Hello and welcome back to the blog! I had an idea for a topical blog post, started writing and hated it. I scraped it. Now I’m flying by the seat of my pants, as far as writing this blog post goes. What was the other topic and what did I replace it with? Horror subgenres was the topic I replaced. I might still do it someday if I can find a format I’m happy with. Instead I decided to tell you about the writing process. Specifically, how this writer turns an idea into a novel or short story. Was it a good idea to switch? We’ll find out together. Let’s get started.
Every writer has their own process in writing a good story. Some are planners who meticulously summarize and outline before ever sitting down to write the story. Others sit down at the computer without much more than an idea and get to work. Neither is right or wrong. It’s about finding the process that works for that particular writer. What follows is what works for me. If you’re a writer, the chances of all these lining up with your process is pretty slim. We’re all different, and thank God, because life would be dull if we were all the same.
Most stories I have written start out with an idea. Some writers start out with the main character and form a plot around him/her. If that’s your cup of tea, well, I won’t spit in it. I prefer to start with the idea. Ideas are a mysterious and wonderful thing to a writer. Every idea I’ve had for a story that’s worth telling has come to me on a whim (that might be an exaggeration, but I’m running with it anyway). If I sit down to brainstorm a new story, the chances of finding a good story are slim. Oh, I get a plethora of ideas bombarding my brain during this time. However, most of these vary from decent to downright bad. I have a notebook dedicated to ideas as well as a notes app on my phone. Both are full and I weed out the bad on a regular basis. As with most writers, most of my story ideas won’t make it past the note on a piece of paper or phone. That’s okay, the ideas that don’t become a story are that way for a reason.
Once I have an idea I’m happy with, I’ll turn to the main character. The main character is the most important part of a story. Yes, more important than the idea. A good idea with an underdeveloped character isn’t going to make a good book or short story. I usually start out by thinking of characteristics that I would like to see in the main character. A stubborn, independent kid who’s prone to sensitivity and has a bit of a wild streak is the character summary for my current main character in The Stranger (yes, I’m still looking for another title). I keep this character summary in mind when writing this character. If anything goes against the grain of that description, I change it as soon as possible.
The main character might be the most important part of the story, but he/she isn’t alone. Next, I turn to the important secondary characters. I write a character description similar to the one above for most significant role players. Have you ever read a story where one of the characters fell flat? That’s called a cardboard character because they don’t have any depth. In my humble opinion it’s the second biggest mistake a writer can make. What’s number one? Lying to the reader. Writers who lie to the reader should have their laptops confiscated and writing privileges revoked. It’s dirty and shameful.
What were we talking about again? Right, the process. On to the next step.
There’s a popular question that goes around on Twitter every now and then. Are you a pantzer or a planner? What on Earth does that mean? A pantzer is someone who flies by the seat of their pants when writing, while a planner, well, plans (brilliant, I know). I happen to fall somewhere in the middle. I plan out the character bios more than anything. I also keep a list of things I would like to see happen during the course of the book/story. These are merely suggestions for my future self to incorporate into the story. Think of them as highlights to hit along the main character’s journey. If it doesn’t happen, it’s no big deal.
I spend a week thinking about a story before sitting down at the laptop to start writing. The previous steps all take place during that time, except for the idea, which could have come a few years prior. This allows me to fully wrap my mind around a story and how best to tell it. Sure, I’ve started stories the moment I had the idea, but that doesn’t work out well.
The next step is the fun part, at least for me. Every writer has their favorite step in the writing process. Mine happens to be the that moment when everything clicks during the first draft. The first writing session of a new story is always hard for me though. I don’t know the character as intimately as I will later on. We’re feeling each other out, if you will. At some point, usually in the second or third session, we start to understand each other. I know what decisions he/she will make and how he/she will make them. He/she knows what my expectations are.
Um… it sounds like you’re talking about real people, Stephen. Well, they’re real to me.
I tend to spend four to six weeks writing the first draft of a novel, which tends to fall between thirty-five thousand and forty thousand words. I write six days a week, seven if I can swing it—most of the time I can’t. That’s roughly a thousand words a day. I don’t let myself get up until I’ve reached that word count. I’ve said this before, I treat writing like a job I haven’t gotten paid for yet. Writing every day and writing until I get my word count is part of it.
Once I’ve got a completed first draft, I celebrate a little. This usually involves dinner with the family or a date night with the wife. Hey, it’s hard work writing a book. You have to know when to take joy in the process. Also, these people tend to get neglected while working on the first draft. But the work isn’t over. It’s only the beginning. After celebrating I put the story away for a month without looking at it. Why? When I read it again, I want to do so with fresh eyes. At the current moment I’m much too involved in the story to see any errors. Getting involved in another story will help create some distance. I either write several short stories during this time or, as was the case with my current novel, write the first draft of another novel.
After enough time has passed, I will print out the story and give it a read. I keep a pen and paper handy for notes, of which there are many. When I’m done, I give it to my first reader, who happens to be my eleven-year-old daughter. She’s read two of my novels so far and is getting good at spotting inconsistencies. I read first because I take more time to go over the writing, while she zips through it in one sitting. Then we talk about what worked and what didn’t.
The next few steps are my least favorite part of being a writer. A second draft and editing. I find the second draft to be a tedious, but necessary process. This is when I take all the notes—both from my daughter and my own—and incorporate them into the draft. At some point along the line the ugly duckling of a first draft starts to show some semblance of the beautiful swan it will become as a finished novel.
I usually go through the novel two or three times during the editing process. During one of these I focus on cutting out ten percent of the original length. Most of this is achieved during the second draft, but not always. I tend to add instead of remove at times. Once I’m satisfied that it’s as good as I can make it, well, that’s it. I call it finished.
At this point, if it’s a novel I start looking for literary agents to query about representing the book and myself. I won’t go into that. It’s an entire post in itself.
I hope you enjoyed a look inside the world of writing a story. Until next time, remember to follow your dreams, even if they terrify you.
Stephen Michael Roth