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Thursday, January 20, 2011

Method Madness

Working novelists are often asked about their method. Why this is of such interest to so many, I don’t know. During my years as a practicing architect, few people ever asked about my method. I suspect few people ask accountants or attorneys about their methods, either, but novelists really do get the question often. In fact, we even get the question from other novelists, perhaps as a sedative.

If you are an aspiring novelist, at least this question makes some sense. One is wise to consider carefully the path ahead, in case it requires waders. However, you should know that mine is not the best method, nor something to be emulated, nor even a useful source of inspiration. It only works for me (so to speak) because of the way my brain works. It will only work for you if your brain works like mine, and if that is the case, then you already know my method because it's the only method that comes naturally to brains like yours and mine. So if you have a normal brain, I suggest you move on. Go get your own method. You’ll have better results.

But if you insist on ignoring my advice, here’s how I write a novel:

1. Think of a good story. Takes one to three months. Skip this step if possible, as so many NTY Bestselling Authors do, since that seems to work for them. It’s certainly the hardest part, which probably explains why it's unpopular.

Every day during Step One I spend as many hours as I can stomach pacing the house and back yard, talking to myself, trying to fit ideas together into a plot that sounds original. I leave a pen and notepad in a strategic location about halfway through my pacing circuit, where I can stop and jot things down as they come. I get about one good plot point per day. Plus heartburn.

The effort required to brainstorm by myself makes my head feel like it’s going to explode. I ponder that feeling a lot during Step One, and often wonder if an exploding author's head would make a good inciting incident.

At some point around the middle of Step One I become convinced that I am out of stories and need to find another profession. I get depressed and cranky. My wife hides.

In order to generate enough enthusiasm to begin writing, I must keep at this until mental exhaustion leads to the delusion that I have conceived an idea for the finest novel ever written in the English language. On to Step Two!

2. Synopsis and outline. One to two weeks. Timeframe not carved in stone, but I am determined not to start the first draft until I have verified my plot is a W.O.G. (Work Of Genius). Eventually I give up on that pipedream, abandon the outline and move to Step Three.

3. First draft. Five to six months. The word count is close to final when I’m done with this step. Usually around 100,000 words. I write each scene as if it was a short story, trying to make it perfect and self-contained before I move on. I look for the exact word and proper rhythm then and there. I have a theory: if I can’t write a decent novel, at least I can write one good scene, given an infinite amount of time, plus the random combination of a good thesaurus and an endless supply of coffee. (This is similar to the current scientific theory that life occurred by accident, basically for the same reasons.)

Reality sets in about halfway through Step Three, and I decide to settle for the finest novel ever written in the English language by me.

About three-quarters through, I decide to just honor my contract and finish the thing so I can change professions. I reconsider architecture.

4. Second draft. About two weeks. Mostly looking for dead weight and duplication. Also a plot. I usually cut 5-10,000 words, but add them back in at other places.

At this point I am cautiously optimistic that the novel will not be completely awful.

I begin describing scenes to my wife over dinner, while watching her facial expressions carefully for signs that she would rather I just passed the butter. She is an excellent poker player.

5. Developmental edits. My favorite step, if the editor is also cautiously optimistic. If not, think hell on earth.

The editor points out minor flaws such as boring beginnings, sagging middles and unintelligible endings. It usually takes one to two months to fix everything. Entire chapters are deleted or relocated. New characters are added. Men become women and women become men. Major characters are given children, dogs, warts, or impending divorces, & etc.

Ego utterly destroyed before moving to Step Six.

6. The usual editorial process after that. Line edits (for continuity and logic), copy edits (for grammar and punctuation), and galleys (a last check of the “typeset” pages, which long ago was replaced by something called "film", and more recently became mere ones and zeros on a computer, which seems like a more fitting end for the material I provide).

Step Six is the necessary aftereffect of actually writing a novel. At this step I also start dreaming of writing just one more novel, much as an alcoholic dreams of one more drink to cure a hangover.

And that’s it. An inside look at the glamorous and fascinating working life of a novelist.

You've been warned.

In spite of his appalling method, Athol Dickson’s novels have been favorably compared to the work of Octavia Butler (Publisher’s Weekly) and Flannery O’Connor (The New York Times). One of his novels is an Audie Award winner. All five of his most recent novels have been finalists for the Christy Award and three have won, including his most recent novel, Lost Mission. His next novel, The Opposite of Art, should be on the shelves somewhere for a week or so this summer. Athol lives with his longsuffering wife in southern California.


  1. Oh, my goodness! A kindred spirit! I'm so sorry... :-)

  2. Hilarious and so true! Especially Step 4: About two weeks. Mostly looking for dead weight and duplication. Also a plot.

    Love it!

  3. Athol, I had no idea it was this way for you! I feel vindicated! LOL Truly a fun post. :)

  4. I think writers want a peek inside for one of two reasons:

    1 - It makes whatever they're doing begin to feel sane.

    2 -- It makes whatever they're doing feel completely insane, and since it's not working for them anyway, it gives them license to abandon their current process for a new one.

  5. Athol, I love this post. It's endlessly entertaining while providing a reason for me to think about what it is I do. You're funny.

  6. Who knew you had such a flair for humor? Oh wait. You were serious. ;)

    Funny, my method is amazingly similar. I need a drink . . . But I don't drink anymore. Dang.

  7. Thanks, Athol. Needed the laughs, and yes, the affirmation that we writers are all, well, just a little crazy, but hey it's for a good 'cause.' Right? Please tell me I'm right! ;)

  8. Fabulously funny post...thanks for the laughs.

  9. Haha, wonderful :) Thank you for the humor and advice. I think getting a glimpse at the way other writers write is useful even though we may not adopt their process as our own, but maybe get ideas that work for us that we may not have thought of otherwise. So thank you, wonderful post.

    Sarah Allen
    (my creative writing blog)

  10. Great, great article. Thanks for writing this. Love the Alka Seltzer pic, too! LOL!

  11. This made me laugh: "Reality sets in about halfway through Step Three, and I decide to settle for the finest novel ever written in the English language by me." Too funny!


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