Not that long ago, I asked a great friend about her writing process. I have always loved reading about how other people work. There’s no guarantee the same method will work for everyone, of course, but hearing how other people do it has helped motivate me in the past. Besides, I love trying new methods on for size.
Despite me asking about her method, it didn’t cross my mind until last week that I could share my own writing process, as well. There’s a lot to talk about, so much like my friend Megan did, I’ll be splitting the explanation of my writing process into two posts. So, without further ado, here’s the first glimpse at how I get things done.
Step 1 – The Notebook
An idea is obviously the starting point for a story, you can’t really write one without an idea in mind. I carry a notebook with me at all times. Right now it’s either the tiny Hello Kitty notebook in my purse, or the spiral-bound journal with cherry blossoms on it that my husband gave me as an anniversary gift. Any time I have an idea for a story, I take a moment to stop what I’m doing and write it down on a page in the notebook. It’s usually a brief summary, maybe a page length in my cherry blossom journal.
Once the idea is written down, I label it with the date I wrote it down and the story’s name. I don’t always think of a name right away, I find naming a story to be one of the hardest parts. But giving it a working title, which can be anything and doesn’t even have to make sense, helps me assign an identity to the story. Later on, that makes it easier to recall the idea from memory.
The notebook is also useful for writing out ideas for particular scenes in stories I’m currently working on, or tiny biographies for characters I’d like to fit into stories at some point later on. And if I’m in the middle of a project and inspiration happens to strike when I’m out away from home, I’ll open my notebook and write out the scene that’s come to mind while it’s still fresh.
All in all, the notebook becomes a tidy little library of information to roll into my stories when it comes time to write.
Step 2 – The Journal
Don’t let me fool you, the journals I keep on hand are completely different from the notebooks step 1 revolves around!
For each story that I write, I keep a separate journal. I love the feeling of real books, and having nice journals to keep each project in is something I find very enjoyable. Whenever I start a story, I find a journal to fit. For Serpent’s Tears, the story I’m working on now, I write in a red embossed journal I was given for Christmas. For its sequel, which I’m already taking notes for, I write in a brown embossed journal with gilded pages.
The journal serves two important purposes. One, I use the journal to write my outline for the story. This means I have a hard copy on hand at all times, which makes it easy to reference my outline at a glance when I’m actually writing. Two, when I’m working on one specific project, I’ll carry its journal instead of my regular notebook. That way, when I’m feeling inspired and I’m not near my computer, I can open it up and write a scene or two in the pages of the journal. This keeps all my work for each story neatly organized, and since each is in its own journal, I can tell at a glance which one I’m picking up.
Step 3 – The Outline
Once I’ve got the idea in the notebook and a journal picked out, outlining is the next step I take.
Before writing Death of the Sun, I wasn’t much of a believer in outlines. I felt like they were too constricting, and why bother writing an outline when I could be writing the story? Like it or not, though, my refusal to adhere to what’s been a staple for writers through the ages is why it took me until Death of the Sun to actually complete a novel. Without guidelines, it’s easy for a story to wander. Without the clear tracks laid down by outlining, it’s easy for the entire point of a story to be derailed.
My outlining process isn’t too complicated. The story is already outlined in the idea page kept in my notebook, so my outline starts with the first chapter and ends with the end of the book, though I usually start writing once I’ve outlined about a third of the story. I label the top of each journal page with the chapter’s number, and it takes off on its own from there. A chapter outline is just the summary of events that need to happen in each chapter. Sometimes I spare a page for new characters introduced in a chapter, adding a short biography to help keep who’s who straight and make sure I have descriptions of them matching consistently.
The outline is often revised as I write, making notes in the margins. As I encounter things in the outline that don’t work where I’d originally placed them, I make notes in the margins to move events from one chapter to another, rearranging the order things happen in, or striking things out completely. An outline helps keep me goal-oriented, but it’s not the stifling, narrow thing I always thought it was. It’s just a path through the garden to guide me from one end to the other – Having it there doesn’t mean I can’t wander among the flowers on my way.
Step 4 – Actually Writing
After all those paragraphs, this is where we really get down to the heart of it. Spending time actually writing is what seems like the easiest part, but sometimes, it’s rather like pulling teeth. Slow, excruciating, and it’ll leave you hurting for days on end. Writing is hard work, and while I enjoy it, I don’t know if I would honestly call it fun.
Writing the meat and potatoes of the story is no small feat. It can take months to years of a person’s life, even working at it every day. Some days are more successful than others. Overall, I’m proud to have been able to write Death of the Sun in a matter of months. If you’d asked me at the beginning of the project when I thought I’d be done, I don’t know what I would’ve told you. Probably something like “Next year, I think. Maybe.”
It’s hard to be productive. Especially in an age where digital distractions are everywhere. For me, the only way to really get anything done is to cut myself off from the outside world.
Whenever I write, I make sure I have a snack or especially tasty drink on hand. Starbucks bottled frappuccinos are ideal for me, but a bit on the expensive side, so I usually settle for fake-uccinos made in my own little kitchen. Having refreshments close by helps quash the urge to get up and go get something after I’ve started my work for the night. I always write best at night, by the way – Everyone works differently, but I simply cannot get fiction writing done during the day.
Once I’ve got my goodies for the night, my notebook, and my journal with the story outline in hand, I unplug my laptop from all the contraptions it’s tethered to at my desk and I retreat to the bedroom. I pile the pillows up to make a backrest, click the little glowy button that turns my wi-fi off, and put some mood music on. The music I listen to changes depending on the mood of the scene I’m writing, but for general inspiration, I usually start with E.S. Posthumus or Karsh Kale.
And then I write. All the fuss and preparation leads into this. I do set a word goal for myself, and I check my progress regularly. Depending on how much time I have to write, I aim for either 500 or 1,000 words. Usually, once I’m settled in and disconnected from the world outside, I breeze past the goal pretty easily.
This is the process that I rinse and repeat, over and over again, until the oh-so-satisfying moment I type the words that bring it all to an end.
Seems like that’s it, right? Well, no. If I said I was done after writing an entire book, I couldn’t be farther from the truth. There’s still a lot more left to do, but we’ll save that for the next entry, which will be all about my mortal enemy… Revision.