In one of my secret, undercover ghost-writing projects, I’ve been talking quite a bit lately about the book-writing process. The feedback I’ve received from the very small handful of people who know it’s actually me behind the keyboard has been very positive. So, I thought it might be interesting to break away from the typical pastoral blog topic and spend a couple weeks on writing. For you writers and even for those of you who have ever been curious about how a book comes together, hopefully this will give you a little inside look. If you don’t fall into either category, consider reading it anyway because…you know…like, why not? In order for it not to feel like a dissertation on authorship, I’m going to call it my Top Five Rules for Writing.
Rule 1: Write First, Craft Later
There is nothing that will bog down the writing process like trying to find the perfect word or turn the perfect phrase. My first pass on a chapter is much like drawing a picture in a coloring book. The goal is to get the solid-black outline onto paper. Once the picture is all there, then you can begin coloring it in. If you start wrestling in your first sentence with whether to call it a monkey or a macaque and whether its eyes are brown or blue, you’re never going to make it to the part about the unicycle, the high-wire, and the chickens he’s juggling.
This is the rule that is most difficult for me to obey. I’ve berated myself many times when I’ve snapped out of a thesaurical fog only to discover that I’ve been agonizing for fifteen minutes on one more way to write the phrase “he said”. There is a proper time for that agonizing, but it is on the third pass. The first pass is for drawing the outline; the second pass is for getting really creative and bringing in all the senses; the third pass is for word-smithing and catching all the ways your second pass changes didn’t fit into the overall context of the chapter; the fourth pass is for fine tuning and bumping certain words up one more level, and the fifth pass is for stalling time until you’re sure that the Hallmark movie that your wife and daughter are watching upstairs is done and it’s safe to leave the basement.
Rule 2: Don’t Create a Character; Discover a Character
The relationship between author and character is bizarre and leans toward the schizophrenic. In a sense you are god-like in that you can create a person and make them into whomever you want them to be. However, much like how the one true God created us with free will, all the best literary characters are also given the opportunity to make their own choices and develop their own personalities. What fun is a robot? It’s in the unpredictable that we find excitement.
In the four Riley Covington books that Jason Elam and I wrote, my favorite character is a brilliant, irreverent, lethal, hilarious guy named Scott Ross. He was, however, an unplanned addition. Originally, Scott was just going to be one of a handful of guys that Riley Covington fought alongside in the opening scene. Scene’s over – good-bye Scott. A couple chapters later, however, I discovered that I needed someone at the counter-terrorism headquarters. Rather than add a new character, I decided to revive an old one. I scoured the first chapters and came across Scott Ross. All I knew about him at the time was that he was really, really smart. As time went on and chapters passed, I discovered his biting sense of humor, his tragic upbringing, his love for old rock ‘n roll t-shirts, and his strange obsession with Yoo-hoo mixed with Diet Mountain Dew Code Red. Another of my favorites, Skeeter Dawkins, surprised me in Italy with his vast knowledge of ancient history. Even Riley took me off-guard when he expressed his passionate hatred for goat-cheese.
These unexpected revelations translate to the readers, because they get to discover the character along with you. Much of the joy of reading is discovery. By describing your character in detail from the beginning the reader is left with little to learn. However, the excitement you personally feel when you learn something new about your character will come through in the words you use to relate your new revelation. Start off with a basic idea of appearance and temperament and quirks if you like, but make sure to leave room for the character to become their own person.
Quick story: I had sent Jason a chapter in our fourth Riley Covington book. A few days later I get a text from him – “Wait…Skeeter Dawkins is African-American?” Maybe I left that one a little too ambiguous.
In the same way you discover your characters, discover your plot. Again, have an idea of your story, or even outline your book. However, hold onto your plot loosely. Don’t lead the story – follow the story. The best plot twists will come as you are writing or as you are thinking about the story in the car or in the shower or during the pastor’s 45 minute long sermon last Sunday (sorry folks) or during the twenty-five piano recital performances that are not by your kid.
Not every twist and turn ends up working. I’ve had to back up many times when I’ve written myself into a dead end or an implausible situation. If that happens, all you’ve lost is time. Ultimately, writing should be like a giant pachinko machine. You start at the top and you know you’re eventually going to get to the bottom. In between, just let the ball bounce and see where it takes you.
Hopefully you’ve found this somewhat interesting. We’ll finish off the list with three more rules next week, then we’ll return to our regularly scheduled programming.