How I Work

Meme time! As suggested by csinman, here’s a brief rundown of the way that I write.

I usually start with something so small that it can’t even be called an idea. Sometimes it’s a title. (My most recent short story, The Typographer’s Dream began that way.) Sometimes it’s an image (“an old woman weeping over a river”), or a theme (“something about forgiveness”), or a more typical what-if (“what if someone stole your ability to sleep?”). These kernels by themselves are never enough for a story. I have a file where I sometimes write down my kernels, but honestly I rarely use it. Usually the kernels just sit in my head and wait to germinate.

Kernels germinate either by combining with each other, or by latching on to some snippet of plot, something I read in the news, another story I read, etc. Here I’m helped by the fact that I have a Giant Fantasy World which is vast in imagined geography and history, and which almost any kernel can find a place in. (For example, my unpublished novel An Inheritance of Stars and my recent short story The Last Free Bear are both set in the Giant Fantasy World, despite the fact that they’re very different stories with no visible connections between them.)

Once the kernel has sprouted a plot, I’m ready to think about starting to prepare to consider what I’m going to anticipate writing. This takes a long time. Even after the plot has sprouted, I’m not ready to start cultivating a story in earnest. I have to let the plot stretch and unfurl and grow some more detail. I need to know at least 75% of what happens before I sit down to write; the last 25% can come in as I’m writing. If I have less than that, the story tends wither as I get stuck not knowing what to do. (This was the fate of the last novel I started, now trunked.)

Once all of that’s in place, it’s time to sit down and write. I write my stories in plain text. Yes, the kind you can read with Notepad. Once I wrote in WordPerfect, but then I lost my WordPerfect install CD, moved to a different computer, and found I couldn’t open any of my stories. Never Again. Text is universal and eternal. However, it’s not exactly “plain” text: I actually write everything as LaTeX, with the help of the sffms LaTeX package. LaTeX and sffms are both open-source, which means that even if they did go away someday, I’m free to use and modify the versions that I have squirreled away all over my hard drives. Oh, and my text editor is Vim. I use a makefile to generate txt, rtf, html, and pdf versions from the LaTeX source, and I have Vim set up to do all that with just two keystrokes.

(This is by far the nerdiest writing setup I’ve ever heard of, but I like it.)

I usually write on the bus to and from work. My goal is 1000 words a day, but I’m happy as long as I get more than 500. I would like to write more, but my time on the bus is the only writing time I can count on getting, and that’s less than two hours per day. I figure that at 500-1000 words per day, in 6 months I can finish a novel. (That hasn’t worked out in practice, so far, but we’ll see how things go in the future.)

Once a first draft is done, I wait a little while then make a first editing pass. This is just looking for mechanical errors or really egregious writing sins. After that, I put it up on OWW and/or send it to my flesh-and-blood readers. Then I start working on something else. A few weeks (for a short story) or a few months (for a novel) later, I’ll take all the comments I got and do a really thorough edit. This is when I’ll make serious changes like removing characters, changing the order of scenes, or reworking the plot. After this, I may send it out to one or two people that I know and trust for final comments. I brush up any last issues they see—then it’s off to the cruel world.


  1. Yeah, Jesse, I thought I was nerdy until I read yours. It turns out using silly fonts is “kitschy.” You totally took the nerd ribbon.

    But it clearly works, so keep at it. (And thanks for sharing.)

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