I’d like to tell you how I write. This is not how I’ve always written, but it is how I’ve written for the last four years. This was not intentional. A practice evolved organically around my limitations of time and energy. Results may vary if you were to give my methods a try.
Dream – Initiation
I don’t start on paper or computer or words at all. Well, most of the time, I don’t. The exception is when I wake up with a phrase stuck in my mind. Some repeating mantra. “She invoked the void oracle.” No idea what it means. I might dwell with some phrase for months. That’s the outlier though. Here’s what usually happens.
I listen to music, watch shows and movies, read voraciously, and one day, a fantasy begins in my mind. Perhaps, I started a mental fanfic of the show I was watching. Changing things. Evolving things. Transforming it until it no longer resembles the originating melody or show. The images come to mind spontaneously. Disconnected from narrative. A woman descending the sky, iconography, like Mary, queen of heaven, but full of rage. A green fog that talks in riddles. A bitter and jaded vampire complaining about the quality of American food service. Something sticks and I let it simmer in me without any interference from me. I don’t think. I don’t ask myself what might be interesting. I only allow my inner workings to simmer and commingle the idea and image soup.
For a long time, nothing happens outside my head. I work my day job. I go about my business. In the margins of my day and night, the story is growing. When it is ready to reveal itself, I play it from the beginning to end over and over for weeks. I might never draft the thing. There are some revisited fantasies I’ve held for decades.
Drafting, Structure, & Project Management
Saturday and Sunday mornings, from 5-7, I draft. That is to say, I sit and write. I have seen so much chatter about plotting vs writing by the seat of one’s pants. Pantster vs Plotter. I don’t find those paradigms useful at all so I don’t use them. This is how I decide what I am a going to write about in my weekend morning session.
- Since I’ve daydreamed about this story for many days
- Since I know it is a novel (my heart told me so)
- Since I know roughly how many words this novel will be in the end (my experience told me so)
- Since I know roughly how many words I tend to write in a scene (my hands told me so)
- I know how many scenes I’m going to write in total (that’s just math)
Armed with the knowledge of the story I want to tell and how many scenes I will probably write, I choose to draft any single scene following my heart. Maybe I have a really clear vision of that part. Maybe I close my eyes, fingers over the keyboard, and words spill out. Whatever the decision that morning, I simply write without thinking. I write without planning in a formal sense. I write my first thought of how to embody the feeling and events of my vision. After a few months, I found I produced almost the exact number of words per writing session. This was not planned. It just happened and it might happen for you.
An interesting thing happens when one knows the target length of their book and their rate of producing words. At that point, one can calculate a reasonably accurate date for when the first draft will be finished. It feels good.
If you wanted to outline it, you could. I don’t. I rely on my memory, which shifts around, in my daydream cycles of revision which punctuate the week days between sessions. In my head, I wind up with something like this. A beginning, middle, end. A statement of characters in their before states and their after states – what changed or didn’t change as a result of the story?
Structural Editing Pass
I postpone all editing until every scene I’ve identified is in first draft, meaning to me, that at the scene level, there is a beginning, middle, and end. At this point, I loosely group scenes in sequential chapters. Chapters are pacing mechanisms, the large form of a paragraph break or scene break to indicate breathing and a change, perhaps in pace or tonality, of the following events. [I should make a dictionary for this post. For me, a scene is a unit of story basically its own short story. I write them 2k-5k words. A chapter is a grouping of scenes.]
Might look like that. I don’t believe that the structure MUST adhere to anyone’s guidelines to be a good and worthy book. I do think it is helpful for an author to know their own structure. To know the flow means you can measure the flow and adjust. If I tried to steer purely from gut feeling and did not analyze the structure to see what I actually wrote, I would never be able to find the end. I know this because ~10 years of early writing almost never had endings. Just middle after more middle after more middle.
The intentionality of reviewing structure, even if I don’t actually cut anything or write anything new, serves its own purpose of giving me the sense of confidence that I wrote the story embodiment of my vision.
To edit structure, I first read the whole thing through. I also have my computer read the book aloud. I do not refine sentences. I do not fix spelling errors. I am looking for the story, the pacing, the movement of time, the movement of character development, and for that elusive quality, “Is this satisfying to read?”
I then make various maps of the book which some authors use when drafting. Things which look like outlines or the above timeline. I want to see visually, what exactly happens where. Foul notes, that is, elements misaligned with my vision, I cut out at the scene level. I do not worry about word count at all in this stage. [Often, you will hear authors talk about cutting things which do not serve the plot or to kill your darlings. Well, I don’t really care about plot in my work. I care about story. To me, plot is what happens and in what order. Story is why it happens combined with why anyone would possibly care.
I perform the high level overall structural edit. Removing entire scenes. Since I didn’t spend a lot of time refining the scenes, I am not sad to lose them. They don’t represent an entrenched mistake with an investment of effort.
Then I look at each chapter’s structure and repeat the process. Then, at the scene level. Pencils down when all scenes have been leveled up to second draft.
I tend to use 6-10 beta readers for a novel. I anticipate that since this is a volunteer activity, 50% of those beta reading for me will not get back to me ever. I don’t give them a hard time about. It’s fine. Try to line up more readers than you need.
I try to use beta readers who represent a range of diversity in age, cultural background, reading habits, experience with writing from nil to published authors, and people who don’t really love me too much. I need to trust them not to steal from me or harm me in their feedback, but I can’t have them wanting my approval associated with their feedback. [I do not write on this WIP at all once shared to beta readers. Once upon a time, I did and tried to keep sending updated drafts as they read with notes, “start over at page 35.” Terrible. Does not work. Burns people out. Don’t do it. You could however, send a checklist of feedback prompts to your betas. I don’t, but some do.]
After I’ve incorporated beta reader feedback to my satisfaction, I am ready for technical edits. [A single pass for me. At this point, I try to never ask the same person to read the same WIP in more than one draft. It is too much.] My sense of readiness is based on being happy with the scenes. The structure now tells the story I wanted to tell. This could be an entirely psychedelic stream of thought or experimental prose or whatever.
I begin with weekend morning sessions, picking any unedited scene that calls to my heart, and I rewrite it for tone, pacing for breathing and eye movement, for intention of emotional context, and weighing the impact of word choice. There is no consistent rate of editing for me at the scene level. Rather, based on the length of the WIP, I have a rough sense in months of how long I will spend wordsmithing.
When I’m satisfied that I’ve run spellcheck enough times and I’ve reread the thing over and over, I contact an editor. For books 2 & 3 of Eudaimonia, I worked with Nikki Rae of Metamorphosis Editing Service. Finding an editor can be challenging. My variables are cost, availability, and good match for my vision and style. To me, an editor is a collaborator, not a mechanic. Perhaps some books can be mechanically edited for grammar, but I’m not sure. I need an editor who unpacks my vision and compares it to the words on the page. They safeguard against elements where words do not embody and communicate my vision. They fill in areas of my deficits to bring forth characterization opportunities, language strength, clarity, and yes, gross mechanical errors, typos, and obvious incorrect word usage.
Once more, I do not write on this WIP until I receive the edited draft. I do other stuff. I encourage you to do other stuff too. When it does come back, I read all the feedback, close the document, close the computer, and go cry. Yup. Every single time.
When my ego is done grieving, I take my weekend mornings, scene by scene, as my heart chooses a scene, and process the feedback. I accept changes, I reject them, I rewrite. I only do one technical editing pass with the editor. This is a limitation of cost for me.
When my changes are made, and spellcheck run again and again, I order a print copy. When it arrives, I read it and mark it up. Incorporate those changes back into the manuscript and we are done.
The thing is ready to publish or be queried. At this point, I do the needful and never go back to rewrites. If no one likes it, that’s fine. It is the book I wrote. Time to write another one.