Last week on Facebook I wrote: “I’m starting my 6th novel (7th if I count a collection of novellas), and I’m just now recognizing my process, as in ‘this is how I write a novel.’ So many writers advise how to do it so many different ways that it took a while to realize what works for me.” I thought it might be helpful to elaborate.
Before I wrote my first novel, the process seemed mysterious and magical. So I read dozens of how-to books, many of them very helpful. But every writer seemed to advise a different process for taking a story from idea to completion. Trying to find my way, I tried would grab on to one writer’s process, switch to another, and sometimes use several methods on one manuscript. Now that I feel more comfortable with how I work, I realize that I’ve taken bits and pieces from these writing-advice authors and have created my own process. Which is, I assume, what we all have to do.
So here’s my process. Writer or not, I hope you’ll find it interesting. And if you’re still trying to find your footing in your own process as a writer, know that you’re not alone. In my next blog I’ll direct you to a variety of authors’ viewpoints on Process.
1. Idea: When I get an idea, I jot it down and put it into an Ideas folder. If an idea is “hot” – meaning it stands out as unique or as a possible sequel or companion to a novel I’ve already written – it gets its own folder. A “hot” idea will begin generating scenes or snippets of dialogue or characters or themes that pop into my mind while I’m not actively working on it. I jot down those snippets, stick them in that folder, and forget about them (at least consciously).
2. Incubation: Once I decide to turn a “hot” idea into a novel, I buy a cheap composition book, read through the folder of notes, and then spend about two weeks answering the questions posed in Donald Maass’s Writing 21st Century Fiction. That’s two weeks exploring the story from every angle, because Maass is thorough. For the novel I’m currently writing, I generated 50 handwritten pages, which will translate into lots of scenes. This incubation process is what John Cleese in his great talk on creativity calls the “open mode.”
3. Input: In a word processing file, I enter the stray notes from my “hot” folder plus my incubation notes – but not at random. I organize them in the order I think they’ll appear in my novel. I use four general divisions: Beginning, Middle, Climax, End. (The Middle will be the largest.) The notes I enter will naturally fall into scenes or parts of scenes, but to stay flexible I don’t number the scenes. Instead, I label them: “At the Airport” or “Trip to Slum.” Then I can continue to insert scenes without having to renumber.
4. Write rough draft: The notes I entered in step 3 have become sort of an outline. But it doesn’t dictate what I write. Instead, with my notes as a guide, I let the story pull me through. I may totally leave out several scenes and add others as needed. But everything in steps 2 and 3 have steeped me in my story, so I know my characters, their motives, and their desires, and I know where I think the story is going. It’s all subject to change, of course, but this is how I move forward. The rough draft stage takes months.
5. Rewrite: This is the global, big picture form of revision. I may need to rewrite the beginning or change/add/delete scenes here and there. Some of the questions in Writing 21st Century Fiction are best answered after writing the first draft, so now I put my rough through that sieve of questions to see what comes out.
6. Revise the rewrite: Here’s where I try to catch inconsistencies, typos, and do all those other revision-type tasks. I often read the draft aloud to hear mistakes I don’t see. From incubation to the end of this revision takes about six months.
7. Send the manuscript to my agent. Step 7 1/2 is waiting with fingers crossed. Time of waiting is unknown and out of my control. My agent has several readers who take notes as they read. She combines their notes with hers and gives me feedback. Sometimes she phones, but most of the time this happens by email.
8. Revise according to my agent’s feedback. I have never sent her a manuscript that she has accepted without asking for revisions. We usually go several critique-and-revision rounds before she thinks it’s good enough to pitch to a publisher. (I’m lucky to have her!) Steps 7 and 8 can loop repeatedly for a while.
9. Limbo: I’ve learned to include this step, because once my agent accepts a manuscript, I feel like I’m in limbo. The manuscript is out of my hands but not yet under contract with a publisher (which will continue the process with an editor’s feedback and more revisions). Writer Peter Matthiessen describes this limbo feeling: “when I wake up in the morning, go and get my coffee, and I haven’t got something on my desk to go to, it’s terrifying.” It really is. It’s helpful to remind myself that this, too, is part of the process.
Happy Reading! Happy Writing!
© 2014 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved. Photo courtesy morguefile.com