Six impossible things

From the mailbag, #2

Where do you start when you write a story? With characters, setting, conflict…?

It depends on the story. Sometimes, it starts with characters; sometimes, with setting; sometimes, with plot; sometimes with a situation or an idea; sometimes with a theme… It really doesn’t matter where the story starts, as long as it has all the crucial bits in it when it’s finished. I’ve started stories from an idea for a character, from a mental image that I wanted to explain, from a situation that I wanted to explain, from a title I wanted a story for, from a plot description, from playing a game… Even for the same author (me), stories don’t all start in the same place, and different authors really don’t all work the same.

Do you hand write and then word process? Or just word process?

I’ve been touch-typing since I was sixteen; I type MUCH faster than I hand-write, and with about the same facility (by which I mean, I don’t think about what my fingers are doing when I type, any more than I think about how to shape the letters when I hand-write — I just think what I want to say and write/type it). So I prefer to type straight into the computer (or laptop) when I can. If I can’t for some reason, then I’ll hand-write.

Were you good in your English classes in high school?

I was pretty good — not top of the class, but I was still in Honors English, and I took a class in journalism for one quarter. I never took any English classes after high school, which I sometimes regret…although I really don’t know which college classes I would have chosen not to take, in order to replace them with English. I figured that college was my chance to find out all sorts of things that I’d never had a chance to learn before, so for my “English, history, and art” distribution requirement, I took things like “Art of the Far East” and “History of India” and “Medieval French Society.” I figured that I’d probably read plenty enough English on my own … and I did, though perhaps not quite as many “classics” as the college professors might have liked.

Do you always choose an audience before beginning to write?

Never. Unless you want to say that the audience is me. I write books I would like to read; fortunately, I have broad enough tastes that a lot of other people turn out to like the same sorts of things I like, so I can sell what I write and make a living at it. But the only time I ever worried about “the audience” at all was when I was writing the Star Wars middle-school novelizations, and that was only because I was a little worried about whether my editor would make me simplify the vocabulary because of the grade level (he didn’t).

If I wrote Easy Readers or chapter books, which are aimed at people who are just learning how to read, then I would have to think about the audience a bit before I sat down to write, because those types of books frequently have specific limitations in vocabulary and/or sentence structure. But for any other type of book – and here I’m including all genres and age-ranges, from middle-school on up to adult fiction – my philosophy is, write it first and then try to figure out who it’s going to sell to.  Because for me (and many, many of the other writers I know), worrying about “the audience” while writing is vastly counter-productive – not only does it slow down the writing process, it frequently ends up messing up the story because the writer starts second-guessing his/her ideas.

  1. I especially like your comment about writing for you. As much as I want to be published, I do all my writing for me and I enjoy rereading my fiction as much as rereading my favourite published authors.

    • Alex – In the past 30 years or so, I’ve watched a lot of people break in to professional publishing, and all of the ones I know personally have done it by NOT paying attention to some hypothetical audience. I understand that there are writers who have done it this way (nothing in writing seems to be 100%, works-for-everyone), but I don’t actually know any of them.

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