How I Write

I’ve been asked how I’ve been able to complete a novel. To be blunt, the short answer is persistence. But there are some other strategies which have also helped:

(1)  Horribly, at first.

This is one of the lessons I took from “Telling Lies for Fun and Profit” by Lawrence Block. The thing is not to worry about writing a perfect first draft. If I sought perfection, I’d never be finished. It's better to just get it written. Like a cream sauce, a multitude of sins can be fixed by editing.

The upside with following this strategy is that you are actually writing. That’s what writers do. With an increased pace and output, improvement should follow, or so the theory goes. Learn by doing.

The downside is the massive amount of editing you may need to do to fix those sins. That's where the learnin' is. These may be fewer edits in later books, but initially there will be a lot of changes.

The important thing is to learn your own flaws in writing, and quickly. But accept that the first draft is going to be horrible.

(2)   Kind of on a schedule.

In theory it’s important to write on a schedule. Mine is such that I tend to write both before and after work. When I get a lump of time to write, I relish that and use it.

There is quite a bit of time that I waste – after the kids are down and before I go to bed. My intention is to use that time to write but I manage to zoom into TV. A lot of self-loathing comes from my use of this time.

(3)  In longhand, currently.

My actual method of writing has varied over the years. The method I currently use (and has proved to be the most useful) is to write longhand. There’s something kinesthetic about it – linking hand to brain. There’s a virtuous feedback loop going on there.

There are fewer distractions writing longhand versus writing with a computer or a tablet (or whatever the whippersnappers are using these days: retinal implants?) I don’t find myself flitting about the web, twitter, or my emails.

But, yup, you guessed it, there are drawbacks. In the best of times my handwriting is not far off that of kindergartener scratch. I don’t know how exactly I managed to read through voluminous amounts of notes through law school. So, reading my first draft, typically written while on a somewhat bumpy train, often with someone sitting next to me, can be a challenge.

The major downside is that it requires an extra step of transcription into a word processor; that can be time consuming and onerous. It’s ameliorated by editing while I’m translating Ericssonese to English, so there are fewer line edits once the words are in the computer.

(4)  Low on description.

This reflects my personality and my background. Anyone who knows me knows I’m chock full of colorful descriptions and have an exuberant personality.

Please read the previous sentence with bucket of sarcasm.

Except for my experience when I was a journalist, my writing historically was not full of color. Programmers are not known for filling their code with commentary. If I were a trial lawyer (I’ve only had one trial, and it was not a jury trial), I might have a little more color in my legal writing.

You might say, “You’re selling me.” Hear me out. In a thriller like Bucky, the focus was on action, and propelling the story forward. Most of the flavor comes as raw subject-verb-object sentences. Adjectives and adverbs tended to get in the way. Not that some description isn’t there, but it’s not the main thrust of the story.

Now, if I wrote fantasy or sci-fi (not something I haven’t ruled out in the future), I will have to bolster my descriptions. After all, full-bodied descriptions are inherent in describing other worlds. (Something like Samuel Delany’s "Babel-17" may be an exception, if my wormy memory is correct.)

For those of you that are fans, please know that the next novel is already underway and you can look forward to bolstered descriptions.

(5)   Semi-outlined.

A debate always seems to raging whether to outline or not. For me, the answer is clear that there has to be some sort of outline. Otherwise I end up off-track and find I end up with a story that I forget about. The graveyard of my desk is cluttered with discarded novels for this reason.

I have started stories (usually long suppressed in my subconscious and had to get out – the next novel is like this) without an outline, but in my old age I know now that I have to outline.

The real question for me is how much to outline. I don’t outline in full detail, and I definitely do not outline in full detail the characters. Maybe in my twilight years I’ll end up outlining them as well. I like to be surprised. Now and then this backfires and there’s holes in the plot or inconsistencies, but this tends to allow me a little of what the Zen call “beginner’s mind,” and keeps the writing fresh.

Let me know what you think and what are your tactics in the comments.

-Sven