One of the most frequently asked question of every author is: How do you write? In other words: How do you get from a seedling of an idea to a published 300-page novel?
The easy answer is “butt in chair.”
This encompasses the whole process, which aside from the rare research field trip, requires copious stretches of time seated in front of the writing instrument of your choice.
The answer is, of course, much more complicated. If you asked this question of every author you met, you’d get just as many unique answers (with some obvious overlap—at some point, all authors must write, edit, and whine).
This is my current method, subject to constant revision in a quest to achieve the most efficient, creativity-inspiring process.
Collecting Story Ideas
Long before I’m ready to write a story, it’s percolating (and usually sounding far more interesting and fun than the current project I’ve been working on for months). Having finally found the balance between believing I’ll always remember that amazing half-asleep idea and having an office coated with sticky notes of all these scraps of ideas, I created a very simple solution: a Word file titled “Story Ideas.”
This file consists of a bulleted list of all ideas as they come to me. Which means it might have “alien bar with magical prediction machine in room that is overflowing with filthy cat litter boxes (“It’d taken me a month to get that smell out of my clothes the last time”)” followed by “dreamwalker who has to choose between becoming permanently part of the dream world or giving up her powers.”
There are no limitations here, no plotting that needs to be done, and no censoring. Anything and everything that sounds like fun to write about gets added.
I add to this idea file until I finish the current project or it is at a stage out of my hands (with a beta reader or editor), then I read back through the entire idea document. Usually by this point I know the vague (or specific) direction I want to go with my next story, and I pull out all ideas that pertain to it, and start a new idea file.
Once I know the direction I’ll be headed, I have a better grasp of what I need to research. This can vary tremendously. For A Fistful of Evil, I had to research vet practices, lawyer partnership track, speed limits on local roads, and a bit about a Miata MX-5.
For my new novella project, I had to research the entire Aztec culture (better known as the Mexica), the Incas, the Mayans, Americans native to North America, Romani beliefs, Norse magic, African myths and magic, Carib myths, the spread of disease in the 1500s, the spread of trade, the types of horses brought over first, etc. (This extreme amount of research is unusual for me, but I plan to make the most of it.)
Research works two ways:
- It fills in details that are needed (would Madison’s best friend be partner in her law firm, or just an associate at her age; will a character ride a Mustang or a Spanish Arabian).
- It prompts new ideas to be added to the idea file.
Research continues up through the first round of edits for fact checking and story veracity.
Cautionary Note for Writers
It’s easy to get sucked into research and put off writing. You can always leave yourself notes and fill in information later. The point is to learn enough so you can write, not to have your learning impede your writing. It’s also smart to note your sources so you can find that piece of info you thought you’d remember forever when you need it four months later.
Story Building / Character Building
It’s impossible for me to build plot without building character. They’re inseparable.
While this step sounds a lot like the earlier brainstorming step, at this point, I’ve picked my story, and all attention is focused on it (stray ideas go in the all-encompassing idea file, but they’re not ruminated on). I’m still not censoring ideas, but my favorites are starting to surface and I take the time to pursue ideas to various ends to see what might be possible with the story.
This is when big-picture ideas are flushed out with details that might lead up to them, character motivations, and scenery ideas.
For me, story ideas are usually driven by a character idea, and usually with the idea of the character’s magical abilities. Thus, by this point, I know my main character’s broad features: her magical powers, her key problem, a horrible situation I’m going to put her in and how she’ll react.
To get to know her better, I create a character profile. This includes basic physical characteristics, personal history (family, emotional and physical scars, education and work background), and the more nebulous elements of personality, like weaknesses and strengths, what she fears the most, what her ultimate form of happiness would be and how that differs from what she thinks her ultimate happiness is.
During this phase, I get even more ideas for the story based on what would make this particular character’s life even harder, and those get added to the list.
I also collect pictures of people who look similar to the characters I have in my head so that if I lose that mental picture, I have an easy reference.
Extraneous World Building
It is often helpful to have short overviews and descriptions of key locations, and this is typically when I draft these. For example, in A Fistful of Evil, I have a description for Madison’s office, the bar, and the hotel—all locations that are visited more than once. This way, I can avoid page scrolling while writing if I forget a detail. When editing, I just have to make sure I didn’t use the same phrases to describe each location.
Voila, I’m ready to start outlining.
How long does all this take? It varies, of course. This phase is the hardest for me to estimate and plan for. I’ve flushed out an idea in a few weeks, and I’ve had others take six months.
For prospective writers and people not on deadlines, I would advise not rushing through this phase. Spending time playing in your new world (without inviting in the critic) is phenomenally helpful for discovering story ideas you might otherwise never come up with.
How much information do I need before moving on to outlining? Again, that is subjective. I typically like to have what I feel is either the entire story, or the entire character arc, or both. Note I said “what I feel.” I never really have it all. Not here, and as you’ll see, not even after outlining it. But a good solid chunk to start with is best.
In part 2 of this series, I answer many questions, like: How many different ways can I review an outline? What could be more important than an exciting plot? For the love of all that’s holy, do I ever actually get to writing?