died from radiation poisoning at the age of 66, but an author can’t have her stop experimenting and live to be 100. Harriet Tubman was an abolitionist who was a former slave. She organized the underground railway to help other escaped slaves, but a historical novel cannot have her become president of the United States. Whatever documented actions a historical person took cannot be changed in a book. However, the author has complete leeway to explore the private moments in their lives when there is no known record of what they did or did not do, say or think. These unknown emotions, dreams, desires, etc. are fair game. Pablo Picasso’s painting Guernica is a passionate condemnation of the Spanish civil war. The intent and result are evident, yet, who has crawled inside the mind on Picasso to know exactly what he was feeling and thinking at the time? Authors of a historical novel can do this.

Historical fiction can be entertaining, informative and thought provoking. It can also shed light on our contemporary world by showing us what has changed and what has not, thus giving us the opportunity to grow as societies and individuals. Authors can do this by choosing the right details, creating memorable characters and telling great stories within the chosen time period. thin the chosen time period.

Everyone Starts Someplace

No matter the career path people pursue, they start off knowing next to nothing about it. Carpenters must learn how to pound nails. They may have watched every episode of a particular home improvement show, but until they gain the experience of actually doing it, they will hit the wood as much as the nails and half of those will be bent. The same is true in other professions. Initial exposure is a good grounding, but there is a difference between knowing a thing and knowing the experience of a thing.

This includes writing. It takes time to learn the nuances of the craft; language, characterization, dialog, plot, suspense, comedy, drama and so forth. We all begin by imitating the styles of writers we have read until we develop our own unique voice, much as art students copy masterpieces to get the feel of how the original artists captured light or expressed an emotion. Through this process, writers accumulate techniques they will continue to use. There are those who do pop onto the scene with works of brilliance, however, for most it can take years to master the craft.

Even after reaching that professional level, you will discover that the process of learning never ends. There are always new things to discover. This requires a willingness to continually evaluate yourself as a writer and to examine critiques. They could come from other writers, Professional or learning, or a critique group. A major difference between professionals and neophytes is the ability to override their egos and commit themselves to improvement.

A critique is an examination of how effectively themes or points was expressed. When writers examine critiques about their works, they can gain a better understanding of how to best communicate to readers.

Some new writers can be hypersensitive to accepting critiques. Suggestions may be considered attacks on their character. They may think of their stories as their babies and each word their blood on the page. I have actually heard these words used. Some writers might say that their mother liked their manuscript or their friends enjoyed it. These attitudes are a great impediment to becoming a professional writer. Mothers like everything about their children and friends may not want to point out faults. Writers must look to people involved in writing who are willing to comment on how effective their work is.

Many beginning writers fear that they will run out of material and, therefore, they must jealously guard what they have. In truth, authors have an inexhaustible source of new ideas that they can draw on by just sitting down, writing them out, seeing how they read, and following threads that are suggested by the material. I threw out five times as much text as that retained in one final manuscript. Entire characters, cultures, locations and plot lines were removed because they did not serve the book.

There is a standard answer people in the arts give when a beginner asks about how to break into the business. It goes something like, “Do your best. Send your material out, and if you don’t make it in five years move on.” This is nonsense. What of you needed five years and a month to get you book accepted by a publisher? If you have the determination to work on your material, improve yourself and learn from other writers, continue in your day job and write in the morning or evening. Tom Clancy was just a middle aged insurance salesman while he worked on Hunt for Red October. J.K. Rowling submitted Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone to over 20 publishers. What if she had stopped after 19? Keep writing and learning. What do you have to lose?

Apprentice carpenters begin in near ignorance. They get experience on the job, go to training courses and proceed through the ranks to become master carpenters. There is no shame in not knowing everything at first, but we humans are impatient, even more so in this wired world. We must all be willing to swallow our egos long enough to listen to others and profit from their views and experiences to become masters.