How Writers Write is monthly series of guest posts where established writers invite you into their workspaces, reveal their work habits and share their experience.
I was delighted when Alma Alexander got in touch and asked to be part of How Writers Write. Read on to see why…
What do you use to write?
I began with a pencil and a hardcover notebook. In fact my oldest surviving novel dates back to when I was 14 years of age… writen in pencil… in FOUR consecutive hardcover notebooks… over 200,000 words’ worth of story. And it’s a decent story. Someday I might go back and pick its bones clean of the fluff put there by the inexperienced 14-year-old and put it back together as something that a now-seasoned professional wouldn’t be ashamed to put one’s name to. But those days… are long gone. Once I discovered a keyboard and a screen… there was no looking back. I can type faster than I write, I can type as fast as I think, and that is gold. I have a basic desktop computer which is God Central and holds all my material – but I have a laptop I take on outings and it has seen some memorable prose being pounded out on its keys.
Planning stages… well… that could be interesting. I have notebooks full of scribbled notes I take when reading research books (when the novel in progress warrants such research), I have scraps of paper which I scribbled stuff on when it occurred to me in the middle of having dinner out somewhere, for instance, and which needed putting down on something immediately before good ideas got forgotten. I’ve even nutted out the basics of a book while driving with my husband as a sounding board in the passenger seat (and used HIM as a memory aid). In this context, anything goes, really. And yes, in defiance of everyone who swears it’s stupid or “difficult”, I’ve used Word for YEARS. I’m sure Scrivener is everything some people say it is but my mind rebels against that kind of thing, it has its own boxes and pigeonholes and doesn’t like being shoehorned into those somebody else designed. My mind is my best planning tool. I have an eclectic and often eidetic memory and this is where stories get planned and pre-written. Most people write a terrible first draft – with me, that stays inside me, mostly, and what I first put down on the page is literally draft #2 at least. And I very rarely have to do major overhauls. My subconscious seems to know what it is doing.
When do you write?
There are days I can do ten hours at a stretch, when something is in the middle of exploding and I cannot let go until the dust settles. There are times that days will go by without my having put down a word of the actual story in progress – but that doesn’t mean that I am not working on it on the down-low, inside my head. There are times that I am on a research reading kick and I don’t WRITE, but every word of everything I read in support of the story is being sorted and catalogued by that weird inner computer that I have in my brain. But on the whole the answer to that question is WHENEVER IT IS NECESSARY and the explanation of that statement is simply IT IS NECESSARY ALL THE TIME. So whatever I am actually doing in any given moment… I am probably, on some level, writing.
Where do you write?
I can write anywhere, really – and I have. I’ve written on planes and trains, in hotel lobbies, in quiet corners of other people’s houses, in the kitchen at parties, in restaurants waiting for meals, with a notebook on the back of a purring cat. Words come, and don’t ask where I am when they get there…
How do you write?
I’ve been on a lot of convention panels which discuss the “pantser vs outliner” question – and all I can say, again, like I’ve said many times on those panels, that I cannot outline anything and then still want to write it when I’m done. My back brain sees a detailed outline and goes, oh, you’ve written that story now, go on to something new. No, I am a true “pantser” in that I tend to find out what happens next in my story… by WRITING IT. Even when I am forced into a synopsis – like when one of my YA series got sold on a sample chapter and a sales synopsis – the books that finally emerged at the end of it all had very very little to do with the sales synopsis I originally submitted. I rebel against being boxed in, in any way at all, and I need to follow the wind when it changes if my story is to have any kind of life to it at all. I dream on the fly. And yet, somehow, it all comes together in the end. It’s like I let loose a cloud of butterflies, and they scatter every which way, but in the end they will settle in their proper place and I will be able to follow my story to where it needs to go, butterfly by butterfly.
Questions of style
I am an instinctive writer, and I am the kind of writer who all too often writes by taking dictation from my characters, so stylistic choices are not something I pre-plan. If I start a story in the “wrong” voice, I”ll soon know it, and it’ll go back to the drawing board for a proper perspective. I don’t really enjoy present tense narrative all that much – I can see where it might be useful but very few people can get away with using it effectively, and for most of the rest it’s just a mess. So I tend to stick in past tense. Voice, though first or third or omniscient POV – that is decided on a book by book basis, and I don’t set out to do any book a certain way. if it needs to be told in first person, it will be. If not, it won’t. I’ll find out when I start writing. In terms of writing style, I’ve been reliably informed that I will never be a Hemingway – that my style is lush and poetic and rich and complex and also that I must have swallowed a dictionary when I was five years old. What can I say? I am in love with language and it shows…
When the first draft is done
I’ve often said that what I love about writing is the WRITING, not the (admittedly essential) rewriting and editing and polishing that comes after. The original act of writing is what makes it alive for me, the creation of the faw story; that is the joy, that is the dream. Everything else, it’s, well, WORK. My first hard-copy draft is read by my husband, an editor with many years of experience under his belt, and the first really “finished” draft is born after I go through the thing that he has read and incorporated his edits and suggestions. Then it goes out to at least one trusted beta reader who hasn’t seen the story before and cold-reads it for context and for flow and for continuity. Only then does it go out to a professional (editor, agent, what have you). But, like I said, my Draft #1 is really Draft #3, because I fiddle and self-edit in my head before I write, and it’s usually pretty clean. “Secrets of Jin Shei” needed ONE pass on the original MS before it went out to the agent, and sold. And that book was written at white heat, 200,000 words in less than 3 months. Letting go… well, it’s a little like taking your child to the first day of school and releasing that clinging little hand and gently pushing this precious thing you’ve created out there into the world, to find new friends, to grow, to live its life. And yes, it’s JUST as hard to let go as you would expect. And you never quite stop worrying about it, afterwards. Whether it’s being bullied, or whether it’s getting enough sleep…
Lastly, self promotion:
I’ve always got several projects on the boil, but currently I am in full research mode in what is going to be a GLORIOUSLY American fantasy – involving the building of the transcontinental railroad across the continent, the carnie culture, the goldrush(es)… and the fae. I’m hip-deep in history and anecdote and piles of pictorial evidence. It’s going to take a while. But I have hopes that this thing will be magnificent if I can put together on paper what I am seeing in my mind. Over and above that, I”m working on a short story collection, and possibly the next three books in my on-going Were Chronicles (starting where “Shifter”, the third book in the current Chronicles set which is due out in November, leaves off). Over and above THAT, there’s this other historical fantasy that I’m thinking about…
There’s always something going on.
I’m a novelist and a short story writer and an anthologist; I mostly walk in worlds of fantasy but I recently branched into two unexpected directions at once – humor AND science fiction – and produced this thing called “AbductiCon”, a novel of fandom and a love letter to that world, to the con circuit and the family that I have accumulated there. I took the recently-released book to Worldcon in Spokane in August of 2015 and it got every bit of a delighted reception that I hoped for – people recognise this thing, and their eyes light up when they pick it up. I couldn’t be more pleased.
Look for more about me and my stories on my website (www.AlmaAlexander.org) where you can also find more information on where else on the Web you can find me (Facebook, Twitter, all that jazz). You can also subscribe to my blog, and/or to my peripatetic newsletter, if you so choose. Hope to see you there!