Lately on Twitter I’ve been seeing a lot of discussion about the writing process, how people go about the actual labor of constructing the book, and how authors revise, edit, and prep their book for submission or self publication. I know I do things a little differently from a lot of other writers, so I though I’d take some time to walk you guys through my personal process. This will be a multi-part series running on Fridays through March and April. I hope you find it interesting, and if you have any questions about any part, please feel free to leave a comment!
For me, writing isn’t so much a career choice as it is a bad habit. It’s that thing I do that fills up time, the thing I can’t stop doing, which will eventually run me into the ground. It’s kind of like smoking, but instead of an oral fixation and a nicotine addition, I’m dealing with a compulsive need to make up stories with a package of Oreos by my side. Trust me, if I were in it for the money, I’d have quit a long time ago.
Every book starts with an image. An opening scene, usually, but sometimes it’s a clip, like when you happen to see a gif from the climax of a movie while scrolling through Twitter and think “I need to see that!”
The Opening Image
All stories start with a kernal of an idea, but once I have the opening image, I know I’m usually doomed. I’ll be driving to work and my brain starts narrating the first page of the book. Fifteen minutes later, I have the main character and her back story, and I know what her main challenge is.
With Evie, the opening image came from watching the sunset on Mount Royal, looking down over Montreal the summer I was interning there. There were thoughts and feelings going through my head that I didn’t know how to cope with, but I had this image of a girl, a lot like me, standing on the lookout by Université de Montréal, and a camera shot panning in, and then there was music, and before I knew it I had the opening and ending credits, as though it was a television show. The Spider’s Web changed a lot from that original incarnation, but the feel of it stayed roughly the same.
Once I have that opening image, my brain starts narrating the first pages of the book, mostly without my permission. This is the do or die point. Once I have that first page, I know I’m writing the book. There’s no way around it.
In writer speak, the blurb is what you read on the back cover or the inside flap that makes you want to read the book. It’s usually about 100-150 words, gives a brief introduction to the main character and plot, and draws you in. When writing a query letter, the bulk of the letter should read like this blurb.
The first thing I do is create a folder for the project and label it: DEVELOPMENT–[title]. All of my document folders are labeled with the status of the project, to make them easier to find (Development, WIP, Edit, and Done). The first thing that goes into that folder is my blurb, which gives the most bare-bones outline of what I want the story to be about. It’s usually pretty slap-dash, thrown together in 2-3 minutes before I’m called away to something else, and if you read it out loud it would sound like it was written by cat meme high on caffeine. Grammar, spelling, and general clarity are pretty low on my list at that point. The idea is just to get the idea down.
For me, my initial synopsis falls somewhere between the blurb and the outline. It’s longer than the blurb and more detailed, hitting all of the high points and including what the resolution will be, but doesn’t have the step-by-step detail of an outline. At this point, it can be anywhere from 1-3 pages, though it’s usually on the shorter side. Again, it’s much more stream-of-consciousness than the synopsis I’ll eventually submit to an agent or contest, but that’s okay. No one is going to see this version except me, so as long as I understand it, it’s fine.
Honestly, I could write an entire series about research. I love research (I actually have a panel I present on historical research for authors), but I’ll try to make this brief.
Since I’ve been writing mostly historical fiction for the past couple of years, I look mostly at the factual timelines that overlap with the period I’m writing about. I have a pretty good grasp at this point of what life was like in the US and England from 1860-1928, but I always find gaps in that knowledge I have to fill. I keep a notebook where I make all of my notes. I always make sure to write down the books I use and the websites I find with helpful information. I’ll often make notes in the margins about actual events or historical facts that need come up in the story, or highlight important facts. This is often where the roughest version of my synopsis or outline are formed. I might do some preliminary research, depending on the book and how familiar I am with the top, but really the research happens through the entire process.
I recently changed the way I make my outlines. Previously, I went by chapters, and came up with at least three points for each chapter. That worked pretty well, but I always had a lot of trouble keeping my timelines straight. I have a very linear way of thinking, and sometimes if I walked away from a project–even for an evening–it would be hard for me to keep events straight. To complicate matters, I recently finished the first draft of a dual-timeline story, so I had to balance the “then” narrative with the “now.”
So what I started doing instead was labeling each day in my outline. It makes it a lot easier to manage the flow of time in the story. I only mark out chapters after about the 2nd-3rd draft, but more on that later.
So that is it for the prep work. Next week, I’ll talk more about my drafting process.
Like what you see? Check out my Tips for Transitioning from Short to Long Fiction.