Friday, January 15, 2010

Instinct

I’ll be honest with you. I’m not a meticulous planner when it comes to writing. I’m more of a seat-of-the-pants kind of guy. I put down what seems right and move on. I like to have a short outline so I know where I’m going, but I fill in the details as I go along. The only times I’ve done detailed, chapter-by-chapter outlines were when an editor or publisher demanded it. I’ll sometimes move scenes around later on to make them come together better, but most of the time I’ve been lucky and things have worked out okay the way I wrote them to start with.

Because of that, I like to think that I’ve developed a pretty good instinct for whether or not something is working. I started a chapter today and knew exactly what I wanted to do. But as I went along, I started to think, “You know, I’m not sure about this.” But I plowed ahead anyway because, well, that’s what I do. I wrote the whole chapter and told myself that I might have to do a little rewriting when I pick it up again in the morning. Then I went out to take the dog for a walk.

By the time I got back, I knew I had to start over in the morning.

Most of the chapter is okay, but it’s in the wrong place. It needs to come along a couple of chapters later in the book. Also I need to cut out some of the telling and do more showing. But most of it is salvageable, thank goodness. I don’t like to throw out a whole day’s work. So I’ll back up in the action, and we’ll see how it goes.

I’m a firm believer in the idea that everyone has their own approach to writing and their own techniques that work for them. That’s why whenever I talk about writing, I tell people, “This is the way I do it, but it may not be the best way for you to do it.” That said, I also believe there are a few universal truths about writing, and this is one of them:

When every fiber of your being is screaming, “No, no, no!”, you’d be wise to listen to it. It’s probably right.

18 comments:

Brian Drake said...

James, What I like about what you said is that you'll use the first chapter you wrote later in the book. If it were me, I'd have tossed the whole thing, because I don't think like that. I think the next time something like that happens, I won't be so quick to toss but consider where the material might go later.

By the way, I picked up the new Longarm you mentioned a few days ago. I'm enjoying it. But what's the deal with the graphic sex? It reminds me of the old Nick Carter Killmaster books Jove also published, and I understand it's part of the formula, but what influenced the decision to push the stories that way?

James Reasoner said...

Brian,
The so-called Adult Westerns that include sex scenes have been around since the early Seventies. They reached their heights in the Eighties, with dozens of different series, nearly all of them written by assorted writers under house-names. Only four of them are still around: the Slocum series by "Jake Logan" (started in 1976), Longarm by "Tabor Evans" (started in 1978), and from 1980, the Trailsman by "Jon Sharpe" and the Gunsmith by "J.R. Roberts" (usually Bob Randisi). I've written for all of those series except the Gunsmith. The merits of the Adult Westerns have been widely debated by Western fans. Some like them and some don't. But for many years they really did keep the Western field in general afloat. Some writers and fans will deny it, but editors have told me more than once that their entire Western programs would have been cancelled if not for the sales of the Adult Westerns. They've lost their dominance over the years but still have devoted followings, in my opinion more because they're usually strongly plotted books with a lot of action (besides the sex, which generally accounts for a small percentage of the text) and colorful characters. They have their formulas, like any other genre, but they also allow a lot of latitude in the plots and settings. I've written around 75 total and still find them great fun.

David Cranmer said...

These insights into your work approach are very helpful for us plugging away farther behind on the trail.

James Reasoner said...

I got sidetracked by the Adult Western question, but Brian makes an important point. I believe in saving everything, because you never know when you might be able to make use of it. Of the ten pages in the chapter that I was talking about, I'll probably salvage eight of them, and the information that's in the other two will still make it into the book, just in a somewhat different form.

Here's a story I like to tell which some of you have probably heard before. Some years ago, an editor at the book packaging company I worked for called me about noon on a Friday (this was in the days before email) and needed plots for three books in a proposed new Western series by Monday. Being a freelance writer, I told him sure, I could do that. However, I had to go run some errands that afternoon, so I asked Livia to think about possible plots while I was gone. I came back two hours later and she handed me some sheets of paper, saying, "Here are six plots, take your pick."

The Western series didn't sell. But I adapted all six of those plots to other series over the years and wound up using every one of them.

There are two morals to this story: marry somebody who's a great plotter, and don't throw anything away.

Your mileage may vary, of course.

Cap'n Bob Napier said...

Great post, James. I love to read about how writers work and think.
As for the adult westerns, I enjoy them. They usually have solid, straight-ahead stories and you can read one quickly.

Laurie said...

As far as your two last suggestions, I've learned to not throw anything away. I'm still working on finding someone who's a great plotter. I could use one of those.

what a great post. Full of useful information for us like David says, further behind on the trail.

Juri said...

I love the Livia anecdote, James! You certainly couldn't have married better!

Mark Terry said...

Two comments, or rather one comment and one blah-blah-blah. Not only is everyone's method different, but it may change. I'm still not an outliner, although I often need to toward the end of a novel to make sure all the strings are tied up, but my method has changed some in the last 10 or 15 years. It's a little less rigid in some ways--I'm not quite as tied to manuscripts as I used to be and I haven't been reading my manuscripts aloud lately, although I may start again, but at the same time, I seem more likely to have to go back and insert scenes and situations than I used to.

The other thing is example. I wrote a great scene for a novel that fell apart. Then I tried it with another novel, that didn't work out. Then I tried it again a couple years later and it became the first chapter in The Devil's Pitchfork, my first Derek Stillwater novel.

And I'm currently working on a novel whose first chapter I've tried doing several times with various characters and this time I think it's going to fly.

James Reasoner said...

Mark,
You mention reading your manuscripts aloud. I know Robert E. Howard was famous for doing this (or infamous, according to his neighbors). But for some reason I've never done it, except for maybe a stray sentence here and there that doesn't seem right to me. I can see where it would help in establishing the proper rhythm of sentences and paragraphs. I may give a try more often when I'm struggling to identify problem areas.

Charles Gramlich said...

I always like to hear how other writers approach things. I do see we all have our own approaches, but there's good opportunities for learning everywhere. I think you've given very good advice here. Especially when you tend to write a little more in the "pantser" style, your unconscious learns to recognize where things aren't working and it's good to head it. I'm that kind of writer myself.

Richard Robinson said...

Fascinating - the post, the comments and replies. Thank you, James!

Chap O'Keefe said...

Every word a gem. A post and debate that should be available permanently for reference.

Brian Drake said...

James,
I agree on the plots. Your Longarm book grabbed me on page one, so I can skip the dirty parts and keep going with the action. :)

Chap O'Keefe said...

Brian, A sex scene properly used in the context of a good story doesn't have to be a "dirty part". Skipping it should ruin your total understanding and enjoyment. While I'm taking a second bite at the comments here, it might be worth mentioning a kind of round-the-campfire debate between four of the Black Horse Western novelists in the June 2008 edition of Black Horse Extra (www.blackhorsewesterns.com). A good range of views and, being true pros, no one trying to present his "formula" as the only way!

James Reasoner said...

I've been known to introduce some important plot points during a sex scene, but not often. I try not to do it anymore because a number of readers have told me that they skim through the sex scenes and I feel like it's cheating a little to try to slip something past them that way. Sometimes it's hard to avoid, though. And the sex scenes often do have a bearing on the characterization of the female characters. Not so much for the heroes, because their characters are already so well established by thirty years' worth of novels.

For about a year, the Longarms cut back drastically on the sex scenes. This was around #100, several years before I joined the series. But sales dropped off quite a bit, and the sex scenes went back in. The general rule now is two sex scenes per book, minimum, and I seldom exceed three.

Christopher said...

James, thanks for sharing! I read David Morrell's book on writing and he seems leery of outlines, too. My first two novels I wrote without outlines, and I had a mess to clean up later with lots of rewriting. Of course, some of that (a lot of that) probably comes down to inexperience on my part. I outlined my two latest novels, and found the writing to go much smoother for me. With one book, I followed my original outline to the T with only minor changes. With this latest one, I've rewritten or changed the outline five times since I started, but the writing has still gone much quicker than when I didn't use an outline. So, having gone both routes, I find that outlining works best for me now.

Frank Loose said...

Great post, James. And all the reader comments were quite interesting to read as well. Re "to outline or not to outline," Harry Whittington wrote a terrific "look back" at his career and his approach to writing that was included as an introduction to each of his books that Black Lizard re-published back in the 80s. I think it is quite insightful and well worth checking out by anyone on the writing trail, as David put it. Whittington's been called the "king of the paperback pioneers" for good reason.

James Reasoner said...

Frank,
I've read that Whittington piece and agree that it's excellent. It would be worth it for writers to search out those Black Lizard reprints just for the intro, but of course, they'd get some great suspense novels at the same time!