Friday, March 9, 2012

Writing Books

Hi all! Today I welcome Steven J. Wangsness to MFB. Steven's new book, TAINTED SOULS is available on Amazon Kindle, Barnes and Noble Nook and other e-readers. Check out his website at :-)

Take it away, Steven.

Writing a book is like skinning a cat -- there's more than one way to do it.

Some authors map out their novels in minute detail before ever setting pen to paper, pinpointing every plot point with the precision of a military staff officer and cataloging every facet of their characters in encyclopedic fashion -- their appearance, their manner of speaking, their personal histories. With plot and characters so well known in advance, the act of creating a book becomes giving a written account of what already exists.

William Styron (The Confessions of Nat Turner, Sophie's Choice) is supposed to have had such an exhaustive road map to his novels before him that his first drafts were his last drafts -- by the time he started to write a novel, all there was left to do was craft the words; everything else about the novel was a known quantity.

Other writers prefer to fly by the seat of their pants or, as they might prefer it, to allow the book to grow organically with minimal direction from the author. In essence, as events occur and characters enter the scene, they determine where the action goes and how the characters grow and who they become. I recall an interview with a British writer a couple of years ago who said he was "too lazy" to write an outline; he just started with a simple idea and let the book go where it went.

Jack Kerouac portrayed himself as just such a writer, having claimed to have written On the Road in long sheets routed through his typewriter in one three-week-long burst of spontaneous fury. The truth is more complex, with the book going through many edits and revisions. (Confession: I've never gotten past page 20.)

As a writer, I lie somewhere in between these extremes, though I have tended more towards the seat-of-the-pants variety. My college term papers were rarely products of long research and carefully outlined prose but mostly coughed up in all-nighters while hunkered down at the typewriter with a few open books and several cups of coffee.

Before I sat down to write my novel Tainted Souls, however, I knew I wanted a detailed plot summary. For one thing, Tainted Soulsis a plot-driven mystery and I didn't think I could afford to wing it. I plotted out all the scenes beforehand, using open-source "mind-mapping" software called FreeMind. I wrote a 15-page, single-spaced summary describing all the action in each of the chapters. Though I wrote down just a few bullet points, rather than detailed histories, I had a good notion of the characters and their motivations before I started writing.

Even so, the plot took twists and turns and the players took on characteristics I hadn't anticipated. These developed out of the writing itself. Just one example: I knew that I wanted my protagonist's partner to be earthy and buffoonish as I set out; but it was only as I was writing the first chapter that he revealed himself to me -- that's how I would describe it -- as corrupt, too. His corruption became not just an interesting aspect of his character but crucial to the plot as it finally evolved; without it, Tainted Souls would be a different book.

For me, then, part of what gets written down grows organically out of the process of writing itself. Characters flesh out, events suggest themselves, sub-themes emerge, all giving the story new hues and affecting the course of the plot. Like real people, the characters reveal more of their true natures the better I get to know them. As in real life, the course of events may take an unexpected turn. It's not for me to argue whether this is a better way of writing than asserting full control of the book from the get-go. However, for me, no matter how carefully and diligently I may pre-cook the final product, at least some of the book is going to "write itself."

How about you? Do your characters take on aspects that surprise you and go down a road you didn't see coming?

Thanks for this great post, Steven! All the best with your book sales.

Before I go, I just want to ask if there's a kind and brave soul out there that would please book 30 March for a GPF? If you're interested, please check out this post and contact me.

OK then! Have a great weekend! X


  1. Have a great weekend! That mind mapping program sounds very useful.

  2. I'm definitely one of those "organic" writers.:)
    I start with a simple idea or memory and let it lead me by the nose. It's a mystery, how a story can write itself. But for me, they do. Good luck!!

  3. Really great post and good luck Steven with your book. I do everything by the seat of my pants and even though it often gets me in trouble, I can't help myself. I read this post in my usual fast scan mode before deciding to look closer and I loved this sentence..."Writing a book is like skinning a cat -- there's more than one way to do it." Sometimes in a hurry we stumble over one tiny thing that can make all the difference so I was wondering how to "Shine" a cat :)

  4. I am mostly a panster myself. I write it out first, then think about it....

  5. "Writing is like skinning a cat..." LOve that.

  6. I think the middle road works for me too...very interesting post, free mind sounds like something I will be checking out shortly. Good luck with the book.

  7. I'd consider myself one that is a mix of plotter and pantser as well. I'm not equipped to just sit down and start clacking away at the keys and pen the first draft. I have to jot the idea down on a Post it note. Look at it again a couple of times. Make a folder on the old laptop then start making notes about the world, the characters, the system and whatnot. Maybe set up a skeleton outline of what I'd like to see happen. But, I don't fight the characters if I end up on a detour here or there.

  8. At least one character in every story lies to me from the get-go and turns out to be totally different. More than one has given me a fake name...and laughed when I learned her real one.

    Happy Weekend!

  9. I've always been curious about mind-mapping and have wanted to try it to writing/outlining... interesting that he mentions it.

  10. Great post! Will have to check out Mind- mapping. This Free Mind sounds extraordinary. Thanks for posting!


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