Writer’s Insights: The Writing Process
How does a writer write? It may seem like an odd sort of question, but it is one readers ask quite frequently. Other writers ask too. They want to compare notes on how they do things. Does everyone work the same way? Are you doing it “right”?
Many people will talk about “the writing process” as though there is one particular way to do things. It’s a common topic in creative writing classes. Essayists sometimes touch on it. There isn’t one singular writing process, however. “The writing process” is more like “my writing process” or “your writing process.” While we all have the same basic structure (write words, make story), the actual act of doing and how it is done varies highly from individual writer to individual writer.
So what does my writing process look like?
Process? What Process?
When you sit down to self-examine what you do, you may wonder if you even have a process. Most of the time, this is me with my writing. When someone asked me about my “writing process” recently, my knee-jerk reaction was, “What process?”
I’m not a very systematic writer. Essentially, I sit down and I write. That’s it. That’s the process. If we want to get into specifics, I open up a Word document or Scrivener, I turn on some music, and I type.
I’m sure many other writers feel the same way. Many readers probably assume that’s what we do. However, that’s where the process diverges. While we’re all working on crafting sentences and creating stories, we all develop idiosyncracies in how we approach the actual act. The more you interrogate what it is you do, the more the process reveals itself.
In the Beginning …
Most stories start with an idea. I rarely sit down to write and just … find a story. I usually have some characters, some general plot points in mind.
How do I come to have those ideas? It depends. Sometimes, there’s a spark in a story I’m already working on. Characters get migrated into storylines that don’t quite fit the master narrative. Over time, they may become new characters, or the story may become a side story or a “spin off” of the original.
Sometimes, the spark is in another story I’m reading. It can be a novel or a news story. It can be conversation overheard in line at the grocery store or the coffee shop. Whatever it is, there’s a spark there, something that causes me to ask, “Yes, but what if?”
An example. I’m clearly interested in gender and sexuality studies. I know quite a bit about the biological basis of these, despite not being a biologist myself. I’ve heard many stories about the issues intersex persons face, particularly in sports. I asked myself, “What if it wasn’t biological sex, but an alpha/beta/omega status marker?”
Obviously, I’ve read a/b/o stories before, and I quite like the dynamic. Using this social stratification system, which is tied to sex in some ways, I’ve created a parallel for gender, which allows me to explore this issue. Reese’s dilemma in the Something in the Water series—in which omegas are banned from competition—puts him in a liminal space, somewhat similar to what intersex persons face in sports competition. Reese is both and neither; he doesn’t qualify to compete in the men’s competitions or the women’s competitions. There’s no separate competition for omegas. In order to participate, he has to sneak around and risk getting caught—or simply not participate in the first place.
Characters and ideas begin to mingle together. I’ll use the spark as a jumping off point to begin building the story. However, my stories often feature some character-driven narratives. As much as I’m writing maybe a blend of action and drama, the interpersonal side—including romance and relationships—tend to be drivers as well.
Compelling characters are ultimately why we read stories. We want to know about and care about characters. If we didn’t, the story wouldn’t matter. It’s why trivial things can sometimes be interesting and why even biggest plot can fall flat on its face.
The plot usually evolves around my characters. They grow and change during the course of writing (as they should). Plot points will fall naturally into place as characters evolve. The idea that Dima in Slapshot! is an omega did not come when I generated that character. Rather, at a later point, as Dima was evolving within the context of the story, it made sense for him.
The same thing happened with Mason, who is bisexual. I didn’t create Mason as a bisexual character. I didn’t sit down and map out his character traits. Originally, I thought he might be a gay man who was masquerading as straight, having a string of dissatisfying sexual relations with women, earning himself a reputation as a “heartbreaker” and playboy. He still retains those features, but he’s not gay and covering up with women. He’s bi and he likes it.
Again, this evolution came out within the context of the story. I tend not to be a rigid plotter or a meticulous character developer. I see the process as far more organic, although it sometimes gets me into trouble.
Doing the Deed
All right. I have an idea and I have some characters. Now I get to work.
Much of the work occurs in my mind, in my imagination before I sit down to write it. I’m very visual in the sense I often see my work unfolding or playing out like a movie or a TV show. What my goal is, then, is to translate what I’m seeing in my mind’s eye into words on the page. I am “painting a picture with words.”
My writing can sometimes be description-sparse and action-oriented as a result. In some ways, with the amount of dialogue and indications about motions and movements, my writing can become something like a script or a teleplay. So and so moves here. So and so seems confused. They shuffle around the room.
I’m less focused on the details in the background. I do try to set the mood and locate the scene, obviously, but I don’t always spend a lot of time describing settings or even characters.
Once I have this envisioned, I can begin writing it.
Where to Start?
I don’t always start with the opening scene. Sometimes, I’ll write a scene that’s bothering me, even if it occurs much later in the narrative. This usually occurs if the scene is pivotal and my imagination of it is rather vivid.
Then I have to go back and play connect the dots to get the characters from Point A to that Point B.
I do usually try to work in a linear fashion, since it keeps everything flowing together. Since plots evolve organically as well, I prefer to start at the beginning and see where the characters and the other forces at work are going to take me today. If I try to start them off at Point B, I’m probably not going to get back to Point A in a logical way. I’m going to zig-zag through Points E and L, then hit up Points Hi, I, and Q on my way to Point Y.
It’s a little confusing, is what I’m getting at. It also means the organic growth and building becomes a little wilder. If I write in sequence, there’s a logical progression to character growth and plot and tension. If I start smack-dab in the middle, the preceding scenes can sometimes feel shoe-horned, or even incorrect. It takes more careful editing when I’m not working in a linear fashion.
Speaking of Editing
I’m an editor, so editing is almost always on my mind. I’m one of those people who backspaces the word and retypes it if there’s a spelling mistake. (Or, well, when I see it, at least.) As a result, I’m almost constantly editing. I do not say, “Oh, I’ll leave that for editing” (partially because I know how much I’m going to have to contend with already …)
I will also cycle. Some people think editing can only occur once you’ve finished the book. This is not true. Not in the slightest. As a professional editor, I can tell you it’s sometimes easier to edit the whole thing in one go, but we often work chapter by chapter, sending authors revisions and feedback in a more piecemeal way. Authors send what they have completed, we edit, cycle repeats.
I’m often pressed for time, so I’ll sometimes not touch a manuscript for weeks or even months. As a result, when I do come back to the manuscript, I feel disconnected from it. Where was I? I can read the last sentence on the page, sure, but I still don’t feel connected. I re-read the scene. Next thing you know, I’m re-reading the whole manuscript, editing as I go.
This sometimes happens three or four times during writing. If there are larger problems, such as writing myself into a wall or losing the narrative thread, I’ll cycle through to see where I can pick it up again. Fairy Tale enjoyed this process. I wrote around 50,000 or so in July, then let the manuscript sit. It wasn’t done, however. I had to reread it, then started the process of rewriting and reorganizing. This helps me ensure everything seems as though it’s progressing logically and naturally as we move through the narrative.
I’m not someone who usually has trouble sustaining writing momentum. I have days where writing is easier than other days. Everyone does. I rarely suffer from writer’s block, and I don’t usually have trouble pushing myself through a project.
That’s likely a direct result of the writing regimen I used to apply to myself. When I was in university, we got around four months for summer holidays. (It was lovely. Can I go back to that? No?) I only worked part-time at a grocery store and, suddenly free of virtually every other responsibility, I had so much time to write.
So I’d write. I’d force myself to write twenty-six pages in Word every single day for a month. I still have some of those manuscripts kicking around. They’re tomes. They need to be rejigged. There’s a lot of filler in them.
Thing is, I forced myself to do this. Every single day without fail. I’m a relatively quick writer as a result, and I usually don’t have too much trouble coming up with ideas. I also practiced writing here, there, and everywhere—I’d scribble down notes on my breaks, I’d furtively write while at my work station during slow periods.
The nice thing about customer service is it doesn’t always take a ton of brain power. Ringing through groceries, I had to engage in a little chit-chat, but I often had plenty of time to just stand there and compose in my head as I was doing this rote task. (I was a cashier for nearly ten years, so I didn’t need to think particularly long or hard about most things.)
The Time Issue
So, I don’t really have issues with finishing projects or writing myself into a corner I can’t find a way out of. (Scaling walls sometimes leads to crap, but it gets out of the corner and moving again.) I don’t have too much issue turning on my creativity and I hope I don’t encounter that.
The bigger problem, for me, is I can’t turn that creativity off. This becomes problematic when I’m going through a busy period, like I am right now. I have relatively little time to write. I’m living on my own right now, so I’m keeping up the household alone. I’m working around twelve hours a day, even on weekends. I haven’t had a proper day off in months.
My ideas for stories are still swirling around in my head, and there are plenty of plot bunnies (they’re multiplying, good grief). The problem isn’t so much motivation or ideas. It’s literally finding the time to sit down and get them on paper.
That’s my big challenge, and it’s been my big challenge for years. I’m still working on it. It’s getting better. As my book revenues grow, I’ll be able to devote more time to this as my primary career (maybe—a girl can dream!).
Is That a Process?
I’ve walked through the steps, but this still doesn’t feel like a process to me. Processes, in my mind, have very clear steps. Writing can have very clear steps, but it can also be a messy and unstructured sort of thing.
My writing process is both unstructured and highly structured. It’s messy and incredibly clear-cut at the same time. At the end of the day, though, it is what it is. This is how I write. This is how things get done.