Thursday, January 21, 2010

Thoughts on The Craft -- c.anne.gardner

The research is the easiest; the outline is the most fun; the first draft is the hardest […]; and the rewrite is very satisfying. – Ken Follett

Now those who know me know I am a process whore. The analytical side of my brain helps me switch back and forth effortlessly between artist and editor. It also keeps me on track when I falter -- when the pages become nothing more than a smear of despair. We have all been there; I am sure. But I digress, going back to the Ken Follett quote, my thoughts on the process differ from his, but only slightly.

As for research … my books take a substantial amount of it, and I use a variety of sources. I set my stories outside of my homeland, so I need to be very careful with locations, language, and other subtle nuances. Some of my stories are very heavy on history and science, so research can take months, and I love every minute of it. Every step of the way is a new learning experience for me. For Thin Wall, I had to research immigration laws and University housing and protocol for ex-pat students. In Antiquity, I spent ages studying anthropology and archeology, a million locations, and some very technical aspects of the science. In Logos, my main character is alive for several thousand years, from 9 B.C. Germania to modern day London. I make extensive notes, not just on the settings but also on my characters and their motivations. I studied psychology and sociology heavily when I was in school, and so I tend to refer back to my mentors when working through some of my characters’ idiosyncrasies. I tend to put them on the couch if you will. I think good research makes a writer more self-aware, and as a result, their characters become more aware, more integrated into their surroundings.

When it comes to making an outline, I don’t make one in the traditional sense. My stories don’t come to me in any sort of linear format. They come in scenes: in dreams, sometimes daydreams. Most artists dream their work: who doesn’t keep a notebook by their bed … and a nightlight for better night vision? So, as those scenes come to me, I enter them into a very loose outline. Those scenes will eventually become the chapters. Once I get all the scenes to make a full outline, I move them around, as the story never comes to me “in order.” It’s easier for me to check the ebb and flow of a story when it’s in outline format. Once the outline is set and I know how the scenes will fall in the main arch of the narrative, then I start writing in situ, using the theme of each scene as the chapter head. This eventually becomes the first draft, and here I agree with Mr. Follett. The first draft always sucks and it is the hardest part, combining all those incoherent dream elements into a cohesive whole. My first draft can take months for just a mere 30k words or less. I go through several hundred drafts it seems before I can stop and let it sit for a while. This is where I made my biggest mistake early on. I didn’t let the draft sit for a few months, and so now I adamantly recommend all authors do this. Three months at minimum so you can come back to the rewrite with indifferent eyes. You need to be indifferent, detached to some extent in order to “see it” clearly. Taking a break from it is the best way to do this. My novella Sin-Eater has been decanting for a year now. I haven't even snuck a look at it once. (Don't get me started on the "snuck" versus "sneaked" debate. I think snuck sounds better, and it is becoming the standard. This coming from a language purist.)

Now when it comes to the rewrite, this is the part I live for and love with an artist’s manic passion. Satisfying is not the word I would use. Maybe the word enlightenment would do the experience justice. The rewrite is where I come to realize what the story is “really” about. Sure, I know the theme going in, but during the process, when the demented artist in me is writing the story from my subconscious, I write almost in symbolic imagery and poetry more so than plot driven scene, and often I am unaware of the symbolic story elements until I stumble over them in the rewrite. It’s then when I, as the writer, become self-aware, aware of my words in a more metaphysical sense, and because I have become acutely aware of them, I can articulate their subtle nuances better. The rewrite for me is like deciphering a Rosetta stone in a sense, and it opens my eyes to what I am really trying to say with the work.

After that I find designing the cover to be the most fun. It’s the moment when I get to distill my thesis into art as imagery. The cover is where I try to picture the dream that is the story, and in only one case – Antiquity – did I choose to use art that was not my own. All my other books utilize my own photography, and that is very satisfying. Well, on Thin Wall, I had my husband’s help, but he didn’t mind at all, obviously.

Beyond that, the interior formatting is a technicality and one I am quite adept at, considering my extensive years in the desktop publishing industry. Some find formatting tedious, but I have adopted the “house formatting” mantra, and so I write my books in situ via a template, which means they are written in the final format and not in manuscript format. Recently over on The Self Publishing Review there has been a debate going as to whether SPers should use a word processing program to typeset their books. Typographers will argue against, since it is their job to notice these things, but most readers cannot discern the difference between a professionally typeset book and one done on a word processor if the typesetter knew their way around their word processing program. You can get professional looking results from a WP program if you know what you are doing. It won't be "perfect" in a typesetting sense, but it can be so very close to the mark that readers will not notice. Also, using a word processor program saves me time in the end, and makes reformatting for ebook that much easier. We all know ebook formatting is a sado-masochistic torture and a purgatory that rivals Dante’s Inferno, so any attempt to make it easier is worth it for the Indie author.

So writers, how do you differ from Mr. Follett?

Cheryl Anne Gardner

The art this week is "The Alchemist" by Sir William Fettes Douglas circa 1853


JFBookman said...


It's really fascinating to have you describe your process in such detail, it really gives an insight into your whole approach to your work.

I really liked your description of the interplay between the more unconscious, imaginal writing self and the editorial, re-writing "writer" self, yes.

Your passion for rewriting is admirable and mysterious. Thanks for sharing!

Cheryl Anne Gardner said...

Thanks Joel.

In my early days, I found the rewrite and the editorial work to be most tedious, and that was simply because I was looking at the process wrong. Once I came to appreciate the rewrite as an art in itself and as a form of enlightenment, it became much easier to immerse myself in it completely.

I also think that interior formatting is an art as well, but you know that already. Just like with the story itself, you can spend countless hours tweaking a line, a paragraph, and a page to get the desired symmetry. I miss a spacing error or two here and there, and I ignore some of the rules here and there, but that happens with all art, I think.

DED said...

Research: It's like sanding a square peg down to fit in a round hole. It consumes too much time (something I typically don't have a lot of) and doesn't seem like time well spent until after what I've learned has been applied to the ms.

Outline: I don't write an outline in the traditional sense. When inspiration strikes (often in dreams, the shower, or chopping wood), I'll jot down some notes. Later, as other pieces of the story come to me, I add them. Elements get rearranged. Some are fleshed out right away and, if the spark ignites, I just keep writing.

1st Draft: The hardest part about it is overcoming the initial inertia. An idea may have a few sample sentences clustered around it along with some notes but it will just sit there. An idea at rest will stay that way until I give it the processor time required to crack. Once I've found the activation energy required to get it moving, it's almost auto-catalytic: the words get typed and, in doing so, inspire the next set of words. It continues until the raw material is exhausted.

If the day's output reaches 500 or more words, then it's a good day.

Rewrite: This is the hardest part. How do I make this better? It's not that I believe that I've created perfection on the first draft, it's that I have to invest more processor time to exact the remaining 5-10% out of the story. Besides, correcting the obvious grammatical mistakes, research plays a big role here.

It's like a car that gets 27 mpg, but it's rated for 30. What do I have to do to reach that level?

Interesting thought exercise. Thanks. :)

Diane Scott said...

Thank you so much for the detail you put into your post! My son is an aspiring writer and I'm definitely sending him your link!

Karen said...

I wish I could think like you! Your insight is awesome. What I think just comes naturally to some is quite a process for others.

Anonymous said...

Research: No comment.

Outline: I don't make them, but I should. I know this.

First Draft: Ugh! But also filled with the now-and-then moments of, "Wow - I LOVE this scene I just wrote," or "Ha! My character said [this or that]...she's so funny."

Revising: My favorite part.

Cheryl Anne Gardner said...

Thanks Karen, I too struggled in the beginning until I "outlined" the process of writing in my head and defined each stage so it made some sense to me. Before I did that, I was all over the place, trying to do everything at the same time instead of in manageable stages.

And DED, wow, 500 words in a day would be a good day for me. Some days I barely manage to spit out a sentence.

I like your no comment Kristen on the research. Some books or stories don't need any aside from intuition, and when I started out writting short fic it wasn't necessary. But when I got into novellas, I wanted to write stories outside of my personal sphere of existence, and that required research. There was just no getting around it.

Dusk Peterson said...

Well, one of the easy identifiers to me of whether a book is self-published/small-press is whether it's been set with a word processor. But admittedly my father is a book designer; he was having me analyze book design by my early teens.

My view is that anything which gets a manuscript onto a bookshelf and is reasonably legible and non-ugly (I once ran across a book that was entirely set in Courier - and for heaven's sakes, this was a book published in the late 1990s) is fine. There have always been different levels of publishing perfection; pulp magazines didn't proofread to the same extent as literary magazines did, yet they had an avid audience.

My own manner of making life easy for myself is that I use the same interior design and cover design each time, adapting it slightly for circumstances. I figured out the format for my book covers on my own, in accordance with my technical limitations, but I think I had in the back of my mind a memory of the Penguin Black Classics series. Here's the modern version of the Black Classics, and here's the 1960s version that was still being published when I went to college in the 1980s. As you can see, the basic template is the same in each case, making life easy for the designer. Yet I've always found the Black Classics design to be attractive.

So I think that taking design tips from mass market publishers - particularly mass market publishers who have been praised for their design, as Penguin has - can be helpful.

Cheryl Anne Gardner said...

Oh Dusk, I love the Penguin Black Classics. Own quite a few of them myself, and I have always loved the very simple and elegant design for their covers. Probably why I like yours so much.

I too use a template that I designed for my imprint on all my book interiors. In the beginning I got a bit fancy with the first edition test market copies, but after consideration, I found a clean, simple interior to be the best. I use Palatino for all my books, and like the font size. Of course the size of the physical book will influence some of the decisions. Can't get away with a big font in a small book.

I was in desktop publishing in its early years, and so I do a bit of fiddling when it comes to adjusting the hyphentation and character spacing in Word, and I have tricks for manipulating the white space to get the text blocks aligned where I want them. It just takes a bit software savvy.

That's why I recommend that authors really look at as many books as they can. Interiors and covers, front matter and copyright pages. Eventually a style will pop out that just fits your skill level.

DED said...

DED, wow, 500 words in a day would be a good day for me. Some days I barely manage to spit out a sentence.

Well, as I said, that's on a good day. Unfortunately, those days are few and far between. 100 is the norm (assuming I have the time to write at all)