The long, winding road authors follow …

head shotThis post is written by Mike Staton.

The more I write novels the more I learn there’s no right or wrong way on how to conduct the preparatory work and then actually write the scenes.

There’s a prodigious amount of how-to books on writing available online, in bookstores and in libraries. Since joining a writers’ group in Henderson, Nevada, I’ve been reading some of those books. We get a once-a-month reading assignment and then discuss the book over drinks and dinner at a Las Vegas Tavern near The Strip.

This month we discussed a book on POV, and it was heartening to discover I didn’t make a mistake using third-person single POV in all three of my Larenia’s Shadow Trilogy novels. What I did find interesting is that authors can choose third-person multiple POV; that’s shifting POV from one character to another in a scene. I thought that was taboo. See what I know. Nowadays writers have the freedom to experiment, although too much experimenting can come back to haunt them. For example, using third-person multiple POV can result in what’s called head hopping, jumping from one character to another to another, and that can be disorienting for a reader. In other words, certain POVs should be chosen very carefully.

POV -- choosing how you intend to let your reader explore your characters -- can make or break a story.

POV — choosing how you intend to let your reader explore your characters — can make or break a story.

For the first two books of the trilogy, The Emperor’s Mistress and Thief’s Coin, I learned I approached each scene correctly … starting in omniscient POV to establish the setting and then sliding into the POV character. Nowadays third-person POV requires allowing the POV character to explore his world and options with internal thinking; readers want to get into the head of the POV character. I’m a head guy myself, so I do let my characters think long and hard on the implications of decisions. In fact, I sometimes worry that too much thinking can bog down an action scene. It’s a fine balance, I think.

The POV book’s author recommends interviewing your prime characters. I didn’t quite do that, but I did do biographies of each of my main characters. For the first book, back in 1990 I did write-ups describing their physical appearances and overviewed their lives, reviewing their strengths and weaknesses. Back in 1990, I printed out the character sketches, a rudimentary outline, a map and short history of the world and placed them in folders. I also backed them up on floppy disks and a really primitive external drive. In 1995, when I was writing the first draft of The Emperor’s Mistress, I discovered if I had my back-up disk in the external drive, it would short-circuit the startup of my ancient tower computer. I’d get an error message. Those were the days.

So how long have you been working on your current novel? One year? Three years? Forever?

So how long have you been working on your current novel? One year? Three years? Forever?

When I began researching and writing The Emperor’s Mistress back in 1989, I did the writing on a Mac Plus. During some of that time I worked for a training company and traveled a lot. When staying in a hotel I’d do my writing the old-fashioned way … pen and a notebook and then back at home typing it up on my Mac Plus. By the late ‘90s, I used a Packard Bell tower computer at home and a primitive company laptop when traveling. Needless to say, I had to transfer novel scenes between the laptop and the Packard Bell and even later a Gateway and then a Dell. Just a month ago I purchased a HP computer and transferred my WIP, Assassins’ Lair, from the Dell to the HP. The Dell’s operating system gave me a passel of problems. Even now when I look at the manuscript on my HP’s Word, some glitches from the Dell are cropping up. Don’t we love the computer age?

Two-thirds of the way through a rewrite of The Emperor’s Mistress in about 2007, I took a look at the last third of the book for the first time in a couple of years and discovered a nightmare. The last ten chapters were gibberish. Somewhere in the copying and transfer of the novel from computer to computer something went horribly wrong. So I had to undertake a total rewrite of those chapters, not an edit. Ultimately, I thought the conclusion of the novel ended up a better read after the rewrite. Better quality writing.

Better light up the road ahead so you can see the next few minutes of your drive. While you're at it, maybe you should get a map of the entire trip.

Better light up the road ahead so you can see the next few minutes of your drive. While you’re at it, maybe you should get a map of the entire trip.

I do detailed-plot outlines. I’ve seen on Facebook that some writers don’t do outlines at all, but use the stream-of-consciousness approach. I can’t write that way. I need a roadmap, and not just showing the interstates; I need the state highways and the county roads. Back in early 2011 as I finished up Thief’s Coin, I did an overview sketch of the third book’s plot, and a more detailed outline of the first ten chapters.

Later in 2011, I began the third book, writing the first five chapters. But then my newspaper reporter’s job became too demanding, and I had little time to devote to the novel. When I did write, they were short stories I posted on my Facebook author’s page, my way of keeping my skills honed. I retired in January and moved to Henderson, Nevada, where I decided to finish book three and send it off to the publisher of my first two novels.

I had to read the already finished first five chapters to remind me of the plot and how my chief characters – a boy prince, a girl thief, a young sorceress and a wrinkly old mage – were persevering in their world of the Setor Empire. Then I started writing the new chapters, following the original outline. It didn’t take me long to divert from the outline, and by chapter eight the original outline of the first ten chapters was worthless.

 

The thief Stealth ... she can handle about any situation except where love's involved.

The thief Stealth … she can handle about any situation except where love’s involved.

By the time I finished chapter ten, I realized I needed to carry out a detailed outline of chapter eleven and onward until the end of the book. But I held up and took a chance. I wrote the next several chapters with just the broad conception in my head … it didn’t work. For four days in April, I wrote a detailed outline all the way to the end of the book, chapter by chapter, scene by scene with a POV assigned to each scene. It’s working well, I think. I’m just starting chapter twenty-one and I have eleven chapters to go. I recently looked back at my broad outline written in 2010, focusing on the book’s ending, and I can say that the current ending is vastly different except for the location. Who knows? My propensity to take detours may lead to even more changes in the ending. But that’s OK; it just means that my WIP, Assassins’ Lair, is a living, breathing document.

Book 1 in my trilogy is The Emperor’s Mistress; book 2, Thief’s Coin. The first two links are Amazon; the next two links, Barnes and Noble; the final link, my publisher, Wings ePress.

http://www.amazon.com/The-Emperors-Mistress-ebook/dp/B003YL4F0S/ref=cm_cr_pr_product_top

http://www.amazon.com/Thiefs-Coin-ebook/dp/B005KSL600/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1333470402&sr=1-1

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/emperors-mistress-michael-staton/1109995337?ean=2940014203524

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/thiefs-coin-michael-staton/1109950586?ean=2940014211222

http://wingsepress.com/

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13 Responses to The long, winding road authors follow …

  1. Gayle Irwin says:

    Great points, Mike! I admire you and all the others for being able to write many characters, envision them, and develop them. I’m going to have to challenge myself and see about writing a novel or novella one day; it’s easy to write dog stories with minimal human contact (keeping humans in the background), but I’ve noticed as I’ve developed my latest dog (rescue) story, there are more and more humans springing forth …. so I may try those character sketches and “interviews” with this project. Glad you’re involved with a writer’s group — it’s great to be able to share one each other’s work, get feedback … and get fed! (we have food at our group meetings too!). Continued best to you!

    Like

    • Mike Staton says:

      I figure nonfiction isn’t easy to write either. The detailed series I did at the Leesburg Commercial back in the 1980s, they were difficult to write … a ton of research, then plotting out the number of main stories and sidebars, and then actually writing them while referring to six or seven reporter’s notebooks. And to think that back then there wasn’t an Internet. It’s obvious why it took several months to put together a series (and often I was pulled off the regular beat to do the series). By the way, two of those series won first place in the 1983 Florida Society of Newspapers’ (FSNE) competition — a series on black progress in Leesburg and a series on the social and economic impact of retirees on Lake County.

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  2. Wranglers says:

    Interesting post, and sharing your journey as you write. Also, good points to keep in mind. I will save it for future reference. Like the diagram you included too. Glad you found a writer’s group, I would like to try one like that here sometime. I think a critique plus an educational one would be good to belong to. Good luck with the third book! Sounds like a success for sure.

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    • Mike Staton says:

      Hey, Charley, the Henderson Writers Group does critiques on Mondays and educational stuff on Wednesdays. The educational stuff: script writing, poetry and book reviews like the book on POV.

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  3. Thanks, Mike, for an interesting perspective on your writing style.

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    • Mike Staton says:

      Thanks, Abbie. I always enjoy reading your columns on your time taking care of your husband as well as your poetry.

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  4. Wranglers says:

    Mike,

    Loved this and watching the journey you have taken. Gives hope to all authors. Keep writing and don’t give up. Doris

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    • Mike Staton says:

      Hey, Doris. Yep, I usually do introspective things of life in general and how it relates to family life, especially family memories and old photos. This was definitely different. I have another one I wrote for my newspaper back in January that I’ll probably use for the June Writing Wrangler post. Looks at how novels may look in 2064.

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  5. Great post Mike. Full of good information that I will put in my writing folder for reference. So glad you seem to be settling in well in Henderson and have found a writing group. That’s the thing I miss most about living in Mexico – we had a fantastic writer’s group. I really appreciate your organizational skills when writing. It looks like you have everything in place before you start. I’ve tried doing that, but it doesn’t work for me. I’m definitely a “pantster” and I have to be inspired and write what comes. I do, however, write loose character outlines and keep a cast of characters next to me while I write. I don’t think there’s any right or wrong way to write, but whatever we do, the reader has to enjoy it or we’re toast!

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    • Mike Staton says:

      Agree with you, Linda. I love fantasy, so my fantasy genre WIPs are done as I would like them as a reader. But at the same time, I know that a reader who likes modern day urban fantasy without dwarves and elves is not going to like my novels with a setting that combines Ancient Roman and Medieval elements along with with elves and dwarves.

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  6. katewyland says:

    I’m a plotster – half plotter, half panster. I need a general idea of where I’m going. Often know the ending and usually try to plot turning points. Definitely do character studies. After that I just sort of go where my characters take me.

    Great that you’ve found a writing group. That makes such a difference for me. Makes me accountable. 😉

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  7. sstamm625 says:

    Like Kate, I’m somewhere in the middle. I know the high points, but I “pants” my way between them. Sometimes I outline my way between, but it may change several times. The process is so interesting–to see what changes we make and what detours we take.

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  8. Thought-filled post, Mike. Ah, the POV question. Workshops and books abound on POV interpretation. I use third person pov as a rule, but my next book is written first person, and I’m truly no convinced this will work for the character. I thought I’d give it a try and see how I like it, and truly, I truly believe that a writer has to stretch in all directions just to see how it feels. Sometimes, going in a different direction gives me an entirely new perspective of the character. Doesn’t mean I might end up changing the POV back to third person, but for now, it feels right.

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