Recently I received an email in which a writer wrote (toward the end of some lengthy praise of my “process”) “I only wish I could write like you.”
During an exchange of emails, I eventually determined the writer was talking about my ability to turn out a lot of quality short stories and novels fairly quickly (though I’m pretty much a slug by old pulp standards). And what the writer really meant was that s/he wished s/he could write, period.
I explained that a short five years ago (2014) I too was wishing I could write like I do today. Albeit without the down times and delays that occasionally come along.
But that started me thinking about my process. Most of you who’ve been with me awhile have heard more about that than you probably want to know. Others, not so much. So I thought I’d try to put it all in one succinct topic.
This actually is a post I personally wish Lee Child and Jack Higgins and Sue Coletta and Ray Bradbury and any number of other writers would write. But they aren’t here, so I guess it’s up to me.
For my novels and most of my shorter works, I most often “receive” ideas. By that I mean they pop into my head. This sounds similar to inspiration, but it isn’t. It’s usually based on situations or characters I’ve written (or read or seen or heard).
And it isn’t a matter of looking-for or waiting-for those ideas. They simply hit, often when I’m in the middle of doing something else.
They usually come as a snippet of dialogue in a character’s voice. Less frequently I’ll “see” (or smell or taste) part of a scene that insterests me.
Sometimes, especially if I’m in the midst of a self-imposed challenge (for example, writing a short story every day or every week), I’ll come up with a character name, hand the character a problem (doesn’t have to be “the” problem of the story) and drop him into a setting.
Then I write an opening and I’m off and running. Or not.
Once I have an idea, no matter its source, I write an opening. I do this for almost every idea that comes to me. (Hey, practice is practice.) The only time I don’t is if an idea occurs while I’m away from my computer, meaning in a car or in another town. If I’m in the vicinity of my writing computer when an idea strikes, I go write an opening.
My openings are usually around 400 to 600 words. (For me, that’s a third to a half of a scene.)
If the opening grabs me and takes off, I keep writing. I take a brief (10 minutes to a half-hour, depending) break at the end of each scene, which usually takes around an hour to write. When I come back, I put my fingers on the keyboard and read over what I wrote during the previous session. During that time I usually add things, usually to the setting (to more solidly ground the reader), but sometimes I allow the character to expand the dialogue too.
Note: During that part of the process, I read for pleasure, NOT critically. That’s the difference between doing this (cycling) and editing. I do NOT “look for” misspellings, wrong words, awkward sentences or anything else. And I don’t “fix” anything. I just read and let my fingers move if the characters move them.
When I get back to where I stopped writing in the previous session, I’m back into the flow of the story and I write the next scene. Then, as they say in the shampoo commercials, it’s lather, rinse, repeat.
If the opening DOESN’T take off, I pitch it and either go back to what I was doing before or, if I have another idea handy, I write another opening. Shrug.
In all of this, I avoid thinking about where the story’s going or what the next scene will be or what’s about to happen next or anything like that. I simply sit down at the computer, put my fingers on the keyboard, and write the next sentence that comes to me.
That’s through the whole story.
The only “secret” is that I trust my subconscious, and that took practice. Occasionally it still does. Sometimes I find myself worrying about what will happen next in the story or hoping the characters will do a certain thing or that a situation will take a particular turn.
When that happens, I most often take a break. When I come back, I either cycle back (as described above) or I just write the next sentence, then write the next sentence, then write the next sentence.
I’ve been asked whether I know going-in how long a story’s going to be. The short answer is, I don’t. Nor do I worry about it. I just write the opening and go where it takes me.
Several times I’ve expected to write a short story and ended up with a novel when the idea expanded (more on this below). A few times I’ve set out to write a novel and ended up with a short story.
Okay, but how do I know which ideas will work for a short story and which will work for a novel?
Almost any idea will work for at least a short story as long as the idea still interests you after you’ve written the opening. And by that point you can usually tell whether it’s “just” a short story or something larger.
If the story is centered around One major problem and will wrap up satisfactorily when that one problem has been resolved, it’s a short story. (That’s up to around 10,000 words. For my short “Fiction Lengths” paper, email me.)
If “the” problem or its resolution leads to other problems that also have to be resolved, you probably have a novelette (long short story, to about 15,000 words), novella or novel on your hands. Enjoy!
How to “Work Up” to Writing a Novel
If the thought of writing a novel is daunting or frightening to you, toss that thought aside. Seriously. After all, you aren’t writing a novel. You’re writing a sentence. You can do that, right? Especially when someone else (your character) is giving it to you? You’re taking dictation, really. Not difficult or daunting at all.
You don’t write a novel. You write a sentence.
You write a sentence, then the next, then the next. Soon (usually sooner than you expect) you’ve written the cliffhanger at the end of the scene. Then you take a break, then come back and write the opening for the next scene.
Note: Remember that readers have short memories. In every opening, write a few words or sentences to ground the reader. This will come naturally now that you know to do it. If the new scene takes place in the same setting, you can ground the reader with a few words. If it takes place in a new setting (even the next room), grounding the reader will take a little more.
So you write a sentence, then another, and soon you’ve written a scene.
You write a scene, then another, and before you know it you’ve reached the end of the story. Whereupon the characters dust off their little hands, look at you and say, “That’s it, pal. You’re done.”
And you look back to find you’ve written a novel.
If you wish you could write like I do, being “prolific” aside and with genre and story style aside, what you’re really saying is that you wish you could write, period. Really, there’s only one “rule,” and then I have only a few suggestions:
1. Follow Heinlein’s Rule 1: You must write. Remember that thinking about writing or talking about writing or even researching for your writing is not writing. Writing is putting new words on the page. So to write, you have to sit down, put your fingers on the keyboard, and write a sentence. Then write the next sentence, then the next. Keep going. There’s no substitute for this rule, and really, it’s the only one. What follows are suggestions:
2. Trust your subconscious. Or as Bradbury put it, “write whatever comes.” After all, it’s been telling stories since before you knew there was an alphabet, and you’ll improve with practice. But even if you’re an outliner or have some sort of hybrid process, Rule 1 still applies.
3. Trust your subconscious, Part 2. Remember that yes, it’s “your” story. Um, but not really. After all, the characters are living it, so who do you suppose knows it better? Again, sit down, put your fingers on the keyboard, and don’t worry about it. Just write whatever comes.
4. Keep coming back. If you have to leave the story for awhile, no problem. Do what you need to do. But literally The Next Time You Get A Chance (it takes effort to build a habit), sit down, put your fingers on the keyboard, and write the next sentence. Then the next.
5. If you want to “keep coming back,” only the little voice in your head says something that starts with “But,” shove aside the “but” and whatever comes after it and go write anyway, even if it’s for only fifteen minutes or a half-hour. (Usually that will turn into a much longer session, and you’ll thank me, unless you’re an ungrateful sot.)
Joking. I don’t need thanks. Considering what I do for a “job,” I’m pretty much the luckiest guy in the world. (grin)
That’s really pretty much it.
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12 thoughts on “How to Write Like I Do”
For me choosing the source for the next story was always a huge trouble. So, there were two important things I’ve learned last week that helped me to beat the critical voice.
1. There was a saying by Judson Pentecost Philips (I can’t find the source, it’s mentioned in editorial introduction to Russian translation of 3 his novels): Dramatic situations are limited, but all people are different. So don’t mind if you use a well-known situation (like investigating a crime) until you’re using your own original characters.
2. A fragment from “Four Weeks to be finished” by Jake Bible. He’s talking about GREATEST IDEA EVER fever and mentions the main problem with it – even if you have an ambigous idea, it’s going to require more work (more research, more hiding the emptiness into literary style or so).
If a character is mercenary, author has zero problems with putting him into trouble or sending to an impossible mission. The war is trouble itself and mercenaries are hired to be sent to such a missions.
Rikki, thanks for commenting. There are no original story ideas, so we have no choice but to recycle them. My favorite way to write a story (even a novel) if I don’t have an idea at hand is to create an idea.
1. Come up with a character (sometimes I don’t even know his or her name at the time).
2. Give the character a problem (doesn’t have to be “the” problem of the story or novel; it might be something as simple as an untied shoelace). What happens when he or she bends over to tie it?
3. Drop the character and problem into a setting and start writing.
It really is that simple.
#2 is something that was a game-changer for me. I’d always believed that I had to have this main story problem figured out right at the beginning, but when I realized it could be *any* old problem, man, was that freeing.
Yep. The initial “idea” (character with “any ol’ problem”) dropped in a setting is just to get you started writing an opening. “The” main problem of the story will come later, naturally, through the character(s) and the situation.
Maybe Dave (the character) steps out of his house on his way to work (setting) and nearly trips over an untied shoelace (problem). He bends down to tie the shoelace, an explosion sounds across the street, and a wood splinter flies off his door from where the bullet hit, an instant after he ducked. (grin) Crime/mystery/action-adventure.
Or maybe (same situation) when he bends to tie his shoelace, he notices a glint in the grass. He ties the shoelace, then tugs at whatever’s glinting and finds the spout of an old oil lamp. (Fantasy/mystery/thriller)
Or maybe (again, same situation) he ties his shoelace, then remembers he left his briefcase. What happens when he steps back inside?
And on and on, all from that same “idea.”
Fantastic post, Harvey! I blasted it far and wide from my Twitter account. Now, I do have a question for you based on your note about cycling:
“I do NOT “look for” misspellings, wrong words, awkward sentences or anything else. ”
I’m notice that so much of what I “fix” when I cycle back are awkward sentences, or over use of certain words…Is that something you save for your copy editor?
Hi Phillip, Thanks! I can use all the blasting I can get. (grin)
Other than what the characters add during cycling, I never change anything. Cycling is all about story, not words or sentences, and it’s done in the creative subconscious as a reader.
The key phrase is “look for.” To intentionally look for something invokes the conscious, critical mind. Any time you invite the critical mind in, you make it stronger. As I’m cycling (again, just reading over it for pleasure, not “into” it, critically), I might change a sentence here and there, but in every case the change flows naturally, NEVER as a result of me saying “Whoa, that’s awkward” or “That would sound better if I changed it to this.”
It will take you a little while to grasp this. (It took me awhile.) Keep practicing, and one day it’ll just click. And once you do get it, you’ll be SO much happier with your writing process. Also be very careful about “correcting” overuse of words. I’ve even seen people alternate the use of “that” and “which” as if they’re synonymous for exactly that reason. And of course, they aren’t.
>>Cycling is all about story, not words or sentences
>>The key phrase is “look for.” To intentionally look for something invokes the conscious, critical mind. Any time you invite the critical mind in, you make it stronger.
Harvey, you’ve done it again…I’m gonna have to stop reading your insightful comments unless I want a permanent mark on my forehead from the frequent hand-slaps. 🙂 It’s so obvious to me now that I’ve been training myself to do this over and over again, so I need to just practice “not doing it.” It makes me think back to Dean’s phrase of “Dare to be bad.”
Thanks for another breakthrough. It’s so great to have someone like you, who’s been in the trenches, to relate your hard-won experience.
Thanks, Phillip. Always happy to help.
I’m new here, so forgive me if you’ve covered this: Should I assume you run the story through a spell-checker when you finish? Do you have a copy-editor and if so, to what extent do they edit?
Thanks for your time.
Thanks for the comment and the questions, Gai. Yes, I run the manuscript through a spell checker (the one inherent in Microsoft Word) just before I send it off to my first reader. (I jokingly refer to the spell check as my “second draft.”)
My first reader catches any inconsistencies (the character is wearing a brown jacket as he enters a bank but it’s blue as he exits) and points out anyplace where the story confuses him or her.
I’m a pretty good copyeditor in my own right, so I don’t use one. But any copyeditor should do basically a more extended version of what my first reader does: check for misspellings and wrong word usages (waste vs. waist), and so on. But NOTHING about the content of the actual story.
For more on what a copyeditor does, I recommend clicking https://harveystanbrough.com/copyediting/. Even if you don’t hire me, that’s what a copyeditor should do for you. Nothing intrusive.
fascinating! Thanks again.
You’re very welcome.
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