When I started writing (years ago) I really didn’t have a clue. I was painfully naïve. I thought I could do a first draft (of a short story or a novel) that would be ok’ ‘good’ even, ‘almost there’ and not need that much work. HAHAHA, Oh how silly I was. If you are a regular reader of this blog, then you will know I have a little obsession with the writing process. I read about it, think about it and write about it all the time.
I don’t think I am alone in obsessing over reading blogs about writing, but all it does it confuse me. I mean, how much attention do we really pay to understanding our own writing process?
Until recently, when I had an epiphany, I’d spent a long time thinking there was a right way… a right writing process I should be following. There isn’t. I decided to sit down and really give my process some thought, because if I can understand my own process, then I can shape it and tweak it to maximize my effectiveness. I hope this post helps you do the same.
Everyone’s process will of course be different, but if you are in any doubt about your own method, if you’re blocked or just feel something isn’t right, then I strongly recommend you do your own version of this to understand your process. Because I love visual things, I have depicted it in a pyramid:
Usually I prepare and organise till I’m blue in the face, lists run in my blood. But it wasn’t working for my writing, so I let go of doing most ‘preparation’ to write this novel. One thing I couldn’t let go of was an outline. I need it, for my sanity! For me, it doesn’t have to be massive, but because getting the timeline/action down is the most important thing in my first draft, I need a paragraph outlining each chapter. I never follow the outline to the letter, things get moved, cut completely and then changed again, but it’s a guide.
Step 1: Decide what you need before you start – an outline, a synopsis, masses of research or just an idea.
This is where you figure out what is most important to you to get down on the page first. This will also be dependent on how you work out and develop your characters.
Step 2: Decide what’s most important to you in draft one.
Here are my questions to help you work out your own process for draft 1:
- What do you like doing first?
- How do you develop your characters? Do you know them before you start writing or do you see how they develop on the page?
- How well do you know your setting before you start?
- Do you need to do lots of research?
I tried to use character sheets and interview each one before I started, but it didn’t work for me and trying only made me tie myself in knots worrying I was a shit writer because I couldn’t answer the questions.
So I sacked the preparation off and let the characters develop on the page. For me draft one is all about timeline and action. I need to get the basic plot down on the page. There’s only a little bit of creativity and imagery woven in to the story at this stage. I can’t get everything perfect in the first draft, so I don’t even try. I don’t worry about the chapter, three chapters ago, that Ive decided needs a rewrite, I just keep going. But how do I combat this incessant need to edit?
Step 3: Create an editing map.
I create one place, with a designated section for each chapter. Dump decisions or notes about chapters or characters or whatever you like under the appropriate chapter section. That way you keep your thoughts and decisions ready and organised for when you want to edit.
The benefit of an editing map is it will allow you to pattern spot your thinking. If you find you constantly put notes about characters then you know that’s what needs to go in the next draft. If you comment about setting then work on that next and so on.
Have a break before starting draft two, the longer the text the longer the break should be, but its up to you to decide how long is right for you. I imagine I will put my manuscript down for a month or two – or as long as I physically can.
Here’s where I hack the manuscript or story to pieces, I focus on finalising the timeline. Moving chapters or scenes till they are right, but I get it right here. Once this draft is over I don’t want to have to move the timeline much more. Whilst I do this, I study the characters. Picking up on their salient traits, emphasising or minimising them, checking consistencies and making very rough notes about each one, so that I get consistency across the whole story – bit like an editing map but for the characters – let’s call it a character map.
Step 4: Check your editing map for patterns of your thinking before you start editing- whatever is most salient is what you should work on next.
Step 5: Create a character map – it can look like whatever you want, and be as big or small as you want but should have relevant or key bits of information about your character to ensure consistency when editing.
Step 6: Once the timeline is finalised plot a loose map of chapters / scenes so you can easily find bits you need when editing.
The character map ensures I check their back story and history and start weaving in detail.
Finally I start thinking about the world and environment. I know a lot of detail about my stories world before I start writing, so I don’t need to do much work to create it, more weave the detail in, in draft 3.
Have another break before starting draft 3.
This is world-building time. I know for some people this will be the first draft stuff. But not for me, world-building comes in as a finishing touch – madness given the genre I write (fantasy/dystopian), but my world building is really done before I outline. The world in my current novel is what came to me first, so even though I only start to weave the detail in now, I already know what needs doing. My other focus in this draft is to finalise characters, detail, backstory and ensuring all the foreshadowing is in the right place.
Step 7: Check your editing map again
- What’s left to perfect?
- Have you checked details?
- Is your world complete?
- Are your characters perfected?
- Do you need to foreshadow?
- Does your timeline work?
PERFECTING THE MANUSCRIPT
I’m rubbish at proof reading. But I have to at least attempt it before giving it to beta readers and editors. So I proof read, check everything, over and over till I feel like I have done as much as I can do. I check:
- Consistencies of: characters, world, locations, storyline, descriptions etc
- Grammar/spelling/word order/sentence structure etc
- General errors
- Story arcs / character growth
This is the bit where you crap your pants a little – your hand shakes as you tentatively give your manuscript over to be critiqued by beta readers.
Once you stop crying! You edit in your feedback and hey presto you’re ready to pay a developmental or copy editor or seek an agent or whatever you feel your next steps should be.
Step8: Research along the way, don’t get stuck making all the decisions before you start
There’s one section I haven’t mentioned. Research, and that’s because I research constantly. From before I pick up the pen, right through to the end of draft 3. I don’t worry about having all the tiny details before I start, or I would never start, plus I change my mind too often to decide everything before I begin; so I research details along the way.
This post is not meant to be a guide to the only writing process– the complete opposite in fact. This post is just my personal method of writing, my process. It will only be right for me. But what I hope it does do, is help you get some insight into discovering your own process.