Writing the Good Parts First

Yesterday was outline work on And/News. Specifically, I was making notes on the scene that occupies the end of the third-from-the-last chapter, a quiet moment between Richard and K as they realize they could be killed by doing what they plan to do the next day. The way the scene plays out came to me during the shower/toothbrushing/commute routine, and it wasn’t something I wanted to lose. So I got it down before I forgot.

(I should note here that when it comes to the final book, this scene might not end up where I say it will be. Some of the notes I have for a single chapter have spun out into two. This scene takes place before the chapter that contains The Big Confrontation. There’s one more chapter after that to tie everything up and do some important things for the surviving people involved. It could keep growing, expanding, but I’m determined to keep the ending tight.)

This might sound like I’m “writing the good parts first” (I have commented on the evils of this particular practice before), but I promise I’m not. I’ve developed a form of shorthand for my notes that hold key events and lines in a scene, which is usually enough to trigger the memory of what I want to say and accomplish.

While I’m touching on a practice I consider counter-productive, I want to stress that though I may warn against doing it, I don’t believe in imposing my way of working on other writers. A lot of people couldn’t work the way I work, and I couldn’t work the way a lot of other writers work.

I once met Lois McMaster Bujold, the single nicest, sweetest person I have ever met in the world of Science Fiction (remind me to tell you my great story about her sometime). We were talking about how we worked, and I mentioned that when I wrote, it was basically a race to put everything onto paper before I forgot what I wanted to say, followed by an extensive editing process. Poor Lois looked aghast. “I could never write a book that way!” I got the impression that she, like Lawrence Block, worked on each page until it was perfect and then moved on to the next. But I could be wrong.

It’s important for a writer to find the method that works best for them and run with it. I spent too many of my early years reading articles in Writer’s Digest by authors who claimed they had “the way to write a novel” and despairing that I would never be a novelist because I couldn’t see myself working their way. It was only when I had a novel that wanted to come out that I put all that aside, consciously saying, “I don’t care if I’m not a real writer. I’m going to write a book, and I’m going to do it my way.”

Shortly after that I discovered Writing the Novel: From Plot to Print by the aforementioned Lawrence Block. Inside were the magic words that set me free from the guilt I felt over the way I was writing: “There is no right way to write a novel. The right way to write a novel is the one that works for you.”

Actually, my way of working has changed over the years. Most of it came about after I became a published novelist, after seeing what kind of feedback I was getting from editors. For example, I learned to “pre-edit” myself, my term for not writing a scene that I knew would be cut later. As late as The Company Man, I found myself writing things and saying to myself, “This is going to get cut later, but I need to write it now because I need it to tell the story.” I don’t do that anymore. If I know I’m going to cut something, I don’t write it. I save a lot of time that way.

That said, don’t write the good stuff first unless you need to write the good stuff first. Outline first unless you don’t need/want to outline. Make each page perfect first unless you want to get it all down on paper first and then, as they say in the ad biz, “fix it in post.” Be rigid yet flexible. It’s your book and you’re the only one capable of writing it. Your job is to figure out how.

NP – iTSP (BeBop DeLuxe, “Down On Terminal Street”)

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