My Writing Process, In Bullet Points

Truman Capote wrote supine, with coffee (or sherry) and a cigarette.  Which was the least interesting thing about him.
Truman Capote wrote supine, with coffee (or sherry) and a cigarette. Which was the least interesting thing about him.

I’ve been thinking about writing process a lot lately.  Whenever I’m between large projects or still in a “soft” phase (see below), the process by which I write fiction becomes more present to me than it is when I’m writing one thing determinedly.

Victoria Schwab talked today about “cook time,” a concept which, as obvious as it seems, hadn’t occurred to me before in the context of writing a book, and which actually applies rather aptly to my own process:

I have what I call a long “cook time.” This means that once I get an idea, I let it simmer on the back burner for months, if not years. One of the reasons I do this is because I’m usually working on something else, but the larger reason is that I want to make sure it’s not just a random idea, but something worth pursuing. By the time I take it off the back burner, IF I do, I am fairly confident that it’s not only something I can write, but something I can FINISH. Once I took a project off the back burner, and it turned out it wasn’t quite ready, so I put it back, but once I’ve started to actually write, I’ve never quit a book.

This is almost me, with one exception: I often start writing things that I’m not able to finish right away, because the idea in question hasn’t had sufficient cook time.  So I suppose I’m not as patient as Ms. Schwab, but the overall idea is the same: book ideas, by which I mean world-building, plot character, setting, etc., all percolate in the back of my mind for months and years before I even contemplate starting to write.

The false starts I sometimes have aren’t entirely useless, though.  Often the act of sitting down and writing out the beginning of a story (it’s usually the beginning) acts as a sort of threshold test for the idea as a whole: can I write about this?  Is this something that I could conceivably turn into a full story, or is this a passing whim, a throwaway idea, a piece of micro-fiction at best?

Talking about one’s writing process is usually only useful for the person doing the talking, since everyone’s process is different, but most of us interested in the craft nonetheless find it fascinating.  With that in mind, here’s a few facts about my writing process, in bullet points, because for my purposes bullet points are more useful than a narrative:

  • Contrary to what is apparently one of the most-asked questions at writers’ panels, coming up with ideas has never been a problem for me.  I’ve got more ideas for books than you could shake a lightsaber at.  It’s choosing between them that’s hard.
  • The spark of an initial idea is hard to describe–it strikes you like a little electric shock, and you have to go write it down.
  • I write all of my good ideas down, in the form they came to me, in one of my many notebooks.  There’s a good argument to be made that “if it’s a good idea, you’ll remember it anyway,” but nonetheless I like jotting down some notes about the details when it comes to me.
  • It’s from there that the “cooking” phase begins: the idea zooms around in my head like a pinball, dinging against other ideas, setting off lights and buzzers, combining with things, knocking things out of the way.  Eventually, to mix metaphors, it begins to snowball, changing into a steadily growing kernel of a book.
  • Cook time ranges from months to years for me.  The Book of Ever, for instance, had a comparatively short cook time: I took book one, Exile, from concept to finished manuscript in about six months.  On the other hand, I’ve been planning out an epic fantasy series in my head and in notebooks for years now, which still hasn’t fully taken shape.
  • Usually, a project being on the back burner for me means that I’m stuck or blocked in some way–usually in the way of plot.  I often begin things, then set them to simmer, and sometimes take them off the heat, so to speak, if I don’t know the way forward.  Sometimes other things take priority simply because they’re further along and require more attention.
  • Any time something’s cooking on the back burner, I think of it as being in a “soft phase”: I’m working on it, but not exclusively and perhaps not with full knowledge of its content or ending.
  • On the other hand, once I know how to finish it, it enters the “hard phase”: I work on it exclusively until it’s done.  No getting distracted with notes or writing on other work.
  • Do to the amount of cook time, my writing projects tend to come out in something fairly close to their finished form on the first go; I don’t go through multiple “drafts” the way some authors do.
  • That said, I consider myself a gardener, not an architect.  “Knowing the way forward,” for me, means that I have a general skeleton of the story in mind: major events, character arcs, world-building.  I don’t have a chapter-by-chapter outline, and things often change in the writing.
  • Between the soft phase and the hard phase there’s usually a click.  You’ll hear a lot of writers talk about this moment: that moment when everything crystallizes, when the constellation of ideas and plot points and character beats comes into alignment.  The click.
  • The click, whether it’s a big one or a little one, usually happens at the most inopportune time possible.  Like when you’re having a serious conversation, or parallel parking.
  • Once I start writing, I aim for 1,500 words per day.  Ideally I write significantly more than that, but if I write 1,500 then I don’t feel that the day was wasted.
  • I often edit as I write, which is another reason I don’t go through multiple drafts, and also explains why my output is sometimes on the lower side compared to more prolific authors.
  • When I’ve finished the first draft, so to speak, I force myself to take at least a week off.  Ideally it would be longer, but rarely do I have the patience to wait that long when I know a book is almost ready for publication.
  • When I come back to it, I do one substantive read-through, often mostly aloud, looking for major editing issues related to plot, character, etc.  I read on the screen, editing as needed as I read.
  • After that I print it out, do a copyedit, and give it to beta-readers.  Based on their feedback, I either change things or don’t, then do a final proofread and it’s off to the press.  It’s a simple system, but I’m happy with it for the time being.

What’s your writing process like?  What’s different, what’s similar?  The great thing about this conversation is that there’s truly no right answer: everyone’s process is different.  Don’t compare your writing process to that of another writer.  (Except for the fun of it.)

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