My Writing Process, In Case You Wondered
First off, here’s my disclaimer: my brain is different than every other person’s brain on the planet. Spoiler alert: yours is too. Which means that something that works for me might not work for you, and vice versa. That’s okay! It’s our differences that make us valuable and give us an opportunity to learn from each other.
To start off, a little background on me. I have been an editor for ten years. Which means I love the thrill of seeing words and stories get better and shine brighter. It also means I don’t shy away from lots o' revision. So, yeah. Remember that. (Also, go easy on my posts—I may be an editor, but I’m still just a person. There will be errors. It happens.)
So I’m going to lay out my process as best as I can (it’s always a work in progress, if I’m honest), and hope that you can find something that helps you in your process.
Most of my ideas start with a story spark—a moment in the story where a character is feeling something intense. Then I ask questions—Why? Who? What? Where? When? How? What happens next? What happened before this? I brainstorm and dig deeper into who the character is, what they want, what’s keeping them from getting it. Into the villains and emotional antagonists—what they want, what’s keeping them from getting it. I spend time building worlds around the characters, but I don’t have every detail in place before I start drafting, just big stuff that directly impacts the main character. I should probably write a whole post on just this. *jots down note so I don't forget*
Then I try and fit all that into a semblance of a plot. There are a lot of plot structures out there (Save the Cat!, Seven-Point Plot, Three Act, etc.). Fitting your ideas into a structure can be helpful to fit things together and see where you’re missing something. With so many structure options out there, I’ve found that there isn’t a universal structure that will fit any story—it depends on what type of story you have. And before you ask, I don’t have all the answers on which structure fits best for every type of story—go Google some and try a few on. :D I usually use a big ol’ whiteboard for this stage because I need to see it all at once—the end and the beginning, the middle, all of it. (Pictured is my whiteboard with redacted brainstorming, and my grandma's awesome couch.)
Drafting is not my favorite. But you can’t edit a blank page, so I dump words as fast as I can. I’ve won NaNoWriMo once, but it was totally 50k of the love story instead of the main story. I don’t apologize for that (yay romance), but I did do major rewrites. It usually takes a couple of months for me to finish a draft, between life getting in the way, running into roadblocks or twists I didn’t foresee, etc. As I write the character, my understanding of them grows, and things will change. By the end of the draft, I should be able to dump the characters into any situation and know how they'd react. So there will be unexpected moments as I go, but hopefully I’ve done enough brainstorming beforehand that things don’t get too out of hand. One piece of great advice I’ve heard is to know what you’re writing toward. That next big thing in your plot, write toward that, and you’ve got less chance of your characters deviating.
Also, as I draft, I keep a note somewhere (in OneNote or a notes app) of things I already know I want to change. That way I can keep moving forward instead of re-writing the beginning 12,000 times. (Although I do usually end up rewriting the first chapter at least twenty times.)
When you type those two last words on your draft—The End—go celebrate. Really. You did an amazing thing. I usually celebrate by sleeping more and watching good shows and reading good books.
When you’re done celebrating, put the draft somewhere safe (several hard drives and online storage, if you’re me), and let it rest. For a month or two, if you’ve got the time. Because as you distance yourself from your words, your brain will find problems and work on them on its own. Your gut will sift through parts you aren’t sure are right and tell you where to keep working. Write ideas down as they come, but do not touch the draft.
Fun products to help during this period, or really at any point (with affiliate links because no one ever said making money as an author was easy):
AquaNotes: a waterproof pad and pencil you can stick in your shower! I use mine frequently (for everything, not just book stuff) and love it
These notebooks: they’re lined on the front, graph paper on the back. I take them to conference to keep notes in, and I make timelines and maps on the graph side.
Okay. The draft has gathered some dust. Your brain is fresh. You’ve got 50–100k words (depending on genre and if you’re and over- or under-drafter). And your draft is . . . not great. BUT THAT’S OKAY. This is where the fun part comes in: making it not garbage.
I’ve recently started a new revision method that’s helped me by leaps and bounds. I learned it from a class I took by Julie Berry (who writes amazing books). It’s a little intense, so I’ll streamline it for our purposes.
1. Print out your manuscript, single-sided, double spaced, three-hole punched (you can print it that way if you order it from a printing store like Office Depot!). Be sure to include page numbers in your header or footer (I have my name and title, too, per standard manuscript formatting). Printing it out is a cost, and finding a binder big enough is a pain, but to me, it’s worth it. My brain sees words differently on a page than a screen, processes them differently. As I go through a round of revisions, I want to see words in a new way to help create distance. (See this Instagram post for a look at the boxes of manuscripts and binder I use.)
2. Write a love letter to your manuscript. Right there on the title page if you’ve printed it out. What do you love about your story? Why did you write it? What do you think is awesome about it? Gush and brag and pour out your heart. Do not skip this step. Because hopefully, but the end of all the revisions, we’ve brought out everything you love about the story, and cut away anything you don’t.
3. Write down any big picture concerns you have (also on the title page, just make a list in the corner somewhere). Write down any issues with your writing you know of (crutch words, telling vs. showing, similar sentence structure, filter words, etc.).
4. I go through and paper clip every chapter together and write down how many pages it is in the top right corner. (I’ll get to the why in a second.)
5. Then I make a spreadsheet with columns for chapter number, page number, chpt summary, first line of the chapter, last line of the chapter, comments/needs, timeline (because timelines are my weakness). The beauty of this is that you can add columns for anything you struggle with (pacing, tension, conflict, POV, etc.). Make it yours!
5a. Fill out the spreadsheet for each column, and notice what pops out to you. Do you have two massively long chapters sandwiching a tiny two-page chapter? That will affect your pacing. Do you have ten chapters where the character falls asleep at the end? Wildly different chapter lengths? Chapters that have basically the same things happening? Make a note in the spreadsheet.
6. I also go through each chapter and separate out each scene within the chapter (just drawing a line in the margin). (My definition of a scene: where there are characters and something happens. You feel this one out yourself, though.) For each chapter, I write a list of scenes on a sticky note and put it on the first page of the chapter so it's an at-a-glance view of what's in the chapter. I use a different colored sticky note for ideas of things I want to change if I've got ideas. (You can include stuff from spreadsheet here as well, or just use the spreadsheet and sticky note when it’s time to revise). Do you have scenes that don’t move the plot forward and reveal characterization and deepen setting? Maybe consider cutting it, or combining it with something else, or strengthening another scene to do both jobs.
7. I go through with a pen (not black so my eyes don't hurt when trying to find changes) and read each chapter, making notes in-line and editing each chapter on a micro level, using my spreadsheet and sticky notes to keep the whole plan in mind as I go.
8. I input the changes into my computer. I draft using a program called Scrivener because I like how you can move pieces around and see the whole picture a little easier than in a word processor. (But once it goes back and forth to my editor in Word, I just stay in Word.)
8a. Note: I will change my first chapter (and sometimes the whole beginning section) at least ten times more than the rest of the book. Beginnings are so important. So take a deep breath, and revise it again if it’s not exactly there yet.
ALL OF THIS IS A LOT, I KNOW. But it’s helped me, a new writer, cut down on the number of drafts to get it right.
9. At the end, read that love letter again. Did you bring out the things you loved? Is the story truer to the vision you had when that first idea sparked?
10. Um, I’m sorry, but you’re not done yet. Send it off to beta readers and don’t think about it for a while, because after another rest, it’s time to get more feedback and do it all again. I’ll say it again: Breaks are SUPER DUPER important. As you let your mind rest, little things that bug you about the story will surface. Write them down. Let them percolate so your brain can come up with answers without being under pressure. Wait long enough that you’re excited to get back in, print it off, and do it all again.
You Can Do It
In the end, we are all Michaelangelo, chipping away at a hunk of marble, trying to unearth our story in its truest form. The form that will resonate with people, because I’ve felt that or I’ve been there or that’s true for me, too. And isn’t that what we’re trying to accomplish? More than telling a good story, we’re trying to connect with other humans, to share experiences and create bridges over all the divides the world puts up between us.
So go write your story. Revise it a *million times (*hopefully fewer than a million). Because your story is important. Only you can tell it. But we can all feel it along with you. And then none of us will be alone.