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How I (don’t) structure my stories

So, I’ve been asked about my writing routines (Thanks, Anniken!), and I figure that using my first book Frost Moon and how I worked when I wrote that, as a case study, will be the most interesting way of doing this 🙂

There are two answers to this question, a short and a long one.

The short one is that I simply invite my muse over for a visit, she does her stuff, and when she leaves, the book automagically appears on my computer. I’m not kidding, it was so easy and fun doing it, that it wasn’t any work at all, possibly a labour of love (I know, I’m supposed to maintain that darkly romantic «suffering artist» image of being a writer, but that’s a lie. If you don’t have fun when you write, find something else to do).

But seriously, and here comes the longer answer, it was almost a case of spontaneous generation. The only hard part was actually manifesting the self-discipline to sit down and type it.

The story had been brewing in my head over the years, but misguided modesty had kept me from writing it down. I love telling stories, but I couldn’t really make myself believe that anybody else would be interested in reading them. Fortunately one of my dearest friends, Catherine challenged me to start writing, and one evening in a drunken folly we promised each other to write 1000 words each week that we would send to each other, to finally start making some progress towards our dreams.

At the time I was in a steady relationship and had a full-time job, so I simply didn’t have time to plot or anything. I just had to sit down and write. I had no idea how much time writing 1000 words would take, so I promised myself to write for at least an hour a day, hell or high water. That turned out to be a bit of an overkill, since I hit around 1000 words a day, once I got steaming, but I had no way of knowing that, starting out. Only things I really had were a couple of scenes I wanted to include (only three of them even made it to the final draft), a mood/feeling that I wanted to convey, and an insanely boring job where I had nothing to do whatsoever 90% of time, so that I could zone out while at work and plan out the next writing session in my head.

But those writing sessions were sacred. No matter what, I would always sit for an hour and write every day, and it has become an ingrained habit so that 365 days a year I work on my writing projects for an hour. And you can get quite a lot of writing done in 365 hours. I also limit myself upwards to no more than two hours a day, mostly because I don’t want to develop overload injuries to my hands or shoulders, but also because I’m a lazy bum (my excuse is also that I don’t want to burn out, so I make sure I have more material that I want to write, than I have time to write it). Even if I have to admit that some days I’m chewing chud more than anything else, that daily writing session is an invaluable part of my writing routine. It means that I can’t really procrastinate and that I always have a sense of progress. I can not stress the importance of this enough. I understand that some writers have a life where there simply is no possibility of squeezing in daily writing, but my advice then is to first prioritize making the necessary changes to your life so that you can find the time and put the writing on the backburner in the meantime. Some writers prefer to work more intensely; for instance, Moorcock wrote most of his best stories in intense 3-5 day bursts, and intellectually I can understand how that could work, but in practice, I am highly skeptical of that approach. The writers I know that employ this approach tend to procrastinate like crazy and almost always manifest some kind of crisis that messes up their intense writing bursts. But to each their own, I’m no oracle, I’m just sharing my routines.

So with that writing regime set up, what was I going to write? I honestly had no idea. All I had were five different scenes/story parts, and I knew that this would be the first book in a series. I did some quick research and found out that the kind of book I wanted to write usually was around 100-120k words. I aimed for roughly the same length that the separate Moorcock stories about Elric and Hawkmoon had, and had a subconscious vision that once I had gotten 2-3 books done, it would be a good idea to publish them in an omnibus version that would be of roughly the same length as a modern fantasy novel. What I did have was around 30 years of experience as an RPG Gamemaster and storyteller, and I figured that I might as well use the same techniques as when I designed adventures and campaigns for my players. Start at the beginning and at least have a vague idea of where you want to end up, but don’t overdo the plotting, since the players always go in different directions from what you expect. So just start with the first scene and roll with it. My imagination is very graphic, so right from the start, I saw the story as a movie running inside my head and mostly just described what I saw.

The scenes/concepts that I was going to weave together were these:

1. A scene where a group of grizzled adventurers/heroes were sitting around a campfire, and their youngest member a teenager with really no relevant experience was being told off for casting longing looks towards the group leader (and he was very much in the throes of puppy love), a female paladin heavily based on Paxenarrion from the books of Elisabeth Moon. The lad was getting a lecture from a war-weary veteran and long time friend of the above-mentioned paladin, about how she was cursed, and that the curse was such that she would never know love, due to everyone falling in love with her dying horribly.
2. A story about a noble knight that was loyal to his king and held an important castle until he rebelled against his rightful liege. The knight was just and honorable and an outstanding military commander, who, due to dedicating his life to war never had the chance to fall in love and raising a family. While holding this castle, he met and fell in love with a local woman, and married her. She was denounced by the church as a witch and burned at stake together with their children. The only thing saving the knight from the pyre, was his long and distinguished service for the kind, though he, of course, lost his title and castle. Seeing his one true love tortured and killed before his eyes broke something inside him and he swore revenge. After the Inquisition had left the area, he rebelled, and due to the memory of his good deeds and leadership, the soldiers he had previously commanded gathered under his banner and as he marched his army towards the capital all kinds of outcasts and misfits joined his army for an epic war.
3. A story about how a group of snotty, spoiled, upper-class kids went on a hunt to exterminate a wolf pack, and how the tables were turned when those wolves turned out to be a pack of werewolves, and how the hunters were killed one by one as their high-tech equipment failed them.
4. A story inspired by the song «The Raven» by Isobel Campell and Mark Lonegan (which I think was in turn inspired by the story of the same name by Edgar Allan Poe. I haven’t read Poe’s story, so I can’t really tell), where a good man that had turned his back on civilisation and moved out into the wilderness, found a badly wounded young and beautiful yet evil witch and was seduced and then destroyed by her while nursing her back to health.
5. A scene where a group is out in the wilderness on some kind of quest or mission and need to leave their camp for some reason at night, leaving one of their members to watch over the camp while they tried to confront whatever monster was stalking them, and failing to find it, they discover their comrade roasting on a spit over their campfire on their return.

I really had no clue whatsoever about how to connect these elements. And, just to make the task «easier,» I had a clear vision of the two first fragments happening in a fantasy setting, while fragments 3-5 happened in an urban fantasy setting.

Undaunted by the seeming impossibility of this I started writing, starting out at the beginning I began with fragment one, the lovelorn lad and the cursed paladin (whom incidentally was one of my all time favorite RPG characters, that in turn, as mentioned, was based on Moon’s Paxenarrion). Just to make things complicated, I decided the only way I could fit in all the fragments was by having two parallel stories that came together at the end. So I started writing the fantasy part until I ran out of inspiration and then switched over to the urban fantasy part until I got stuck there. By then my daydreaming had shown me how the fantasy part would progress, and when I got stuck there I had more ideas for the urban fantasy part and kept on switching back and forth until I had around 80k words written and could start on the ending and find a way to weave these two tales together, which I did. Sent off this first draft to every single Norwegian publisher I could find the contact info to, with a cover letter explaining that this was a very rough draft that I was aware would need a lot of work before it could be published.

Not one of those publishers even bothered to read the script. A few of them were polite enough to quickly reply to me, thank me for the submission, but let me know that this was not the kind of book they would consider publishing, either because they were not interested in the genre, didn’t publish fiction or only published local authors (from a region where I didn’t live). Fair enough.

More depressing was getting the droves of standardized rejection letters from the other (the ones that bothered to reply that is). I showed the rejections to an author I knew, and she told me not lose heart since she explained to me that those standardized rejections were the ones used to writers whose submissions went straight in the trash without ever being read. But lose heart I did, and being unemployed at the time, decided to focus on getting a job instead. A few month later random coincidence put me in contact with a tiny, newly established, publisher , who told me that they would be interested in publishing my book. Turned out to be a scam, but I realized that they wouldn’t have made all that effort in trying to make sign over the rights of my book to them if they didn’t think they could make money out of it. So in a way, I’m grateful towards them, because they made me realize that my writing had something going for it after all.

I took a look at the first draft, after not looking at it for several months and cringed at what kind of mess it was, and decided to rewrite it. Instead of trying to salvage what good parts there were, I wrote it again, from start to end. This time I had the advantage that I knew the story in detail. There were some tough to decisions to make, one of them was that I cut out the fantasy part of the story. It was too confusing the way I was switching between the two stories and settings, and simply beyond my literary capacity to weave them well together. This left me with a much too short script, so I had to flesh out the urban fantasy part. Which I did, based on the feedback I got from my pilot readers. Many characters and scenes were cut, some added, but I kept the basic structure of the urban fantasy, albeit dressed it differently

So the second part of my routine, how I outline a plot, is simply that I don’t. I just visualize it in my head when I’m doing other stuff or before I fall asleep. Going through my story is much more rewarding than counting sheep as a means of falling asleep. I love taking long, hot baths, and that is also one of the times I enjoy outlining my plot. I never write anything down. What doesn’t stick in my memory isn’t worth keeping, is my way of thinking. That is a habit I acquired at the university, when doing my exams and writing my term papers I never bothered making mindmaps or anything of that kind, I just wrote the assignment straight out (much to the annoyance of my fellow students, since I always was one of the first to hand in my exam, head straight for the student pub and was ridiculously drunk, by the time the finally shamble in, all exhausted after finishing with just minutes to spare, and kept on getting top grades.

I have a similar approach to my writing, I just write down the story from beginning to end. I don’t write a scene here and a scene there and later try to piece them together. I was delighted when I heard the iconic Norwegian writer Tor Ă…ge Bringsværd talk about how he worked and realized that he worked exactly the same way. Or as he put it «One of the greatest pleasures of writing, is that when I sit down to write, I have no idea what’s going to happen today.» I couldn’t agree more. For me, the story is much like a living being with a will of its own, that goes wherever it feels like. And like many other writers experience, how my characters come to life with a will of their own, and do whatever the hell they feel like, whether it is beneficial for the story I want to tell or not.

So after rewriting the story, I had a second draft I was reasonably happy with, confidence that there were people out there that would enjoy the story, but no publisher. The answer was obvious; I was going to publish it myself. In this digital age, it is fairly easy to publish your book. It is the marketing part which is difficult, and from the tales I have heard from several of my fellow authors, being published is no guarantee that the marketing will be done properly (if at all). I realized that my total potential fan base in Norway was around 500 people, so I had no choice, I had to aim for the English-speaking market. I checked out the prices for getting a translation done and realized that getting a professional translation done out of my own pocket was out of the question. Norwegian is not my first language, and my «mind-language» is mostly English, so I got the crazy idea to write out the first chapter in English and asked a good friend of mine that works as a translator to take a look at it, and let me know how bad it was.

Wasn’t bad at all, it turned out, and I believed him when he told me that the language was good enough to stand on its own (though my spelling and grammar is atrocious). So it was time for the third and final rewrite. There was no point in simply translating it, different languages have different rhythms, so I wrote it from scratch again, in English. This time I had the story itself, down to pat, so I could focus on how I described the scenes and the characters and really enjoyed writing it for the third time. While writing it I started to plan how I was going to market it, what the cover should look like, and all those things. It was doing that, that I stumbled over my original copyeditor. It was a close friend of mine, that ran his own company, designing things for the internet, and I remembered how brilliant the posters he made for our student society were and wanted him to, first of all, make the book cover and hopefully make and host my web pages as well. To do that he would have to know the story, so he got the (still rough) third draft to read through. He couldn’t help himself when he saw what state it was in and sent it through a spellchecker and polished up the language for the first chapter. I was so impressed by his work, that I talked and bribed him into copyediting the whole text. Much of that which is good about the language in Frost Moon is due to the incredible job he did. He did have the advantage of having the same frame of reference that I did, and we had been playing roleplaying games together for 20 years, so he was familiar with my way of telling stories and caught extremely well what I was trying to get across.

And that was basically it, after his copyediting, we published it, and I went to work writing the sequel.

So the third part of describing my routine is that I don’t strive for perfection, I just do it! A piece of good advice I have received from more experienced writers is that the story you are currently writing will never be your best. You always learn from every book, every scene, every sentence you write. Anything else would be horribly depressing. Imagine peaking early and then just write worse and worse things. Now that would be horrible, so don’t sweat it. Gather a team of talented people to work with, for pilot-reading and copy editing, and just go for it. A badly written book is much better than a book never written at all!

-Patrik

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