Thursday, December 1, 2011

Guest Blogger: Scott Bury

Last week, Scott Bury—a blogger I met recently on Twitter—invited me to participate in a blog swap. He asked me about the best thing I've done with my writing, and my worst mistake. I think I might have given him an answers he didn't expect, but he seems to have appreciated my humor. In exchange, he's shared his writing process below. Be sure to check out Written Words for more great posts on writing and self-publishing.

My Writing Process
Planning for inspiration

By Scott Bury

In the great debate between planners and pantsers, it’s no surprise (if you’ve read any of my blog posts or tweets) that I come firmly on the side of planners.

While I have to admit that I often start writing chapters or stories based on inspiration, I have learned through experience that I absolutely need some kind of plan. I have to know where my story is going, or else how will I know when I get there?

I wrote my Hallowe’en short story, Dark Clouds, based on just an inspiration for the opening line. I wrote that down, but before I could go any farther, I had to have the skeleton of the story in mind. I had to know who the characters were, and how I wanted it to end.

Some details came later. The life-string was a late addition. (See what I mean with a free download from, or Smashwords.)

My typical story development flow

Eons ago, when I was in first year at university, I was inspired to write a novel based on the opening of Snoopy’s novel from Peanuts: “It was a dark and stormy night. Suddenly, a shot rang out! A door slammed. The maid screamed. While the people starved, the king lived in luxury. Then a pirate ship appeared on the horizon!”

I had some fun working all those elements into a science-fiction story, and wrote thousands and thousands of words. But 30 years later, that’s all I have: a bunch of words, because I have no idea where to take it.

I wrote my first novel, The Bones of the Earth (part 1 now on Amazon and Smashwords, the rest next week), based on a solid outline. It was inspired when over a relatively short time, I learned a few facts: someone had worked out that Beowulf and King Arthur died in the same year; the first plague epidemic in the sixth century was sparked by a huge explosion of Mount Krakoa in Indonesia; and the Black Sea rose at about that same time, drowning seaside towns. I put those together and plotted Part 1 of the book. Then I thought of the opening: “Wait. Wait. Wait.”

I wrote the rest of part 1, which stands on its own as a complete long story or novella, in a linear fashion—the action developed chronologically, with no flashbacks or time-jumping. I worked some of those in for background in later drafts.

While writing part 1, I thought of elements to extend the story into a full novel. I jotted those down and returned to the story. (Keep in mind that I was writing this in my spare time, so long periods would elapse between drafts or even between starting and finishing a chapter.) Often, while writing a scene, I would figure out the direction of the story or some nagging plot development; more often, I would realize that I would have to go back to add critical details or background, or explain things like where so-and-so got that knife.

Sometimes, I would realize that I would need to do more research—like how long would it take to walk across Romania? What did the Romans call the Alps? Sometimes, the research tells me that I’ll have to revise the storyline.

“Writing is rewriting,” I’ve read. It’s true. I have re-written my stories, novel and works-in-progress multiple times. That’s okay—each iteration gets better (I hope). I don’t shy away from changing the plot or reorganizing details, as long as I have a clear understanding of where the story is going.

Experimenting with non-linearity

Most of the time, once I have worked out the whole plot, I write in a linear fashion — I don’t write chapter 5 until I’ve finished writing chapters 1, 2, 3 and 4. Of course, it’s not perfectly clear-cut. As I said, often I will realize while writing chapter 5 that I will have to change something in chapter 2. So I can go back and fix that, which may require changing something else in chapter 4.

However, with my current work in progress, my approach is different. This is a novelized memoir of my father-in-law. It covers two distinct periods in his life. The first is set during the Second World War, covering his drafting into the Red Army, escape from a German POW camp and subsequent service in the underground resistance; the second is set in Canada, near the end of his life. Instead of organizing the material sequentially, I need to organize it thematically and develop smooth transitions between the periods.

I’m writing separate chapters as episodes, but I’m still working on the order they’re going to appear. I anticipate changing the outline as I go on. It’s much harder to work out, but at least I know where the story is going.

When I finish that, the following work will be a story for middle-grade readers that I’m calling The Last Tiger. I intend to make that a straight-forward chronological plot. It’s so much easier: I know where the story starts and where it ends. Now, all I have to do is write the journey between those points.

You know as well as I do how much work that is, but I cannot imagine starting without a clear idea of my destination and the major points along the way.

Ottawa-based writer, journalist and editor Scott Bury writes the blog Written Words. His novel The Bones of the Earth is now available on Smashwords and Amazon.

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