Writing Recipe, Part One (Theory Thursday)

Quill Pen and Ink

No, this isn’t a post about how I’m so much cooler than you because I write with a quill pen, or a fountain pen, or a manual typewriter.  I’m using a cheap netbook … about as glamorous as a quill pen was back in 1799.

This is the first of my articles on “writing theory.”  Now, I’m not speaking as somebody who has “made it.”  I haven’t.  I have neither fame and fortune (of which I have none), nor a level of skill that makes me feel I’ve “arrived.”

That said, I’m a much better writer than I was five (or even three) years ago.  I’ve learned a lot, both from writers who have made it, and from “doing” writing (not rewriting, but actual writing.  I’ve written more unique words in the last three years than in the previous thirty, without a doubt).

Unfortunately, rewriting doesn’t count.  It doesn’t make you a better writer, and it often doesn’t even make the piece you’re working on better.  Unless you’re already a skilled and experienced editor, you’re as likely to make it worse as you are to make it better.  Of course you should fix the typos and misspellings, but that’s about as far as it should go as a general rule.  But don’t listen to me, check out Dean Wesley Smith’s Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing.  Smith’s been making a living in this business for almost as long as I’ve been alive, and he’s weathered all kinds of changes.

So here I am, talking about the “Writing Recipe,” not as someone who’s made it, but as someone who’s still struggling on the margins, another indie outsider, like some of you who are reading this.  Maybe sharing our struggles will make us feel more encouraged, more supported, and less alone.

So here we go.  I’ll start with the cake, and deal with the icing next Thursday:

There are so many factors that go into good writing, it’s sometimes hard to keep them straight. First and foremost, you’re telling a story, so you need a good plot and engaging characters.

The characters don’t necessarily have to be likable per se, but they need to be engaging, active, and at least somewhat relatable. Ellie, the protagonist of S.D. Redling’s Flowertown isn’t exactly likable – she’s a mean-spirited stoner, to be honest.  But she’s always engaging, always resisting the corporate suits who run the containment zone (nicknamed Flowertown for the sickly-sweet smell of the decontaminants), even if it’s only in petty, self-destructive ways.  It’s not easy to like her, at least at first, but you certainly can’t ignore her.

The characters need to take action, to do things.  There are few things more frustrating than reading a story where things just happen to the characters.  I want the characters to drive the action.  Sure, a lot of times characters get thrust into ugly situations (The Walking Dead, several of Stephen King’s novels, including my personal favorite, Desperation), but they eventually take initiative and make things happen.  That’s almost a necessity.

Writing characters that take initiative and make things happen is easier said than done.  I’ve struggled with it, and I think I’ve mostly gotten a grip on things.  Sometimes being reactionary can be a sign of stagnation: Benedict had become so set in his role as executioner of dangerous vampires that he’d basically stopped trying to get ahead of his Vampire-Lord brother.  Granted, he’d had 900 years of bloody stalemates with Augustine to make him jaded.  But it didn’t change the fact that he did far too much reacting for his own good.  Overcoming that is part of his story arc.

In The Red Lands, Garrett has a “quest” of sorts from the very beginning.  He’s going west, to face the master of the Red Lands.  At first, he hopes to save his ex-girlfriend’s life, but as the story progresses, he learns that the stakes may be much higher.  The Red Lands was written after Blood for Blood, so I had time to learn from Benedict’s issues, and then take what I’d learned and apply it to Benedict’s next two books.

The plot, of course, has to be engaging.  It also has to move quickly enough to keep the reader going, but not so fast that it seems more like an outline than a story.  I think I’m getting better at that with each story I write, but I’m well aware that I’m not at the level of the real masters of storytelling yet.

It also helps to have some kind of premise in mind when telling the story. After all, every work of fiction will deliver a message of some sort, whether you want it to or not. I think everyone’s better off if you (as the author) consciously control that message rather than leaving it to chance.  I learned that the hard way, and continue to struggle with it.  Being the “one in charge” of your own writing is vitally important, but it’s not nearly as easy as it sounds.

So there it is, my take on the broad strokes of writing.  But as they say, “the devil’s in the details,” so next week, I’ll look at smaller-scale things.  If this was the cake, they’ll be the icing: character voice, readability, sensory details, and so on.




  1. I’m surprised to hear that you think rewriting doesn’t make you a better writer, being on my first draft of my first manuscript doesn’t lead me to being any kind of expert but those were surprising words.

    • First, let me be clear on definitions: by rewriting I mean editing and polishing, not starting over with the same story concept (maybe even the same outline, if you use outlines) and re-writing from scratch. Writing the same story a second time from the concept or outline stage is often called “redrafting,” which is an odd name, I’ll admit. Don’t blame me: I didn’t make any of these names up 🙂

      Redrafting can make you a better writer, because it is writing. Rewriting, meaning editing and polishing, might make you a better editor, but it won’t make you a better writer, because you’re not actually writing. It might improve the piece you’re working on, or it might not, but it won’t increase your actual writing skills.

      The way to become a better writer is to write more. It also helps if you identify some of your weak points and then focus on improving them as you write. Dean Wesley Smith has written about this topic (http://www.deanwesleysmith.com/?p=5097), and rather than rip him off, I’ll steer you to his site.

      That said, I’ve really felt the effects of this since I started doing it. In the last three years, I’ve gone from being trapped in an endless loop or revision and rewriting to actually making real progress on a novel trilogy, a novella series, and a group of non-exactly sequential (but related) short stories.

      My own writing has really improved, especially this year, when I started dissecting some of my writing issues. Like I said earlier, I haven’t arrived, but I’m a lot farther along than I was before. I also enjoy the writing process a lot more, because I spend my time creating rather than editing.

      • Thanks for clearing that up, but I still think editing can improve writing…so long as we think about, like you said, or strengths and weaknesses.

        I’m not here to argue, merely discuss. So I hope you didn’t, and don’t, take my words as an affront. It’s good to hear that you’re making progress as a writer, I feel the same way as well in relation to my own writing over the last six months or so. It is certainly true that putting the words out and crafting the shape and rhythym of a story is the strongest thing one can do to learn the craft.

        Thanks for discussing this with me.

      • I’m not offended at all. I know that every writer is different, and what works for me won’t necessarily work for everyone else.

        But I want to share this “side” of the story, because, well, I’d been writing off-and-on for well over a decade before I ever heard of Heinlein’s rules (http://www.gazetteofthearts.com/writer3.htm) or even the idea that we shouldn’t write something, then spend a year or more “perfecting it.”

        I’d gotten trapped in the event horizon of a revising/rewriting black hole, where each new revision brought up more things that needed to be revised, moving me *farther* from my goal, rather than closer to it.

        It stole the joy of writing from me, and it didn’t make me a better writer.

        It made it impossible for me to ever really try to get anything published, because nothing was ever “done.”

        Eventually, it led me to hang up my pen altogether. I always went back, eventually, to start something new, but the same thing would happen again.

        I’m not saying that will happen to you. I *hope* it doesn’t happen to you. But I just want you to hear the counter-narrative, because I think it happens to a lot of writers.

        At any rate, I’m certainly not offended, and I hope you don’t need this advice. I hope you don’t fall into the same traps I did.

        Anyway, thanks for commenting!

      • I like those rules, simple. Easy to follow, in theory.

      • Yeah. A little hard to actually accomplish sometimes, though.

        And if you’re going Indie, it makes it even more important to have a good “trusted first reader” who’ll serve as a basic editor to catch things like typos, “idiot ball moments” and inconsistencies. Without someone like that, embarrassing mistakes can creep in.

      • Yeah, I’ve bore witness to a few of those that even I have caught, not to mention the ones I haven’t. I don’t have a reader like that yet, and I don’t know where I will find one so it’s up to me to make my story as good as it can get, and then I’m probably going main street publishing anyway so the devil will be in the details at that point.

      • If you’re going the New York route, I definitely recommend you read some of the stuff on contracts at Dean Wesley Smith’s site (http://deanwesleysmith.com) and his wife Kris Rusch (http://kriswrites.com). They’ve both published a lot of books through the big national publishers, and they have some good insights about what to look for and what to avoid (and what to negotiate out) in publishing contracts.

        I know that’s probably something you’ll want to worry about after the book is finished, but I strongly recommend you look at their sites then. They’ve had a lot of first-hand experience with New York contracts (and New York agents), and has a lot of advice on how to separate the good from the bad.

      • Thanks.

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