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On writing

As many of you know, I finished another novel last week. It's an amazing feeling to write "the end" on a book. Ever since I was twelve, I dreamed of writing a novel. It took me until I was thirty to actually sit down and do it. Now I wish I wouldn't have been such a procrastinator in my twenties, but I digress.

I get asked all the time as to what my process is when I write a book. A lot of those emails could be paraphrased like this: I have all these ideas and I want to write a book, but I'm not sure how to do it. How do you write?

I still consider myself fairly new to writing, but I'll talk about my process. In fact, one thing I pondered a couple weeks ago was that a finished novel only represented about 25% of the effort involved in creating it for me, and I'm not even talking about what happens once my publisher gets their hands on it. Here I'll pause to say that every author has their own process. The day someone tells you that you HAVE to write a book following their specific formula, run, don't walk, away from them. Plotting versus pantsing (or a variation of both) and what works best before starting a novel depends on the writer. If there was a tried-and-true specific formula for success, we'd all be J.K. Rowling or Dan Brown. So, my method is not THE method any more than my deep love of dark chocolate means you have to love dark chocolate, too (though white chocolate lovers...I don't understand you ;).

If you're already bored reading about my writing process, stop here, because I'm just getting warmed up. Hungry for more? Here goes!

Why do I say a completed novel only represents about 25% of my efforts? Does that mean I'm shortchanging readers and not giving them my best? Not at all. Before I even type "Chapter One", I've spent a while thinking about my hero and heroine. Things like what they look like, what type of family or background they came from, what they want the most, what they're most afraid of, what are they struggling with, what's their best attributes, their biggest flaws, etc. Then, I usually ask all those questions to myself about the villain, too.

Once I've got a detailed picture of my hero/heroine/villain in my head (this can take weeks or sometimes even years, in the case of my spin-off novels), I move on to writing a skeletal outline that highlights the basics of my main plot - and that's subject to change. If my editor isn’t a drinker, she should be, because on several occasions I've called her to say a variation of "You know how I wrote that X would happen in my proposal? Well, I have this idea about Z instead, and here's why I think it'll work even better..." Well over half of the events in every book I've written have not been plotted out in advance. Most subplots, side characters, twists and scenes come to me as I write, not before I write. For me, until I'm fully immersed in writing a book, I don't know enough about it to give a detailed summary of everything that’s going to happen.

Take all that brainstorming I mentioned on my hero/heroine/villain before starting a novel. By the end of the book, it inevitably turns out I only knew about thirty percent of what made them tick, even though at the onset, I thought I had them pegged. That knowing comes through seeing how the characters react in scenes, whether stressful, dangerous, or sexy. And through - one might say - an obsessive tendency to think about my characters night and day. An average novel takes me anywhere from four to six months to write, depending on the book and what else might be going on in my life. During that period, even when I'm not at my keyboard, I spent a lot of time thinking about the book and the characters (Don't believe me? Ask my husband or family. They'll confirm that I have a perpetual glazed look on my face and I'm only partially paying attention to things around me while writing a new book).

Then there's research. Eternal Kiss of Darkness had my heroine living in Chicago, for example. I must've spent eight to nine hours just looking up neighborhoods that would fit her finances and proximity to where she worked, what transit line she would ride, what streets she'd walk on, what the view out of her building would look like...all for maybe four to five sentences of description in the book. Add in the various other locations in the novel (all which must be researched), any references to historical happenings or people, and I probably spend a few hours a week doing research in addition to writing new words. All that's in addition to the frequent mulling about my characters, worldbuilding, and/or rewriting when inspiration strikes and I decide to change something.

If this sounds like a lot, let me say that most authors I know do all the same, if not more, when writing their books. My critique partner's research habits put mine to shame, and you could ask my other regular critiquer, Ilona Andrews, the most obscure worldbuilding question and she'll have an answer for you that second.

So perhaps you see why, between the new plots, subplots, characters, research, endless mulling, bouncing ideas off my long-suffering friends, implementing edit notes from my critique readers, and lots of self-revision along the way, I say that a finished book only represents about 25% of the effort involved, even before my editor sends me revision notes and I complete those (plus copyedits, galley edits, etc.)

And you know what? Some days, I love this process. Some days, I have to drag myself into my office and force myself to work, knowing that all the obscure facts about a character's neighborhood or time period or other details might never make it into the book, but they're still necessary. They’re the cogs in the wheel that eventually leads to that moment of satisfaction when I type “The End."

That’s my process when writing. I’m not saying it’s the One Right Way. Other authors have different processes andcan write a better book in half the time with far less obsessive tendencies (I aspire to be like them.) The truth is that writing doesn’t have a one-size-fits-all approach. It’s more trial and error that’s repeated until success or insanity occurs – or both J. For everyone who has stories and characters that demand to be written, I wish I had the perfect formula to give you, but I don’t. Just keep at it until you find the process that works best for you.

And if you find yourself thinking about your book obsessively while writing it, and your husband or family asks, “Are you paying attention to a word I’ve said?” make sure to smile, nod, and say “Of course I am!” in a convincing tone ;-).


( 12 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 17th, 2009 12:26 am (UTC)
Well - I've come to accept that I have multiple personality disorder. As a writer I can carry on complete conversations with a character if I sit down and focus. I always know the beginning and where I want the characters to end up - but have no idea of how they are going to get there. Strangely, the more I know about the body of the story the less I want to write it.

Research - that's one of my favorite parts of writing. As for family - my husband has learned if I'm writing and he comes to the door of my office - he's going to get snapped at.
Oct. 17th, 2009 01:26 am (UTC)
great post!

My own process is very similar -- except that I usually start with a scene that has characters fully 'dressed' already (hair color, clothes, looks, etc). However, I do not have them fully flesh ed out. I fly seat-of-pants for the first several chapters, get into a rhythm, and then start scribbling notes. About half way through the novel I falter for a bit -- I know where everything need to 'go' but I lose the momentum of getting there. And then I do some serious plotting.
Oct. 17th, 2009 06:29 am (UTC)
Thanks for this post. I will definitely save it and refer back. I know when I'm writing something, I think about the characters all the time. It's like they just sit down in my head and say "what's up?" at any given time. I'm bad about taking notes, though. When I "see" a scene or "hear" some dialogue I know I want to keep, I often think "oh, I won't forget that", which of course I do. :P

Ah, Chicago. I lived there for five years. Can't wait to read your description. :^)
Oct. 17th, 2009 05:11 pm (UTC)
Great post! Thanks for sharing :)
Oct. 17th, 2009 11:40 pm (UTC)
I practically stood up and yelled "I'm not a freak" after reading your post. I'm trying to switch from nonfiction writing to fiction and I was obsessing over all the stuff you mentioned. I'd read about authors who dreamed their entire plot, or outlined it in a day etc. and was worried. The bare bones ideas are in my head but I've been doing research and wondering why I couldn't just start writing. I feel better now:)
Oct. 20th, 2009 05:45 pm (UTC)
Hey Jeaniene! Thanks for sharing your process! I find I use a similar process when I write. Now I don't feel so bad when my husband comes home and I'm lost in my own little world. I am totally guilty of thinking, "why the heck is home so soon, I'm in the middle of a really good idea!" :)

If I'm not writing about my characters I'm usually thinking about them. They have the most interesting conversations when I least expect it!

And I have found more places I want to visit with research than I ever did on a travel website!

Perhaps there is a support group for family and friends of writers (especially those on a deadline!)

Nov. 12th, 2009 10:32 am (UTC)
Interesting posts about writing – w/e October 23 2009
User jongibbs referenced to your post from Interesting posts about writing – w/e October 23 2009 saying: [...] Disability mmerriam How Amazon and Wal-Mart could screw over authors and book sellers aprilhenry On Writing [a novel] frost_light If you have a particular favorite among these, please let the author know (and me too, if you have time). ... [...]
Dec. 10th, 2009 09:53 pm (UTC)
re: writing
After procrastinating my entire twenties away, I have started writing. I've let a couple friends and a published professor read what I've written so far and its been very helpful. They all noted that I'd gone 3 chapters and not given a physical description of my main characters. It wasn't an oversight. I spent a week just researching their names alone, I was afraid to commit to a description already.
But anyway, reading your process has been helpful, as were your tweeted links to other writing/publishing tips. If I don't like my gal's haircolor later, I can just change it...da!
Nov. 27th, 2010 04:44 am (UTC)
Thank you so much! My characters are always bitching at me in my head (Making high school significantly more difficult), and I have never really been able to write them out. This has helped me reel back some of my sanity.
Jennifer Hammonds
Aug. 4th, 2012 12:18 am (UTC)
Awesome! Thank you!
My main problem has been that I know the whole story and can write it in like 50 pages, but it's everything crammed together without enough detail. Research is the key! Reading your descriptions of different times and different places has definitely helped me to elaborate my way to The End. Thanks!
May. 26th, 2013 07:23 am (UTC)
My kinfolk!
Gotta say, as a fellow dark chocolate lover, I totally decided I loved you right when you said, "though white chocolate lovers...I don't understand you".

Moving on, you're one of the few people whose process is similar to mine. I love the research, and generally start a new novel--not planned per se, but thought about, for a very long time... with lots of research that ends up not making it in the novel.

But anyways, nice to read about a fellow Buffy fan, and writer. I'll be sure to check out "Halfway to the Grave".

Appreciated your timeline post too!
Kira Covin
Feb. 7th, 2014 10:07 am (UTC)
Writing Process
I think I'll go on a bit of a rant here :)

I'm glad to see a writer who isn't a stickler about varying from the outline. Most "popular writers" say how they knew everything, planned it all out perfectly and sold a million dollar novel. That's when I want to say, "Sure (fill in the blank)! Because you didn't sit on a train and take notes of your characters when you were in the middle of writing a book!" I guess it just annoys me when a writer says they never divert from the path AT ALL.

Whew. That little rant out of the way. Moving back on subject: I actually like your writing process a lot. It's even-toned and makes sense while taking up the amount of time one would expect. And I definitely relate to having plot twists come to you in the midst of writing.

Just a little about my writing process (NOT GLOATING SO I APOLOGIZE IF IT COMES OFF THAT WAY!!!)...If I plan, I fail. There's just something about planning a novel that turns me off and too much research on a subject does the same. I'm not quite sure why. Once I was researching vampires and different stories about them while outlining and got completely turned off from the book. This happened four tries after so I eventually gave up and just started writing. It was a much better experience and I had so much more fun writing it that way instead of doing research. (Point in mind--this is excluding research of the town.)

I started my first book when I was ten or eleven, finished it when I was about 13 and then wrote it's two sequels withing a year. Then I just kept writing and writing and I'm at 13 books so far and their pretty good so I must be doing something right! (And by books, I mean 250+ paged novels using the natural sizing of Microsoft Word). Though, despite not really having a plan and jumping into writing, it works.

Fun little story before I sign off...I normally design my characters and plot their back story before I begin writing. Well...I once had this character who was female, 16, with brown hair and caramel skin who basically grew up in a troubled home and raised by an alcoholic aunt. By the end, she had black hair, pale white skin and was 19. Her aunt? Oh no. Her Aunt no longer existed. She wound up living with her supposed-to-be-dead parents. BIG change.

So I guess the whole point of this...comment is to simply say: 1.) You are not to have my Oreo cookies. They are my writing stamina. 2.) Things change in a story. You can't plan EVERYTHING. 3.) Planners...it's okay to change (i.e. see point no. 2!) 4.) Everyone has a different way of writing. We were all made differently. No two ways will work the same for everyone.

Kudos to those that read this very insane, very random message. :)
( 12 comments — Leave a comment )