On several occasions recently (lecturing writing groups and chatting online) I was asked about my writing process, about anything from using pen and paper vs typing to ideation.
And it hit me that a lot of it is inter-connected. I’ve talked about the tools I use and where I sit on the plotting-vs-pantsing scale, but not about the actual process of drafting a novel for the first time.
I also noticed that sometimes authors (more often budding writers) speak about t he “dreaded middle” — that point where the rush of the opening is over, the end is not in sight, and the writing process becomes so hard it’s almost soul crashing. In contrast, I love writing middles. It’s often when the wackiest adventures happen (I’m looking at you, garum factory), when I have the least amount of things to worry about besides having fun.
So, in the hopes of helping others as well as in documenting my growth as a writer, here’s how I write novel. (If this was click-bait, I’d say “three easy steps to write a book!” — but let’s face it, it’s not three, and they are definitely not easy).
Words of Caution
Before we delve right in, some wise words. First, is that writing is a very personal thing, and each writer is different. What I write may or may not work for you. It’s here for your edification, to be considered as a possible tool.
I’ve noted before what’s the worst and best advice I can give to any author. Do heed my words, I shan’t repeat them here.
Second, let me point out that not only is each author different, each book is different too. On the plus side, though, I think my writing process is maturing and smoothing out. (Hopefully my writing style is too, but that’s another post).
For example, I wrote the first draft of Murder In Absentia in only four months. In Numina took much longer, over a year – which was spread over two years with fits and starts (blame the baby). In Victrix looks like it will be in between, probably 6-9 months in total for the first draft.
With MIA, I knew where I started and where it ends, and due to the nature of the mystery that was enough. After publishing it I learnt the value of editing. With IN I knew certain key aspects I wanted to hit. It took me longer to navigate between them, and then self-edit to make them fit better. In Victrix is somewhat similar to IN, in that it has certain key aspects, but my navigation system has improved. This is what I call a maturing process, but also why I think each book is slightly different. Just like children. Or omelettes, if you’re so inclined.
Pen & Paper vs Typing
This one comes both to ideation and to planning a novel. Note: Planning isn’t plotting.
And my answer to that debate is… Both. Sort of.
When I started writing MIA, the very first thing I did was download dedicated novel-writing software. This helped, but I also scratched out the first map with charcoal in small drawing notebook, and then added notes around it, and generally used that as an actual writer’s notebook while the novel itself was typed directly.
Then I moved the maps to Illustrator, and the notes to OneNote. This is what I use now — but with the caveat that my laptop came with a touch-screen and a pen, and I actually write by hand in OneNote when I brainstorm. (More on that below). I find that ideas flow easier when I toy with a pen and write long-hand (a fancy name for my chicken-scratching-like script), but when I draft the story I much prefer and am much faster with the keyboard and the spell-checker.
OneNote is very nice in organising stuff. I keep three main pages within the same tab for each novel. There are other pages for general world notes (like holy days and travel times), character notes, random ideas for later and whatnot. But three essential pages per novel, and the first of these is the planning.
This goes back to when I talked about where I sit between plotting and pantsing. I’m probably about 25% in from the latter end. I have my main ideas — the key elements of Roman culture, Fantasy, and a mystery — that I want to hit with a novel, but it’s not a solid progression.
In that overview page I keep note of them, and try to reduce them to a single sentence elevator pitch. MIA is a crime that couldn’t have happened. IN is a story of small gods and courtrooms. IV is a story of games, women, and political violence.
This is also where I keep random research notes and early ideas about what the novel would be about, what I need to learn for it, and bits and bobs I want to weave in the story. I collect all of these before starting to write the novel (often when still writing other), as a way to prepare myself for the actual writing.
This screenshot should give you an idea how it looks, while still being too small for any spoilers 😈
Planning & Tracking
The next page is a more formal book structure and plan. It has sections for the tagline (whats it’all about), the antagonist, the clash, etc. There are tables for the main 3-Act structure (which, as I’ve noted before, differs a little from the classic division), a sub-plot tracking for each main character (the highs and lows the reach — for Felix it’s the main plot, but some like the antagonist may come in before the book starts, and some supporting cast like Aemilia walk in later), and an all important calendar tracker (to match up how long it takes to progress, which holidays are happening in the background, etc.)
Some of this information I enter at the start, which I know the quintessential essence of the book and then need to expand on it. Some of it (the latter two tables) I might flesh out and modify as I go with the first draft. I keep lists of minor character names (so I don’t have to search back), the occasional to-do item, and open questions I don’t have an answer to but know I will later (or at least will need to review that I had addressed them). All of these get edited as I go.
This allows me to both keep what’s important in focus (the taglines), to tweak the derivatives (the sub-plots) as I understand them better, and to track things so I don’t stuff up big and small details.
As above re the grand scale of plotting-vs-pantsing: I know what I want to hit when I start, but not necessarily how it’s going to pan out, so this page helps track the plot progression.
It looks something like this:
This is where the pen-vs-paper debate comes in. The last page is used when I need to think creatively. I find twirling a pen in my hand and writing long-hand better for this. I can’t not write things down, or my brain gets stuck in a loop — in order to move on, I need to jot the point first. Flushing the thought out to paper frees my subconscious to come up with innovatively gruesome twists. And something about handwriting is just more immediate, gets the humors flowing better.
I often start with jotting the book progression, when events lead to which consequences and how they’re divided into the three acts (scrolls). This then gets more formalised by typing it in the previous page.
Next, whenever I get stuck, I write a question (circled in red) and then notes below it. I express what I’m stuck on (in different colours, just because) which seems to release (after a time) my brain to come up with a creative solution. That’s usually the point I cackle madly and people on the train move away.
Here’s my awful handwriting — which, really, I needn’t have bothered to make so small as it’s illegible anyway:
Bringing it together
My writing time is limited (I write on the train to work, averaging six hours weekly). I try to use that for writing as much as possible. My research time — from reading historical background to simply letting my brain come up with plot twists out of its dark corners — can happen at other times. The subconscious is a wonderful thing, if you just give it the space to do its job.
And here’s the clincher. When I know what I need to write next, the words flow. I know some authors (myself included) hate to finish at a scene boundary precisely for this reason: getting back to the middle gives them the impetus to start writing again. For me it’s just the expectation of writing the cool bit I thought about, of knowing where I’m heading and looking forward to it (without having to plan everything in full in advance).
Brainstorming short stretches is also a great way to address the “dreaded middle” that some authors seem to fear, when the initial rush is over but you still have plenty of ground to cover before the grand finale. Giving yourself the space to come up with creative plot twists and knowing that you’re tracking the overall progression and sub-plots leads to many an hilarious adventure (hilarious for me; Felix might disagree).
Not that a full hour of scratching furiously with a pen or staring out the window is always necessary. Sometimes to re-reading what I wrote the previous day (and polishing it), gets the creative juices going and by the time the train pulls into my station my fingers are flying over the keyboard. I do normally end exceeding my daily word goal.
This process — of knowing what I want to hit but not how, of brainstorming short stretches and tracking the longer ones — keeps me both enjoying the discovery (pantsing) aspect of my writing and productive.
Note I never feel guilty about it. If I’m on the train but need to stop writing and switch to tablet mode and start brainstorming, that’s critical for a good story. If I’m too tired to write and read a novel instead, that’s important too. I know that, overall, I make good progress.
This is how I make the muse work for me, rather than the other way around.
Though this post is mostly a reflection of my current process, I hope it’s of use to others. As I’ve noted above, the more I write the better I get better at it. Each author, naturally, has their own personal favourites. What are yours?