Everyone in the writing industry has advice, and often they’ll share it in a manner that implies it’s gospel. But the fact is, much of this advice is contradictory. So how do you sort it out? By reading, experimenting, and deciding what inspires your creative flow. Each writer will come up with his or her own process, and it’s perfectly fine if yours differs from everyone else’s.
Over the past four years I’ve developed a writing process that some people might find strange, but it works for me. The first thing I do when I have a basic idea for a book is brainstorm it with one or two of my close writing friends. I know some people like to hold their ideas close and feel that talking about them diminishes the passion, but that’s not a problem for me. I like the energy that comes from a good brainstorming session, and I believe it takes a village to write a book.
Once I have a loose idea of what will happen, I write an outline. Again, I know there are two camps on this. But I feel much more in control of a story, and less prone to writer’s block, when I have a road map. I’ve also seen lots of people bemoan the revision process when they write from the top of their head. I’d much rather put in the initial work than have to cut huge chunks of story I’ve fallen in love with. I use different colored highlighters at this point to track my subplots and make sure they aren’t bunched up in one spot, then I make adjustments accordingly. If knowing where the story is going drains your passion, then I wouldn’t recommend outlining. However if you’re on the fence or resisting because you think it’s too much work, I’d highly advise giving it a try. (It might help to think of your outline as a quick first draft without the details.) Once I’m done with my outline, I have my friend Alice read it. This is another point where I’m sure people will be horrified. But I like knowing in advance if a plot twist is too predicable or outrageous.
Another planning tool I find helpful is a calendar. I use Excel to create one with squares large enough to write in. This allows me to note important events in the story so I can have a good visual and keep track of exactly how much time has passed between plot points.
Once I’ve finished my planning, I write the first draft. I send Alice each chapter as soon as I complete it. She gives me her reaction, and I take this into account in initial re-writes. This helps me keep the story in line, but also offers some immediate gratification.
As I’m working on this draft, I create two additional documents. The first I call “Things to Add”. Any time I realize I’ve forgotten details or character traits, or I come across an inspiration that I don’t want to stop to include, I note it there. My second document is for deleted lines and scenes. Sometimes when I’m stuck I realize it’s because I’m not sure if my current wording or idea is strong enough or if I should try another route. I’m hesitant to delete what I already have, but by cutting and pasting the original to this second document, I feel secure in knowing I can always go back to it. Since my books are about racing, I call this document “Spare parts.”
When I finish the first draft, I update my outline. The most vital thing to remember about an outline is that it isn’t etched in stone. It’s important to let the story flow and be open to adding or deleting scenes. As the story changes, these changes have to be noted in the outline before I move to the next step. Even if you aren’t an outline person, I think it’s important to map out your manuscript after the first draft. It’s just too hard to visualize the story arc if you don’t.
Once I’ve updated my outline, I go through my “Things to Add” document to see where I can incorporate these changes. I’ll insert them as bullet points at the end of each chapter in my outline. When this is finished, I start the second draft, which generally goes pretty quickly.
Once the second draft is complete I create a separate document in a smaller font at 1 ½ spacing. I print multiple copies front-to-back (I’ve got a nifty printer that does this for me) get them bound, and give them to my beta readers. Of course this step is unnecessary if your betas read your book online, but it makes it much more convenient to deal with a hard copy. And I figure that if someone’s doing me the favor of reading my manuscript, I should make it as easy for her as possible.
Once I receive feedback, usually several weeks to a couple of months later, I write a third draft to incorporate the new information. Then I put the manuscript away. By this point it’s usually landscaping season, so I concentrate on that, doing physical labor and letting my mental reserves restore themselves. Months later, I’ll pull the manuscript out and look at it with fresh eyes. At this time I’m easily able to see where words and phrases can be cut, or where new wording would improve a paragraph.
One thing about developing a writing process is that it’s not a concrete thing. It can always be tweaked and improved. For example, many people love Nanowrimo because it helps unleash their creativity and silence their inner critic. But others say the writing they produced during Nano is so rough it’s no fun to do the necessary editing . I haven’t participated in Nano myself (November is leaf clean-up time in the landscaping world) but other experiences tell me I’m definitely part of this second camp. I can’t seem to separate the creative process from the editing process. But by continuing to experiment, I discovered that I can approximate the Nano creative flow by walking and archiving my thoughts on my digital recorder. I’m forced to write a scene one line at a time, because that’s about all I can keep in my brain. Even though I might only collect 8 minutes of recording in a 70-minute walk, that works out to 1500 words. I could sit staring at the computer screen all day to come up with the equivalent. Remarkably, these words are usually of decent quality, and the next morning I can polish them to the point that I’m satisfied with moving on.
So how about you? Have you developed a specific method that gets the job done? Has your writing process changed as you’ve discovered new techniques? I’m fascinated by the nuts and bolts of other people’s creativity, so please tell me what works for you.