My Writing Process


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.

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11 Responses to My Writing Process

  1. marla says:

    my writing process is helter skelter and I want to tighten it up. I usually write at least 50,000 words of it during Nanowrimo. Then I spend the next year or so revising it. Or two years.

    My planned changes are:
    1. Do brainstorming when I have an idea that I want to actually pursue.
    2. Outline the entire story
    3. Fill out a character bio on main characters
    4. Write madly until I come to the end.
    5. Do what Darcy Pattison calls the Shrunken Manuscript and use that as my base for revising.
    6. revise and recruit my own Alice.
    7. revise again. the end.

    It’s my outline of a plan. I hope it works. It’s got to work better than no plan. Right?

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  2. Elisabeth Miles says:

    Since I’m still writing my first novel, I’m not sure if what I’m doing is working, but so far it seems to be. (I’m on Ch 25 of a probable 28-30.) I wrote the idea in a sort of “free-write” thing that started “I want to write a novel about…” which is how I’ve started lots of other works (short stories, poems, etc). Then I wrote copious notes, and “interviews” with my characters, letting them talk about themselves, about each other, and about anything else that they wanted. Then I wrote a chapter by chapter outline. At this time I was still not sure how to start a novel length story, so again free writing, sort of wrote my way to the beginning.

    I too have subsidiary documents with deleted things and ideas that come along, and other notes.

    One thing a teacher said was to leave room for surprises. I do not let the outline dictate the story, but, rather, let it be a plan of action that gets altered as things arise.

    The calendar is a great idea, and I need to do one. Especially since this novel has multiple times going on.

    With short works I usually edit and revise until it’s done, more or less in one go. I’m doing some of that, but the end of this will not be a finished product. I know there will be lots of layers of revising before I consider it a done deal.

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  3. Lisa Nowak says:

    Marla, your plan sounds like a good one to me. Did you know you can find beta readers at Absolute Write?

    Beth, Lots of people interview their characters, so I think you must have something there. I might try that with my next book, which will have a completely new cast. I agree with what you said about the layers. I think that’s one thing you absolutely can’t expect to get perfect on the first try. It only comes with revision. In my opinion, it’s just not possible to keep all those threads in your head at one time.

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  4. Karen C says:

    Hi Lisa.

    Thank you so much for sharing about your writing process. It doesn’t surprise me in the least that you have it so organized, structured, and laid out. You’re a smart, intentional writer!

    You asked about other people’s process. I have two different processes: one for short stories/essays/poems, and another one for this longer piece that I’m working on.

    In the first, for a short story/essay/poem, I usually sit down the night before Chrysalis and work on a story that’s been mentally percolating for the past couple days. *Or* I sit there with my laptop and wait for inspiration to hit. I start with the first sentence, and usually feel the momentum start to build once I’ve nailed that. I don’t have an outline or an ending in mind…I just usually write until the story unfolds and I come to a good ending spot. I revise along the way, reading it outloud to hear how it sounds. (Ack…writing it out like that makes me grateful that normally a story idea shows up, I can get it written in a couple of hours, and it feels fairly complete!)

    Since writing a longer piece is new territory for me, I’m using a different approach. It’s too scary for me to just kind of wing it. 🙂 I did just kind of wing the first section…like my other writing process. And from there I started to see where the story might go. So then I did a rough outline, character sketch, theme list, location list, character list, etc. I also have a number of pages of bits and pieces of the story that have popped into my brain so far. Some are just a line of dialog, an idea for a scene, a full scene, etc.

    I’m adding a few of those in with every section I write…and it’s been interesting to see how differently and how much slower and bigger writing a longer piece is!

    Anyway…a few thoughts on my process(es).

    Karen.

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  5. Lisa Nowak says:

    Karen, I’m impressed that you can just sit down and have a short story flow out of you. And that you don’t know the ending until it happens. I can’t ever come up with ideas for short stories. Good luck with the longer piece you’re working on now. I love it so far.

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  6. Karen C says:

    It’s kind of funny to me that normally I’m a logical, plan-it-out kind of person…but then I get all oh-just-go-with-the-flow-it’ll-all-work-out when it comes to writing short pieces. 🙂

    Thanks for the support! I’m glad you like what I’m working on. Rae’s turning out to be a very fun character to be…uh, wait…I mean a very fun character to *write*. Yeah, that’s what I meant. 🙂

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  7. Lisa, great post about your writing process. I love your point about how one’s process will change over time as we find out what works and what doesn’t. I’ve also found that the process I used for one book won’t work well for another. I don’t outline, per se, but for my WIP I wrote a rough two pages with my vision of what happens. I’m refining that as I go but those initial ideas are still resonating and very strong.

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  8. shelli says:

    hm I write my paragraph pitch first. To help me hone in on the real story. Then I outline as I write each chapter.

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  9. shelli says:

    PS you won the book on my giveaway!

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  10. Lisa Nowak says:

    Chris, for a non-outliner, it’s cool that you wrote those two pages stating your vision for the book. I thought you were completely a seat-of-the-pants type. 🙂 In the manuscript I’m working on now I’ve discovered that I’m tweaking my approach to revising slightly, so I know what you mean about how what works for one book won’t necessarily work for the next.

    Shelli, I did a “log line” for the book I’m working on before I started, but I found that my original idea changed a bit as I went. I thought my character’s “want” was to have a normal teenage life, but I discovered that she quickly accepted that her life couldn’t be normal, and instead it was her friends and father who wanted that for her.

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  11. ElanaJ says:

    I’m so intimidated by this!! I usually have an idea in an obscure place so I jot it down on a scrap of an envelope in my purse. Or a post-it note with a thousand other ideas. The ones that stay in my brain for more than a few days get started.

    And then I sit down and write. That’s it. No outlining. No planning.

    That’s why rewriting is so difficult for me. And it’s when the real writing starts.

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