Guest Post: Penn Wallace’s Writing Process, Part One

When SDWEG member and our April presenter, Penn Wallace, mentioned at one of our Marketing Support Group meetings that his blog followers weren't interested in reading about his writing process, I asked if he'd be willing to share a description of his writing process with us. This is the first of two posts in this guest blogger series, complete with evidence of Penn's sense of humor.

My Writing Process

Necessary Writing Tools

There are as many ways to write a book as there are authors. I have talked to bestselling, traditionally published authors who don’t know the plot or story when they start writing. We call these writers “pantsers” because they write by the seat-of-their-pants.

There are other writers who plot and outline the entire story before they write the first word. We call these people “outliners.”

There are dozens of degrees of each of these categories in between. Whatever works for you is the correct way to write.

Me, I’m an extreme outliner. I come from a software engineering background. During my years designing and building software and web applications for Fortune 500 companies, I learned that I wanted to know all the answers before I started coding. I didn’t like to be hit with surprises mid-project. Our axiom was “It’s cheaper to fix it in the design stage than it is in the build stage.”

The same applies to writing. I’ve known pantsers who found a glaring plot error in their story and ended up ripping out hundreds of pages and starting again. I rarely have such problems.

I bring that software engineering disciple to writing. I want to know the story, the characters, the plot and all of its twists before I start writing. That way, I prevent myself from putting inconsistencies in the story and end up with a cohesive whole.

This is not to say I’m rigid in my writing. Often times a character takes over the story in ways I never imagined and I have to make changes to my outline. When my beta readers read the manuscript and don’t understand something, it usually means I need to add another scene to explain what’s happening. Perhaps, during research on a specific item, I make new discoveries that take me off in a new direction. I go back and modify my outline to accommodate them.

The sample outline I have posted on my website is for my newest novel, The Cartel Strikes Back. If you compare the outline to the book, you will find many differences. I can’t give away the ending, but it occurred to me halfway through the writing process, necessitating making changes further upstream in the book. You may view The Cartel Strikes Back outline here.

After I complete the outline, I sit down to start writing and something magical happens. My mind goes blank. I don’t have to think about what I’m writing or how I’m writing it. The letters and words just flow from my fingers, from my sub-conscious.

At this point, I know the story so well; I don’t have to think about what I’m writing. The words just appear on my computer screen. And know what? I have the same excitement and enthusiasm as a new reader reading the book for the first time.

It’s an exhilarating feeling. I only hope you can achieve this in your writing.

Now we get to the blow-by-blow of my process. Remember: this is how I write. Your method may be something different.

Researching Mexican Food

Research

My process begins with a story idea. For The Inside Passage it was the arrest of a terror cell in Canada that were all Canadian-born citizens with college degrees. They planned to blow up Parliament and behead the Prime Minister on live TV. I pondered on why such people would turn against their own country, and a plot was born.

In the new Catrina Flaherty novel, The China Town Murders, the story started with a news article about a Seattle attorney who had been arrested as a serial rapist. He preyed on illegal immigrants because they couldn’t go to the police. A perfect case for Cat.

After I have an idea, I begin the research. This could take several weeks. I need to know why the Canadians turned against their country, why the attorney became a rapist. I was worried I would have the FBI knocking on my door when I was researching The Inside Passage, I spent so much time on jihadist websites.

I copy and paste articles that I find helpful into a Word file so that I can refer to them later.

Leading a discussion with a book group

Beat Sheet

The beat sheet is a screenwriter's tool I use to work through the plot of a novel before I start writing the outline. It helps me visualize the story before I get bogged down in details.

The beat sheet concept is adapted from Blake Snyder’s book Save The Cat! If you haven’t read Save The Cat!, get a copy today.*

You can download a sample beat sheet from my novel Bikini Baristas here.

By the time I’ve completed the beat sheet, I have a pretty good handle on how the story will unfold. I also know most of the characters that will appear in the book.

See Part Two for Penn's process for character development and beyond.

*Editor's note: I scoured the Chicago Manual of Style to determine if the comma in this sentence is necessary. Couldn't find it. But I did find a reference on The Punctuation Guide that if a comma is needed after a title that ends with an exclamation point, the comma should be used. Here are examples from The Punctuation Guide:

As part of a title of work

If the exclamation point is part of a title of work or a proper noun, the comma should be retained.

His latest short story, “Don’t Make a Sound!,” is his most suspenseful yet.

After five years in the sales department at Yahoo!, he took a marketing job at Google.

Just in case you need to know.

What Are Beta Readers and Why Should You Care?

From the August 2016 newsletter

“Beta Reader” means someone who evaluates a manuscript – a term probably adapted from the software industry, where programmers release a "beta" version of a new program to people who will test it.

Beta readers are not editors but are volunteers who can give you feedback about your book. Best friends, significant others and family members aren’t likely to be the best beta readers – they’re predisposed to loving whatever you write.

Beta readers are not the same as a read-and-critique group. A beta reader will read your entire manuscript, on their own, and develop a personal response to it. Some online writers suggest arranging three+ beta readers, individuals who are honest, give constructive comments, and have the time.

Give them the very best writing you can produce on your own, not your first draft. Let your beta reader know what questions you would like answered. Do you want comments on the strength of the characters, the organization of the concept, the flow or pace of the action, or on areas where they felt something was missing? Ask them to note their thoughts as they read. Provide them with the book in the format they would prefer, digital or paper.

When you receive a beta reader’s comments ask yourself, “Will addressing this comment make for a better book?” If so, take their advice and apply it to your next revision. If not, thank them: don’t defend yourself. You don’t have to accept every piece of advice you get.

If you would like names of possible beta readers from SDWE/G or you’re available as a beta reader, contact Sandra Yeaman at sandiegowriterseditorsguild@gmail.com.

Source: results of a Google search.