Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The return of the reverse engineer

Well, I did it again. I started a novel, and now it's gone done and kaput.

I'm not sure what it is in me that causes me to glance so scathingly upon my own work when it is longer than 10,000 words, but, with one or two exceptions, that is what has always occurred: I must have abandoned four or five novels at this point. And, until last year, this also occurred with shorter works. But, through concentrated practice, a wackload of writing, the wisdom of Dean Wesley Smith, and one particularly useful learning strategy, I killed that bad habit before it killed my short story career.

Sadly, no better illustration exists.
Said strategy was backwards-writing. Not actually backwards writing; not actually, gnitirw sdrawkcab. Rather, it was the creation of simple plot outlines, just like I would do normally, and the working-back through them: writing the last scene first, the second-to-last scene second, and so on.

Although I haven't always been one-hundred-percent thrilled with every permutation of this writing style - it has a tendency to create "flat" stories, in terms of tension - it nonetheless produces entirely satisfactory stories (i.e., complete) with excellent plots and foreshadowing, and consistent quality of writing throughout. My conclusions have always tended to lack the felicity of language that my beginnings possess (if I dare be so loquacious in reference to my own work), and backwards-writing has on numerous occasions helped solve this infirmity, also.

Thusly: today is the Return to the Return of the Drawing Board in Ben's Auctorial Vault. I've got a new story idea, something rather fantasy-thriller-esque, and my objective now is to outline it and write the whole thing backwards. Once this is done, I will have accomplished my 2011 writing goals, hopefully with most of 2011 to spare (so I can get back to slacking off, already).

Further worthwhile note: Reversing words is a great way to come up with hilarious fantasy names that are secretly fantasy tropes. Kcul the thief, for example, or Gnorts the barbarian. Just don't use Yxes the princess if you're aiming for the female readership.



  1. Hi Ben,

    Not a good habit to get into. Need to ask yourself WHY you're quitting.

    Are you bored?

    Do you think it sucks?

    Do you not know what happens next?

    Are you enticed by a new idea?

    Do you see all the mistakes and not know how to fix them?

    All of these have fixes.

    1. Bored. Well, kill a character. Throw something in that you didn't expect. Change everything around and see what happens.

    2. It sucks? Then just keep writing. We all have to learn to deal with what we perceive to be crappy writing.

    3. You don't know what happens next? Then take a day or a week and outline the rest of the novel.

    4. That new idea? Either throw it into the novel you're writing, or shelve it.

    5. Don't worry about the mistakes until you're finished. Often, the *mistakes* prove to be beneficial in the end. Your muse know what it's doing.

    Finally, I STRONGLY recommend you give Holly Lisle's HOW TO THINK SIDEWAYS class a shot.

    And a finally after a finally -- You'll never know how to write a novel until you FINISH a novel.

    Good luck, man.

  2. I've finished three novels. One I'd desperately like to re-write, one of these days, despite the fact that I recently realized it's sort of a rewrite of "Battlefield: Earth." Another was a YA urban SF and yet another a mystery-fantasy. I've disliked them all for various reasons, but the last one is currently "with" Baen - but because of its short word count (50k) it'll never be picked up.

    However, I've been thinking about that final fact recently and I'm starting to feel like I can say that I'll never write anything broaching 100k words. Unless, you know, at some point, I do. My interest cannot be kept that long, it seems - both in reading and writing. This would be fine if I wrote mainstream fiction, of course, but in F&SF, that's a problem. And so I've started thinking that maybe, in terms of what I want to pen as a novelist, I ought to start looking at e-pub more seriously - because the big guns don't run without, roughly, 80k. Which I might do, on a good day. But it's more likely I'll do 60-70k for a novel: a nice, tight story with no convolutions.

    Maybe I just don't have the sophistication yet, though. I really ought to finish a novel again - heh.

    Anyhoo. When I wrote a short story backwards, I'd already written short stories forwards and finished them; but doing the backwards-writing helped me see what was missing in them, stuff that I couldn't see was missing, but that I could FEEL was missing. I was then able to correct my forward-writing.

    Also, in regards to pushing-through: I'm not doing that so much anymore. Pushing through, for me, is a dice roll: could be good, or could be awful. Like I said, it's in the endings for me. Just got a personal rejection about a story I squeezed out: "Fantastic, but... What happened around page 5? It all fell apart." Yeah... I pushed through.

    Thanks for the advice, Jeff. I'm dedicated to finishing a novel SOMEHOW this year and LOVING IT. Haha. I'll keep you posted.

  3. This is a really intriguing system. I don't think I could ever write a story backwards, but it certainly sounds like an interesting way of going about it.
    Good luck finishing the novel, Ben. I think with every book I write I get a period of time where I just want to scrap the whole thing and bury myself in a dumpster... but that's not positive thinking! And even if the book doesn't turn out well, at least it was good practice. (At least that's what I tell myself.)

  4. That's so funny. I'm terrible with short stories, but you seem to be quite good with them. Good luck with the writing!

  5. Finishing the rough draft is always the hardest part for me. After that, I can watch each draft get successively better, which is very encouraging. Good luck!

  6. I feel your pain, and the only two solutions I can propose are the ones I am attempting myself:

    1. Trick yourself by writing serial novels. They can get pretty long, but they feel like short stories...
    2. Scene-by-Scene Outlining. I'm still having trouble with this because it goes against everything I stand for. But it's the pro way, and I should at least be decent at it.

  7. Update: The first chapter, which is to say the last chapter, went really well. I think it's a really great beginning, which is to say it's a great ending.

    Also: David: I've got a few chapters of the Lars Moonrift saga around here somewhere. Picture this: intergalactic space-trucker. One billion two-fours of Interbrew in the hold. And... shenanigans.