One of the ways I teach myself writing is by learning others’ methods and seeing which of their techniques work for me. All writers are different; carbon copying one writer’s methods is not going to work for you—or it might, as all writers are different. I recommend Your Creative Writing Masterclass by Jurgen Wolff. The book covers the habits of many great writers; I found it far more useful than most ‘how to write’ books by creative writing teachers. Wolff is no slouch either; he has written for film and television.
Another resource I recommend is the Paris Review interview archive. I specifically like the Ernest Hemingway, William Gibson, and L.F. Celine interviews for their candidness. All of them I’ve read, though, I’ve learned something about the craft of writing.
When I started writing longer form pieces in middle school, I wrote mostly space operas and high fantasy. I often designed the setting from the top down and then wrote the “novel.” I never finished these. However, as I progressed to the point where I could finally write and complete long form material, my method has become a little more concrete.Once I have a concept for a book, I start writing character sketches for the main character and maybe the secondary characters. Here I try to sketch out the character’s habits, his behavior, etc. These stories are very often fragmentary or have no real plot. If the character works, I start on the first chapter. I put these in
small Moleskin notebooks (so as to look pretentious as possible when writing in a Starbucks). This way, people know I’m a real, serious writer.
Next I develop a mental outline. I have a very rough idea of where I want the character to be at the end of the book as a person. The fine details of the story come along as I write; I prefer to focus on the characters’ development. I have also started to write synopses to plan out books. So far, I’ve used them in the same capacity as sketches to get an idea of where I want to take the story.
I write the first draft of the book longhand. I have a tendency to write ‘thin’ on the first run-through, but I don’t worry about it as I’m going along. At this stage, I’m just trying to get the basic story and plot down. For me, writing longhand helps me know the story better. It seems like I get a better intuitive connection with the characters and novel when I write longhand. I write the first draft in larger notebooks.
The next draft of the story is the transcription and the creative rewrites; trying to edit out plot holes, adding in description, and clarifying scenes, among other things. I must confess this is very time consuming; I have experimented going straight into typing. It took me about two months to transcribe Phoenix Operator, but I think the length of time was due to my work ethic and working environment rather than the method itself. I’m still not clear on this. Time and practice will.
Once I’ve added in and done other rewrites, I do a final ‘draft.’ I usually print this one out or hand it to someone else. When I print out the typed manuscript, for some reason, I look at my work more critically. No matter how I do this last draft, either by doing it myself or giving it to a friend or relative. I placed draft in quotes because at this point the book is essentially finished. I’m only looking for glaring typos or syntax errors in this stage. I figure if the overall product is poor, then it’s poor; no amount of ‘polishing’ is going to save the story.
This has been my system for about four years now. I have changed over time, but I use this system generally for now. Writing is a learning process no one can ever truly master; Hemingway’s Nobel Prize speech touches on this. I will continue to learn and I hope you do as well.