The Writing Process and Walter Jon Williams

Walter Jon Williams, the man who changed how I write, is kind enough to weigh in on his writing process. If you would like to change the way you write, you should visit the Taos Toolbox page on this site.


Tamago: Do you have a regular drafting process, or does your drafting process vary from book to book? (If it varies, please keep one project in mind as you answer these questions.)

Walter: Normally I start at the beginning and work through to the end, following an outline I’ve carefully constructed beforehand. Sometimes, though, I’ll start by writing several key scenes, then string them together afterwards.

Tamago: Which part of writing–drafting, revising, critique from others–do you enjoy the most? Why? The least? Why?

Walter: The most fun part is the most creative part, which is coming up with the idea, developing it, and constructing the outline. Drafting can range from tedious to enormous fun, depending on how close I am to my original inspiration. Some books are a joy to write, and some are a slog, and I don’t know which is which till it happens.

Redrafting is generally enjoyable, because I get to rediscover earlier parts of the work. The critiques can be fun, because I get to see my friends, and the comments are often useful.

Tamago: What is the longest time it’s taken you to complete a project? The shortest time?

Walter: I think I’ve written a short-short in one sitting. But that’s not hard.

The longest I’ve taken on a book was two years, but then the book was more than twice as long as my average book, something well into George RR Martin territory. It was a horrific experience, and I never want to do it again.

Tamago: In what ways, if any, has your writing process changed over time?

Walter: I’ve grown a lot more organized. I always had outlines, but now my outlines are a lot more detailed, with the big scenes all set out.

And I’ve also got better. There’s a good deal less anxiety when I run into a problem, because I have more skills to deploy.

Tamago: Do you work alone, or do you participate in a critique group? What do you see as the advantages and disadvantages to your approach?

Walter: I’ve worked with one critique group or another for thirty years. The only disadvantage to working with a critique group that features four or five full-time writers is that the pages add up, and you have to devote a lot of time to reading your colleagues’ work. But then most of my colleagues write pretty good stuff, so that’s a minor complaint at best.

Tamago: How long is a writing session for you? How many words do you write? Are you likely to keep most of those words?

Walter: If I work for more than three or four hours, I start getting punchy, and what I produce isn’t worth reading. So when that happens I allow myself to go off and have fun.

I’m not a fast writer. My ideal pace is around 500 words per day, though I can write faster if I have to. Even though 500 isn’t fast, it’s still one book and a fistful of short fiction per year, and that adds up.

Tamago: How much research do you undertake for a project?

Walter: Far too much. I love research.

Tamago: In general, how many drafts does it take before you are satisfied with a novel?

Walter: Depends on what you mean by “draft.” Since I work on a word processor, it’s easy to redraft the work, and so I’m always redrafting. I start each day by redrafting what I wrote the day before, and often I redraft that two or three or more times before the final draft when I rework the whole thing.

Tamago: Can you explain the difference between plot and story? What are your favorite ways of withholding information from a reader?

Walter:In my definition, a story is what happens, and a plot is how the story is presented to the reader.

If you tell a reader everything at the start there’s no reason to read further, so withholding information is vital. One of my favorites is to sneak up on a character’s blind spot. If a character loves and worships his father, say, he’ll never suspect that his father might be a villain; and if you stay firmly in that character’s point of view, the reader won’t suspect it either.

Tamago: 10. Besides the big firsts (getting an agent, publishing your first novel), what moments have you had that made you think, “hey, I’m actually a writer?”

Walter: I’m not sure that moment has happened yet. Anxiety and self-doubt are built into the process. Even if you show me works that I’ve written in the past, I’ll say, “Well sure, I was a writer then!”

Before I can prove to anyone else that I’m a writer, I have to prove it to myself, and I pretty much have to prove it daily.

Don’t let anyone tell you this isn’t work.

Author: Catherine Schaff-Stump

Catherine Schaff-Stump writes fiction for children and young adults. Her most recent book, The Vessel of Ra, is the first book in the Klaereon Scroll series. She is currently working on its sequel, as well as penning the middle grade adventures of Abigail Rath, monster hunter.

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