In this post, I outline the process I follow when writing a novel. It is not intended as a writing lesson but could be used by new writers to decide how they will write. Not the dos and don’ts — there are already far too many of those books — but the process. Stephen King would say it is a list of things to avoid. He could be right. I don’t claim canon on how to write but have almost as much experience as The King. I started writing in 1983, a mere nine years after the release of Carrie albeit in the technical world. This blog documents a technical approach to novel writing, so I think my thirty-three years of writing technical documentation counts.
|It is important to realise that this blog is about the tools a writer needs to help them write. Being creative in any field requires — you guessed it — creativity, which can’t be taught. Giving someone a hammer and a chisel and lessons on how to use them will not make them into Rodin.|
I won’t spend much time on this part of the blog because each writer will have their own methodology when it comes to the actual writing. I will spend a few words on my process for those writers who are yet to discover their own techniques. Maybe mine will help them decide.
|There is no wrong way to write. If you feel you do your best hanging upside down from a tree branch, then that is what you should do. If you are new to writing, it might be worth testing different methods to find the one that fits you best.|
Having spent my adult life writing and editing technical documentation in the software industry, my methods are process-oriented. The King would probably say process heavy — but each to their own. One man’s baklava is another man’s moussaka, after all. The process — I think I mentioned Agile already — involves working in iterations — or bite-size chunks. The SW world would say each chunk should be releasable to the market, which in the novel world would be called book serialisation.
My method, however, began before I started to write anything. It began with the basics:
An office — For this one, I agree with Stephen King: I do my best writing when I am sitting at my desk, steaming coffee beside my keyboard — just begging for an accident — with the door closed. Even pre-pandemic I did a lot of “home office” work, and learnt early on to replicate the office environment as much as possible: codding my ancient grey matter. Therefore, I give the missus a kiss and head off to work at eight in the morning. My commute is a horrific five-second walk, patting each dog as I pass. Quite a difference from the three-hour-each-way commutes of my youth. I take a mid-morning break to walk the woofs on our local beach. I take a one-hour lunch break and a fifteen-minute tea break in the afternoon. Admittedly, the office is a bit of a kip; wall-to-wall bookshelves lost the vote to a new kitchen, so my books are in piles around the room. It does, I suppose, give the office a feel of the old country house in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. That or the office of a dusty (and nutty) professor, maybe Michael Caine in Educating Rita.
A chair — I know I am going to be sitting at my desk for six or seven hours each day, so a good back supporting chair is essential. One of my old roles as documentation manager was the health and well-being of my team. I spent more of my budget on good chairs than any other piece of furniture.
Taking breaks — Good health and safety would cite five to ten-minute screen breaks each hour. I do try to stick to those guidelines but have found I lose time when the words are flowing. If I overrun I try to compensate with stretches (and lots of beer).
Again, tools are a personal thing. Some writers prefer writing applications, such as Scrivener as their main tool. Personally, I can see no benefit to that type of application. I find that the functionality is easily duplicated — in some cases bettered — with a spreadsheet, and the output quality is not good enough for the processing required before publication. If a writer’s intention is to go down the traditional publishing path, then it doesn’t matter because the quality of the application output is secondary: the publisher will package the book. If, however, indie publishing is the chosen route, it is worth considering a desktop publishing application over a writing app.
In terms of tools, I use Google Docs to write the scenes in the first instance (see The Process following) and LibreOffice for the manuscript document. I would recommend Word over LibreOffice because it is slightly more honed, but when I bought a new laptop last year, Microsoft locked me out of my account because of login from an unknown laptop and refused to unlock it because I couldn’t remember a password I set in 1996. I use my iPad reading facility for the audio editing processes (covered by Audio Edits in my next blog) because of ease of access. However, for the final audio edit, I use the PDF reader in MS Edge, because the female voice (Sonia) sounds human apart from the occasional mispronunciation.
So, to the Process
My process would no doubt give many a litter of kittens. I plan my week before I begin. Loosely following the Agile development process, I set an hourly target in words. Actually, it has been the same number since I developed the process — I know my own limitations and — so far — the number hardly varies. The hourly rate is then compiled into a daily rate and a weekly target. I know on a normal day, I will write 350 words an hour. It might vary from hour to hour, but only slightly.
Agile means working in sprints. A sprint is a period of time during which a team completes a set number of tasks, milestones, or deliverables.
In the SW industry, sprint lengths vary depending on the team and the project. What is to be achieved during a sprint is set in a planning session. For me, sprints are always weekly.
Because I know approximately how many words I need to write for the first draft (according to my Scene Plan), I know how long it is going to take me to reach first draft status. This becomes my final goal. Knowing that number is a great boost to my productivity. I can plan for things like external editing and book my editor (Georgia) in advance.
|There can be unforeseen circumstances. Shortly after starting TAM, I had serious back issues and could not work for several months.|
My planning session involves adding a week to my Workplan spreadsheet. I map out each day in the spreadsheet. It includes word targets and whether they have been met:
With the spreadsheet, I know at a glance whether I am on track or need corrective action. Looking at the target row, I can see I had 50757 words at the start of the week (January 3rd) and the target was 63007 by the end of the week. I complete the number of words written each hour and adjust accordingly. If I reach my daily target early, I usually stop and have a beer. If the words are flowing, I continue writing.
Because I am of a certain age, my mental faculties have now decayed beyond the point where I can rely on memory. This is compounded by my not writing sequentially. Therefore, I keep a checklist of steps comprising all the planned scenes of the story, which always change over time, but heigh-ho, that’s the nature of a crumbling cookie.
I print the following and sign off each scene as it is written by adding the date. I use a date because I will need to refer to it when doing a daily edit. Some of the columns happen after the first draft phase, such as the second audio edit.
Scene — The scene number.
1st Draft — The date the first draft was completed.
Daily — The date the daily edit was completed.
Rewrite — The date the rewrite was completed. This happens after I have finished the first draft read-through. Not many of the scenes should require a rewrite because I already performed a developmental edit — but things do change.
Audio — The date the first audio run-through is completed. I perform this step usually during the first draft writing phase, but it can vary.
2nd Audio — The date the second audio edit is completed. This stage is a complete run-through of the manuscript before I submit the file to my editor (Georgia).
Georgia — The date I complete the input from my editor. Not all input is implemented, of course. Sometimes an editor makes suggestions not knowing the subject matter as well as the writer. This is okay.
Proof — The date when the proofreading is complete. When this column is full, it is the point at which I send out Beta Reader and ARC copies.
When the first two columns are complete, I move the scene into my Manuscript file, keeping the scene number for backwards compatibility. Removing the scene numbers is the last step before I send the book to my editor for a line edit.
I spend the first hour each morning doing a light copy edit of the scenes I wrote the day before. This is not a substantive copy edit, which comes later, but a brief run-through looking for glaringly obvious grammatical issues and typos.
After copy editing, I choose which scenes to write from my spreadsheet. This can mean completing unfinished scenes or starting a new scene. Oftentimes, I will mull over a scene while I am not actually working, and I like to get them out sooner rather than later. For instance, I often take audio notes on my phone while walking the dogs, and I prefer writing them up while they are fresh in my noggin, so I start on those scenes as soon as I return from the walk
Writing each day is probably the easiest part of the process for me. When I choose a scene to write, I already know what it’s about and how I intend to move the story along with it, because of my scene spreadsheet. I also find myself planning the content of scenes in my head even as much as days in advance of writing them (using audio notes). Take the first scene I wrote in TAM, which was PO Jones with his face in a puddle of beer and blood. When I first started to conceptualise TAM, I knew there were three Italian cops on the scene, one more chauvinistic than the other, and that Rachel, as an outsider and a woman, was shunned by them. The rest just fell into place. At the first draft stage, the scene was ~1300 words long and took only a couple of hours to write.
|As a bonus, the main theme of TAM was conceived while writing the scene: homophobia and sexual inequality in the armed forces. A great topic for 1970s Italy, which was complemented by male chauvinism. Women in any sort of professional capacity was unheard of. This was also true when I lived in Naples in the nineties and the noughties!|
That was the first scene written, approximately midway through the story. So, where to next? A habit I picked up early in my writing career was to write the first and the last scenes first. It came about because readers of my early works complained that the stories just fizzled out, as though I became sick of writing them. I could relate because I got the same vibe from Neil Gaiman’s Stardust. For me, the solution was in writing the end very early in the process. I once again fly in the face of Stephen King’s pantsers when I say if I know where the story begins and ends, I can keep my focus. Mr King would say that stifles my creativity, but, as stated previously, my creative saliva flows during the creation of my corkboard.
In the initial draft, the first scene was Boccone (as my planned protagonist) being drummed out of the army. This changed later when I realised Rachel was the protagonist, not Boccone, and needed early air time. However, after the murder crime scene, I wrote Boccone’s discharge scene.
|This is perhaps another area where the pantser versus plotter theory is not an accurate portrayal of the processes any writer follows. It is a misnomer that a plotter plots and sticks to it like a barnacle on an old boat. Thomas Hardy used to write that way and, frankly, it shows. For me, and, I am sure many others, the early plot of any novel is not chiselled into the stones of a cathedral, but subject to change. Much of what I write never makes it into print. I have an outtake file, which is now larger than any of my novels.|
Plotting does have its pitfalls. For instance, an easy habit to fall into is writing the easy scenes first. I’ve found that this can lead to getting a draft completed becoming a real chore and a possible cause of writer’s block. I have been guilty of trying to write all the difficult scenes first but this also led to the writing process becoming burdensome. Over time, I have found trying to balance easy and hard scenes is the best way to keep momentum. But even so, it is always the hardest scene that gets written last in my books because I keep deferring it until there is no other choice. If I could, I would avoid this trait because it does delay completing the first draft.
|What constitutes a hard or an easy scene to write will, I suspect, depend on the writer. For instance, I wrote Rachel’s opening scene in TAM quite quickly, but when I submitted the scene to a group while on a writer’s retreat, the writers and the retreat holder all hated it, so it became difficult for me. It also became the opening scene of the book when I realised Rachel was the protagonist, thereby confirming Murphy’s Law.|
Ah, the infamous writer’s block. I rarely suffer from writer’s block. This is because of two fundamentals in my process:
Plotting — Yes folks, here it is, plotting helps to avoid blocks. By definition, pantsers write sequentially. (If they don’t, then they must be plotting.) By plotting a story arc, if I become bogged down in a particular scene, I just switch. Backwards or forwards, makes no odds. I just select another scene from my spreadsheet and create a Google Doc where I start to write.
Multitasking — I always have more than one project ongoing. This means when I become blocked on a project because switching isn’t working (not a common occurrence) I move to a different project. A practical example would be an earlier Irish historical fantasy I wrote (After Gairech, 2021). I got bogged down near the end of the first draft, and so began writing some scenes from TAM. I am also using my new book (Hammer) when I get bogged down in this blog.
Compiling the Manuscript FILE
As illustrated in the following, the skeleton manuscript contains numbered scenes with some capitalised notes on the contents.
As I complete the first draft of each scene, I transfer the prose into my skeleton. In this way, I build the first draft of my story from the foundations up.
Researching a topic involves — for me, at least — finding a balance. There will be a minimum amount of research required before I start to write but elements also pop up during the writing process. Take TAM, I wanted to have Rachel wearing a uniform while in the presence of the Admiral — not unlike John Travolta in The General’s Daughter — but I wasn’t sure if the NIS used to wear a uniform. Rather than stop writing, I added a string of question marks as a pro-memoria and carried on. Later, during the first draft editing phase, I came across the question marks and researched NIS uniforms during that part of the process. I discovered that the NIS don’t wear a uniform and a little rewrite was needed. This might seem like a waste, however, I find when I am in the zone, breaking it can have quite a detrimental effect and is best avoided.
Hibernating the First Draft
So, what happens when the first draft is ready, or the skeleton has had meat added to its bones?
Every creative writing course I’ve attended, as well as first draft writer’s retreats, have advised the same thing: put it away. I know that — second to writers killing their babies (or darlings, The King would say) — leaving a manuscript in a drawer for an extended period is the hardest part of writing (and especially finishing) a first draft.
Everyone also says print it: double line spaced 12pt. This will become the first draft read-through, which I will cover in the next part of the blog. I always put my manuscripts into a ring binder and label them. When I finally get my wall-to-wall shelving, they will be slotted into pride of place, my certificates of achievement.
Believe me, it’s worth the effort. After going cold turkey, hibernating a draft (usually for a minimum of three weeks) and coming back to it, the read-through feels like the book was written by someone else. This means I am much more objective and spot issues, both with the plot and the text.
I have found that the easiest way to forget about a manuscript is to work on another. This is not unlike being dumped romantically. Get a new love interest, and the old one is soon forgotten. This approach also helps create distance between me and the folder-bound stack of A4 sheets.
So, now it’s all about the Editing.