I started to think about my writing process while planning for a Zoom meeting with The Online Writers’ Group. I’ve included part of that video discussion below. I wrote a series of ten blog posts entitled “How To Write A Novel” with general advice for new writers, about a year ago - the first in the series is here. This blog post is different, and discusses the choices I make, and things that have and haven’t worked for me. If you watch the video, you’ll see how differently four authors tackle the problems of writing a story.
Whether I’m writing a novel or a short story my process is similar.
When I started out, eleven years ago, I was a pantster. I started with a blank page and nothing beyond a vague idea I wanted to explore. I didn’t plan what I wanted to write and simply typed my way through the first draft, leaving myself with an almost impossible task at the editing stage, full of plot holes and nonsense. Writing this way did lead to some surreal and original ideas that I might not have imagined had I been following a prepared route, but it required months of rewriting, cutting and sometimes starting again, before the manuscript started to look like a credible story.
More recently I’ve become a planster, and I try to have a vague idea of at least a couple of the crucial points in the story before I write the first draft. Having a couple of landmarks and a final destination helps me keep writing.
Every story starts with an idea or two.
For short stories this might come from the wording of a submission call or the title of a collection. However, with novels, the ideas are never handed to me on a platter. Sometimes I write to answer a question I have about life, while at other times I might be inspired by a newspaper article, a song or a place I visit. Ideas are everywhere. The trick is to keep your eyes and mind open, and have a notebook to hand so you can jot down a few words whenever inspiration strikes. Ideas can start small, but as I write they grow.
My current work in progress started with two ideas.
1) what it meant to be free, and whether it was possible to be free while locked in a cell;
2) how hierarchy operated in all female spaces.
I often write a scene before starting the larger project, just to play about with the initial idea. It doesn’t matter whether this scene ends up in the final story; it’s simply a way to explore the characters and setting before I start. It is usually at this stage that the genre of the piece I’m about to write becomes clear. I love horror, but sometimes the right genre for a story might be different.
Write what you know. Research what you don’t.
The next stage in my process is to decide where there are holes in my knowledge. I list everything I need to research to write the story then hit the books, photo searches and documentaries.
For Starblood I researched kabalah, Lilith, and Chaos magic; for The Ballerina and the Revolutionary it was shamanism and dream symbolism, and for Witchwood it was women’s prisons.
Knock, knock, who’s there?
The next stage in my process is creating characters. The main ones tend to fill at least a page of notes with physical descriptions, likes and dislikes, fears and dreams, and back story. I want characters who a very different to each other at least in one aspect. Secondary characters are usually added as they show up and information is revealed about them.
I love character driven stories and it’s part of the reason that carefully planning a story carefully is difficult for me. It might sound bizarre to a non-writer, but I want my characters to be free to behave naturally without being tied to a restrictive plot, so it makes sense to allow the story to develop organically and throw in obstacles along the way to see how they’ll react.
Type as you go.
My planning, if you can call it planning, complete I write the first draft. My goal at this stage is to lose myself in the story and my characters’ lives until I think about them even when not writing. A notebook is essential, I take one everyone and keep one beside my bed, so I can note scenes, ideas, or bits of dialogue whenever they occur to me, or soon after if the ideas surface while I’m in the shower (that happens a lot).
Getting off track.
If I get stuck part way through, and the usual tips for overcoming writer’s block don’t work (see the How To guide for tips), I have pulled stories apart, changed protagonists, rewritten an entire story in first rather than third person (or vice versa), changed past to present tense, changed the chapter order or cut tens of thousands of words, until I can see the story clearly again. It is often at this stage that I realise where the novel will end and see a clear, if winding, path by which I can get it there. I am ruthless, if a story isn’t working, but keep the original draft intact in case I change my mind (I never have, but there’s always the possibility that I might).
I write until the first draft is finished and I have what I consider to be a satisfying ending (although many of the endings I love are too vague and open for some people’s tastes, and I find myself working on the endings again after feedback from beta readers). At this stage it is unlikely anyone has read the piece apart from me. I like to put the first draft to one side for at least a month. If I have another piece to write, I’ll start a new story and not return to the old one until I’ve finished the first draft of the second. It helps me read the story with fresh eyes. Sometimes, especially with short stories, an extended break isn’t possible, but with novels it usually will be.
I’ll read the story from start to finish, noting anything glaring and jotting down a timeline of events. I check for continuity and plot holes, out of character behaviour and that it all makes sense, and maintains an internal logic. After I’ve corrected any errors that have been spotted, I like to print out the manuscript. Editing includes a lot of read-throughs, checking for different things at different stages and paying close attention to the first paragraph and the rhythm of sentences.
I’m lucky enough to have a small group of people who have the time and patience to read and give feedback on the stories I write. I tend to wait until I’ve gone through a few edits before sending the piece to them. Once I receive their thoughts I’ll decide which ones I agree with and make what changes are needed. Usually if more than one person is confused by a part of the story I will take time to rewrite that section completely. I check for over used words at this stage as well.
Unless it’s written for a particular publisher with an inhouse editor, the story is sent to Vanessa for her feedback. Vanessa has been my editor for almost a decade, and in spite of the number of times I’ve edited a manuscript she will always notice things I’ve missed. A good editor is worth every penny you pay. When I’ve made the changes my editor recommends (it is rare I disagree, but if I do I take my own advice rather than hers) I will go through again, proof reading this time. Then it is finished and ready to submit or self-publish.
So that’s my writing process. It has evolved over the years, but it is still the depth of characters and the beauty of language that I prioritise in everything I write. Writing isn’t easy, and sometimes it isn’t pleasurable, but having written something good and the pride I feel at my accomplishment is worth all the frustration and sleepless nights. What I didn’t realise until recently, when I started reading my books on Facebook Live during lock down, was that I have not yet written anything perfect, and I can always find faults years after publication, and things I would do differently. I try not to spend my energy regretting these, but instead push myself to write something better next time. I suspect I’ll keep learning from the process throughout my lifetime.
The Ballerina and the Revolutionary
Pariah (work in progress)
Starblood, the graphic novel
Psychonaut, the graphic novel
Black Sun, the graphic novel (work in progress)
Broken Mirror and Other Morbid Tales
The Erotic Tales of Carmilla Voiez
The Venus Virus
The Witch of Witchwood (work in progress)
Collections featuring one of my short stories
Another Beautiful Nightmare - “Demons are a Girl’s Best Friend”
Zombie Punks Fuck Off - “Eat the Rich”
Elements of Horror: Water - “High Tide”
D is for Demons - “Within”
Bloody Sexy - “Sex Magic” and “How to Catch a Selkie”
Slice Girls (coming soon) - “Jagged Jaws”
Short stories available on my blog