How I write a book
The more manuscripts I write (I’m up to my seventh), the more I refine my process. Not that it’s a planned thing. The process is dictated by the way my mind works. I don’t try to structure it anymore. I let it come out the way it wants to.
I imagine it’s the same for every writer. As much as we might try to change our process based on what others do, or tips we’ve heard that sound good or efficient or whatever, we always come back to what works best for us and/or for that particular book.
My process happens in five stages.
This is one of my favourite parts of the process – that moment when a good idea strikes. It happens to me regularly, and I have more ideas that I’ll probably ever be able to turn into books.
For some, this is the hardest part, but I never have to force it. It just happens.
It’s one of the most exciting parts of the writing process because it’s when anything feels possible. An initial idea is perfect in a way. It’s not until you start expanding on that idea or actually sit down to write it out that you might realise it wasn’t so good after all, or needs a lot of refining at least. Usually my ideas are pretty solid – I know quite soon after having them if they’ve got enough steam to run the length of an entire book.
Ideas come to me in different ways. Sometimes it’s a question (What would happen if…), sometimes a situation (A man finds himself standing over a dead body with a knife in his hand … what happens next?) and sometimes a theme (I want to tell a story about sibling rivalry).
Often I get ideas when reading other people’s novels. I wonder what’s going to happen and I hope I’m not right (I want to be surprised), or I think: What if the novel went THIS way instead? or What if the character was a teen and the antagonist was their stepbrother?
Then it’s time to start committing the idea to paper (or screen).
2. What happens
After having the initial idea and turning it over in my head a few times, I start to plan the story on a high level – I think about who the characters are, what they want and where they will get to in the end (yes, I’m thinking about the end at the beginning). I start to plan their arcs and the major events that will get them from point A to point B.
I write down as much as I can. I plan out scenes, numbering them from one to as far as my mind will go. I don’t worry about splitting them up into chapters – this comes much later.
I never end up with a complete plan at this stage of the process. Somewhere along the way my mind gets stuck. I don’t know what will happen next, and that’s usually because I don’t know the characters well enough. I often write up character profiles that detail what they want, what they need (these are often different things), why they want/need it now (what’s happened/changed?), their core beliefs and fears, and how they see themselves at the beginning of the story (what’s their identity?). But this often draws to a halt too because I don’t have a clear enough picture of them yet.
When I can’t plan anymore, I start to write. I might start with scenes that are the most vivid in my mind or that are major turning points. Sometimes I start from where I think the book will begin, but this almost always changes by the final draft.
When I get stuck, I go back to my plan, then back to the manuscript again. And so it goes for the next however many months.
3. The order it happens
After creating the skeleton of what happens, I have to work out how it all happens. When are the best times to reveal elements of back story or things the reader needs to know about the character? Should the protagonist find out about x before or after she finds about y? Should she realise she’s got it all wrong before or after he tells her the truth about her past?
These decisions alter my plan. I use a spreadsheet for planning (sometimes created as a table in Word and sometimes in Excel) and so scene numbers will automatically update when I shuffle things around. If the change is too detailed for my plan, I change it directly in the story or write myself a note in the manuscript (Insert anecdote about when he was a kid and his dog got run over).
The first drafts of my manuscripts contain a lot of placeholders. Sometimes even whole scenes are contained in a sentence – Emily arrives at the party to discover Toby is getting it on with Kate. I do this when I don’t feel ready to write a particular scene. I might have to think about it some more, or I’m not quite sure how or where a particular event should play out. Often scenes in my first drafts are just dialogue and I fill in the gaps later.
4. How it happens
This is the part of the process where the detail begins to unfold. It’s a critical stage, and it’s often the point where I start to worry that my idea is not panning out as well as I’d envisioned.
This is where I know what happens in a scene and where a character needs to get to by the end of it, but I need to work how exactly they get there. What do they say? What words to they use? How do the other characters respond? What ends up on the page as thoughts or introspection and what is spoken? Can I show what they are thinking/feeling rather than telling?
This is where the real writing comes in and why I say that plotting (as opposed to 'pantsing') doesn’t kill creativity. The how is just as important as the what. This is where craft comes to the fore.
This is also the part of the process where I look at subplots, pacing and balance, especially if the story is told from multiple perspectives. Is one character getting more airtime than another? Is one character’s story arc much stronger than another’s?
My writing process is about starting big and drilling down to the detail. I do that by going through the manuscript over and over again. I revisit scenes and revisit my plan, looking for ways to improve it – more logical flow, sharper dialogue, better pacing. I make the writing more lyrical (within the bounds of my very limited ability in this area). I cut out unnecessary guff and add more poignant details. It’s not until I have a full understanding of the whole story from start to finish that I really know what detail is important and what can be cut.
In one workshop I went to, the facilitator described this part of the process as building the story up; I think of it as drilling down. I’ve heard Jane Harper describe it as adding layers. They all mean the same thing – it’s about making those 60, 70 or 80,000 words as good as they can be. Enough words, but not too many. And the right words. Nothing wasted. And nothing random.
The process of writing a book gets progressively harder as I go deeper and deeper. The steps build on each other but become more taxing on both sides of the brain as I work through it. But the details eventually fall into place (often with the input of my writing critique group). There are frustrating times when it’s not coming out as well as I’d hoped, but there are lots of wins too – connections I didn’t realise were there, perfect solutions to plot problems that seem to come from nowhere when I’m not actively thinking about it. I love these a-ha moments; they feel like a gift. Or maybe they’re just my unconscious brain getting better at this.
Yeah, let’s go with that.