Next update May 15
Time for another update!
I’m in a great mood right now. My San Antonio Spurs look primed for a deep postseason run after sweeping the Lakers in round one of the NBA playoffs. And, more importantly, I recently received the Advance Reader Copies of Children of Fire.
Some of you may be wondering what an ARC copy is. Basically, it’s a not quite final version of a novel that is printed out and bound in trade paperback style with a non-descript cover: in this case a white and purple pattern with simple text. The ARC is sent out to reviewers and a handful of other folks by the publisher to get some advance buzz about an upcoming novel. You know how books will sometimes have quotes from other authors like, “Drew Karpyshyn is the future of epic fantasy”? Those quotes come from folks who’ve read the Advance Reader Copy.
An ARC isn’t the final version of a manuscript; there’s usually still a couple extra rounds of editing and proof-reading to go. But it’s close enough to give you a feel for the book. And as an author, it’s always cool to see your words in book form… even an ARC.
With the arrival of the Children of Fire ARC, I figure now might be a good time to go over my writing process. People ask about this all the time: how do you write your novels? Well, in this blog post I’m going to reveal all my secrets.
This isn’t going to be a blog about how to get published, or how to get an agent – check out my FAQ page for my stock answer to those questions. Fortunately, I don’t have to worry about that right now: I’m in a position where securing a publisher isn’t as difficult as writing the actual book. But I still think my methods might be helpful for others out there, even if you don’t have a publisher. Remember, to be a writer you actually have to write.
Okay, enough disclaimer. Here we go!
Step One – Start with an Idea
People often ask me where I get my ideas. I’m sorry, but that’s a question I can’t answer. I already have ideas. I have lots and lots of ideas. They just pop into my head at random times, sometimes inspired by something I read, see or hear; other times they seem to come from some mystical creative ether. When I get an idea, I add it to my idea file. That file is overflowing (digitally) with ideas – I’ll die long before I use them all up. And I’m constantly getting new ideas for the file.
The trick for me is to figure out what idea I’m going to work with next, and how I’m going to turn that idea into a full-fledged novel. So let’s take Children of Fire. The idea was simple – my version of an epic fantasy series. I’ve actually been playing with this idea for a long time, becuase as much as I love fantasy I always felt like there was a common, widespread flaw with the genre. It’s too slow; it takes too long for stuff to happen. So with Children of Fire I finally get to write a fantasy series that doesn’t have slow, boring chapters.
Step Two: Outline the Plot
Once I have the idea, my next step is to carefully outline the entire story, start to finish. A lot of writers don’t like to do this. They prefer to hash out their characters first, or they like to write and let the story take them to an ending they didn’t have planned out. I’m not saying this is wrong, but it doesn’t work for me. I find that a well constructed plot outline allows me to build in things like foreshadowing and twists, and as I work through the plot I start to get a better understanding for the characters.
This plot outline is pretty basic, but it contains all the events that will happen in the story. It’s usually 2-5 pages long. I don’t always stick exactly to the outline; sometimes I will change certain things as I go. But just having it as a reference helps, and I almost never change the ending I originally plan out.
Step Three: Chapter by Chapter Outline
After the basic plot outline, I start filling in the details. At this point, I’m going through the plot outline and imagining each chapter of the novel. This is where the characters really come to life for me, and where I get a real sense of the flow of the story.
I try to write 2-3 paragraphs detailing exactly what will happen in each chapter. What character is introduced? How does this chapter progress the plot? What are the cool moments that will happen?
During this stage, I often find that I’m missing certain chapters. Maybe I need something to explain or set up an event that comes later. Maybe I need another chapter to give a better sense of a character. Maybe I need to move some chapters around to make the story flow better.
For me, this is a “dry-run” for the book itself. The more details I put into the chapter by chapter outline, the easier it’s going to be for me when I actually start writing the book. This process usually ends up with a 15-20 page outline, and by the time I’m done you have a pretty good idea of what the book will look like.
Incidentally, when I’m doing work-for-hire, like Star Wars or Mass Effect novels, this is the stage where I get the final approval for my storyline. I’ll be in contact with an editor throughout the process, but when I get to this stage they can see everything that’s going to happen in the novel and give me any changes or concerns they have. It’s a lot easier than writing the book and then having to make a bunch of changes.
Step Four: Write the Novel
Okay, now we get to the hard part. Planning out ideas and outlining the plot is fun; it’s creative and imaginative and I really enjoy it. Actually writing the book is a bitch. Writing is hard – it’s a long, exhausting process. Working from a detailed chapter by chapter outline helps, but actually writing a novel still sucks. This is where I fall behind.
In theory, it shouldn’t be that hard. My chapters tend to run 2,000 to 5,000 words in length. When I write, I like to spend about 2 hours at a time writing; I can usually get around 1,500 words done. So writing a chapter should only take 2 or 3 writing sessions. If I have 40 chapters, then it should only take about 100 writing sessions to finish – basically 200 hours of work. If I work 2 hours each night, 4 nights a week that’s 25 weeks to write a novel – basically six months from start to finish.
It sounds easy, right? Unfortunately, there’s always something more fun to do than sit down and write. I’ll watch a basketball game. I’ll go golfing. Go out for dinner. Go to a movie. Go to Vegas. Whatever. Inevitably, I realize that I’m way behind on my schedule, so I go into panic mode a few months before finish. Now I have to write every night to make up the lost time. Or maybe I need to start doing a 2 hour session in the morning and the evening. Maybe I need to take a weekend and just write 6 or 7 hours a day for a few days in a row.
I hate that this happens, but it ALWAYS happens. I’m a procrastinator, and I need the urgency of an approaching deadline to make me get off my ass and write. The good news is that I rarely have to rewrite stuff. Because I’ve planned it out in such detail, I have a very good idea of what I want to write. I call it “pre-writing”. By the time I actually get to a chapter, I’ve seen it in my head many times already. So I don’t have to worry about having to write it and then later throw it away.
Once I’m done with a writing session, I save the work and take a break. But when I come back for the next writing session, I’ll start by reviewing what I did last session. This is usually a quick review; it takes 20 or 30 minutes max. But it does give me a chance to smooth over what I’ve already written, and it gets me back into the flow.
Step Five: Editing and Stuff
Once the manuscript is complete, I like to give a final read. Mosly I’m looking for typos or other errors that jump out, but I’m also making sure everything flows properly. It’s easy to get lost in the writing process and lose touch with what the reader will experience. Fortunately, because of my outline, I find that my prose usually flows as I’d expected.
Then I send the manuscript off to my editor(s) in a digital format. At this point I’m done, at least for a while. I can take a break for a few weeks and relax. Eventually, however, the editors will finish their job and they’ll send the manuscript back to me.
At this initial editing stage, they’re looking more at structural issues: do the character motivations make sense? Does the action flow logically? Will readers understand and believe what’s happening? Is there anything that is confusing or awkward? They send me a digital version of the manuscript back, with all their notes, questions and suggestions. I’ll go through and review their comments. Sometimes I need to tweak something or rewrite it to make it more clear, or to make it work better. These changes are typically fairly minor, and I like to bang them out in a weekend.
After that, the book goes back for a copy-edit and proofread pass. This is where we’re trying to find all the typos and other silly errors that can pull readers out of the story.
Brief side note here. We work hard to find all the errors, but some still slip through. It happens. It will always happen. It cracks me up when I get e-mails from fans who point out errors and then offer to “fix” my next manuscript. Listen closely folks: every book ever printed will have errors! You are not so special that you will find every error. Just because you see something in the final version, it doesn’t mean you would have seen all the other errors that were there before.
It’s really just a numbers game. Children of Fire is about 150,000 words – that’s about 750,000 characters. Assume somebody is so brilliant that they can read those characters with a 99.9999% accuracy. (Nobody’s that good, by the way.) That still leaves about 75 potential errors in the manuscript: a misspelled word, a missing punctuation mark, whatever. Now add in a deadline and add in a bunch of other manuscripts that need to be checked, and it’s IMPOSSIBLE for a book of any significant size to have zero errors when it comes off the printing press.
Step Six: More Editing and ARCs
After the editing is finished, the book is sent for a typesetting pass. This is where someone decides what font will be used, what size and how things will be broken up on the pages. They make what they call a “galley” – basically a physical copy of exactly how the book will be printed, with page numbers and everything. A copy of this galley is sent to me, and I go through it page by page making sure everything looks right. Meanwhile, various copyeditors and proofreaders are doing the same thing. This is the final chance for any edits, corrections or changes before it goes to the printer.
While we’re doing this, the publisher makes up the Advance Reader Copies to send out to reviewers, book sellers and other folks they want to involve in the process. The ARC is unproofed, and it doesn’t have any cover art. I wouldn’t call it a rough draft, though, because nothing substantial will change between the ARC and the final manuscript.
Step Seven: Ship It!
After all this, the book goes to the printer where it gets printed, bound and shipped to stores. If things go well, lots of people buy it and I get lots of money. If not… well, hopefully that won’t happen.
So, there you have it – idea to the shelf in seven (not so) easy steps. Hope you enjoyed this, and I’ll be back in a couple weeks with another update.
Go, Spurs, go!