I recently was having a conversation with a friend of mine and the subject of my blog came up. She suggested to me that while my ‘Inspiration for Writing’ was interesting, she thought it would be even more interesting if I shared my writing process. In other words, what are my routines for writing a book?
At first I wasn’t going to share this because, as many of you may or may not know, we writers tend to be creatures of habit. We each have our methods that work for us and we hate any mention of change, regardless of what it is. However, looking back on the very first novel I’ve managed to complete to the first novel I’ve managed to get published, I realized that my routines and habits have changed dramatically. And with each new change, at least the good changes, my writing has improved as well as the reactions from both editors and agents. I will not promise that my method will help you land an agent or publisher or even that you’ll write better. In fact I’m not promising anything. All I’m showing you are techniques that worked for me and they may, or MAY NOT work for you.
Step 1: The Pitch
Whenever I start a new book, for whatever reason, I always start with a list of ideas. Story ideas are always swimming around in my brain but when looking for a new book to dedicate both my time and in most cases, money to write, I take the best ideas I have, usually 5, and I run them by my friends. I pitch the idea to them like I’m Hollywood producer pitching a movie. I talk about the characters as well as the story, the concept, and if the story is part of a series, what the series will be like. And when I’m done I ask for their opinion. This exercise I always do in person. While email, Facebook, Twitter and all other forms of social media can certainly help, I always do it in person that way I can take note of my friend’s physical reactions. When I mention things like their favorite movie franchises like Star Wars or Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings, there is a physical reaction which ranges from VERY obvious to subtle. Either way, I pitch my ideas, hear their verbal reactions and judge it against their emotional reactions as well, and I’m usually able to tell a good idea from a bad one. (e.g. Curse Breaker was the only story idea I ever had where all of my friends unanimously and enthusiastically ordered me to write)
Step 2: The Questionnaire
With the idea ‘green lit’ as it were, I start on my main character. Science Fiction author David Gerrold has written a nonfiction book called Worlds of Wonder. Not only the best book on writing science fiction and fantasy, but the best book on writing, PERIOD. In the book there are two chapters that are back to back. The first of these two chapters is a questionnaire that asks everything about your main character ranging from pedigree questions such as eye color, hair color, weight, height and so on, to harder questions such as what do they love and what do they fear and what motivates them. If you happen to buy the book I suggest you sit down and answer all, and I do mean ALL the questions on that list. If you don’t have the book, make your own questionnaire and ask as many questions as humanly possible. Imagine you’re an FBI psych investigator and your main character is the criminal you’re after. The criminal is elusive so you’ll want to learn as much about the character as you can.
Step 3: The Interview
The following chapter in Gerrold’s Worlds of Wonder suggests that you interview your character. I know it may sound stupid or a waste of time, but trust me when I say it’s an exercise that pays dividends. Before I started doing this exercise I was collecting rejection letters by the pound. After I started, I was still collecting rejection letters but it was AFTER a few of them requested to see the full manuscript. I pretend I’m Inside the Actor’s Studio and I’m James Lipton. I even come up with questions for the Pace University students to ask. Sometimes this exercise takes a few hours and other times it takes a few days. Regardless of length, I finish the interview, and all that information I learned from my Q and A helps me look into my character’s past, discover their speech patterns and mannerisms and overall, I learn what makes them tick. Then, when I start writing my story, I already know how my character will answer certain questions and the speech patterns and word choices they’ll use to do it. When I’m stuck, this exercise always seems to help me get unstuck.
Step 4: The Outline
With the main story approved, I hand write my outline. I used to type out my outline but I would almost always forget important details and I would have to keep the outline at my side at all time for reference. It’s annoying. By handwriting my outline I tend to retain information about my story more, plus I don’t feel nearly as bad about writing in story ideas into my outline as opposed to when I print it out, scribble all over it and then print out a whole new updated outline which I will eventually scribble all over again. When I write my outline I don’t stop until the whole story is complete. That way all the main details are there and I don’t have to worry about missing anything. When I write an outline with a story I’m satisfied with, I make photocopies of the outline that way I don’t have to worry about the original being damaged or destroyed. I even scan it and take pictures of each page with my iPhone, just in case.
Step 5: The Writing
I’ve had many friends over the past few months come to me about my book and they ask how I did it. My answer is NEVER satisfying but it’s always the truth and always helpful. I sit down behind my computer and do not get up until my goal of 1,000 words, (sometimes 2,000 or 3,000) a day is complete. Real writer’s WRITE, every single day. So that’s what I do. EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. Can’t keep a knife sharp unless you sharpen it. You don’t have to sharpen a knife every single day but the figurative knife that is ‘writing ability’ stays sharpest when you’re practicing every day. Why every day you might ask, rain or shine? Simple. The more you type the better you get at typing. The better you get at typing the less brain power it take for you to think about each individual key you think about typing to finish a thought. The less brain power you use to type, the more brain power you use for your story. And if you write everyday, the story stays fresh in your head longer because you can easily pick up where you left off. I don’t know about most people but it’s much easier for me to remember where I left off in my story from the day before, after spending an hour or so writing a 1,000 to 2,000 words about it, than two days ago, or a week ago or a month ago. And when most writers try to pick up, but they can’t remember where they left off, that’s usually where plot holes are formed. And plot holes can make the editing process a bigger pain than it has to be. The point is, “if you write whenever you feel like it, you’ll have pages. If you write everyday, you’ll have a novel.” –David Gerrold. To put it into even more perspective, a college buddy of mine has been writing the first chapter of his novel for the past 7 years. He works on it roughly every 4 or 5 months. More amazing still, he can’t believe I managed to publish a novel and he didn’t. Can’t win the lottery if you don’t buy a ticket. Can’t publish a novel unless you have novel to publish.
Step 6: The Cool Down Period
The cool thing about writing a series is that I always have some place to go during the cool down period. I simply start writing the next book. I usually do the questionnaire, interview and outline steps while I’m writing the last few chapters of the previous novel. During the cool down period, you leave your novel alone for at least a month, if not more. That way you can forget, YES FORGET, certain parts of your novel. That way, when you go back to editing, you can look at it from a fresh perspective. Like the perspective of a reader that’ll read your work with no opinion rather than the perspective of a writer who loves his novel to death, no matter how terrible it might be. Time allows you to spot things like plot holes and grammar and spelling issues that you wouldn’t catch before thanks to your brain power being used for writing (and typing of course).
Step 7: Editing
This part is always a pain for me. Not because I hate editing, I just hate the time it takes away from my writing. Remember I write EVERY DAY, even while I’m editing. So, I make it a routine. At first I would take an hour out of my day to edit but I would usually end up running down the clock and end up editing three pages, at most. Then I decided to take it one chapter at a time. It doesn’t matter what stage of the editing process I’m in, I always stick to one chapter a day. Why? because that way I know I’ve accomplished something and I am free to move on. Besides, editing is hard enough, why make it more complicated.
Step 8. Writing and rewriting and reading and rereading
After writing and rewriting again and again, I do a read through to catch anything I may have missed while I was editing. And believe me, there’s always something. But after that’s done I finally have a manuscript that I’m ready to submit to publishers and agents, or in my present case, to my agent who will review it and send it to my publisher for approval. Trust me, when you get to this level the process is a lot faster. Before I would wait on average, a month before I heard back from an editor or agent. Today I hear back from them in a day or so. That, so far, is my favorite perk. 😉
Only after I send the manuscript away for processing do I break all 8 of my rules/steps and take a day off. I see a movie, hang out with friends, whatever. I basically reward myself for a job well done and then tomorrow, I put my nose back to the grindstone. I hope my advice helps, thanks for reading and I will see you next week.
P.S. Usually between steps 4 and 5 that I make my own book cover to help motivate me to write.