Every writer has a different writing process. Some writers like to meticulously plan things out with detailed outlines and may plan an entire series of books in advance. Other writers sit down with whatever their favored materials are and just start writing without a clue of where the story started or where it’s headed, preferring to write by the seat of their pants. Then there are writers on the sliding scale of everything in between. The point is to find what works for you and gives you the most productivity. Productivity means words written for the story. Because no matter how much planning you do or how many notes you make, none of that matters unless you write the story.
For a lot of years, I didn’t have a writing process. See, that is something of the joy of fan fiction. You don’t really need a writing process. You write what you want to write and it doesn’t matter if it has a coherent plot or not. It doesn’t really need to be excessively long. And the concept of writing something three times for fun is rather laughable. You write. You spell check. You publish. That was pretty much my writing process for a very long time.
Now that I’m writing my own stories. I find that this has changed. Look, I’ll admit that there is a lot of good fan fiction out there. Good does not mean publishable. When you want to try and publish something, there is and should be an entirely different game plan than just writing for fun to post it on the internet. (There is a bit of rant in here somewhere, but that’s not what we’re here to talk about.)
So, the first step to any writing process is to get an idea.
Ideas can come from anywhere. Conversations. Family antics. Other pieces of media. They can really pop out of anywhere at any time. They can come from our fears, our fascinations or what we find funny. I tend to go a lot with what I find funny. Does this amuse me? If it makes me laugh or entertains me for a good five to ten minutes, then I open a word document.
Then I write notes.
I tend to write a lot of notes. I write notes about characters. I write notes about the world. I write notes about story scenes that I think would be funny. I write down associations of what I feel the story is like in tone, in technology so that I have a picture to ground myself in so I don’t veer off from my initial vision.
Then, if the story is based in any sort of reality and sometimes if it isn’t, I research.
Research is important. Especially if you are writing a longer series. If you’re writing a story about backpacking in outer Mongolia and meeting a yeti, then it behooves you to research about Mongolia, backpacking and yetis.
And then I write more notes.
I write notes about what I researched. I write story notes about the ideas that the research gave me. I write notes about more scenes because characters won’t stop interacting in my head. And when I’m writing these notes, I get questions that I have to go answer. And sometimes when answering these questions, I actually end up writing a completely different story than I thought I would. But at some point all this note taking has to stop.
Now, I want to emphasize why for me note taking is important. I write notes because I get a lot of ideas all at once. My brain likes to go haring off down rabbit trails on the scents of red herrings. If I don’t write these scenes and ideas down, I’m most likely to forget them. And then I’m banging my forehead later with the palm of my hand going “But that was funny! Argh!” I don’t like banging my forehead with the palm of my hand or going “argh!” So, I write lots of notes. It doesn’t mean that the story won’t change, because, my God in Heaven, it can change drastically. But at least I’ll have the notes to document where things took a twist on me.
Notes are important so you don’t forget things. However, notes don’t mean things are set in stone. You can change the story at any time. (Or the story can change on you depending on your point of view.) Notes give an important framework. They are, in a way, verbalizing the ideas so you can get them out of your head and view them more constructively. Sometimes, the only way to determine if the idea will make a good story is to get it out into words. Once the idea is, in essence, verbalized. Then you can start seeing the strengths and the flaws of it. Once the framework is down, then you can start changing things.
I like to keep my notes and my framework flexible. If I leave room for flexibility, there is room for change and for more stories within the boundary of that framework. As long as I have that framework, that world set, I can jump about anywhere within it and discover something new or someone new.
Once I’ve written all these notes and taken a good hard look at my idea and my framework. Then I have to figure out which question, which core idea is the best idea to work with. Sometimes, the very first idea and story you come up with is not the best place to start the story. So, this is the point where I grab my core idea. What am I building this story around?
This is also a good time to ask yourself, “is this a good story?” I’ll be blunt. Sometimes, you can have the best idea in the world, but it just isn’t going to make a good story. Stories have to have conflict. They have to have change, whether the character is growing or slipping backwards into bad or worse habits. Your characters and setting can be interesting. Without conflict, change, movement and action, it just isn’t going to be a good story no matter how much time you spend on it. The best sense a writer can have before they start writing is the nose or gut for a ‘good story.’ If there isn’t conflict, character growth, action or movement, then this is the place where you step back and take a good hard look at what you’re doing, before you set any words to paper or screen at all. The best time to change things is before you even start. This will save multiple headaches later on when you’re not pounding your head against a brick wall because the story wasn’t working.
Finally, I start writing.
I’ve got my idea. I’ve got my framework. I’ve got the core story I want to tell. I may not know everything about the world and the characters, but I know enough that I can write. So, I write. And I write. And I write some more. And if I get any ideas for other stories or further scenes while I write, I open my notes and write them into my notes and go back to writing the story. See, the key thing here is to get that first draft cranked out! That, and usually I’m so excited at this point that I don’t want to do anything else but write. Some days writing is a chore. Other days it’s “What do you mean I have to eat and sleep and all those other bodily functions? That’s not fair!”
So, I write, until I get the story out of my head and onto the screen. I write until it is finished. The story says what I wanted it to stay.
Then I push back, have an immense feeling of satisfaction, maybe do a little dance of glee. Tell Becca, have her do a dance of glee. Really, when you finish something to completion, you need to take that moment and enjoy it! Writing a novel is a huge amount of work. Rewards are in order!
Usually, so you don’t get burnt out, it’s best to leave the story alone for a while and go work on something else. That might be the next story in the same universe. It might be a different story in a different universe. It might be writing something purely for fun in a writer’s case of mindless self-indulgence.
When I get back to the book, the first thing I do is write a summary of it.
Summarizing is a very important skill. A lot of writers hate to do it. It isn’t easy to take your baby no matter how long it is and condense it into half a dozen sentences. In fact, in fan fiction circles, you have to summarize in maybe one or two sentences. This can be so difficult that a lot of writers won’t even try. (You need a sentence to summarize the overall story, and a sentence to summarize the chapter you are posting.) Summarization is about knowing your core idea and being able to articulate it in a cohesive and concise way. If you don’t know the core idea of your story, you’re never going to be able to summarize. It truly is that simple.
I find summarization really helps to point out if there are any weaknesses to my story. It can help pin point who the main character is and what their conflict is. Sometimes the main character isn’t who I think it is and their main conflict isn’t what I thought it was either. Usually when I summarize I can see right off what I need to go back into the book and change or emphasize.
I read the story again and once again, you guessed it, make notes about where I can add things or things need to be changed. I put in where scenes should be added to make the story more complete.
Then, I go in and I write again. I do my best to address the weaknesses I found when I was writing the summary. I expand on things. I add description. I poke and I prod. When I figure I’ve done as much to it as I can within what I’ve got.
I chapter it. Usually this involves some arbitrary page count, plus or minus 3 pages. If you make the chapters too short, the story starts feeling rushed. If you make the chapters too long, it becomes too much for a reader to wade through. In writing fan fiction I found in the fan fiction writing format which is similar to this blog’s, that ten pages was usually a good average for a reader. Ten pages was usually enough to move the story along at a reasonable clip without making anyone too tired. Twenty pages and the story started to drag and it felt like a slog. The key idea is to keep the reader’s interest long enough so they don’t hit the back button. (And readers can hit the back button, essentially putting down the book for the most minor and craziest things.)
When I chapter the book, sometimes I get lucky and find I did something amusing without realizing it. Other times, there are places where things have gone on too long and need to be broken up. However, if they aren’t breaking up directly in the middle, this gives me a place and opportunity to work more on the main conflict of the story. So, as I’m breaking it up, I am once again, writing notes about what chapters are too long or too short and how many pages I have to alter, add or fix what is going on in the story to address the conflict.
If you haven’t noticed, I am something of a “add more” person. Granted, I don’t like taking things out or ‘killing my darlings’ as much as the next author. That’s painful. I had a reason for that to be in there dang it! I don’t want to take it out. It’s my baby! Ahhhh! As I like to say, there is a method to my madness and it only looks like madness to you because you don’t know where I’m going with it yet. However, I tend to add things rather than subtract them, because you can’t take things out if they aren’t there to begin with! Adding stuff, that’s easy. Taking stuff out, that’s hard. And you can’t take anything out and make it more concise, cohesive or whatever, if you don’t have a lot of stuff in there in the first place. So yes, if I’ve got something in there that I feel isn’t making the story stronger, then I can cut it out and paste it into another document to use later! However, I can’t cut it out, if I never wrote it.
Once I’ve chaptered it. I go back and read the story in chaptered form and focus on where each place the story isn’t fitting into my arbitrary number of pages. What is going on in the story? How can I make it longer? How can I cut the chapter up? Do I have to add more? Does something need to be taken out? What is going on in the story at that minute? Do I expand upon it? Do I subtract and summarize? What will make the story stronger? This is me breaking things up into bits and shining a spotlight on the flaws.
I write more. I try to figure out answers to the questions of “is this really important?” The weaknesses are addressed. The chapters are split up or filled out.
Then I step back, raise my hands and call it done.
You can spend a lot of time and energy constantly fussing or polishing a story. You can go back and change things and “fix” them and fiddle until you’ve fretted and worried yourself to pieces trying to make it perfect. At some point, you have to step back and go ‘enough! Stop fiddling!’ This is another important life skill, knowing when enough is enough. It’s as good as it’s going to get without outside intervention. (If you’re a perfectionist, I can’t help you. Sorry. I gave up on that a long time ago.)
So, yes, it’s finished. There is usually more satisfaction and another dance of glee. Sometimes, I want to order pizza and throw a mini party.
For those of you who didn’t want to read all of that, let me sum up. Idea, notes, research, more notes, write until fingers bleed, finish first draft, dance with glee, go do something else, come back, write summary, read story, write notes, write more story, finish second draft, chapter story, write more notes, write more story, finish third draft, dance with glee.
And once this whole process is done, you get to start over and do it all over again with yet another story. Because it’s not if you can do it once that’s important, it’s if you can do it multiple times! Now, if you’re working in the same universe it can be mildly easier the second time around. Not as much research and possibly not as much note taking. If you’re working with a completely new universe, then yes, the whole process has to start from scratch.
Yes, it is a process. It takes time and how much time depends on how much time I’ve got to devote to it and can focus on the project. This works for me. It might not work for someone else. The idea is to focus on writing as much as possible. If you focus too much on the note taking and constantly organizing your notes, you’re never going to get done. The reader doesn’t care about your research. They don’t care about your notes. They care about the story. The finished product. That’s what they are paying for (or not paying for in the case of fan fiction.) So, the key thing for me is to do things in ‘phases’ so I can focus on churning out that final product.
So, you know, I have an excuse to throw a party. Grin.