Wednesday, 12 January 2011

My Writing Process: Making It Up As I Go Along

Just based on process alone, it's painfully obvious that this is my first novel.  I had absolutely no idea what I was doing when I started, or what I was getting myself into.  Hell, it started more than anything as a writing exercise.

It all started when this character with the unlikely name of Michael Pariah wandered into my head and politely requested that I write him down.  And so, not knowing any better, I did.  The whole first chapter was just me getting to know him.  (The fact that I've since completely cut that chapter is beside the point.)  I was just writing. I would write when I felt like it, and I'd often have to read what I'd already written to remind myself not only what was going on, but what kind of voice I was using.  I'd also edit.  A lot.  I was committing that most heinous of all writer crimes: editing as I went.  Honestly, even after I'd heard about it I thought I was above that rule.  I'm not, and neither are you.  I'd ask you to believe me, but chances are you won't until you've figured it out for yourself.

Well, between the long breaks and the constant editing, it's really no wonder that my novel fell by the wayside for over a year.  Even though I had begun to get an idea of the plot instead of pantsing it completely, I was storing it all in my head and losing momentum.  Other things got in the way, and I'd made it far too easy for these other things to distract me.  That is, until I noticed this intriguing little Twitter hashtag: #NaNoWriMo.

I'd figured out through context that it had something to do with writing a 50,000 word novel in a month, and thought, what the hell.  I've got that Michael Pariah thing sitting around doing nothing, might as well pull that out and see what happens.  It was already a couple of days into November when I finally found the official NaNoWriMo website, found out it stood for National Novel Writing Month, and joined up.  I found out that there was a whole community involved in this, and a local branch with in-person writing sessions that I resolved to take full advantage of.  This began my second writing phase: writing every day.  I still had my outline in my head rather than written out in any way, but I was keeping up momentum and I wasn't editing as I wrote.  I also began reading a lot more about the craft of writing, most notably at Terrible Minds, a blog by the brilliant and bizarre Chuck Wendig.

Did I win, did I beat the NaNo challenge of 50,000 words?  No.  But that wasn't really my goal.  My goal was to finish my first draft, a goal that (I thought) I had accomplished.  The fact that I'd only finished the first plot-arc is a post for another day.  The upshot here is that I got into the habit of writing, and writing every day.  I'd take my laptop on the bus with me, I'd plug in a few words before bed.  I was writing and I was reading about writing.  And eventually, when December rolled around, I started actually plotting.

Admittedly, I still follow a pretty loose format for my outline, more a series of progressions per character group of this action leads to this action, each one indented further than the one before until it looks like way too many nested replies in a forum thread.  Some of it still reads pretty vaguely, like: →Possibly by becoming Timoth's property as well, pulling a Michael? Perverse... Potential. Need to plot on this...  There's also a lot there that can only really be understood if you're living in my head, but it gives me something to refer to, something to give me a direction.  I've also been noting what scenes I've already written, and in what order so I have a better idea of where I left off and what plot-line to pick up next.

Is it a perfect system?  Hardly.  I'm still learning as I go along, but the more I do the more I can fine-tune my process, and what I do have now is in part thanks to reading the advice and experience of others.  Who knows, maybe by the time I write my second book, I'll actually know what I'm doing.  Until then, I'll be doing a lot more reading, and a lot more writing.

How about you, what does your process look like?  Is there anything you find particularly helpful?  Has your process changed much since you started?  I'd love to hear about it.


  1. While I use the outline method (sometimes forty-plus pages of notes, sometimes one), the thing I find most helpful is a physical representation of my characters. Sometimes, I'll sit down and draw them; sometimes, I'll use a video game with a character creation option (WWE Smackdown Vs Raw works the best for me - not only do I have my characters in a visible form I can also pair them up with other characters and see how the work/look together) and actually use the game to aid in building the storyline. Tabletop RPGs can also help in creating characters and storylines: D20 Modern gave birth to Kalen, Delilah and the rest of the Hollywood Harem crew (something I'm attempting to turn into a TV show) while D&D helped my Wrath Saga coauthor devise her In Dreams series.

    I also use music that corresponds to the story/scene; personalized soundtracks keep me in the proper mindset (as can movie marathons in the same genre).

    Since I've started writing, my process had pretty much remained the same: music and pictures. It doesn't matter what I'm writing, be it lyrics, a short story or another novel; I MUST have me muses.

  2. I used to be a total panster, abhorring outlines, until a class made me make an outline. Shock! It turns out that was actually useful. (Who knew?) I still mostly avoided it, though, and only outlined a little.

    So I wrote a lot (the title still goes to my first NaNo novel, which I rewrote six times. Sigh. Yes. It never did get anywhere, so I trunked it) and I'd run into all these Issues (plot holes, dead ends, flawed structure, etc) which I'd try to solve by... rewriting the novel four times. Yeah, um. At some point, when this is not FIXING the problems*, I finally realized that this whole planning thing is not only a time-saver, but I can start working out the problem areas before I spend months butting heads with a story wall.

    So the more I started using outlines and planning, the more I LIKED it, the more I was making headway vs spinning wheels--and then in the late end of '09, when I decided Damn It I Want To Be Serious About This Writing Thing, I pretty much started swearing by outlines of some sort. (I really don't care if people want to wing-it or plot out every last detail or some mishmash--your process is your own, I just do what works for me.)

    I love me some outlines. (I need the roadmap so I can play with all the shiny things in between point a and z.)

    That and music. Also books and movies, because I need frequent brain recharging (my brain, it holds a short battery life).

  3. Forgot to finish my thought with the asterisk.

    *I didn't have much of a grasp on structure or arcs or other things a novel needs; I'm hardly much better at it now, but I begin to feel like I have a clue. (And realizing how much I don't know and want to know how to accomplish is, imo, a step in the right direction of eventually building my toolkit. Self-awareness is nice sometimes.)