In the last few weeks, this question has come up a number of times in random conversations with both writers and non-writers. In attempting to answer this question, I realized that I’ve never really analyzed my writing process. I’m sure I have one, but I’ve never really paused to think about it.
So as I was describing what I do when I’m working on a novel or a short story, I thought it might be fun to do a blog post about writing processes. There are as many writing processes out there as there are individuals who follow them, and none of them are right or wrong.
W. Somerset Maugham said: “There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” So if someone like W. Somerset Maugham doesn’t know what the rules are, someone like me definitely won’t know. As far as I’m concerned, the only wrong rule to writing is not to write at all!
Where do you start?
The most daunting challenge in writing is deciding what to write about. There are no ends to the topics and the subject matter you can tackle. Even genres have exploded to a level heretofore unheard of, and with the revolution of cross-genre works gaining popularity, more and more authors are discovering the joys of soft science fiction. And these are people who wouldn’t know Asimov from Ashton Kutcher.
So how do you make up your mind on what to write about? And once you make up your mind, how do you decide how to write it? And once you decide how to write it, what perspective–what characters–what languages–what setting? The questions don’t stop, and they won’t stop. And if you let them all rain down on you at once, you’ll get overwhelmed, and that’s why so many authors give up after their first one or two chapters. There are too many questions and not enough answers.
The goal is to have the answers you need to keep going, to keep writing, to keep pushing forward with the story. Then, you can plug the details in later. But finding the answers you need before you start writing presents another troublesome dilemma—research. How much research is too much? When is enough enough? When do you stop? If you’re not careful, you can bury yourself in the research phase and never start on your story.
As with the rest of life, there has to be a balance.
Finding your balance
Every author is different, so everyone writes differently. You know how you write. You know what you are capable of doing. You know your tendencies and your weaknesses and your strengths. You know what you can write about and what you can’t. At least, I hope you do. If you’re a writer, you need to know these things about yourself. And if you don’t know, identify them.
If you haven’t written enough to identify your strengths and weaknesses, you need to write more. If you haven’t read enough to know what good writing is, you need to read more. If you haven’t proofread enough to know good grammar from bad, take a class. Seriously. If you want to be a writer, there are times when you can’t take short cuts.
So, if you know your strengths and weaknesses as a writer, find your balance somewhere between them. Design your writing process based on your strengths while you work to overcome your weaknesses.
For example, my strengths are character and plot structure; my weakness is setting description. So for my writing process, I start out with identifying what characters I need and how the story will progress around them. I worry about setting detail later.
- I pick a message. What do I want to say?
- I pick a reason. Why is it important?
- I pick a genre. How do I want to say it?
- I pick my characters. Who do I want to say it?
- I pick my plot. What do I want to happen to communicate my message?
- I pick my setting. Where and when do I want this to happen?
- I write.
- I finish.
- I rewrite.
- I finish again.
- Then … I tweak.
This is the basic process I follow for every novel I have written. It has varied some from when I was a young child because I didn’t know what a writing process was and would have had no idea how to follow it even if I did. But these are the steps I follow. Some of them are more important than others. Some are interchangeable. Some are the same. Some are dependant on each other. It all depends on what I’m writing.
Writing processes vary from individual to individual, but whatever the process, it should end with a manuscript. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be a writing process. It would just be a waste of time.
So what’s your process? Obviously, you can write without knowing each step, but it might be helpful to understand how you write.