Saturday, April 20, 2013

Writing like Ken Ken - The iterative process.

So I finally finished my first novel, Avarice's Hoard, and originally set out to write a single blog post about all the things I learned in the process. That turned out to be as insurmountable a task as writing the book in one a single attempt. So I am going to share the things I have learned in much smaller bits and pieces over the next few months.

At one point in the writing process I was laid up with bronchitis.  (Not something I would wish on my worst enemy ... OK maybe I would, but that is beside the point.) Between coughs, I worked on completing an ancient KenKen calendar with a puzzle for each day.  (If you don't know what KenKen is, it is very similar to sudoku but with mathmatical operators determining the blocks.  You can see examples at

So now you ask, "What does that have to do with the writing process." Everything. The key to creating a good story isn't just typing up a good story. The key is iterative revision just like solving KenKen. At first you have an idea of how things are going to fit together. You even know the contents of large blocks of the puzzle even if you don't know exactly how the contents fit together. So you start with what you absolutely know and solve those small bits. This sheds new light on other parts of the puzzle until finally the puzzle is solved. You can't solve the puzzle all at once, trying to do so is crazy making, just like trying to sit down and hash out a story in one sitting.  Unless your plot is as thin as a super model and your characters as shallow as the tabloids that cover those same models, it is going to take some time and more than one iteration to finish a story.

As an example here are some of the iterations I went through with Avarice's Hoard, all of them AFTER the initial version of the book was complete.
  • Plot Revisions - They say that people fall in love with books for one of four reasons: the characters, the plot, the setting, or the prose. For me the most important aspects are plot and characters. Once I finished the initial draft I went back through the story focusing on what the characters not in the scene were doing. I had to know what the antagonist was doing every moment even though I didn't include it in the story. Thinking about that revealed minor problems with the timeline that completely changed the conversations the main character had in school. And of course revising one part of a book has a ripple effect on every other part of the book.
  • Character Consistency - After fixing the plot issues I went back through the book to make sure the behavior of my characters was consistent. One of the secondary characters in Avarice's Hoard provides the comic relief and loves to annoy everyone with little quips. I discovered that there were sections of my initial draft where I focused on the drama of the situation and completely left out his comments. Revisions that added his insights and mischievousness not only changed the dynamics of those scenes but the ripple effect required yet additional changes to the plot timeline. In some cases the changes do not require such major revisions. For example, another character does not use contractions and there were places where I mistakenly included them just because they come so naturally to me.
  • Scene setting - I'm not big on extended descriptions of the scene like Tolkien but I wanted the setting to feel like a character in the book. Harry Potter, The da Vinci Code, Ender's Game all have a unique setting that draws you into the story and I wanted to include that in my story.  Avarice's Hoard  is set in New York, where I lived and worked for nineteen years. I discovered that my descriptions sometimes lacked the detail required for someone who is not as familiar with New York. So I had find a way to revise the book to include enough descriptions without breaking the flow of the book.
  • Eliminate weak verbs. Verbs are where the action is. The top mistake I see from my fellow aspiring authors is the use of week verbs. My book is written in the first person past tense. When I went hunting for weak verbs I found sentences like "I saw her scowl at him." Why did I write that? I have no idea. It takes a perfectly nice verb like scowl and hides it in the adverbial clause. The reader already knows the main character saw her scowl. That sentence should be "She scowled at him." The other common mistake I made was writing something like "Joe was standing by the door" as opposed to "Joe stood by the door." The second is much stronger. Taking a thesaurus to your verbs is like taking your body to the gym; hard works reduces the mush and creates strength.
  • Eliminate repetitive sentence structures. If all the sentences in piece are the same length and have the same structure the reader's head will exploded (I bet we could find a grad student somewhere to prove that scientifically). I discovered that I overused dialog tags with dependent clauses. It is not necessarily wrong to write something like - "Let's go," she said, heading for the stairs. - but trust me if you have 5 sentence like that on one page your ear drums will pop from the pressure building your head. Only slightly less annoying is a paragraph where every sentence starts with "I ..." Finally, sentence length matters. If you are in an action sequence you need to use short, punchy sentences. When things are moving slowly the sentences should be longer and cover more story time in each sentence. I'm not a big fan of effusive prose (I believe most books renowned for their prose are only used to torment students). But if you don't get your structure right it detracts from the story.
OK now that I have completely bored you with the revisions I have to go through when trying to finish a book let me remind you that this is all done before I subjected my victims beta-readers to the story. Once I got their feedback there were changes I had to make and all the above iterations were required again. Just like with KenKen. It doesn't matter how many times you have looked at one box, when you find the answer to part of you puzzle you have to make sure it fits with the rest of it. Over and over and over again.

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