My approach to writing has always been to start at the most strategic level and work my way down to the details. For me, it's easier to focus on the words if I've already solidified the main concepts that direct those words. That's why things like audience expectations, story structure, and outlines are so well suited for me. They free up my writing brain to focus more on craft. With that in mind, I'd like to bring a pretty cool concept to your attention: The Soul Triptych.
This is a somewhat obscure technique that I stumbled across a few years ago, and I was so enamored with it that I used it during the writing of Gnosis. Put simply, a soul triptych is a model that facilitates the intelligent crafting of a trio of main characters in a way that is surprisingly organic and also appeals to some fundamental human traits.
For some of you, a triptych might be a familiar concept in the world of art. It refers to one of those three-in-one fold-out panel paintings. An example of one is Hans Memling's Triptych of the Resurrection, shown here. Depending on the artist, the triptych often depicts three different facets of the same subject matter.
In a similar way, we can think of a trio of main characters as three facets of a complete human personality, with each character representing one of the three basic drives.
The three most commonly used facets are: Body, Mind, and Spirit. You can define each of these in a variety of ways, but for the most part, your definitions will be similar to:
The Body – This character is usually, but not always, physically strong. They are driven by passions and desires. They are earthlike, grounded in physicality. They are typically very practical and concerned with reality, rather than abstractions. They don't often dive too deeply into mysteries, and tend to react spontaneously. Their passions run strong, and they are often deeply loyal and unconditional.
The Mind – This is the brain of the trio. They are the one who devises the plans most often. Detail oriented and intellectual, they strive for logic. They are driven by clear, rational thinking, and the inevitability that this creates. They can be abstract, often skeptical, and sometimes cold and aloof.
The Spirit – The Spirit is driven by compassion when making decisions. They are all about feeling. They can be inflexible. Having once made up their minds, they can be driven by desire to see things through to the end. They are the spiritual leader of the trio (which doesn't necessarily translate to the actual leader).
Now, before you go all crazy and suggest that this creates fractional, two-dimensional characters, relax. That's not the intent. The purpose is to allow each character to focus on a different aspect, not to be constrained by it. Characters should have depth and the ability to deviate from their role from time to time. The soul triptych role simply points at their dominant traits.
Looked at in this light, the soul triptych is a story representation of the three powers of humanity. And because you have three characters each representing a different one, then together they make a complete unit. This provides an interconnectedness. An intrinsic need for each other. The triptych is often a very tight, indissoluble team.
Whether intentionally or not, we see this model in successful fiction, television, and movies. A LOT. Here are a few examples:
Body Mind Soul Book/Movie
Ron Hermione Harry Harry Potter
Han Leia Luke Star Wars
Buttercup Blossom Bubbles Powerpuff Girls
Kirk Spock McCoy Star Trek
Gale Katniss Peeta Hunger Games
Montoya Wesley Buttercup The Princess Bride
Samwise Gandalf Frodo The Lord of the Rings
Dmitri Ivan Alyosha The Brothers Karamazov
Porthos Athos Aramis The Three Musketeers
Take a moment and consider any of the above trios. Let's consider Ron, Hermione, and Harry from the Harry Potter series. Go back and review the definitions of Body, Mind, and Soul above. It's abundantly clear which role each character serves. These are not shallow, two-dimensional characters. They each have lots of things going on and they each maintain a level of individuality and uniqueness. They are a very tight, loyal group, and they need each other. In any given book in the series, each one is vital to some element of the overall quest. Together, they form a complete unit, with all of the necessary traits to overcome adversity.
And knowing what their intended role is makes it easier as a writer to devise challenges that are suited to one character over the others, thus rendering all of them useful and necessary to the story.
As readers, when we are presented with a triptych, we identify with the experience of the characters being portrayed. The triptych represents universal human characteristics that we are all familiar with. We need wit, determination, and strength to exist day-to-day. By magnifying these qualities and embodying them in individuals, writers then provide these qualities with the necessary exaggeration to make them heroic.
It's possible that there is an even deeper connection between humans and the triptych. Plato spoke of the concept millennia ago. We might even see it reflected in Christianity, in the form of the Holy Spirit, God, and Jesus. One could provide a chicken-and-the-egg argument about the ultimate source of the concept, but regardless of one's belief's, it has been around for a very long time. Long enough to have become ingrained in our basic expectations of humanity.
And that's why it works so well.
There are variants on the concept as well. We've all heard the phrase body and soul as a reference to a complete human. This pair can also be used as a soul diptych, with similar results. (Oh, and notice in the above list that any one of the three can be the actual leader of the group. In Harry Potter, the Soul leads. In Star Trek, the body leads. In Hunger Games, the mind leads. There is no requirement that any particular facet must be dominant. And that's good, because it allows the writer to retain maximum flexibility during the character creation process.)
The Body and Soul definitions from above can still apply, but the dynamic between them changes. The triptych often creates a tight, harmonious trio, where the three forces have an almost democratic means of resolving internal conflict. With a diptych, conflict is more common, since there is no third party to turn to in the event of disputes.
Diptych duos are often tense. Although allies in some sense, they are constantly at odds, working against each other while pursuing some overarching goal. Their relationship can be more accurately described as a rivalry. They can be protagonist/antagonist, but when they are on the same side, there is a lot of friction. It is a classic collision between reason and emotion. Harnessed correctly, it can make a powerful duo, but success is often balanced on a razor's edge.
With that in mind, let's look at some well-known Soul Diptych examples.
Body/Heart Mind/Reason Book/Movie
Mr. Hyde Dr. Jekyll Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Tyler Durden The Narrator Fight Club
Mulder Scully X-Files
The Hound Arya Stark Game of Thrones
Patrick Spongebob Spongebob Squarepants
Dr. Watson Sherlock Holmes The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
Victor Dr. Frankenstein Frankenstein's Monster
Again, consider how this kind of duo interacts. The body is grounded, simple & clear, often physical and strong. They are experience seekers. The Mind is more skeptical and analytical. Often smarter and more cynical. The duo is sometimes a forced alliance, and sometimes antagonist/protagonist, but either way, the relationship is built for conflict. With no third party to mediate, these two are oil and water. They still usually need each other, though, so like it or not, they have to find ways to tolerate each other, even when their personal goals are at odds. The diptych has the makings of great tension.
Alternatively, you could just as easily define your own necessary facets of the human condition and create roles for your characters to fill. The point is that it is a tool, and it opens up avenues of thought that you might not otherwise have considered. And because the model involves, or should involve, fundamental aspects of the human condition, then it can produce consistent characters that will resonate with your readers in a natural way.
As I said in the beginning, it isn't necessary to use models like these. They're a tool that may help you think and create. They can channel your thinking. Maybe they'll get you off to a good start and then you jettison them, or maybe you'll follow them rigidly to the end. Either way, they make your writing fun to think about, and that's worth something all by itself.
Let’s take a moment to look at a surprisingly underutilized element of fiction writing: the active environment.
Have you ever found yourself watching a movie and one of those moments occurs when the camera enters a new scene for the first time? The camera pans slowly around the room, and the audience is presented with a collection of objects. No narrative takes place. There are no characters. Very little is in motion. Yet we find ourselves learning fascinating things about the character that inhabits the environment.
Most of us just absorb it and enjoy the moment that this inevitably short bit of camera work creates, but as a writer, you should pay close attention. Very close attention. There’s a fabulously powerful technique that’s taking place here. The environment is telling you a story.
In my class on game design, this is one of the lessons that I try to instill on my students. I give them an assignment that has proven quite popular (and instructive) over the years. I provide them with an occupation and a couple of adjectives, and then instruct them to design a space that that character might inhabit. But to really hammer the point home, I provide a number of caveats:
At first, the students look confidently at this assignment and are raring to go, but very quickly they discover that it’s actually much harder than it seems.
We’ll get into the nuts and bolts of how to think about it momentarily, but for now, I’ll give you one of the better results. The student was asked to come up with an environment for an Arrogant, Newly Divorced, Bitter, Neurosurgeon. Here’s what he gave me:
The corner office is mostly barren save for a few choice pieces of furniture. A large mahogany desk paired with a leather office chair sits towards the back of the room. Next to the desk is an anatomical model of a brain on a stand. On the white walls behind the desk hangs a large picture of a man in his late forties receiving a plaque from Michael J. Fox. This same plaque, with engravings from the Michael J. Fox Foundation, is found hanging next to the picture, as well as a large diploma from Harvard University. Two simple chairs face the desk with a box of tissues close by and a picture of the same man next to Christopher Reeves in a wheelchair. On the floor is another picture surrounded by broken glass. It is a picture of the same man in a tuxedo embracing a woman in a white wedding gown. A half empty bottle of whiskey sits next to an empty whiskey glass, and at the bottom of this whiskey glass is a solid gold ring. Stabbed through the table is a scalpel, pinning another picture down. Three people in cap and gown are shown in the picture. Two of them are from the wedding photo, and the third individual has the scalpel plunged through his face. A computer monitor on the desk shows an unsent, half written email titled “YOU FREAKING JUDAS” with the name Derek marked as the recipient. Next to the keyboard, a contact book lies open showing the address of a Derek. Beneath, a mostly empty desk drawer is pulled all the way out. Inside, only an empty pack of cigarettes and three loose bullets can be seen.
I can’t express how fascinating I found this scene. Notice how the objects give clues to the occupant's job and state of mind, without ever TELLING us. The collection of objects presents us with a very clear story. Obviously a doctor, the occupant of the room fell in love with his college sweetheart. His best friend was the best man at his wedding. There was an affair between the best friend and the wife. The doctor found out about it. He’s angry, and contemplating violence.
There’s almost no text (except for the email) in the scene. No leading adjectives. No narrative. And yet a story with a crystal clear beginning, middle, and end has been provided. It could be better written, but that was never the point. The scene is intrinsically evocative.
Let’s take a look at another example. In this one, the student was given: A bored, social climbing wannabe, secretary. Here’s what she turned in.
A desk sits close to the entryway of the room. The desk is “L” shaped and has a small counter connected to the top of it. Several thick padded chairs sit against the wall with an end table holding Business Magazine sitting in neat stack divides the chairs. The lights are all turned off including the desk lamp and overhead ceiling lights. Nothing sits on the counter of the desk other than a small metal plaque that reads “Stephanie Walker.” The desk itself holds a landline phone as well as a computer. A calendar reminder popup regarding a networking event hosted by Riverbed Technologies covers over google map directions to a local beauty salon. Several personal photos sit upon the desk including one of three young college girls in bikinis on the beach making triangles with their fingers. Another photo depicts two girls, one slightly older than the other, windsurfing with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background. Bright red lipstick labeled “Seductive Enchantress” lies cap-less on the desk. An iPhone 7 sits on the computer keyboard lighting up every few seconds. One drawer is slightly open and inside is a pile of rubber bands and what looks to be the start of a rubber band ball. The desk chair is tipped over and a red thong lies on the ground just under the desk. A bookshelf behind the desk has several books tipped on their side and a stapler sits on the ground with the staples spewed out on the ground. To the far side of the room is a glass wall and a door leading inside. A metal plaque on the door reads “Executive Manager Eric C. Sharpe”. The blinds on the other side of the glass wall are shut.
Although it doesn’t quite contain the breadth of the first example, these objects nonetheless give the audience an evocative scene. We know who this secretary is, we get insight into her motivations. We know where she is right now. The reader hasn’t been ‘spoon fed’ information. This is one of the things you’re always being admonished about when you hear the classic “show, don’t tell” advice. In scenes like this, the reader is drawing their own conclusions based on the objects you choose to put in front of them. And it’s that sense of inference and discovery that makes environments so powerful.
In the next example, the student drew an environment for an aggressive, paranoid, garbage collector. Here was the result:
A bright yellow safety vest lies bunched up on the floor. Shoe scuff marks mar the edge of an old dented coffee table. On the second-hand coffee table is a pair of thick brown work gloves set atop a National Enquirer with the image of a stereotypical alien shaking the hand of President Donald Trump. The caption reads “Trump Appoints Martian Ambassador.” An old style TV with antenna sits pushed against one wall of the living space. Foil is wrapped around each antenna of the TV and only static plays. The blinds over the window are closed and drawn even though the windows are also covered in foil. An end table holds a ceramic lamp that flickers on and off. The lamp looks as if it was pieced back together with glue and lacks a lamp shade. Next to the lamp is a page-a-day calendar with Tuesday January 20th showing. The couch has a faded floral pattern that is reminiscent of 70’s wallpaper. A light dusting of white powder and small pieces of plaster speckle the couch. The wall directly behind the couch has a fist size hole. On the floor lies a map of what looks to be a suburban area with different colored lines drawn from one central location to different areas of the map. The key on the map shows that each color corresponds to a different day of the week. The Tuesday line is highlighted.
Again, we have an interesting character portrait comprised of nothing but static objects. Now, we are left to speculate about what is soon to take place. Clearly, we have an unstable, obsessive compulsive, blue collar worker. He or she is violent, and seems prone to conspiracy theories. The Enquirer article leads us to believe that perhaps this maniac is considering an assassination attempt. We don’t have all of the information to form a solid conclusion, but sometimes the ominous implied threat is even more interesting.
Finally, a student rendered an environment for a Washed Up, Bitter, Retired Cop.
There’s a room solely lit by a dim, bare lightbulb, hanging by a chain. An empty shoulder-holster hangs from the rack, along with a ratty leather jacket. The room is primarily occupied by a large square table. Several cups of unfinished coffee and Styrofoam carryout boxes are clustered in one corner of the table. All are in various states of moldy decay. A collection of newspapers are scattered about the table. Each features a front-page photograph. Some are of an elderly policeman handing a badge to an elderly man in a suit in front of a tall brick building with stone pillars. Others are of the same two men shaking hands and smiling. In each photograph, members of the crowd are applauding. The elderly policeman’s face has been circled in red marker in every photo. On one wall of the room, several framed photographs hang. One photo features a mid 30’s version of the elderly policeman and young blonde officer. Both men are standing, arm in arm and smiling, behind a large pile of cocaine parcels. Another photo is a group photo of 15 extremely young looking policemen and women, two of whom are the arm-in-arm men from before. Everyone is smiling and holding a framed piece of paper. Next to the photo is a framed diploma from a police academy. A box of ammunition sits on the center of the table, with several loose bullets scattered around it. A worn police badge sits atop a neatly folded piece of paper.
Here we see the police officer’s life on display. We see him graduating from the academy, making high profile busts, getting awards, and retiring. We see a happy, fulfilled life. Yet the badge atop the note, the empty holster, and the bullets add a dark twist. Somewhere around here, we’re bound to find the body. Clearly, this officer’s life has ceased to have meaning since retirement.
In all of these examples, the student had to grapple with a challenge. They had to tell a story in a static way. And what they all learned was that you can’t do this without a bit of up-front planning.
To do something like this correctly, you have to have the story in your head first. You have to understand the character’s past, present, and future plans. It’s usually a simple story, like with the newly divorced neurosurgeon, but it’s evocative: people who are contemplating suicide or violence; people who have having an affair; someone who is obsessed. These are strong stories and emotions that a reader can identify with.
Once you know what your character’s simple story is, then you have to walk a mile in that character's shoes. Imagine the trail of breadcrumbs they would leave as they go about their daily lives. Much of this trail would be innocuous, and you would leave it out of the collection of objects, but some of it would be much more meaningful. Those are the things you have to zero in on. Don’t just settle for things that give a static glimpse of personality. Tell a story that spans time. Show us who this person is, where they came from, what they’ve experienced, and what they’re thinking/doing now.
Then once you’ve jotted down your collection of objects, let someone else read it. See if the objects tell the story you were imagining. It will take a bit of practice, but when you can learn to let the objects tell the story, it makes a wonderful tool to add to your writer’s toolbox.
About a decade ago when I first started writing fiction, my early work suffered from a staggering number of problems. If I represented each mistake as a single domino, I bet I could have filled a gymnasium with them, like one of those mesmerizing world record domino-toppling videos. Correcting my errors involved several years of herculean effort, but I’m happy to report that these days, I might only be able to fill my living room with dominoes.
In this post, I’d like to discuss the domino that I didn’t even realize existed until two or three years ago. I think in many ways, it turned out to be the master domino. The root cause of many of my flaws. The one that ruled them all.
I had been following a standard methodology that simply didn’t fit me. I was writing linearly.
Linear writing is such a standard that a lot of people don’t even recognize the term. They aren’t aware that it has an opposite: NON linear writing. They don’t know that it could be an answer, at least for some of them.
To understand it, let’s start by defining linear writing. It’s very simple. Linear writing is when you write each of the chapters in your first draft in the same order the reader will read them. It seems like a no-brainer, doesn’t it? I mean, after all, how can you possibly write chapter 47 before you write 46? Don’t you need to know what happened in chapter 46 first, so that you know where to pick up the action?
No. In fact, you don’t.
Non linear writing uses exactly that approach. It is a system where you write chapters in an order that is essentially random. Whatever scene you feel inspired to write about when you get up in the morning, you write.
Yes, yes. I know. That way lies madness.
Nah. Pour yourself a scotch and stop flipping the bird to me through your computer screen. You only need one thing to restore sanity to that madness. You need an outline.
Think about it. If you have a thumbnail sketch of each chapter in advance, then you already know the big events that are going to happen leading into the chapter. You already have an idea where the chapter has to end in order to flow into the following chapter. You already know the characters who will appear, what their motivations and emotions are, and what aspects of character arc you have to fulfil. You have everything you need to write any chapter at any time.
An outline is simply a matter of sketching out each scene with a few paragraphs of pertinent information.
There are lots of great books on the subject of outline creation. You can check out KM Weiland’s Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success for one good example. Books like this will give you lots of good ideas of the kinds of information a good outline requires. When done properly, an outline allows an author to focus on the writing craft, rather than getting bogged down in the strategic elements of plot and character development while they write.
Ironically, even the process of outlining can be an example of non linear writing. When I started my outline for Gnosis, I followed James Scott Bell’s advice in Write Your Novel From The Middle. I started with the pivotal mid-point scene first, then outlined the inciting incident, then the climax, worked my way through the major structural scenes, and finally filled in all the remaining gaps. All in outline form.
Then I started writing. In the past, I could write chapter 1, maybe 2, 3, and 4. But eventually, I’d hit a wall. For whatever reason, a chapter would stare at me and laugh. Nothing would come to mind. I’d struggle for days. Sometimes weeks. I’d delete attempt after attempt, each one causing me far too much stress.
Now, I look back on those days and laugh. Armed with my mighty outline, I wake up and ask myself “What do you feel like writing today, Rick? A chase scene? An epiphany scene? Dialogue?” I peruse my list of unwritten chapters, and let them speak to me. Inevitably, one will jump out and shriek in glee “Pick me! Pick me!”
And off I go.
In the back of my mind, I still know which chapters I dread. But with plenty of fun things to write first, the hard ones have time to bake in my brain. Sometimes a stray thought for a dread chapter will occur to me as I’m writing a fun one, and I jot it down in my notes while I forge ahead with the easier chapters. Over time, I get enough notes that the hard chapter seems much less intimidating. When I finally get around to it, it’s almost never a dread chapter any more.
And this was the essential ingredient I’d been missing all along. The linear approach killed all of my motivation. It caused a civil war in my state of mind.
When you dread writing something, it’s almost a guarantee that it will take ten times as long, and in the end it will still suck. Then you lose momentum. Things go downhill fast. You resolve yourself to dealing with the dread chapter in revisions. You put it off, or sometimes you just chuck the entire manuscript onto the slush pile and start something new. I know. I’ve done that.
But using a non linear writing approach, I dialed back the difficulty level of the dread chapters, AND I kept up my all important forward momentum. I stopped tossing perfectly good work onto the back burner. Writing became fun again. And that made a world of difference.
But before you write the whole process off as just a self-induced motivational mind hack, note that there are some other tangible benefits to non-linear writing.
At this stage, I should acknowledge a personal preference. I don’t feel totally bound by my outline. I treat it like a general road map, not the Bible. If, during the course of writing a chapter, I feel like a character’s personality dictates a zig when the outline called for a zag, I let the character zig. After I finish the chapter, I return to my outline, update it, and make the necessary changes to any subsequent (or previous) chapters that might be impacted. It’s not a lot of work. That’s the point of an outline. It’s low investment. You can write with no style and terrible grammar, and it doesn’t matter. Just change the necessary facts and move on.
That’s usually the big complaint about using outlines, by the way. Writers say they feel constrained, bound, by the outline. But if you do, you’re rather missing the point. It’s not there to shackle you. It’s there to liberate you. It’s MUCH easier to modify a collection of thoughts and ideas than to go back and rewrite whole chapters when you have to change a character or plot moment. THAT is shackling yourself. When you’ve invested a lot of time into writing an entire chapter, even in draft form, you’re giving it momentum. You’re increasing the resistance to change it. Outlines free you up from that.
Look, non linear writing isn’t for everyone. It requires a bit of a paradigm shift in your thinking, especially when you first try it. And it seems pretty scary, like you’re tightrope walking between skyscrapers without a safety harness.
But from my perspective, once I got the hang of it, the methodology offered so many benefits that I could never go back. It’s like travelling forward in time to read the ending of your novel, and then coming back to the present, armed with the exact road map of how to write it. Non-linear writing is my own personal DeLorean, complete with flux capacitor.
I’m never trading it in.
I’m sitting here, working on a story idea that erupted from literally nowhere. A dream I had about virtual reality, and then mutated over morning coffee, Monster energy drinks, and a long shift at the day-job. When I sat down to write that afternoon, there was only one thing on my mind: I need to get this story out.
You might call me a busy person. I’m working 40 hours per week again at a day-job that literally pays enough to have a roof over my head, food, and the ability to keep writing in comfort while I figure out the next phase of my property development.
By setting things up this way, I have purposefully relegated myself to a life of poverty and humble conditions, where I can focus solely on my work when I’m not “at work.”
Even so, it isn’t always so easy to maintain focus. I know that I want to write, but in my own aggressive pursuit of creating works, I’ve buried myself in projects. The NaNo thing is slowly gaining some momentum for the year, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t have a ton more to do on it. Stone’s Shadow is out of the gate and on the final assembly line, effectively done but still requiring another critical proofread. I have another book that I was hoping to have out by the end of the year, but it sits as a work in progress. On top of all this, I’m also trying to deliver 500,000 verified words this year, and submit a new short story and flash fiction piece every single month.
The work is cut out for me, but the cookies are a bit too plentiful, and I fear I won’t be able to finish them all. My story kitchen has become an understaffed factory trying to fill an order of a million units.
You would think, with so much to do, that I could sit and spawn thousands of words without hardly any thought devoted. But things are never this simple.
When I work, I work on one project at a time. Generally. Day’s like today require breaks for me, so I’ll “break” from one writing project to work on another. Right now, that means taking my first break on the new story to write this blog post.
There are two modes of thought on how to increase your output and efficiency, and I’ll explain some of the pros and cons of each.
One Thing at a Time, With Intensity
This is how I normally write. I work on a draft for as many days as it takes until the draft is done. I’ll work on an editing pass until it’s done. I’ll work on a cover concept until I’ve taken it as far as it will go.
My timing for this is simple. One pass through the manuscript. Whether I’m hunting typos, tidying words, doing a full rewrite, or even drafting a new story, I devote myself to working on it, every single day, until I reach the end of the last page. I can work on other stuff too, but a block of my writing time every day is dedicated to that one task, and it’s the most important task in my hierarchy of work.
I learned to write this way, not because a bunch of other writers recommend it, but because I learned enough about myself to know, as I once told my brother, “If I don’t finish a project in sixty days, it’ll never get done.” Turning down the intensity is not an option, because if I leave something alone for too long, it tends to not get done.
This applies to my hobbies, my writing, my various crafting endeavors, even my video games. If I loose focus of the primary goal, then I fail. I shut it off and stop coming back. It takes sixty days for something I’m excited about initially to become dull as lead and stuffed in a dark corner of my closet space.
So, when I work, it’s important to clear everything else off the plate. I sit down and do the work, and only the new work, for as long as I can bear, until it’s time for a smoke break. Even with these little interruptions, I tend to get a lot done, because while I’m on break, I’m also thinking about the next element in the story or project. I return to the laptop refreshed, and I keep going.
In the oilfield, it was known by a few directional drillers that I had this odd habit of solving problems, and according to them, it always worked. Running high tech signal processing connected to multiple wellsite sensors and data streams isn’t easy, and something always seems to go on the fritz. That environment is a breeding ground for gremlins.
When I was stumped on a problem-or if I was woke up in the night to fix something the night-hand couldn’t figure out-I would back away from the keyboard. I would grab my smokes, my lighter, and my beverage, and proceed outside of the cabin. I’d stand in a secluded spot where I couldn’t even see the rig, and light up.
When I returned to my work five minutes later, I always had a new idea that might solve the problem.
What I’m trying to say is this, even with intense focus, energy can only be expended for so long. So don’t take this little section to mean work and only work without breaks or any interruptions of any kind. Meditative breaks can be beneficial. But the focus of your work should be on one thing and one thing only, like getting words flowing toward the end of a draft.
The Multi-Tasking Approach
This is the dark side of any creative endeavor. If you are working with multiple projects, and especially social media or advertising work, you’re going to mess yourself up more by trying to “multi-task” than you will if you completed each task one at a time.
However. This methodology does have a case where it can work. Today is one of those days when my focus is a little scattered, but at the same time I can dig into a smaller project, and throw everything I have at it for a short bit of time. This is upping my total word count, and I may end up completing several timely projects by the end of the night.
But, I started with my story. 800 words in, I hit a stopping point. One of those breaks where I need to let my brain sift through the present story a bit so that I can gain some ideas for the next milestone. What did I do? I swapped over to write this blog post, which I’ve also been thinking about for a few days.
In other words, my “breaks” today are becoming their own little projects. I don’t have to feel bad about ignoring my story for a bit, because the noodle needs to chew on it for a while. In the meantime, I can get more words (which is always good for practice), I can let my brain play with some concepts to diversify my creative thought process, and I can get some blog posts written.
Best strategy ever. Except when it isn’t. This multi-tasking approach has a deadly component that you need to watch out for. Don’t multi-task into projects that require no deep thinking at all. Make all of the deviations to mini projects that require some cognitive thought, not answering emails or updating social media. Those tasks typically entail dumping data you already have to add to discussions or further threads.
The querying process is much different from the creative. I would say, stick to ONLY creative projects when trying this approach.
Creative vs Querying
There are basically two modes that my productive mind defaults to, creative and querying. You might find that your mind works much the same way. Both of these modes are productive, and I “make” things while doing both. But there’s a difference.
My creative process is strictly that. Unencumbered, unhinged, and producing ideas like I’m drunk. I’m throwing shit at my proverbial wall and seeing what sticks. While most of my projects require that ideas make sense, it’s not in a way that draws on information I already have, which is filed away. Instead, it produces out of synthesis, that which I want to create. I can hammer out the details later if needed, but for the moment, I create and to hell with the consequences.
Querying mode is different. Where creation is strictly proactive, querying is reactive. I’m answering questions online, quite literally. I’m responding to on-going discussions. I’m checking for updates on this or that. I’m processing hard data that exists already instead of letting things flow. There are many varieties of this, but almost all of them can be seen in how I use my social media time. Querying is moving data and facts around. I’m storing facts that I pick up from others, and I’m digging facts out of my own brain to dump on them.
Creative tasks are things like drafting, sketching, making time-lines, or meditating about the story as if it were a movie. The creative mind needs no data or hard facts other than what is immediately in front of it.
Querying tasks are things like social conversation, answering an email, doing probing research into a specific topic, or organizing your planner. It’s things like checking on book sales.
If you’re moving information, you’re querying, even if you are simply answering a phone call from a friend. These drag on your creative processes.
This isn’t to say, mind you, that querying processes are useless, or even less useful than creative ones. Only that they distract from creativity. If you’re trying to accomplish creative things, stick to creative things even in your breaks. Don’t break from a novel draft to answer an email. Do your creative work, and then sit down to do your querying work after you have finished.
That, or take the easy route, and simply concentrate on one project at a time, and don’t do anything else at all until you’re exhausted on it, or your time limit is exceeded. You might find that you need to set some kind of alarm, as getting deeply involved with a creative work will suck the time away without reminding you that your coffee has gone cold.
This article was drafted in my creative mode, and uploaded later when I put aside creative things for the night to focus on querying tasks, along with answering my email and checking in on social media for the night.
Martin McConnell, author of Finish the Damn Book!, holds a Physics degree from SIUE, and when he isn't writing speculative fiction, he's motivating other authors, stargazing, reading, or playing Kerbal Space Program. He avidly encourages everyone he meets to seize control of their dreams by driving their own plot. You can find him at his website writefarmlive.com.
First time novelists think that getting to the end of the first draft is the "work." It isn't, but most won't realize this until after they finish penning their first novel.
As a preface, if you are working on your first book, do not take this post as a deterrent. Finish the damn book, and use this as preparation for what lies ahead. I take no issue with outlining a new idea, or converting it into a text of 60,000+ words. This is the fun and creative part of the writing process, so you had better enjoy it.
Often, I tell writers to focus on the next book immediately after finishing draft one. Start coming up with a story. But out of all the advice on the internet, including my own, the topic of coming back to a first draft after a short rest never seems to be discussed. Believe me, I'm criticizing myself right now for not giving this its proper due before, as well as most others who blog about the writing process.
The reason it gets glossed over, I think, is because the sting of it is a one-time event. Most of us have written over a dozen long-works, or none at all. So few are at the cusp at any given time, and as a result, this post will likely not be shared, and it will disappear into the ether of the grand internet slush pile. It is a useless blog post in a certain respect, but I write it on the off chance that it may one day help one single writer overcome this obstacle.
The Prospect of Writing off a Loss
I've seen not a single study done on this, and I invite you to comment below with your own insights. How many budding authors quit after writing the first draft of their book to completion. I don't have a number, so don't let me lie to you, but I suspect that thousands, if not more, fall into this category. I write off these losses to the grueling hunt for representation, or the mountain of drudgery that we collectively call editing. The prospect of self-publishing is still tarnished by hostile attitudes, no matter how common it appears to be.
But there's something else. A potentially deadly monster lingering around the very beginning of the post-edit process, and perhaps one of the causes of the onslaught of negative thought that accompanies purification of your work.
This monster isn't writer's block. It's inadequacy. And it's just as damning and critical as its cousin from the drafting process.
It takes an act of sheer courage to begin the writing process. You give up time from your life to devote to a singular project that will continue to consume you for months or years. Relationships become strained, and each of us must find the self-motivation to move forward every day despite what else is happening in the world around us. We need to get up every day, and devote at least a portion of it to our dream of putting our own words out into the world.
We can do this, because of faith. We believe in the drafting process that we have something meaningful to contribute to the world of literature. We fall in love with our story, our characters, and the fantastical world we've created. We push on, focusing on the best parts of the story. We struggle against all odds to finish (most budding writers won't finish a novel). Then we reach the finish line, "The End." Celebration is in order, but it comes to a crashing halt with the following hangover.
When we return to our words, they aren't the same. They're terrible. Sometimes the first paragraph of re-reading our work can be enough to cripple our efforts. The first snowball rolling down a mountain teetering on catastrophic valley-town smothering avalanche.
This is the seed of all future inadequacy. Instead of focusing on the awesome parts of the story and making them better, as we should be doing, we're crippled by self doubt and the fear that perhaps our story, our idea, or our grasp of the written word simple aren't enough. Instead of seeing how our work is different and wonderful, we look out into a sea of authors doing it better.
When this happened to me the first time, i thought for sure one of my buddies on the rig had deliberately sabotaged my work. The words were that alien to me. This doubt leads to months of constantly comparing our words to other works where the author seems to be doing exponentially better than we ever could.
For TSOV (now scrapped), it even carried over into the query process. I watched other authors re-write parts of my letter in ways that shocked and amazed me. Their words were great, and mine appeared so sophomoric that I swore the average third-grader could have done a better job than I. Those thoughts and attitudes sank my original series, and pushed me away from writing for three years. I'm writing this post, because I don't want to see that happen to you.
Your book might not be good enough. Go ahead and let that idea find a place in your mind now, and save yourself years of potential torture. I heard these words first from another author, and didn't want to believe it. Looking back now, what should have been a mild hiccup turned into a deserted wasteland of unwritten pages because instead of embracing the idea, I wore myself out trying to fix something that would never become anything.
Now that the idea is planted however, the next step is to NOT give up. When you finish writing a novel, it changes you. Your words haven't changed, you have. 80,000 words is a lot of writing experience, and if you don't improve as a result of the process, then you probably did something wrong. It's NORMAL to feel like your first draft was crap. That's because you were a different writer when you started on it. The skill you gain by "doing" changes your style, it accents your ability to pass a thought, and it can either drive better works and fix your current work, or it can overcome you.
Try this exercise. Read the first few pages. Then skip all the way to the end of the document and read the last few pages. This is a great way to see the change in your words over time. If you spent six months writing a draft, (or even three weeks), you'll see a pronounced difference. You're a better writer now. THAT, is the reason you can see faults in what you thought was awesome before.
The first thing that you will likely notice is the sentence length. New authors like to string words together into strands of enigmatic goo, and through the course of cranking out thousands of lines shift toward shorter frameworks. The pattern will actually oscillate as you continue to find your own voice, and after a while, you'll stop thinking about it.
I highly, highly, highly recommend, especially for a first novel, to set the red pen aside, and read through the entire text at least once without changing anything. You can keep notes in a separate document or notebook if you like, but focus on story details, not grammar. You might make a page or two of recurring problems to keep an eye out for, but focus on the story itself. Read through, start to finish, and don't touch a damn word.
My next suggestion is going to seem like a ton of work, and this is going to take a huge leap of faith on your part. It is something that MOST authors will benefit from. Now, if you spent a great deal of time on the first draft making sentences pretty, then you might be better off with another editing routine, BUT, if your words were really that amazing, you most likely would not still be reading this post.
Rewrite the whole damn thing. Every word. The whole story. You can use your current work and notes as a guide, or start again from a revised outline. But rewrite everything. A second draft is exactly that.
We're spoiled in the current era of automatic typesetting and digital storage that we sometimes forget earlier writers had to hammer out the whole text again on a typewriter as a natural part of the editing process. IE, #amwriting and #amediting were the same thing. Writers were notorious for drafting and redrafting a dozen, two dozen, or even fifty times.
And you know what? It works. It's actually easier than trying to rearrange everything to tighten up the script. I've made a habit of doing this with almost every long work now, precisely because it is so effective. A novel isn't a pamphlet or flier. It's not five or six pages of story. It's a lot of shit to keep track of, and the administrative tasks of fact-checking and item tracking can make even the sharpest of accountants bug-eyed and atrophied. I rewrite drafts now because it's easier, not harder, than the alternative. It's like hitting the reset button, and it has the added benefit of improving your skill at every phase of the writing process at once. In fact, you may improve so much that you come back to your second draft and go through this whole process again.
It happens, it's normal, and it stings. Looking at your first long work with a critical eye can break your heart, but it doesn't have to be a permanent wound. Take solace in the fact that most, if not all of us, have gone through it at least once. Things will get better as you continue to write more books, and there are actionable steps you can take to break up the process into manageable chunks instead of trying to fix everything on the first pass.
Plan on a lot of editing passes. Like I say in Finish the Damn Book! Write fast, edit slow. The path to publication is long and tedious. Put on your boots, choose a road, and keep walking, you'll get there eventually. Good luck.
Originally published at writefarmlive.com on July 5th, 2018.
Martin McConnell, author of Finish the Damn Book!, holds a Physics degree from SIUE, and when he isn't writing speculative fiction, he's motivating other authors, stargazing, reading, or playing Kerbal Space Program. He avidly encourages everyone he meets to seize control of their dreams by driving their own plot. You can find him at his website writefarmlive.com.
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