When you read (or listen to) novels, novellas, short story collections and any other fiction or non-fiction, I wonder if you can possibly guess the processes the writer might have used to write the book you hold in your hand, or read, or listen to on your device?
I have been thinking a lot about my writing process, recently. I think this has been sparked by the realisation of just how many books I have on my computer that are in partial states of completion and that I’ve been saying I’m going to finish ‘this year’ or ‘next year’. For some of them, I’ve been saying it since 2014! I also have an absolute stack of story ideas and partial plots.
Some people have said to me that I should just write a non-fiction book for writers and put all these ideas in a ‘story prompts’ book, and actually, I would really like to write a series of books on this topic. I’m one of those people who find it extremely easy to begin projects, and I have fantastic starting energy. I also have extremely strong finishing energy. The issue comes once the first excitement of a new idea has passed and the ending is nowhere in sight. In talking to other writers, I know I’m not the only one who, left to my own devices, would have nothing but a string of story starters!
But I’m now a full-time author. ‘Oooh, I’ve got a great idea for a story,’ followed by eating a Twirl and making three cups of tea, and forgetting the book I’m meant to be working on because I want to play around with new places someone could find a corpse, or a whole new setting, or (and I’ve been known to do this numerous times) think that I can write a whole load of books in a completely different genre and play around with that for a while – none of this is going to get novels in any reader’s hands.
I heard someone say recently that if you have all the time in the world to write a book, then that book will take all the time in the world. For me, this couldn’t be more true. It took me ten years to put together The Reason for Everything, even though many of the stories in it had been written several years before I finally published it in 2019. Likewise, it took a similar length of time to write and publish the book that finally became The Secrets That Haunt Us. I put this down to all sorts of factors. I said that it was because I was nervous of the publishing process and I had to figure it out. Publishing is, in fact, very straightforward, so I had to rule this out as an excuse.
I also had to rule out the other ‘reason’ that I had been using to tell myself that any book I write is going to take me a decade. I write out of order, so that must mean that I have no idea what is happening in the book and it takes forever to try and piece the scenes and ideas together. Okay, this is true to a certain extent, but the main conclusion I came to was that I was just plain scared to get the books finished. Because being finished means it can be published, which means it can be judged. And this can be a very scary thing when you’ve poured your heart and soul into your book.
Being a full-time author doesn’t mean I’m not scared anymore. It doesn’t mean that the fear of judgement has miraculously gone away. I’m still the same person I was before, but I’ve experimented with lots and lots of different ways of working and I’ve finally found some processes that work for me. Some work for longer writing projects, some for short ones. But for me, they all start in the same place(s): character, and the ending.
Characters develop in my head long before I write about them. Eventually they have enough ‘life’ about them for me to start thinking about what might happen to them in a story. Whatever that turns out to be, I always know how I want the story to end. So I get paper and I scribble. A lot. I put the story title (a working one will do) in a circle in the centre, then I spider out from there. I put the ending in an adjoining circle and join them together. Then I look for the main plot points: the inciting incident that sets the story in motion, the high points, the twists and turns, the point of no return, and any others that I can see are important. This mind mapping is great if I’m writing a short story, but it gets pretty confusing on one sheet of paper when I want to add in all the extras that you get in a novel. So I use two things: Scrivener, which is a fabulous piece of writing software and allows you to move chapters about easily, and a pen, strips of paper and blu tac.
I love the tactile nature of pen and paper, so with a novel, I write each of my plot points on a strip of paper, and then I stick them on a board (or in my case, currently, my fridge door) and move them around until I’m happy with the order they are in. I also have markers to ensure I have the inciting incident, the point of no return, the highs, the lows, and the other points that make up a crime or suspense novel – discovery of clues, the aha moments, the showdown. That’s the point I turn them into chapters in my writing software.
So far, so good. But then what? I’ve got a story idea, yes, but no book. And I’ve got enough story ideas already, without another one falling by the wayside! Well, because I now know what each of my sections are about, I can start filling in with details. Some people will write a complete story outline, like a summary of the entire book, covering one or two sheets of paper. For some reason this doesn’t work very well for me, so I now do a ‘skinny draft’ to start off. This involves writing each section of the book if I can at this stage, and if not, then I write notes about what will happen.
Once I’ve got a complete skinny draft, I can begin the process I love best: the rewriting. This is where I can throw everything at the book that I want to include, and make it as detailed as I want. I have fun with the book, which keeps the middle part of the process alive for me – an important motivation trick for this author! I can still do this in any order I like, which suits my mentality, and because I edit the book into shape after this step anyway, filling in any plot holes and anachronisms – and hopefully eradicating plainly stupid mistakes.
So finally, this gets me to the point at which the book can have its final edit, picking up on word choices and grammatical errors, and then it gets a proofread, before I format it for e-book or paperback, or other formats. For me, too, the most important thing is that this whole process gets the book written in weeks, for the first full draft, and a few months from start to finish. That’s definitely better (for me) than a decade.
It’s taken me since 2007 to discover that this process works for me, every time. That’s a long time, and has involved a lot of trial and error, and a lot of giving up on one way or doing something and trying a new one. It may or may not work for you. Everyone has to find their own writing processes. There is an awful lot of help and advice for new writers and experienced ones alike, and some of the advice may be useful to you. And some may not. The thing is, you have no way of knowing what kind of processes work for you until you try them out. It may even be that the process you discover works for one kind of story or book but doesn’t work for another, especially if the story is in a different genre to the previous one, or it’s a novel instead of a short story, or a play instead of a novella.
All a writer can really do is take note of all the good advice out there and sift through it, trying out different ways of working until one, or a few, work for you. From personal experience, too, I would have to say listen to your instincts. If you know you’re the kind of writer who likes mind maps instead of lists, then use them. If you know you like being clear on the end of the story and then figuring out how the characters get to that point, do so. Everyone works differently, everyone has different demands on their time. Writing is a creative process; if you’re a writer, let yourself be creative in ways that you discover work best for you.