As someone who has never thought of himself as a fast writer, I had certain trepidations about this Predator novel gig, exacerbated by being sick for a couple of weeks when I’d planned to work on it and unexpected but lovely distractions (like Utopiales in France). The result is that I basically wrote Predator: South China Sea in two months. I had more than six months to work on it, but only spent about eight weeks at the computer and writing longhand. I’m almost hesitant to mention this because I think some readers and writers equate length of time spent on a project with quality. And it’s certainly true that some ideas, some novels, require a long gestation period and an equally long time in which to revise, revisit, re-envision.
For example, long-time readers of this blog might recall that it took a decade to put together the stories that comprise City of Saints & Madmen and eight years to work on Shriek: An Afterword on-and-off. In my twenties, I was known to spend six months on a single short story or novella.
Factored into this time span, however, were all of the editing, publishing, nonfiction, and hours spent at a full-time job. I think you’d also have to factor in that as a writer in your twenties and, to some extent your thirties, you are still getting comfortable with your writing. You don’t know how to do a lot of things and so some of your time is spent puzzling out how the pieces fit together, how this or that technique works, why this doesn’t, etc.
Now that I don’t have a full-time job and am approaching the age of forty, two things have happened: (1) I can put more of the full force of my attention into a novel or short story more intensely over a short period of time and (2) I’m much more relaxed and as a result my rough drafts tend to be more complete than in the past; I still do a ton of rewriting, revision, and line editing, but I find that more of the initial vision in my head is in the draft right away.
These factors helped in writing a novel so quickly (for me). However, there were other little tricks and other factors that allowed me to work this fast without sacrificing quality. I am, of course, assuming that I’ve written a good novel, although ultimately that’s up to readers.
So, here’s what I’ve learned. With the caveat that…I don’t know how Star Wars and Star Trek writers do it, because they have huge bibles of information to absorb while all I had was three sheets of info on the Predator and two Predator movies. For this reason, what I learned really has less to do with writing a tie-in novel than just with having to quickly writing a novel and trying to make sure the quality control is still there. I hope some of this is useful. I’m sure that it will seem very basic to many novelists who work with tight deadlines all of the time.
(1) Make sure your partner/girlfriend/spouse is willing to give you their full support while you’re writing the novel. I can’t tell you how easy Ann made this experience, since I rarely left the house and she did a lot of things I usually do for the household. I can’t thank her enough for that, and I owe her big-time.
(2) Make sure you have contacts that you can use for specialist information so you don’t have to do research. This ranges from small stuff to huge stuff. For example, Dave Larsen was my gun and heavy artillery guy, and he came through in a big way. I think his expertise probably saved me something like 20 hours of work. In addition, because he’s fired guns before and also has made knives, he gave me invaluable personal experience that enhanced the reality of the novel. However, I also had sources for information on a small scale. K.J. Bishop was able to give me info on the rough parts of Bangkok. Ekaterina Sedia was able to find just the right Russian word for “freedom,” which led in turn to a character coming to life that had not been as fully-fleshed out as I would have liked.
(3) Make sure you support your efforts with sound lifestyle choices. I have to admit I exercised less and drank more during the two months than is normal for me. However, I still managed to exercise intensely for two-to-three hours three to four times a week and limited the drinking to a couple of drinks a day most of the time. Eating healthy also helped keep my energy level up. This is important, because you’re doing a lot more typing and longhand writing per day than you normally would, and you have to make it count more, as well.
(4) Make sure you support your efforts with sound process decisions. Most of the time, I wrote new scenes in the mornings, revised existing scenes in the afternoons, and spent my evenings on line-edits and rewrites of individual paragraphs here and there. By structuring my time this way, I made better progress than if I’d just focused on doing new scenes all day until the novel was done. Because by the time I’d finished writing the new scenes, most everything up to that point had already then been through a second or even third revision.
(5) Have a good group of first readers willing to read the novel in pieces or in completed draft form. These readers should be a mix of people who usually read the kind of novel you’re writing and people who don’t. They should not all be fellow writers. A good percentage of them should be pure readers, because you are not really looking for the kinds of things a writer may be more invested in than a reader. (This doesn’t mean writers don’t make good first readers–just that you need to have a mix.)
(1) Make sure your initial synopsis is detailed enough that you can divide it into chapters when you start the actual writing, and, if possible, make sure at that point that you have a one- or two-line description of the action for a particular chapter or scene. Know going into the writing for a week exactly what each scene is supposed to do and why. If you know that, you will find it is still possible to be highly creative and surprise yourself in the individual scenes. If you don’t know that, you will spend most of your creative energy just trying to figure out what should be happening. (UPDATE: Jay Lake notes that if he he knew “exactly what what each scene is supposed to do and why” it wouldn’t work for him, so your mileage may vary. Perhaps I should clarify in that I just needed to know the action that would occur, more than anything else.)
(2) Make sure you know what kind of novel you’re writing. I know this sounds basic, but be able to say to yourself something along the lines of “I’m writing a relatively fast-paced action-adventure story with a subplot involving espionage and a tragic love relationship.” More or less a mission statement. You may vary from it, but being able to on the macro level tell yourself what it is you’re trying to do is very useful. You’ll note my example did not read “I’m writing a multi-generational saga about a powerful crime family.” There are some kinds of novels you cannot write in two months.
(3) Make sure you are using a relatively transparent style. I don’t believe it’s possible to write a good novel in this limited amount of time if you’re using a more baroque, layered style (and by that, I mean styles like the ones I used in the stories in City of Saints). This doesn’t mean that you can’t have complexity of character and complexity of style, but it has to be a more invisible complexity. The layering process, otherwise, will take too much time. In this case, writing a Predator novel, this would’ve been my approach anyway.
(4) Base at least some of your main characters on people you know and really like, BUT make sure they are not people you have spent a lot of time with. I know it sounds paradoxical, but it turned out to be a very effective way for me to generate depth of character, almost like having some of the work done for me, but not all of it. Let me explain. In the novel, there is a character named Horia Ursu, the same name as one of my Romanian editors. Horia is a dear, dear friend who I correspond with via email and who Ann and I have met twice. We have spent perhaps a total of seven days together. I feel very close to him, I admire him greatly, but I don’t know him in the way I know Eric Schaller, for example, who illustrated City of Saints & Madmen. I’ve known Eric for more than a decade and we’ve spent a lot more time together. I could never use “Eric Schaller” as a name to animate a character quickly because I know too many details about his life. With Horia, there is a space there, a lack of knowledge in certain ways, that allowed me to create a very entertaining character in the novel by riffing off of what I did know and then filling in and making up details. I used this technique with at least three characters in the novel and it worked extremely well. Usually, thinking about character would take a lot more than two months–it, along with structure, would be the biggest impediments to finishing a novel in such a short time. But, with the help of these real people who are my friends, by literally invoking them through using their names, I was able to find an effective shortcut.
(5) Don’t be afraid to use a host of multiple viewpoint characters. The quickest way to make sure a scene is truly dramatic is to make sure that the character with the most at stake is the viewpoint character. Early on, I had a very rigid view of this–I was going to have two or three viewpoint characters and that’s it. It soon became clear this would not work in the short term. It might have if I had time to think about it more and to work it out on the page. I didn’t have the time. So I switched to the idea of shorter chapters, with several viewpoints threaded through the novel. Each time, the viewpoint was of the character with the greatest stake in the scene in some way. This is especially true in the last half of the novel, which of course has a crescendo of action. I did, per Jay Lake’s suggestion, make sure that most longer chapters were from the viewpoints of major characters, however, so there would be an anchoring effect. (Thanks also to Elizabeth Bear for saying, “Oh, just go into as many heads as you need to.”) Anyway, the effect is simple: it takes less time to write a scene because you already are in the head of someone who wants or needs something from what’s going on. Then it’s just a matter of making sure you have enough sub-plot and enough over-arching plot (in terms of character machinations) that this approach doesn’t begin to seem repetitive.
(6) If using an exotic setting, make sure it’s one you can find a parallel to in your own immediate surroundings. I didn’t do much research on islands in the South China Sea. I just made sure the island had a semi-tropical climate like Florida and then I riffed off of the Florida landscape, with a few altered details. This allowed me to put some description that read like specific, accurate detail, to provide apparent authenticity.
(7) Don’t animate what doesn’t need to be animated. This might just apply to any novel, but it’s especially true when you’re under the gun deadline-wise. There’s a lodge in my novel and separate rooms for all of the guests, along with one common room. There’re maybe two scenes in the separate rooms and lots in the common room. So I spent my time detailing the common room and really didn’t describe the other parts of the lodge at all. There was really no point. In a more leisurely kind of novel with a more leisurely time frame, this might’ve been something I’d have liked to explore, but it wasn’t necessary here.
(8) Actually save time by playing against type. Dave Larsen pointed out that his Cambodian friend says Cambodians who speak English drop their plurals. I’d already written my Cambodian main character’s dialogue. I was also afraid of making the character sound too much like a caricature, no matter how true Dave’s observation was. So, my character was raised by Western missionaries until he was ten and is proud of the fact he doesn’t drop his plurals when speaking English. A possible lack of authenticity turned into a more unique detail.