Butt in the chair, hands on the keyboard. Write every day even if what you write today stinks. If it stinks delete it. If it stinks keep it to mine rare gems from it. Keep the creative juices flowing. Take a break and do something else. Write to an outline. Don’t write to an outline. Know where you want to go before you start. Discovery write. Do your research first. Research while you go along. Just make up stuff without research.
What is the writing process?
As my first paragraph suggests, writing a novel is a complex, multi-layered process of brainstorming, outlining, researching, writing and revising, before you even get to editing, publishing and marketing.
Writers are individuals whose process should be unique to us. I’m a discovery writer. I start with a character who usually presents himself/herself to me when I’m not thinking about writing, when I’m doing an everyday task. Until that character comes to me, there’s no use world-building or plotting because my stories are character driven and may not fit into that world or follow that plot. I’m typically one-third to halfway through Draft #1 of a novel before I’ve decided on the ending. Some writers view that as a waste of time and they’re probably right, but it has helped me to have a large body of work to consider advancing to publication, so….
My process may not work for any other writer in the world. Other writers will say you should know your ending before you write the first word and have every major milestone listed along with complete character descriptions, world maps and 500 people primed to buy the book you haven’t written yet. I wish them luck. No matter what anybody tells you, you should use whatever process works for you. You can get all kinds of great ideas from other writers to adapt to your personal style, but ultimately, if my way doesn’t work for you, do something else.
There are some basic processes that writers can employ to be better writers. I write in several genres, so what I am sharing here works for me in every genre I’ve attempted.
Read everything! The Willow Branch came from reading Celtic mythology, political science, European history, engineering, herbalism, animal husbandry and ravens. I don’t use my research to educate the reader on these subjects, but sprinkle here and there to make the story real. It’s an extension of the advice to “write what you know.” Research to know what you write.
Outlines are helpful road maps that should adapt as your story matures. Just as there are multiple ways to get to a location on a map, there will probably be multiple ways to get to the ending of your story. Don’t be afraid to explore a tangent because the best scenery is often on the road less traveled.
Create a continuity file. There are writers who keep very detailed continuity files — extensive back story, character sketches, and photos of what the writer thinks the characters would look like, maps, and articles of research. I am not that organized. The continuity notebook — yes, a spiral bound student’s notebook — for the Daermad Cycle (of which The Willow Branch is Book 1) contains a list of character names with brief descriptions organized by location, a much simpler map than what appears in the book, and a listing of the words I have created or borrowed to use as idioms in the book. A continuity file can help keep you organized and cut down on having to reread your work to find out the name of some obscure character who suddenly needs to show up later in the book.
How many drafts do you need before you publish? As many as it takes. I interviewed a writer this week who went through eight complete drafts before sending her book to a professional editor. The Willow Branch is a complicated first book in a complex series. It took two rewrites and four drafts of the final rewrite. Life as We Knew It, my current project, will likely only need the four drafts because it is a much simpler story.
The first draft can be an exploratory adventure. Mine always are. The second draft should be more structured and goal-oriented. I always start with a break to let the story marinate, followed by a read-through. I’m not attempting to revise when I read through. What I want to do is put myself in the reader’s position. At any given point, I ask myself, “Would I continue at this point if it weren’t my story?” I take notes, but I really try to resist the rewrite urge until the last scene has passed before my eyes.
Now, I make a copy of my first draft. Why? Because I have learned from hard experience that it is sometimes hard to recreate a scene you deleted months ago that suddenly strikes you as poignant. Having a working copy and an archive copy saves so many headaches. This is one piece of my advice you really want to follow. If you don’t, I have a tear-stained t-shirt you can borrow.
Now the real work of the second draft starts. This is my most creative phase of the process. I turn on the music I’ve selected for the book, I go scene by scene and make better notes. What do I like and what don’t I like? Does the first scene grab attention and make me hunger for more. Does each scene have something compelling in it? Is tension built to a satisfying release? Conversely, does a relaxing scene suddenly turn distressing? Is a great description or a new piece of the puzzle presented? Is there a subplot that should be expanded or a tangent that should be pruned?
Please do take advantage of subplots because a lot is going on in real life and a story should include real-life elements. Yes, my characters are seeking the True King, but they also have to eat and care for the horses they use for transportation.
The second draft deserves as much attention as the first draft. This is where you clear up your continuity errors, imbue rich detail, and come up with the comic aside for the tavernman. Make sure your beginning is GREAT, your climax is WONDERFUL and your end SPECTACULAR. Look at every scene, but these three critical ones deserve your very best writing.
It is at this point that I send my draft off to a beta reader or three. I can’t afford editors yet, so I have to take off my writer’s hat and become an editor. I take a short break and do something else. When I return to my featured project, I am mainly editing for punctuation, grammar, and spelling. I want to eliminate most passive voice sentences, be ruthless with adverbs, and take a good hard look at my verbs. When my betas send me their suggested edits I incorporate them … or not. Be aware that betas will sometimes try to rewrite your story. While you should always consider their suggestions (that’s the reason you have betas), the choice to change your story is yours to make, not theirs. But, if one of them emails you and says “Who is this character in the 7th chapter? I can’t find him anywhere earlier in the book” alarm bells should go off and you should immediately correct the continuity error. Again — I have this tear-stained t-shirt ….
It’s tempting at this point to throw the story up on Amazon so the world can be amazed at my giftedness, but I’m glad I didn’t and I hope you won’t. I bought a ream of photocopy paper and printed out the 120,000 word manuscript of The Willow Branch. I put it in a 3-ring binder, then sat down with a red pen and found every typo I and two beta readers had missed reading on a computer screen. I also found more adverbs that needed to be excised, about 20 verbs that needed to be replaced with stronger verbs, and a couple of questionable vocabulary choices. I then turned the binder and a blue pen over to my husband. He found another five typos.
And, now, you’re ready to move onto publishing. Ah, publishing! I have another tear-stained t-shirt you can borrow for that process.
Lela has been a journalist, worked in the mental health field, and currently works for the State of Alaska, but her avocation has always been storyteller.
Her first published book The Willow Branch draws inspiration from Celtic mythology, Alaskan raven legends and the Bible to craft a tale of war, faith and reconciliation. And, don’t forget … Celtic goddesses, sentient animals and dragons.
When not writing stories, Lela reads political philosophy, economics, history, mysteries, fantasies, science fiction and the backs of cereal boxes and enjoys speculative tales on TV. For variety, she quilts, tackles home improvement projects, hikes the Alaskan wilderness well-armed against the wildlife, and holds blackbelts in cold weather living and mosquito annihilation. Oh, and aurora viewing … it’s all about the aurora watching.
Lela shares her life with her adventuresome husband, two fearless offspring and a sentient husky who keeps a yellow Lab for a pet.
You can stalk her at: firstname.lastname@example.org