In the last few months, I’ve become fully immersed in what I would call a writer’s life. When I’m not working on my day job or sleeping, I am a writer. I spend about about 12 hours a week listening to podcasts about self-publishing and story structure (on my commute and while I walk the dogs). For another 12 hours a week, I write blog posts, create content for my website and make progress on my two novels. I’ve decided to start a new habit. Every month, I will write a blog post about what I’m learning and how I am moving toward my ultimate goal of becoming a published fiction author.
Over the past year, I’ve heard time and time again: Write first, edit later. And each time, I heard this line from authors, I completely ignored it. I didn’t think it applied to me. I thought to myself, I need to edit in order to write. It’s how I get warmed up. It’s my process. It’s how I’ve always worked. And I’ve had success this way. Though I’ve yet to publish a fiction work, I’m already a published author. In 2010, after much blood, sweat and tears, I completed my piece de resistance, a 500+ page Ph.D. dissertation on nuclear weapons proliferation. BOOM! And I wrote it and edited it simultaneously. It was my process. And it worked. Take that, edit later people.
So, when I embarked on my big novel edit this summer, I thought was doing something useful. I thought I was doing something necessary. And oh boy, was I wrong. You see I was not finished with the first draft. I was about 3/4 finished and stopped just before the climax to edit the first 80,000 words. I felt in my gut that something wasn’t working. I just needed to go back and fix it first. Then I could move on. I’m not procrastinating, I told myself. I’m editing! And editing is hard work. This is not resistance, this is my process. It has worked for me in the past.
Fiction is not non-fiction. It is an inherently different process. The write, edit, write, edit process worked well for me while I was writing my dissertation because I was able to aborb the concepts deeply. And each edit was refined, more nuanced and reflected my learning process. But writing fiction is not about learning, it’s about creating. And though we learn to write better as we engaging in the task of writing, we don’t learn anything more about a subject matter when we go back and edit what we wrote. Rather, we spin our wheels and fail to fix what was wrong with the story in the first place. Why? Because we’re not finished yet, and we don’t know where our creative process will take us for certain until we write the last word. Only then, does it make sense to examine the story as a whole and figure out what is not working.
In August, I had a revelation about my novel The Nuclear Conspiracy. It began with a new habit of listening to podcasts while I am otherwise occupied with mundane tasks. A friend recommended that I start listening to The Creative Penn hosted by Joanna Penn, a British bestselling thriller author. Her blog focuses primarily on self-publishing and how build a business around writing, but occasionally she interviews an author about story structure. I began binge-listening to her podcast on my daily commute and dog walks, and soon my head began to explode with new knowledge and information. About a week into listening to back episodes, I listened to Joanna’s interview with Shawn Coyne, the author of The Story Grid and an editor with over 25 years of experience.
In the episode, Shawn explains how to put his story grid on your story, like taking an x-ray of your bones, and to figure out why it works or doesn’t work. At last, I had found an analytical process that would help me break things down. As I began to think about how my story fit into that structure, I realized that there were issues with my story that had not even come up in my summer-long edit. I edited my story, 80,000 words of it, when I didn’t really understand what was wrong with it. And not only did I fail to fix what was wrong with it, I probably added some more problems. Thank goodness for Joanna and Shawn. Otherwise, I might have been spinning my wheels for many more months, or maybe even years.
I also learned that I’m 100% a pantser and not at all a plotter. When I first heard these terms, I was like huh? To me, a pantser sounds like a Panzer (German word for tank or armoured vehicle). Of course, that resonated with me immediately. I’d rather be a tank than an evil plotter person. In the writing world, pantsers are people who fly by the seat of their pants, meaning they do not plan what they are going to write or outline a story before getting started. Plotters love outlining. They plan what they are going to write before they start writing.
Write an outline. This is another thing i’ve been told over and over again. And it never seems to work for me. When I started The Nuclear Conspiracy, I had ideas about a few characters and had a single scene in my head–Morgan’s river scene. Guess what? The river scene doesn’t happen until more than halfway through. I began writing my novel thinking that Jack Shaw (Morgan’s uncle) would be her antagonist. But around 15,000 words, I added a new family of characters. And my true evil villain took up residence in the story. When I reached 70,000 words, I came up with the jaw-dropping shocker of the story (I can’t tell you here). I was not able to anticipate any of this. I’m definitely a pantser.
The past few months have been a blur. I’ve made great progress on both novels. A few weeks ago, The Nuclear Conspiracy passed the 100K threshold and is currently at 104,611 words. I have about another 20K to go before I’m done. I’ve written three scenes (6,641 words) of The Bionic Bug, my crowdsourced mystery/crime thriller. My readers are making very interesting choices about what action private detective Lara Kingsley should take next. I love the interaction with readers and am enjoying creating for them in real-time.
I’ve produced two new series: a Technical Series on WMD and a Series on Film and WMD. All together, I’ve published three issues so far and am trying to do at least one issue per month. Next up, will be a techincal primer on weapons-usable material. You can subscribe to these series or join my Facebook Group.
I’ve invested in some new tools. I just bought a Yeti microphone to work on my audio projects. In 2017, I am hoping to launch a podcast. In the meantime, I am using it to develop my first online course with Thinkific online course platform and Screenflow, a software that allows you to record your screen. I’m planing to upload all the resources for the Game of Interdiction, a board game I developed to teach about border security and interdiction. I’m putting together a module to teach professors how to plan the game to make it easier for them to integrate into their class.
Finally, I just purchased Filmora, a user-friendly software for editing video. I need to create a video to promote The Nuclear Conspiracy for my upcoming crowdfunding campaign. Since I’m short on funds and contacts in the multimedia world, I’ll be learning to make my own video. You might soon find me traipsing about town getting video footage and trying not to get arrested for taking shots of the Pentagon.
The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.