Writing

My Writing Process

This week’s post was inspired by Magen Cube’s newsletter, Notes on Monstrosity, where they discuss their writing process. Finding out how other writers writer is something I find incredibly interesting, to the point that I will watch Youtube videos of writers trying famous authors’ processes or daily schedules. It’s fascinating how what works for one author would probably trample my brain into exhausted dust. In my creative classes, it’s a topic my students ask about and how they can best streamline the process. I’d like to make it clear that you will need to figure that out on your own and try what different writers do or venture out on your own and see what your brain jives with.

Some of you are going to read my process and be mad. So be it. My process is not what is preached by many writers. I do not hurdle to the finish line as fast as I can because, frankly, I am not fond of cleaning up the mess after. That’s it. I’m lazy. I do not have the mental fortitude to clean up the same draft 6+ times because I decide to speed through it the first time and now have a 100+ things I need to remember to fix AND do copy edits and such after. That’s not how this is going to go, so if you’re looking for how to write a book in 30 days or write 5k a day or whatever else the hustle culture is pedaling these days, this is not the blog post you seek.

Consider, I have written and published 7 (going on 8) books this way, so it works for me *shrugs*

The Beginning

Typically, my ideas start off with two characters or a single character, and everything sort of grows out of that. I spend a lot of time at the beginning feeling out who they are, what’s wrong with them, what they want, what their core personality is. From there, I think about how these characters would meet and interact because that will be the majority of the story. Then, I get stuck for like 2 weeks trying to figure out the conflict/plot. How do I figure this out? Usually thinking how I can best traumatize these characters. At the same time, I tend to start making a Pinterest board because I’m a very visual person. Once I start throwing together what they look like and where they are, more concrete aesthetic and plot things start to gel for me.

During this part, I’ll often try to start the story to better feel out the characters and have a few false starts. This happens more often with brand new characters than when I’m adding on to a pre-existing series, which makes sense because with new characters, this is more exploratory writing, not word count writing. During this early stage, I need to remember to be kind to myself because my first month or so of working on a book is SLOW. There is a lot of feeling in the dark until things make sense. At some point during this process, I can mentally see the ending or something toward the end to work towards. With that in mind, we get into the drafting stage.

Drafting

I want to make it very clear that I am a “slow” writer. Slow in comparison to the people who can bang out a 60k book in 2 months and have it ready for publication 2 months later. My books are usually 90k+, and I only write 500 to 1500 words a day with the latter being a *really* good day or me playing catch up because I skipped a day or two due to not feeling good. My monthly word counts average around 15k with the first month or two of a new draft often having less. Early on, I tend to write in 20 minute sprints, something akin to the Pomodoro Method. It forces me to write and move forward when I’m feeling hesitant.

But here is my cardinal sin, according to other writers. I EDIT AS I GO.

Yes, dear reader, I go back and edit what I wrote during my previous session as a warm-up. I do this because

a) I am an underwriter, so I need to add more detail. Often, after I’ve written a scene, that detail becomes clearer, and it makes more sense for me to add it now while it’s still fresh in my mind than 2 months from now when I don’t remember what the hell the room is supposed to look like. My brain is like a sieve or a browser with 25 tabs open and you can’t figure out where the music is coming from. I try not to over-complicate it if I can.

b) It’s less work for me later. Future Kara doesn’t appreciate it when Past Kara leaves cryptic messages in a draft that make no sense. [ADD CHAIR] For what, Past Kara?? Why and for what purpose do they need a chair?? I know some people can do this, I cannot. It just frustrates me. Then again, I am not a perfectionist, and as someone is who at least somewhat full of themselves, as many artists are, I tend to read my work and think it’s pretty good and editing it is just tumbling that shiny rock further. Ego is key for this process to work. I am self-conscious about many things; my writing is not one of them.

Once I have reacquainted myself with where I left off, it is time to write. As I said, I tend to write 500-1500 words a day, and this is either done in the morning around 10 AM or late at night with little in between. It’s when my brain works best.

Outlining or the Lack of

You may have noticed I didn’t mention making an outline. That is because I don’t make a traditional outline before I start writing. I do make a retroactive outline covering what I’ve already written, so I can go back and reference it as I move forward, which has been VERY helpful to me. I have a blog post about it here. Something I have been doing with The Reanimator’s Heart is using Sarra Canon’s Three Act Structure outline, which is based off Save the Cat! Writes a Novel and a few other structure books. I have been filling in scenes I think fit into the general structure to help me figure out the order of things and where I’m going, but I do this one act at a time. Act 1, then Act 2 part 1, Act 2 part 2, then Act 3 and not a moment ahead of time if I can help it. It is a very loose outline that is subject to change, but seeing everything laid out helps me keep the flow going.

Ironically, if I’m writing a short story, I tend to make a loose outline, but I think this is because, at most, I can hold about 30k words worth of direction in my head. Beyond that, my brain gets overwhelmed and sort of melts. My process is avoiding the brain melting stage at all costs.

To be continued…

Originally, this was going to be one MASSIVE blog post, but I have decided to break this up right here before the editing process. Truthfully, the drafting process and editing process feel very different to me, so it’s a good place to stop for now. In 2 weeks, the post on my editing process will come out, so I hope you will come back to read it.

Writing

Adding Texture to Your Story

This something I talk a lot about when I teach my fiction writing classes, especially when we get to world-building, but I think it might be important to discuss what I consider to be the difference between texture and description before we get too deep into this.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Texture is description, but description is not always texture. That’s the very basic difference here. Texture goes beyond what something looks like to focus on what does it feel like.

Texture is a subset of description that ties back to the greater world-building and adds vibrancy and life to your story that basic description does not. It’s also a sustained effort throughout a scene or work. We create texture by utilizing sensory detail strategically, especially by evoking a sensory triad. A sensory triad is when you pull in three out of the five senses in short succession, so within a sentence or two. What this does if done well is to activate different parts of your reader’s brain by evoking multiple senses at once, which creates a more immersive sensory experience.

Now, you can’t just mention a smell, a texture, and something you hear without using descriptions or adjectives that are specific or it won’t be evocative enough to do much. In my classes, I refer to these specific, evocative words as gourmet words because they’re often a little fancier than your run of the mill adjectives. Some examples are things like: briny, scaly, herbaceous, plunk (onomatopoeia is incredibly evocative), marbled, peppery, honeyed, etc. These don’t necessarily need to be complex words, just evocative or specific. An example of a sensory triad being used to set a scene might be something like this:

When he first arrived at the hibachi place, James had enjoyed the soothing pluck of the zither music they piped over the speakers, but as more diners came in, he could barely think over the clatter of plates and the excited whoops from the party at the grill behind him where an onion tower roared into a tiny volcano. Rubbing his temples and squinting at the menu in the near dark, he decided not to order anything with onions; the sharp, charred smell from the other table was churning his stomach.

So I whipped up this little paragraph on the fly, but let’s take a look at the evocative bits. Hibachi is specific, and if you’ve ever been, there’s an immediate image, but if there’s not we have further description of the feel of being in the restaurant. First, we have the “soothing pluck of the zither.” Even if you’ve never heard a zither, we can assume it’s a string instrument. “Excited whoops” is a specific type of exclamation, the use of “roar” with a small onion inferno is another good noise verb. Then, we get to rubbing his temples, which is, to me, a sensory thing. It’s a self-soothing pressure. “Squinting…in the near dark” gives us the action of seeing/holding your face in a specific way and how dim the restaurant is. And finally, we add in the “sharp, charred smell” of onions churning his stomach. I’d also argue that churning works as a sensory detail because it’s very visceral, and most of us know exactly what they feels like.

Now, what you might notice is the lack of specific visuals. I could have spent time on the dark wood tables or the koi motif on the scrolls hanging from the walls. More than likely, I would have included that at some point in my description, but visuals are often the least interesting but most relied upon sense. Do we need to describe a setting? Absolutely, but when adding texture, you need to make sure that you are branching out beyond just decor. I specifically refer to it in my classes as texture because it is something you should feel, not just see. In order to establish an important setting, you have to get the sensory experiences going. The other visuals can be peppered in later or throughout the scene instead of clumping them all together. Readers are more likely to skim a paragraph delineating the decor than a sensory experience worked into action or thoughts.

The best way to create texture is to work with the idea of unity of effect. Now, this goes back to Edgar Allan Poe writing about short stories, but I’m going to co-opt the idea of unity of effect because writing a novel or longer work still requires that unity in order to create texture. This extends to a unified world in your story through cohesive world-building. This shouldn’t be mistaken for homogeneity because you can have a unified world made of many different parts. Take New York City for example. I can stand on a street and smell pizza, chicken wings, and truffle butter all from the same spot. What would hammer home the unity of New York’s texture would be things like brief mentions of taxi yellow, screens playing ads, the jostle of crowds, the smell of halal or hot dog carts. If you keep touching base with these sensory experiences, your reader remains in that moment and reconnects with descriptions you have mentioned earlier.

You don’t need to be super heavy-handed with this either. A solid sensory foundation can be reawakened by brief touches in later descriptions, or they can be complicated and even thwarted, depending on the scene. An example of this might be describing New York City at winter time when it’s super crowded, then stepping into St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The soaring space within the cathedral and the quiet of being inside a church immediately changes the tone. That sensory experience whiplash as you establish this opposing texture can be really powerful in creating interesting, visceral detail.

There are also some less obvious ways of adding texture that rely more heavily on world-building than on individual sensory descriptions, such as focusing on:

  1. Fabrics/materials- what fabrics are being used in this world. Is it silk? Barkcloth? Brocade? Denim? All of these fabrics have very different textures, histories, uses, and connotations. Integrating fabrics in clothing and building materials or decorative arts is a great way to add vibrancy, and it also speaks to the world-building. At the same time, be careful that you aren’t choosing these as window dressing and that they make sense within the world itself.
  2. Colors/pigments- I feel like I’m rehashing Victoria Finlay’s wonderful book topics, but the use of color can be a fantastic unifying force in regards to texture. We see this a lot in movies (looking at you, Wes Anderson), so think of it in a similar manner with your stories. You may also want to delve into the meanings of colors to your characters’ society, how they represent (or don’t represent) class, and even within decorations or buildings, how does paint or color create mood?
  3. Food- I love a good food description. If your writing a fantasy food or something you think readers may not be super familiar with, remember that you don’t have to spoon-feed them what it is. Give them the general feel of the food’s taste (spicy, peppery, sweet, etc.), a hint as to what it’s made of (a flaky crust, tender meat, creamy corn), and you’re good. Food is a great way to add a bit of color, smell, and texture into a scene and to ground your reader in sensory detail (and make them hungry).
  4. The weather- If the Regency and Victorian periods did one thing right, it was creating a mood with weather. Think about how the weather can add texture to your story through sensory detail. The beating sun warming a character’s back, the spray of ice stabbing their cheeks like needles, a warm spring breeze as they sway in a hammock. Combining the spring breeze with the drone of bees in the garden beside them and the gentle sway of the hammock as their food skims the grass is a great combination of detail.
  5. Gross things- I didn’t really know what to call this category, but gross things felt appropriate. Nothing is more viscerally evocative than something that is disgusting or unpleasant. The slimy grip of algae catching your foot in the water or the sulfurous punch of opening a tupperware that has been in the refrigerator too long is not something one forgets, which means it is very easy to evoke those senses.

The worst thing when creating texture is that you don’t always know what something specific smells or tastes or feels like. If it’s a fantasy setting, I would say do your best to imagine it and try to compare it to things your audience would recognize. If it’s a real world thing, then do your homework. When writing Kinship and Kindness, I googled, “What does the bayou smell like?” I had smelled swamps in NJ, we have plenty of marshes, and they’re quite pungent in summer or after a heavy rain, but it does vary. Luckily, we have the internet and most people are very willing to describe things for you. Actual in person research is best but not always feasible, so do your best with what you have and don’t be afraid to ask people if a description makes sense. Also, keep in mind that we all experience smells, tastes, and textures differently, so what smells wonderful to one person is offensive to another. That experience can often be fun to play with.

I hope this helps you integrate texture more into your work in the future. And always remember that after your first draft is a great place to go back and flesh out your settings/experiences.

Happy writing, peeps, and let me know what you think in the comments.

Writing

5 Tips for Atmospheric Writing

Recently, I’ve been reading Maggie Stiefvater’s series The Raven Cycle, and what has blown me away (besides the characters, plot, and just amazing story overall) is her ability to create atmospheric settings. What I mean by that is that the settings evoke a specific feeling, and this feeling adds to the tension or heightens the mood of the piece. Atmospheric settings can sometimes be so evocative that they are characters themselves. I found this in The Raven Cycle series by Maggie Stiefvater, Jazz by Toni Morrison, and The Witching Hour by Anne Rice.

In my own writing, I’ve tried to develop this skill while building the backdrop of London in The Winter Garden and Brasshurst Hall in The Earl and the Artificer. While working on this skill, I’ve learned a few things.

  1. Write your scene first. Add your atmosphere after. I tend to write my scene in layers where I write out the dialogue and overall scene direction first. Then, I do a quick pass through where I add more detail until the scene is fleshed out. When it comes to writing, dialogue, plot, and character movement is much more important than atmosphere. My suggestion is always to work on your scenery after you’ve gotten the essentials down. This also tends to eliminate pages and pages of atmosphere/scene building because you already know what you need in your scene instead of tossing in everything and the kitchen sink just in case your character needs it.
  2. Know what you’re trying to evoke. It makes infinitely easier to build tension or heighten the mood if you know what you’re trying to accomplish. Ask yourself a questions. Is your story paranormal or a western? How does your genre affect the atmosphere of your piece? What’s the overall emotion in this scene? Suspense, mystery, anger, romance, sadness, etc. Does the feeling fit the genre or scene? Does it fit the characters? Sometimes the feelings will conflict with characters to create tension, but if it stands out in a bad way against the rest of your story, you may want to rethink what you’re trying to create.
  3. Figure out what your scenery looks like before you start adding it in. I don’t mean that you need to break out the Sims and start building an entire house, but you should know the major features or the features you hope to highlight. My suggestions is to jot down the defining characteristics of the character the scene relates to. For example, when I was creating Dr. Hawthorne’s home office, I knew he he was a busy doctor who was progressive for his day. This comes out in his bookshelf, which is filled with medical texts from scholars throughout history, and between books there are rather disgusting anatomical specimens in jars. Because he’s busy, his desk is covered in notes that need typing and random bits of paper for his own research. Personal spaces should reflect the characters who live in them. As always, knowing where you’re going makes it infinitely easier to avoid writer’s block.
  4. Focus on the senses. And not just sight. Pretend that you’re where your characters are. What would you smell? Could you taste or hear anything? The more sensory details you include, the more evocative your scene will be. When I get stuck in this area, I go onto Pinterest to look for photos or Youtube for videos of scenery or thunderstorms, depending on the scene. If need be, look up words to describe smells or tastes. I know I’ve looked up how to describe the smell of rain.
  5. When you’re all done, go back and prune. You don’t want pages and pages of atmosphere, so go back after you’ve written your scene and see if you can get rid of anything. Pay careful attention to word choice as you’re editing. Are your descriptions succinct and do they make sense? Show them to someone else and see what their feelings are about your descriptions. Sometimes what’s in our heads doesn’t come out on paper. Atmospheric writing should add to the scene, so if it’s doing nothing but adding to your word count, cut it.

If you’re trying to boost your writing skills and learn how to create atmosphere in your story, my best suggestion is to read and take notes on what other authors do. The best way to learn to write is to learn to read as a writer.

Do you have any examples of writers who rock at creating evocative scenery?