I am thrilled to welcome the incredibly talented Karen Traviss to damppebbles today.
There is so much about Karen’s work that I want to tell you, but I don’t think I can do her or it justice. So I’ll kick off by saying Karen Traviss is a #1 New York Times bestselling author and you should visit her website to see what she has achieved. It’s pretty amazing and you may recognise one or two brands along the way.
Karen is currently writing a techno thriller series. The first of which, Going Grey (Ringer Book 1), was published in June 2014. Book two in the series, Black Run, will be available to buy on Kindle from 16th December 2016 for £4.99. To whet your appetite here’s a sneak peak at the cover and blurb:
“You make a few enemies in the security business, as former Royal Marine Rob Rennie has discovered. He’s made a few more since helping his buddy Mike to shelter Ian, a teenager with a unique talent for disguise. Ian’s the subject of an illegal experiment: a biotech company is pulling out all the stops to get him back. But Rob’s loyalty to Mike could now cost him his life. An unexpected enemy from the past is hunting down Rob and his son, and Ian and Mike have to make tough choices that could tear both their families apart. The past doesn’t forgive. The past doesn’t forget. And now it knows where to find you.”
Karen has written a fascinating piece about the nuts and bolts of writing which I LOVE! I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
Rules of writing; set in sand, not concrete.
There are any number of how-to books and writing courses designed to teach people how to write a novel, but as you’ve probably discovered if you’ve chatted with writers about the nuts and bolts of their working day, a single definitive method doesn’t exist. I knew that before I started writing fiction, but there was one thing I wasn’t fully prepared for even years later – that even an individual method can suddenly desert you for no immediately obvious reason.
In the end, simply switching off a light put me back on track when a book was proving to be a major struggle. And it made me realise just how fragile a balancing act of awareness writing can be, and how dependent it is on small rituals that can look completely barmy to outsiders.
There’s only one technique that every writer I know consistently employs, and that’s finishing the manuscript in front of them. It might sound glib, but, as an editor told me years ago, the vast majority of people who start writing a book never finish it. Sticking with a novel is a skill in itself.
For some writers, writing really does seem to be a case of sitting down and just letting a subconscious process unfold without questioning it. For others – myself included – it’s something they analyse to a greater or lesser degree, and for some – yes, this is definitely me – it’s something they want to dissect completely in order to find what delivers consistent results every time. Much of that isn’t about art or anything high-minded but about a minute-by-minute working process.
As with many jobs, one method doesn’t fit all when it comes to getting the work done, no matter how similar the product looks from the outside. Techniques and methodologies vary, from the different ways we gather information to stylistic elements like how we handle point-of-view, and inevitably that depends on the way an individual’s brain is wired.
If you consider how complex the task of writing fiction actually is – creating a consistent, populated universe in your mind, complete with causality – then you can see how many variables we’re dealing with. Some people plan every detail, others write from a single image in their head that opens a door as they go, and there’s every permutation in between. I came into fiction as a meticulous planner, but I discovered almost immediately that I needed to fly blind to keep a story fresh. I’d come from a journalism background, so the method I was used to was one of exploration, of approaching a topic that I often knew nothing about and letting those who did understand it explain what was happening. I didn’t make assumptions about what would happen.
So that became my method and my style. My fiction was reportage. It let the characters talk, and I stayed out of it, just asking them questions. That proved to be what I enjoyed most, exploring the unknown territory of another person’s mind. All I had to do was create the people who would have existed if the world had been real. My primary technique became the construction of three-dimensional characters before I started writing and understanding them so well that I knew how they thought and how they’d behave in any situation. It was, in a way, a formula much more like computer modelling or games: I knew the characters, and all I had to do was put them in an environment I’d designed and see what they did and how they interacted with each other. That became the plot.
Every writer needs to find their voice when they begin, but mine turned out to be many different voices in the form of multiple, very tight third person point-of-view. I told the story entirely through the eyes of characters who were nothing like me and who didn’t see events the same way as the other characters in the same story. I even used their language for the narrative, not just their dialogue. I’m not sure how I learned to do it, but I could think like someone else, and, for the duration of the scene, become another person with a world view utterly alien to my own. It was a kind of controlled dissociation. I’ve done this to the extent that the characters’ take on life has made me question my own long-held views on major issues. With that kind of approach, the characters decide the plot. I start out with an idea of where they might go, but as often as not, they go off at a tangent and I follow.
With some novels, I’d write the opening scene, the end, and a couple of key plot pivots, and then infill, sometimes in chronological order, sometimes not. I accepted that I would probably throw out those initial scenes once the characters took over. With other novels – in the same series, and in the same style as far as the reader was concerned – I found I started at the beginning and worked through in a linear way, still letting the characters drive and develop on the page so that the reader got to know them as well as I did.
But just as there’s no single definitive formula for writing a novel that works for every writer, I found that the techniques I settled into stopped serving me, and it took me some time to work out why. It proved to be more than just the normal change of outlook brought about by living life and changing as a person.
I’ve just finished my twenty-sixth novel, and it’s proved far harder than any book I’ve ever written. I was used to going into a writerly purdah, immersing in the manuscript, and finishing it in six to eight weeks, sometimes less, with very little editing. Each novel played out in my head like following the characters around with a TV camera. With the last book, though, it took me two years. Every writer has a pace and length that’s normal for them – again, there’s no such thing as the right time to spend writing or an ideal length – and two years is a good average for many writers. But it was so far out of my normal range that I was worried that I’d somehow ceased to be able to write.
On the surface, I had a rational explanation for what had made such a huge difference to my output. My father had been ill for a long time, I was his sole carer, and inevitably my priorities had to change. But the more I looked at the situation, the more I realised it wasn’t just a case of having different demands on my time. True, I wasn’t able to lock myself away from the world for a few weeks and just plunge into the book. But the biggest barrier was being unable to stay in the characters’ heads for sustained periods even when I was at my desk.
In the past, when I hit a rocky patch in a novel, I always knew it was because I’d started to slip out of the relevant character’s psyche. I’d stopped seeing the world as they saw it, so I wasn’t as sure of what they’d do next. Once I remembered that, I started to what was happening with this marathon of a novel. No matter how hard I tried to focus, part of my brain was constantly on alert, waiting for another crisis in the real world that I’d need to deal with, and that meant I never immersed fully. I was aware that the characters weren’t doing the talking, so I’d start over and rewrite the lot. I’d reached the stage where the complex world I needed to juggle in my head had become too fragmented. I had, in every sense of the phrase, lost the plot.
Interruptions – real or anticipated – had derailed me. I found a piece of workplace research showing that frequent interruptions during complex work not only made employees start over in terms of their mental process, but that each interruption had a cumulative and increasing effect. Staff took longer to recover each time. The odd thing was that I was used to working in noisy, distracting environments; I remember writing one novel while carpenters used power tools a few feet away from me, and yet I was able to shut it all out. I even made a point of having the TV on a news channel while I worked, to recreate the white noise of being in a newsroom.
But this time, I couldn’t ignore the real world around me, and I wasn’t sure how knowing why would help me fix it and sort out the book. I didn’t have writer’s block, and never have, but I was definitely suffering from writer’s repetition.
I tried to minimise distractions. I switched the TV off and worked in silence. I tried to schedule protected times when I wouldn’t be interrupted. But the slightest noise outside jerked me out of writing, and I spent the scheduled writing time with one ear cocked for the phone in case there was a major emergency with my father. It looked like I couldn’t switch off at all.
In the end, the solution owed more to chance than insight. When I switched off the light one night, the story came back to me in a sudden rush with all the things the characters would do next. Working in complete darkness wasn’t a practical solution because writing via voice recognition never worked well for me, but with some experimentation I worked out that it wasn’t the light level, noise, or time of day that made the difference.
It was the absence of visual stimuli.
I drew the blinds, made sure there was absolutely nothing in my eyeline or peripheral vision that wasn’t directly connected to the book – especially anything that moved – and things fell back into place. I still haven’t worked out the exact mechanism in my brain, but there’s something specific about visual distractions under stress that stop me in my tracks.
When I start my twenty-seventh novel, I’ll be prepared for yet another change of technique, depending on what’s happening in the real world. The bedrock of my writing is still building characters and letting them dictate what happens. But as for the rest of the rules, they’re set in sand, not concrete.
What a fantastic post – thank you, Karen. It’s so interesting for us readers to see how writers create their stories, and the different approaches taken. I had assumed that once you had ‘your technique’, that was it! It hadn’t crossed my mind that what worked for one book, may not work for the next.
Karen has very kindly offered a free Audible code to one lucky reader. The code will enable you to download her first techno thriller, Going Grey, free of charge. To enter the competition please click the link below and good luck everyone:
Terms and Conditions: One winner will be chosen at random. You will need to send me your email address so I can forward the code and instructions on how to download the audiobook to your Audible account. There are no alternatives. The competition closes at midnight on Friday 4th November 2016.
New York Times best-selling novelist, games writer and comics author Karen Traviss is the author of techno-thriller GOING GREY, the first in the Ringer series. The sequel, BLACK RUN, will be published later this year – sign up for a newsletter via Karen’s website to be notified when other formats go on sale.