Monday, June 18, 2012

Author Gary Phillips Shares His Writing Process

One of the coolest things about being a writer is meeting other writers. I recently connected with one of my writing buddies, Gary Phillips of Monkology fame (and way too many other mystery novels, comic books and short stories to name). Without having to twist his arm, cry or beg (he’s that kind of guy), Gary agreed to share how he tackles the writing process.  After you read his tips, make sure you check out his massive body of work at

Gary’s Writing Process
My writing process varies depending on what it is I’m writing.  That is, for a novel I’ll outline the main segments, telling the story in sequential order from beginning to end.  Now even before I’ve done this I might have written on a notepad who the main characters are and something about their backstory—who are they, what’s in their background that’s shaped them before we meet them in the story I’m writing.  This seems to really help me ground the characters, give me a sense of what they’ll talk like, how they’ll react in certain situations. 

 My goal then is 1,000 to 1,200 words a day.  Some days the words flow like magic from my fingers, and other days it’s as if I’m using a hammer and chisel to slowly carve each one in a stone tablet like a scribe on the Flintstones.

In writing the novel I usually write 50 to 60 pages, stop, re-read, rewrite and edit those pages then go forward.  I’ll halt again at the next 50-60 pages, repeat the previous steps, then again continue writing the book.  So when I’m done, I tweak those last set of pages and that’s it, I turn the manuscript in to my editor—being prepared to do more rewriting when I get notes or suggestions back from the editor.

For short stories I normally make a few notes, think about the setup, hopefully have a nice little twist or reveal worked out.  I like my want short stories to have a punch at the end or have the last lines where you leave ‘em wanting more.  I am guilty of liking an ambiguous ending as well.  I’ve knocked out some short stories in a couple of sittings because I can burn on them, I’m so in the head of the main character or characters, I become immersed in what they’re doing…how in the world will this end?  I have to know.

Currently I’m writing two novellas that will be 25,000 or less words each.  Well, I’m scheduled to write one right after the other, not both of them at once.  In the past I’ve written two full books at once, but never again.  Got too confused about what characters belonged where and in which scene switching from writing one of the stories in the morning then to the other in the afternoon.  Not to mention I’m no spring chicken and I need my afternoon naps!

Anyway these novellas will be more action-adventure oriented, pulp flavored material.  In one case featuring a brother who is a sort of combination Bruce Wayne/Batman (though he won’t be running around in a costume) and the Saint while the other one will feature a team of adventurers.  These will initially be e-books for sale, cheap, er, inexpensive, and hopefully if there’s enough downloads to be the basis for continuing series and possibly audio version as well.

I think then my editing approach on the novellas will be at roughly half the word count, I’ll stop, do my rewrite thing, then finish the work.

Gary’s Advice for Getting to the Last Page
Advice on getting from the dreaded first page to the last?  What’s the ad tagline…Just Do It?  I suppose that’s somewhat a cliché but it’s true.  Even if you think what you’re writing is dreck, that it isn’t the story you have in your mind, you’ve got no choice but to get the words down on paper -- I have to edit printed out pages.  You have to have something to work with in front of you.

Gary’s Recommended Writing Resources
I’m not much on books about writing but of the few on my shelf I always recommend Bill Johnson’s A Story is a Promise.  This is a wonderful book about the art of storytelling and breaks down the various components.  Bill also maintains a blog.  Plots and Characters: A Screenwriter on Screenwriting by my late buddy Millard Kaufman is another book I’d recommend.  You don’t have to have an interest in penning screenplays to get something from Millard’s book on the construction of these fundamental elements of story.  Millard, a WWII vet, was nominated for an Oscar for his screenplays for Bad Day at Black Rock and Take the High Ground.  He also wrote and directed this cool B prison movie, Convicts Four, where a crazed Sammy Davis Jr. manically kills some bed bugs in his cell

Lastly, Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing.  I think you can download the rules but I think it’s nice to have a bound edition—my wife gave me an illustrated one for a birthday from William Morrow.   You might not agree with all of Mr. Leonard’s rules, but they are informative.


Gary Phillips’ recent endeavors include being editor and contributor to the all-original anthology Scoundrels: Greed, Murder and Financial Crimes (which includes a story by Pamela Samuels Young) and Monkology: 15 Stories from the World of Private Eye Ivan Monk.  Visit Gary’s website at

1 comment:

  1. Good writing advice, Gary. (And I need my afternoon naps, too!)