Why write?

Why write, indeed.

I guess it’s different strokes for different folks, but I think it all comes down to just a few things:

  1. For a job
  2. For money (yes, I’m separating this from the first, because it can be a side project or hobby)
  3. For the love of it

And that’s probably about it, really.

Some of us have a day job that requires us to write – you may be in marketing, or a journalist, or – shock! – you might even be a novelist. Or you might simply write as part of your job – my day job in sales/consulting sees me writing presentations, demos, and all sorts of fun things fairly regularly.

The second point is a contentious one – for me, at least. At first, I had wanted to list this as “For a hobby”, but I really felt “For money” was more accurate.

Let me explain why.

For years, I thought of myself as a bit of a videogame connoisseur. I’d loved games all my life, had read the magazines, followed the news, and I thought I could do a better job than some of the peeps out there that do this for a day job (no offense to any of you that may be reading).

In some ways, I think I was right – I did do a pretty good job… from time to time. But I never pinned down WHY I wanted to do it. And for me, it boiled down to one thing – I wanted to make a name for myself. That is, I wanted to turn it into my day job.

But it’s not an easy job to GET. So I did the next best thing – writing reviews and the like as a hobby, first on my own website, and later for others. Yet it never satisfied me, and I think I realised why – finally! After all these years – I think it’s because I wasn’t writing about games because I LOVED writing about games. It was because I wanted to be something. Something I was never going to be.

When I realised this, I put the brakes on pretty hard. I did want to be a games reviewer, but I knew that, for several reasons, I couldn’t be one. So the effort I was putting in was actually being wasted, and was better placed elsewhere.

(Now… Please note that this was MY experience, and there are plenty of folks out there that do this kind of thing because they DO love writing about games, and that’s fine – it’s just not me.)

And this brings us to my third point… The love of writing. Personally, I think this is the most important. Writing for a day job, that’s one thing, but if there’s no love there, it’s just a job. Writing as a hobby or for extra cash – more of the same. But writing for the love of it? This is where beautiful things are born.

And… sometimes terrible things, because not everybody CAN write well – but the point is, if you write because you love it? Then it doesn’t matter – it should get better in the editing process.

So while you work on your book, or your website, or your speech, or WHATEVER, sit back and take a breath, and think about WHY you are writing this. Is your heart truly in it? It’s ok if it’s not, but you might find that your approach to the writing itself changes depending on your answer to that question.

Plus, I’d perhaps ponder further on whether you should actually keep writing that book if your heart’s not in it.

And what about me? Why do I write?

When I was very young, I was a voracious reader. And more than that, I loved to write stories, which I wrote by hand, in big scrapbooks, accompanied by illustrations also scratched in coloured pencil by my own hand. I loved writing. I loved coming up with new ideas, new characters, and crazy situations for them to get themselves out of.

When I got older, I had no idea what I “wanted” to do. So I chose classes in high school that would put me with my friends, rather than classes I would benefit from. Shame. In 10th grade, I put massive amounts of effort into a fiction story-writing project – so much effort in fact that I submitted a 20,000 word fantasy story that was only a few chapters of a much grander idea. My teacher at the time gave me top marks. I’ll never forget the comment he put on the front – “Talent, Greg. Talent.” And yet I neglected to continue focusing on my writing.

In my 20s, I began writing again, highly influenced by drug taking and the Beat culture – I loved reading Burroughs and Kerouac at the time – but this too was just a phase. I was still discovering myself.

That process took me 20 more years. And I’m still discovering myself. But the one thing that I did discover over the course of my investigations was this – I am a writer. I love to write. And I have stories I want to share with the world, if they want to read them.

Third Draft is done!

So… I just finished my third draft. So why am I so excited?

Well… it all comes down to the process, and the process for this book has been pretty basic, really.

First draft? Get the book done. Get the story down on paper. I had a story to tell, and I wasn’t 100% sure what it was, so I wrote it all out. I heard it said once (perhaps it was a Stephen King quote?) that the first draft is where you tell yourself the story. It’s not really intended for anyone else’s eyes. You just want to get that fella down on “paper” — warts and all.

Truth be told, I had a friend that read my story until around the 10th chapter (about a third of the final product). Initially, I didn’t have confidence that I could write, so I needed input from a third party. However, I eventually realised that external input this early into the process… it’s counter-intuitive. Feedback encourages the writer to go back and fix things – the first draft is not the time to fix things. Get it done.

If you need someone to look over your work, do it for the first few chapters, just until you are certain you’re on the right track. Then shut that shit down! Readers will give you their thoughts, suggestions, and all sorts of “helpful” feedback that will just slow you down – and some may even stop the process completely… Don’t let that happen!

The second draft? This is the clean-up draft. Work your way through from start to finish, finding all the major mistakes (grammar, punctuation, spelling, style) and look to find any inconsistencies that you can. Does this character wear red shirts every chapter, and then suddenly they are in a white shirt (crappy example, I know)? Think about whether the story makes sense. Think about the decisions your character makes, and whether or not they are realistic. Keep a separate document open for notes – as you get further into the book, you’ll think of things you need to change earlier in the book. So note them down, but KEEP GOING WITH THE EDIT. It’s always about not letting things get in the way… No distractions.

Once you’ve done the second draft, go back to your notes and apply the change you’ve listed. Now you’ve got a (more) polished version of the story you wanted to tell! Huzzah!

At this point, you have a couple of options. If you have the means, you might want to consider a developmental edit (this can also come prior to or during the first draft as well, if you need help structuring the story). This can help to ensure the story makes logical sense, has enough twists and turns, and is as exciting as it needs to be.

If, like me, you don’t have the means at this time, you can go straight to Beta Readers. This is a small group of readers (I suggest less than 10 – trust me, you’ll get what you need from 5 or 6 different readers) that you hand a copy of your polished draft to, wanting their feedback on the story overall, the characters, continuity, and all the important story components. You don’t want grammatical feedback (unless it’s a mess).

Who should they be? Well… preferably, you want people that are going to be honest. Not friends and family that will tell you that you are the beautiful snowflake that you are, simply because they’re friends and family. Of course, SOME friends and family will be honest. I’ll let you make the decision. I had some family members read it, but mostly friends and colleagues. I got a LOT of great feedback, and discovered there were several areas that really needed a lot of attention – but I also learned that my book wasn’t that bad as it was.

The third draft is where you apply this feedback. Keep in mind that some of it will be character based, so it will apply throughout the book. Some will apply to certain chapters. Others will apply to the ending. But good feedback should mean a massive rewrite (and when I say rewrite, I don’t mean you start from the beginning and rewrite the whole book, I mean that major sections are amended, deleted, or added).

My third draft took longer than my second draft, which perhaps took about as long as the first, but it was more satisfying. I could tell that each change was improving the story greatly. For me, this first book (Pyramidion) was severely underwritten. It’s fast-paced, action-adventure, so I didn’t use too much description. But I also really missed some character development, messed up one major scene, and really underdeveloped the ending. As a result, my story grew by more than 10,000 words. Many bigger writers suggest that their books shrink by 10%. Your mileage may vary.

Some may want a further edit, others may go for a second beta read, it’s really up to the writer. Me? I was (am?) happy with my book. I was convinced that it was now pretty damned good (but as with everything, could certainly always have been better – but you need to move on eventually). So my next step? Line editing. Copy editing. Whatever you want to call it. Here, your editor will clean up your prose and make it sound better, as well as fixing any awkward bits. Basically, this is the real polishing stage.

Don’t skip this. Don’t skip ANY edit. You may write well (or you may THINK you do), but nobody prints a book straight from their mind into book form. All of your favourite authors are edited. Promise. If you want good reviews, or people to actually read your book… get it edited. Professionally.

Once I’ve got that back, and I’ve made any required changes, and both me and my editor are happy? Off to get typeset. Then? PUBLICATION.

Yep. That’s why I’m excited. Most of the hard upfront work is done. It’ll take my editor one or two months to edit, but once that’s done? Publication won’t be too far away. So… I’m excited.

What’s on my Desk?

Well, I hope there’s nothing terribly embarrassing in this photo, but hey – I basically LIVE at my desk these days. But my desk is a little more advanced than others — I have a dual screen setup, along with a TV to the side for my vidya games, I also have a webcam, and a USB mic. Oh – and two notebook PCs.

Yes, this is my setup for both my personal computer and my day job. The dual screens heps me perform better in my day job, and for my personal life, it means I can do more than one thing at a time. Write on the left, research on the right! Amazing! But I also make podcasts and videos and all sorts of other things besides, so my desk is full of things.

And books. Always reading. The stack on the right is my “to be read” stack, which I try to keep in order. The stack onthe right is my manga, which I read whenever. And on top of the notebook in the middle is my current book, which in this case is Leviathan Wakes.

And there’s also a cooling fan in the middle because I live in Australia and like the comforts of life.

Do you need all of this stuff? HELL NO. In truth, all you need is a PC and you’re good to go (or a notebook if you’re one of those crazies that still likes to write by hand – no thanks). But do keep in mind your back and neck – if you plan on writing a lot, perhaps invest in a separate monitor and keyboard/mouse, just to elevate your eyes and keep you from staring down at a screen. It’s really bad for your neck. Also, invest in a good chair to take the pressure off your back, and get up to take a walk at least once every hour.

To be honest, my setup is messy and all over the place – I’ve added to it over the years and really need to optimise, particularly my desk. It’s coming soon, I am planning to buy a looooong desk and probably having 4 screens side by side – separating my work and personal lives completely. But all of that is yet to be seen. I’m happy with it for now.

In terms of software? I’ll probably do a more detailed write-up, but for the moment I use Scrivener. Do I recommend it? Not sure – if you’re a new writer, stick with Google Docs. It’s constantly backed up, available wherever you are, and if you need a local copy, you can download it any time. Plus, it tracks all of your revisions, and you can scroll back in time to see how things changed. Scrivener has different functions that make it worthwhile, but they are absolutely not NECESSARY for your first novel.

The beauty of Google Docs? You can also use it for notes, so you can keep all of your pertinent info all in one place, in a folder in your Google Docs. Yes, I’m kind of annoyed at myself for switching to Scrivener, but again, I’ll get into that further at a later date.

And that’s it. The rest is up to you. Computer and a desk and Google Docs – that’s all you need… Oh, and think about your back and your neck. And coffee. Coffee is pretty important, too.

Never Stop Never Stopping

If there’s one tip that has been most important to me since I started, it’s this: don’t stop. I mean, it goes without saying. If you want to write a story, novel, book of whatever description, you need to keep going until it’s done. Makes plenty of sense.

But the point I took from this wasn’t just to not stop writing, it was more that you’re book isn’t written till it’s written. And what I mean by that is…

New writers will lack confidence to keep going, especially at the start. They’ll want people to check their first line, their first paragraph, their first chapter… and then they’ll want someone to do the same for the second. They’ll ant to know if it’s good; if the story makes sense; if the characters are right; if the dialogue sounds normal… and so on and so forth, ad infinitum. They may even feel the need to come up with a title, and the lack of ideas — or to be clear, the lack of good or acceptable ideas — will delay the writing further.

And the thing is? None of this matters. Your story is… probably not amazing just yet. And it doesn’t matter. But what does matter is that your story needs to be told. You need to get it out of you and down on digital paper, and then you can get started on two things:

  • making it good, AND
  • making it better

You can worry about whether or not your book is any good once it’s finished. If you want to do it right, you’re going to need to edit your book several times. Ask every writer how much editing they do — it doesn’t matter if they are new like you, or a bestseller — they’ll all say the same thing… uhhh… a lot. You may think you’re the best writer ever, but… odds are you’re not. I’m certainly not. But I’ve just finished my third full edit, and I can tell you right now — the book I’ve got now is a hell of a lot better than it was after my first draft. And even better? My next step is to hand it over to a professional editor. To edit it even more.

And I’m very happy about that.

But… the only thing that got me to where I am now was that never-stoppingness. And trust me – I tried to hijack my progress on several occasions.

So… my number one tip: Don’t. Stop. Until. It’s done.

Planning my First Book – a Learning Experience

[Note: I have no idea what that image is. I found it in my archives, and it looks like something one of my kids drew. Seems to fit.]

When I started writing my first book, I didn’t exactly know what I was doing. To be clear, now that I’m on my second book, I’m not suddenly an expert, but the method I used for my second book was based on learnings from the first, and was a MASSIVE improvement. Depending on how things go, it may be my method moving forward. But we’ll get to that. For this article, we’ll talk about the clunky method I used to get my first novel done.

Oh – before I get started, this isn’t an article about what it means to be a “pantser” or a “planner” or whatever the hell you want to call yourself. Personally, the terms annoy me. Wite how you want to write. Clearly, this is for people that want to at least plan out the structure of their book before they start – and I have a hard time believing that even those that “write by the seat of their pants” (groan) don’t have some sort of outline in their brain somewhere. If not – they’re just far more clever than I am. Good for them!

Anyway, I feel that structure is pretty key – especially if you want to have some twists and turns, or if you want to follow multiple story threads, and so on.

But when I started? I had no idea. I had an idea that popped into my head and I had to get it down on paper, and suddenly that was chapter one. I then developed the overall idea of what the story was going to be, and who the main character was (very light on detail), and… then I was at a loss.

So I did a bunch of Internet searches, and watched a bunch of videos on YouTube – and I recommend you do that too. There’s a lot to learn out there, and you will need all the help you can get, no matter how great you might think you are (and you may well BE great, but nobody’s perfect).

Anyway, there ended up being three methods I used to build my story, which culminated in a chapter outline. I found these three methods in different places across the web, so I apologise that I am now unable to credit the original individuals.

Three methods

A few pertinent questions: this first method was quite simple, but helped me flesh the idea out a little, and that was that I needed to be able to answer a few questions, which would help drive the story. These questions were:

  • What fear or struggle must your protagonist overcome?
  • What decision do they make to put them in this situation?
  • How will they defeat or escape their adversary, if at all?
  • What are the ultimate consequences of their actions?

Four simple questions. Interestingly, the answer I put down for question 3 was… not used. But this helped, initially.

Simple story outline: the second method was also very simple, and that was to understand the basic course that a good story needs to undertake. You should know this already, but if not, it may help you. Looking back on this now, I think this is lacking, but again, it helped for my first book. The steps:

  • Set up
  • Inciting incident
  • the rising action
  • the climax
  • the falling action
  • the resolution

One Sentence, One Paragraph: and lastly, a method I’d not heard of before, but have heard of a few times since. Some even recommend this method when writing a query letter, to help distil your completed story down to a few basic sentences, but I haven’t got there yet.

Clearly, this method was simply to outline your story in one sentence, then add to that and build upon it, until you can outline the story in one paragraph. This would allow you to understand the things that are really important to the story (in the one sentence) and the major story beats that play out over the course of the story (in the paragraph).

Looking back on this, I found it all a little lacking. It helped me to write a simple story, and perhaps that was all I needed. For many of you out there, perhaps all you need is the one sentence, and from there you can write the story that’s in your head. But as a fantasy and sci-fi writer, I do want my stories to be far more grand in scale, with more characters to follow, and (hopefully) original worlds and ideas that drive the narrative.

Still… I’m proud of the book that I’ve written, and I only got to finish it because of these three steps.

Oh… and one more, which I added afterwards.

Chapter Outlines

OK! For my first book, this was all I needed, and it worked perfectly. But keep in mind that the story (mostly) only follows a single character. Any more than this, and this method gets out of hand.

And the method? Very simply, I wrote out a series of numbers, one per line, descending down the page. Then beside those numbers, I wrote an outline (initially, it included the words from the “simple story outline” above, but as the story took form, I replaced those words with words that had meaning in the context of the story).

From the start, I had wanted to aim for twenty chapters. I got there in the end (it ended up being well beyond twenty chapters), but it was helpful to visualise what this might look like. It also enabled me to determine what my first 5-10 chapters would include (I initially worked on a “5-10-5” three-part story, with Act 1 consisting of 5 chapters, Act 2 ten chapters, and Act 3, five chapters).

Initially, there were many gaps. I knew where the story was GOING, but not necessarily how we would get there. At certain points along the way, I had to stop writing — sometimes for weeks at a time — so that I could fill in how the next few chapters would proceed. Eventually, all chapters had an outline (usually only one or two words, like “Aftermath” or “Cemetary” or “Chase”, because that was al I needed).

And in the end? I ended up with a story that included death, betrayal, loss, stopovers in multiple countries, and, ultimately, a win… and a loss.

Anyway, the point is, while I was happy overall with where this got me, I knew it was insufficient for my needs to outline a more complex story. One day I’ll get around to writing about my NEW outline method, but until then, I suggest watching Brandon Sanderson’s writing lectures on YouTube. I built the method based on tips he provides in there.

As always – this is only one method. My method. And I built it out of other people’s methods, and in some ways I made them my own. Your method is yours – it doesn’t HAVE to look like this, or anything else. It just has to work for you.

I hope this helps, in some way.