It’s certainly no secret that I’ve already completed a shitbrick of work this year. I’m currently finishing up another pass on my draft of The Stars are Legion, which needs to be Advanced-Reader-Copy-Ready in ooooohhh, about thirteen days (not that I’m counting). I’ve also completed two short stories for Patreon readers, one weighing in at nearly 25k and another logging a respectable 12k. Additionally, I committed to finishing up an anthology story which I’m completing this week, and oh, did I mention that the third Worldbreaker book, The Broken Heavens, is due in October?
People often ask how I’m able to do all that work on top of having a day job, and the answer is, most days, I just don’t know. But one thing I have learned in the last three months is that I have a lot easier time completing a draft that has me stuck in the mucky middle if I just skip ahead and write the ending.
I tend to spend a lot of time on the openings of my novels and stories, and it shows. My latest short story for Patreon, “The Plague Givers,” is a good example of this. There’s a very polished beginning, as far as the prose goes, and then it veers off into simplier language for much of the middle, and returns a bit toward the end to the more polished language. I will most likely go back and polish out the other half of the story before finding a home for it elsewhere, but watching how I completed that story reminded me of how I’ve hacked my process the last few months to try and get work out the door just a little faster.
I’m a discovery writer, which means I like to be surprised by events that happen in a book just as a reader would be. That means that though I may write with a few sentences about things that should happen in a scene, I don’t feel bound by it. If the characters veer off course, then I follow and see where they’ll lead. The trouble is when those small character choices begin to compound over time. As GRRM says of the small changes made in the television version of GoT, those little changes start to snowball, until you find yourself in a far difference place than the one you were planning on.
One of things I knew I’d need to soften up on if I wanted to write faster was some of the discovery writing. I wrote “The Plague Givers” with a fairly comprehensive outline, bits of which I rewrote or deleted as I went, but it helped keep me on track as I wrote hard up to the Patreon payment date cut-off time (I had 90 minutes to spare!). Most importantly, though, once I wrote the end I knew where I was headed. I knew all the character interactions needed to lead me to this place. And though I later went back and tweaked the ending to match choices I’d made earlier, it was a much smoother, faster writing process than it had been before I wrote the ending.
I did the same thing with “The Heart is Eaten Last” and The Stars are Legion, writing the endings about the time I hit the middle and started to flounder. By the time I get halfway on most any piece, I get tired of it and am convinced it’s the worst thing I’ve ever written. To get myself out of that mindset, I skip ahead to the part I write where I generally believe I’m brilliant, and that’s the ending.
And yes, I continue to refine and rework the endings after I complete the whole story, but at least I have somewhere to go. One of the biggest questions you can ask yourself about any story is “What is this story about?” Not what is the plot, or what are the events, not “It’s about a woman who battles snakes to win the throne of the empire.” But thematically what you’re trying to say. A lot of my stories have similar themes “What would you sacrifice to win?” or “All people are monsters” or “Sometimes you have to give up a piece of your humanity in order to save the world.” Knowing the theme helps me figure out how characters drive the events of the stories and why they make the decisions they do and where they need to end up at the end. The Stars are Legion is about knowing when you have to transform yourself to save yourself, and the understanding that however scary that transformation is, adhering to the status quo is going to kill you. When I figured that out, the choices my characters needed to make became much clearer, and it was easier to drive everyone to the ending that I’d written.
I’ve already applied this technique to The Broken Heavens. I’ve written the two opening chapters, the last scene, and the epilogue already. I know where I’m heading, and my hope is that that will make this drafting process a lot easier than the last few I’ve done. I sure as hell hope it works, because as of right now, The Broken Heavens, if I turn it in on time, will be the fastest book I’ve ever drafted.
I’m not one of those people who believes that writing quickly necessarily means sacrificing quality. In fact, what I’ve found is that the longer I have to noodle on a piece and worry over it, the more convoluted it gets. It’s well known that it often takes me months and months just to write the first forty thousand words of a story, but I can write the last forty thousand words in just a couple of weeks, and honestly, I tend to like the last forty thousand words a lot more than the first forty thousand. The most editing I did on The Mirror Empire and Empire Ascendant was on the first halves of those books; much less on the second halves.
Certainly, this mad way of writing doesn’t work for everyone. I don’t like the idea of writing 80% of my book in the last month before deadline either, which is why I’m working on ways to write more efficiently. I don’t believe that taking a year to write a book when you’re actually doing most of the work in the last month makes it any higher quality than a book you write in two or three months where you’re actually writing hard every day and getting shit down instead of dickering around because you have the time to follow characters through endless useless plot meanderings before you finally get to your point. I want to be able to get to my point faster. What I’m finding is that writing the end soon after I write the beginning is helping me stay a lot more focused while keeping up the quality of the work.
In the end, one’s writing process is an endlessly hackable thing. When you get to a place where I’m at where you can’t squeeze out any more hours in the day, you have to figure out how to spend them more efficiently. Making little process changes here and there is the only way I’m going to be able to write at the pace that I’d like. I’m constantly aware of my own mortality, and I have so many, many stories left to write before I go. If you want to be the best at what you do, you have to keep learning, and keep leveling up. I’m never content to stay in one place.