I often find it helpful to hear other writers talk about how they write. Sometimes it gives me ideas to try to improve my writing efficiency, and it’s encouraging and interesting to get an insight into somebody else’s writing mindset. So, without further ado, here’s how I write.
Flying by the Seat of My Pants
First of all, I’m a pantser (not a planner). For those unfamiliar with the distinction, a planner outlines out their story before writing, and a pantser starts writing without a plan then shapes the narrative after the fact. That being said, there’s all sorts of room in between the two extremes of total planning and no planning.
I’ve tried outlining before, thinking it would be helpful as I’m generally a type-A person, but I’ve found pre-plotting or outlining really takes the wind out of my creative sails. For the longest time, I didn’t understand this, but I finally was able to put my finger on why when listening to Brandon Sanderson talk about planners and pantsers (or architects and gardeners, respectively—the terms he likes). He explains that pantsers often feel like they’ve already written the novel when they outline, which makes actually writing the novel feel repetitive. This is exactly how I feel outlining: It makes writing the actual novel boring and pointless, almost like retyping from memory a file you accidentally deleted. Also, when I have written outlines, I typically just end up throwing them completely out as I’m writing—in an effort to, I think, make the writing process more interesting.
Writing to Music
I almost always listen to music while I write. To me, having the right song or genre on in the background sets the mood for the scene or character I’m writing. On the other hand, having music on that doesn’t suit what I’m writing really stagnates my productivity for that writing session.
Sometimes the imagery from a song will inspire some description I’m working on, or a word or two from the song (I typically need music with lyrics) will make their way into the story. It’s important enough that I often have to stop writing and track down some appropriate music if I’m not making progress, as it’s entirely possible the music is partly the cause.
Most projects start with an idea for a character. It’s rare that I start a project just with an idea for a world. I typically either need a world and character or just a character (with some general idea of the sort of world they fit into). Sometimes I have an idea of a scene that’s a good starting place. And other times, I just have a feeling or general sense of a direction to go; with this, I generally have to coax it into something with a bit more semblance before I start writing.
Drafting Out My Ideas
With an idea firmly in hand, it’s off to the races. Write, write, write. When doing this initial drafting, I’m more concerned with getting my words onto paper than I am with writing style and such, though I don’t totally ignore style (it’s just something I try not to get hung up on).
When drafting, I sometimes jump around. I don’t believe in waiting for inspiration to strike to write generally, but I do think it can be helpful to write the sections I’m currently feeling motivated (or inspired) to write, rather than going through the story beginning to end.
It’s in this stage that I figure out a lot of what the story is like. I flesh out the characters and world. It’s a lot of discovery writing. For me, a story can change completely during the drafting stage from the initial idea.
Editing the Story into Shape
The change from drafting to editing isn’t completely clean cut for me. Sometimes I’ll go and edit a section while the story isn’t completely finished. Other times, I need to add new material when I’m focused on editing, so I have to do more drafting.
The first rounds of edits are more focused on the bigger picture aspects of the story (though, again, I don’t completely ignore writing style), and as I get those honed in, I give more attention to the details. I look for my typical weak spots, which often includes scene description.
During the editing stage, I also get more serious about the overall shape of the narrative. What’s the character arc? What do I need to add for worldbuilding? Since I don’t like outlining, all the things that would happen in an outline now need to happen.
I don’t have an exact process for figuring out these details while I’m editing. However, I do use a mishmash of a few different tools.
First, sometimes I will retroactively outline the story. I’ll look at what each piece of the story is currently doing and write that down. I’ll also look back to my initial vision for the story and see if I still want to pursue that or if the story changed directions at some point. And I find it really helpful to write down what I’m actually trying to do with the story. This can be quite challenging since I often don’t know precisely what I’m trying to get at with the narrative. For example, I try to clearly lay out what the character arc is or should be. Then, I will compare my stated goals for the story with the outline of the draft.
Second, I often use the writing thesauruses (I have the Negative Trait, Positive Trait, and Emotion Thesauruses, though I use the Negative Trait and Emotion ones most frequently) by Becca Puglisi and Angela Ackerman to assist as I think through character arcs and flaws. They’re a great starting point if I’m stuck with a character.
Another technique I use when shaping the overall narrative is to examine how individual sections of the story fit together. Where are the major twists in the story? Where is the promise/setup for future payoffs? Are they too far apart or too close together? How is the pacing?
Sometimes it’s helpful to find a book or movie that my story is similar to. Whether it’s a character, world, pacing, or another element, having this touchstone as a loose roadmap can be a great way to shape my stories. Similarly, using a story structure like the hero’s journey can be another excellent roadmap.
When I’m in the depths of developing my characters, worlds, and stories, the biggest thing I do is ask why. I think through why a character is acting a certain way, why the world has its unique natural features, why the culture holds particular beliefs. Oftentimes, if I can’t find a reasonable explanation, it means I have to change part of the story to either make an explanation work or change the character trait, worldbuilding feature, or cultural belief. Granted, sometimes the explanations aren’t relevant to the story, and if it’s a minor point in the novel, I may ignore even coming up with an explanation. It’s more important to think through these things for the particulars that receive more focus in the story.
One final tool I’ll mention is having an internal wiki (I use wikidPad), which I’ve started within the past few months. It’s been very helpful to keep track of everything for my manuscript. I basically use it as a way to organize all the details of the world and characters I’m working with, though I don’t think it would be helpful (or at least as helpful) for shorter stories.
All in all, it’s not a perfect system—I’m always improving my process—but it’s what works for me!
What does your writing process look like? Any off-beat tips or tricks?