My Writing Process For Fiction 2016
I’ve been writing my entire life but I haven’t always kept a consistent writing process. As I was getting into NaNoWriMo a few years back I sat down and hammered one together. That one choice made all the difference. So, this is my process. Your process may differ, too. But seeing how other writers moved from concept to publication helped me.
When I was in school, I published books every year. It was a thing we did where I attended, but it wasn’t mandatory. That’s not to brag, because a lot of us did that stuff. I’m not claiming to have penned a classic in the third grade. But what I learned from publishing those books every year was the foundation to how I work today.
I couldn’t tell you how many things I have written that I will never publish. And I use the word “publish” in the loosest sense here. But every time I write something that I do like, it’s because I followed this pattern. It may not work for you, but it gives me the perfect balance of effort to feedback, and then gloss.
Step 1: The Idea Phase
Inspiration is completely random. I might be out somewhere and see a single sentence or action that sparks something in my brain. I might not express it for awhile, because I need to make sure that spark isn’t a misfire. So, I’ll usually write it down in a document of ideas and wait until my next “what should I write next?” moment.
After some time passes, I’ll pull that list of ideas out and run through them. If I have more than five on the list, it’s usually a quick process to see what still speaks to me. I might move some of the bad ideas off the list. I might just demote them if I feel like they could have some promise.
If I pick something, I’ll start tossing around what it is that I think the concept would need to do. This may be the first point where the concept stalls.
I’ll write down as much as I can about this, maybe even start outlining the big picture of the story’s purpose. But if I hit a serious wall, I won’t stress about it here unless I think the story is over-the-top good.
Step 2: Outlining A Story
I don’t get crazy with outlining unless I’ve had too much time to think about a story and it just comes to me. I use the outlining phase as a way to direct the larger course of it.
Big Picture Outlining
For me, it’s fine if I don’t know exactly how the characters are going to do something. At this point I just care that they’ll need to. On occasion I’ll even mess myself up by planning a huge plot point that I don’t know if I’ll overcome. I can work the details of that out later, too. Usually those are the best kind of things to find, because it makes me work harder.
Location, Location, Wait, Where Are We Going?
A lot of the middle bits of the story will come together out of necessity. But in the past few years I’ve been pushing myself to be more conscious of the story’s geography. If I don’t think about that here, I’ll end up with a whole lot of walking scenes, or I’ll have to write in some time gaps.
Some of the weirdest moments of any story are when you can say “how did that person get from New York to Egypt in 3 hours?” (That’s much less common in books than it is in TV, but it still happens.)
If I’m dead-set on this story and world, I’ll draw a map and get some rough placements down for consistency.
Step 3: The Sanity Check
Before I write anything, I’ll ask someone I trust what they think of the concept alone. This is usually more helpful than both steps 1 and 2 combined. As a creative type of person, I imagine everything I’m making is awesome. Then two weeks later I think, “why did I ever think this was a good idea?” Asking someone I trust about the concept alone will cut down that self-doubt later.
The person I trust most about this kind of thing is my wife. She’s good at telling me when I’m plotting a concept that doesn’t make any sense. It’s worse if I’m planning a story that lacks any point at all. If I can’t explain it well enough for her, it means I haven’t thought it through enough. In the event that I tell her about a story and she just stares at me, it might just go in the trash.
If I catch myself saying things like “oh, but I’ll make it good, you’ll see,” that’s a red flag as well. It’s like a movie producer saying, “we’ll fix this in post production.” Get it right first, then you don’t have to spend hours course-correcting later.
When my wife is busy, I have two other friends with good opinions about such things.
My friend Dave is a writer’s writer. He reads way more than I do, too. His perspective is especially important. Not only is he’s willing to give an honest opinion, but he can also tell me when I’m borrowing things by accident.
I also ask my friend Adrian, who is a lot more outgoing and active than I am. He’s a rare mix of someone who loves a good story and expects action to be present with quality. His reaction is usually an indicator of how interesting the story might be. If I get a luke-warm response from him, something in the equation is missing.
It’s important that I have a decent outline in place because they’ll usually ask me questions. If I don’t have an answer, I can’t expect reasonable feedback. There’s not a lot of reason to ask your friends and family if a story where a knight goes on a quest is worth writing. And, if I explain the story and they don’t care, perhaps it’s just a boring story.
Step 4: The Draft With Edges – The Rough Draft
“Edges” might be the wrong word. It’s most often like “the draft you’d trip over.” Don’t expect perfection, just get something down. Anything. It doesn’t have to even be the length of the final draft, but it shouldn’t be five thousand words either. (Unless you’re writing a short story, then that’s a fine rough-draft length.)
What I try to figure out in a rough draft is the pulse of the story – the direction of it. I get to introduce the characters, the plot, the point of it. And you will miss every one of those things at some point.
This is why NaNoWriMo exists.
Your goal is to sprint through this one, but with as much quality as you’re able to muster. I don’t leave blatant mistakes, but I don’t do in-depth editing either. Fixing mistakes breaks your thought process, even on a small scale.
Taking Sandpaper to the Edges
There are two times I edit a work in the rough draft phase.
If I’m writing a lot in one sitting, I’ll throw that text into Hemingway App before I stop for the evening. That helps me end on a more polished state, knowing that I won’t have such a daunting edit later. I don’t write longer works in Hemingway App because it would distract me. Anytime I wrote an adverb, it would turn blue. That’s helpful in editing, but getting a rough draft in place is about making mistakes. (And yes, there is a writing mode for Hemingway that doesn’t offer critique. I prefer to write in Scrivener or Ulysses.) Plus, if I write in Hemingway, they have formatting that doesn’t copy so well into some other apps. I tend to keep as little formatting in my text as possible because it helps in the final version of the manuscript.
The other time I ask Hemingway for an opinion is when I’m finished with a chapter. Since I’ve been checking on my progress as I write, this is almost always a five minute process. Hemingway is a sanity check of a different type. It helps me keep things clear as I go.
Step 5: Review
For awhile, I was meeting with a writing group. They were awesome. Well, they still are, we’re just not meeting as a writing group anymore.
As I wrote the book that will become “From Where Sings the Darkness”, I would send the progress along. The feedback from them was incredible. Sometimes it was good, other times I didn’t nail it. It wasn’t so much what they said as it was the thought process behind it.
Critique is hard from anyone, you have to wade through piles of opinion. Since opinions could be right or wrong, there has to be a better foundation than what someone thinks. Trusting your gut is iffy at best. Sometimes a writing critique is trusting someone else’s gut.
So, for example, if someone said “oh, that character shouldn’t pick those flowers!” I had to figure out their thought process. Was it because they thought the character shouldn’t pick the flowers? Did they prefer roses to marigolds? Or was it because the character wouldn’t have picked the flowers? Sometimes it was a matter of me having written the right thing at the wrong time, too. They loved the flowers, and we agreed that the character should stop to pick them. But maybe that shouldn’t happen while a monster was chasing them.
Sometimes I was being lazy. That happens, and at this point your friends might tell you that. Good. You don’t hire a personal trainer who hands you cupcakes between reps. Your writing group shouldn’t just let you write like a sloth. (I would definitely read a book written by a sloth.)
If you don’t have a writers group, that’s cool. Ask your friends to read your stuff. If you don’t know which friends you should ask, ask everyone. You can post in a blanket message to everyone on your social media accounts. Something like, “hey, do any of you like to read lolcats novels? I need 5 people to give me their opinion of something I wrote.” You’ll likely have more support than you realize. If your friends will rip off your lolcats novel, you should reconsider your friends. After you’ve reconsidered, and you’re still friends, you can always politely decline. “Hey, I appreciate your offer and interest, I think I’m good on readers at the moment,” works. If that puts you at risk of losing that person as a friend, reconsider that friendship a second time. =)
Step 6: Draft 2 – Pruning and Revising
In this draft, I care more about pruning what I wrote, and folding in the best feedback. I also want to be conscious of word counts.
I take my first draft and print it. In the past I used to print everything from my printer. That got old because I had to bind everything. For From Where Sings The Darkness I had it printed as if it were a one-off novel. It was a touch pricier and I had to wait for it to arrive, but a year or two later I haven’t lost or destroyed it.
With the printed manuscript in hand, I roll back through it with my notes from review and mark it up with a pencil or pen. It’s brutal. Some pages of the manuscript are just lines through text. That’s good.
In a way, removing things takes you in the opposite direction of your finished book. If you started draft 2 with forty thousand words and removed half of it, you have a lot of writing to do. If you started with forty thousand words and removed a thousand, you might have more editing to do.
Work your way through the draft and be hard on yourself. You’ve already done something good, which is finishing draft 1. It’s not personal, you’re in pruning mode. For me, the hardest part of gardening is pruning the things that are in the way of productive growth. Removing a limb from an apple tree feels barbaric. That’s editing. You have to visualize that on the other side of this, you’ll have more apples.
To do that metaphor justice, you have to recognize what major branches should stay on the tree. Otherwise your story will be an ornamental apple-less apple tree. When in doubt, return to your big picture outline and compare.
Major Plot Revision
Sometimes the effort of revising isn’t trivial. For me, I had my characters going to the wrong place. There will be times when whole chapters are wrong. Don’t panic, take a step back and re-think. The fact that you’re realizing this is an issue puts you three steps ahead of not having realized it. This is the point of this part of the project, reworking your draft to make it better.
Let’s say you wrote the characters in a scene at the grocery store, talking about money. That could be right. But if you realize they should be at a bank, there are likely ways to salvage the scene. To test, you can run through a bit of it and change supermarket language for bank language. If that feels better, redo the whole scene to match. If not, you have to figure out where they ought to be instead. The other option is to fold the important parts of the conversation back into another one. Maybe they’re just going too many places. It’s easy to let a story sound like your errand list.
After each section of this revision, I run everything through Hemingway App for clarity.
Step 7: Take a Break
After I have worked my way through draft 2, I put it away for awhile. I mean that I put it away for months and just forget it as best as possible.
There’s an exception here. If I’m going to write a sequel to it, or a prequel, I start on that here. I go through the same process I went through with this book. I won’t take it all the way through draft 2 at this point, but I get it far enough long to make sure it holds up.
What I’m trying to determine here is if a sequel or prequel will hold up on their own. Have I created a solid foundation to support more than one story in this world? If I haven’t, that’s something I need to fix in the first book before I move to the next.
Can you write a sequel after releasing the original? Of course you can. But you’ll often have to go back to the original scenes and embellish upon them. An example is the show Lost. It wasn’t always clear if J.J. Abrams patched a concept in later or if it was always part of trajectory. Yes, sometimes patches were obvious. But he’s a professional, so even those obvious moments were forgivable and often enjoyable.
Step 8: Editing
So after a time of either working through a second project or letting the first sit on a shelf, I return to it. I’ll be as harsh as I was in the previous round, but this time my vision is different. Since I haven’t been living and breathing this story for awhile, it’s all fresh again.
With that new perspective, I can ask myself questions like “who is this person I’m reading about?” or “what is this place they’re going to visit?” We tend to write locations in fantasy with the same familiarity as we’d write New York City. But in this phase, sometimes it’s obvious that you didn’t explain that new location. And you can’t expect your readers to look up a location in your brain. With that gap in time, you’re not just looking for what you wrote, but what you didn’t write.
Fill in the gaps.
Or, maybe not. Sometimes a mystery can make things more interesting. Look for ways to remove details. It might make the reader take action and become more interested. Even if you’re writing something straightforward, mystery is intriguing. (Yes, by definition, I know.)
Step 9: Read it
After I’ve edited the book into something that feels more polished, I read it. I could take a break from it again if I need some renewed perspective, but I don’t always.
In this step, I’ll often read it aloud. That’s more powerful than reading it in my head because my brain has to process it harder. Poetry is better as spoken word, and some things are better in your head. But things that are better in your mind are few and far between. Your work will be a lot better if you force yourself to read it, because you’ll focus on it in a different way.
You may find some mistakes here, but usually it’s more a case of having used the wrong real word. “Herd” vs “heard”, for example.
It’s also possible that you realize you need to edit the book more. That’s fine, return to the appropriate step and get it done.
One way I avoid editing mode is to export my manuscript from Scrivener and send it to Amazon’s Kindle app on my phone. (Or iBooks, if you prefer.) Then I can read it on my phone the same way I’d often read a book I had purchased. That’s how many people will read my work anyway, so I consider it a preview.
Step 10: Bring In The Editor
You’ll have to bear with me on a bit of personal theory here. I haven’t published a novel before that I was going to sell. But if I were, this is how I would handle step 10.
If I were going to self publish the story, this is the part where I would ask someone else to edit it. I’ve worked on the book for so long that I feel confident about it. The story has been with me long enough that I feel like I’ve poked enough holes. The language is tight, and the characters have unique personalities.
But I’m also so close to it that I’m blind. This is especially true in the first few things you write. I may or may not be able to judge quality at a professional level. That’s why an editor is key, not just for grammar, but for vetting.
Because I’m me, I would ask them to do light editing. Nothing drastic. But I’d be up for suggestions, if they can make a strong case for larger revisions. I would want that editor to explain why the bigger things need to change. I don’t want to argue or add needless work for them, of course. I just want to figure out if we’re in another flower-picking scenario. (See above in the writer’s group section.) That not only helps me give them better work in the future, but it helps me not have any regrets about adjustments.
It’s tempting to skip this step and just publish the story. And if you’re not going to send the story far, that’s fine. But if you want to self-publish it, I don’t think this is an optional step. Now, if you don’t have the money to hire an editor, or you’re one of those amazing editors, skip it. Don’t go into debt over this. There are most likely other people you can ask before you choose between editing or food. Making money with writing is hard enough, don’t increase the pressure with debt.
The Literary Agent Route
Sometimes literary agents have specifications on their sites about editing. If you are going to send your work to an editor, keep a copy of what you wrote before editing. That way if the agent you’re contacting cares about this kind of thing you don’t have to worry.
I have seen literary agents state that they discourage writers from hiring editors. The way I understand it, they want to know that what you sent them is your work. They want to know if you can repeat the process. They don’t want to hire a ghostwriter, they want you. Editors who do too much can give a false representation of your voice. Literary agents are looking to hear your voice. And they usually have editors they trust anyway.
I don’t have an opinion about it, but it’s something of which you should be aware.
It’s the next natural thing, of course. That could mean putting money into advertising or just telling your friends. I do have some thoughts about this, but I’ll save them for another article.
I’m sure I’ll also have an article on the next, next thing, which is writing a sequel.