Writing about writing is tricky. People will often try to sell their way as the only way, but no art is as black and white as that.
I’m not talking about the rules of grammar and style, I’ve seen firsthand how those will make or break a novel. Leave the rules out and your story becomes the faded, empty version of what it could have been. Having said that, I do agree to a point that most readers will still enjoy the book if the story is good, even if the writing isn’t strong. That doesn’t mean a writer shouldn’t at least try to get their writing as tight as possible. Get an editor you can trust.
But, we’re not talking about grammar and style today. I want to share my personal process with you. ◄ That’s the topic most writers don’t agree upon. Here’s the kicker, though, no two writers write in the same manner.
Still, we’re divided into two main groups – plotters and pantsers.
Plotters/planners are those folks who plan the entire story in detail, over how many ever books it may reach. They know exactly what happens to every character and how every plotline plays out before they begin to write. Some plotters will further prepare outlines for each chapter and even every paragraph, so when they start writing that story, they know exactly what goes where.
Pantsers are people who fall in and write without planning the story beforehand. Above all, the story leads them and reveals itself to them as they go along.
Of course, writers are people and people are too nuanced to be thrown into simple categories. Nobody is just a plotter or pantser, we’re all hybrids who write in a unique way.
Personally, I lean more towards the pantser side of the spectrum. I have a basic plot direction, so I know how the story should end, I just don’t know exactly how I’ll get there. 🙂 My characters and their stories are planned loosely. On the flipside, I spend ages working on history, geography or other random stuff that will never make it into the main story. I love world-building, and this is obviously the plotting side of how I work.
My process has refined to what it is now in the time I’ve worked on The Physician’s Apprentice (TPA), so I’m going to share that with you.
I’ve mentioned before that I got the idea for TPA from a Scishow video, a game I love and an article online. The video led me to research deadly illnesses, which reminded me how much the bubonic plague intrigues me. I’m weird, I know.
Anyway, this made me wonder what would happen if a plague broke out in a closed-off environment, and my main kingdom developed a mean case of ‘under-a-dome’. From there, it was easy to make the connection to a bunch of medically-trained characters. Throw in my love for steampunk stuff, the Victorian era and court politics, and the story practically wrote itself.
I’m kidding! I’ve been working on this story for almost three years and my sweat and tears have permanently stained my keyboard. 🙂
Now I had a basic plot. I researched the bubonic plague, ancient and modern treatments and which medical tools were at hand in the Victorian era. I spoke to a doctor and a virologist (though the bubonic plague is bacterial, the virologist was a great help) and got many insights from them about the spread, treatment and general outcome of an illness in an enclosed kingdom. During this time, I wrote a lot of the research into a book. I learn by writing things by hand, so this was both to keep the most important facts together and to learn at the same time.
The next step was to find characters. Two of the main characters were inspired by loved ones, so they look and act like their real counterparts would. The others were imagined up in the next few days. After writing kickass Eva, I wanted the main protagonist to be weak and timid, with hints of mental illness (this, by the way, has been one of the most challenging things I’ve ever written, despite personal experience).
I based the main kingdoms in the story on real countries on Earth, so there’s France, England, Iran, Japan, Kenya and Norway, to name a few. For this reason, the names had to sound like something from the character’s country of origin. Every character has a name with an important meaning, which gave me an insight into their personalities too. In TPA, many characters have a surname that reflects what they do for a living, another thing I had to consider.
Once I had a name and personality, I googled for people with specific physical traits, like woman, blue eyes, brown hair. I looked at hundreds of photos, until I found people who looked like I imagined the characters, then pinned the photos onto a hidden Pinterest board for later reference (I’ve started to do this for locations and clothing too, but didn’t at that time). Character looks, ages and family relations were written out in the same book as the research, but I didn’t spend too much time on the characters otherwise.
I’ve since revised this approach. Even if I have no idea where the characters are going when I start writing them, I’ve made a point of figuring out their motivation from the start. Had I always done that, I probably wouldn’t be on the fourth draft of this story. 🙂
I wrote the first draft of TPA in 8 weeks and sent it to be edited after hearing back from a handful of beta readers. This was my first experience with a professional editor and it went horribly wrong. As a noob writer, it was easy to rip me a new one.
At her recommendations, my story got a complete overhaul. I went back and did more planning on paper, again including a lot of stuff that will never make it into the story, and spent more time developing characters. I also finished a damn detailed map of the world. 🙂
This is when my process changed to what it is today. I started to revise as I wrote, something I hadn’t really done before. I’d start each day by reading the chapter I’d written the previous day and made whatever corrections and changes the story needed. This has vastly improved the quality of my writing, especially when I read aloud. I also started revising again after completing every ten chapters, just to make sure all the changes were consistent throughout the story. Pantsers will always have changes between drafts since the story leads us, so it’s super important to make sure everything you were supposed to change has been changed.
The next edit went MUCH better than the first. My story was stronger, but I learned that I have a problem with under-writing. I tend to tell the reader something important happened, instead of showing it to them, all in the name of saving words. After the second round of edits, Nerine encouraged me to ignore word totals and add some scenes.
So, draft three. I added an army of words and sent the manuscript to another editor, Cat Hellisen, who gave me so much constructive feedback that I squeed for days. The same problem reared its head again, though – under-writing.
This brings me to now, again fleshing out scenes and showing stuff I glossed over before. However, the writing is much smoother this time, since the storyline has already been established and the plotholes have been plugged. The fourth draft is almost complete and is the strongest TPA has ever been (I’ll let you know if the editor lady agrees).
My kind of writing will result in many drafts and more rounds of edits than most books that were better planned. I also require a team of good beta readers, who help me refine the story draft-by-draft. This way of doing it isn’t ideal, since it involves many rewrites, is time-consuming and the betas read the same story more than once, but it’s what works for me.
My betas (read superheroes) have also become my brainstorming partners and confidants, often saying something that sparks a plot-saving idea. Looking at the story through their eyes has taught me loads about writing. More than that, though, they’ve grown with me. As I learned more about the craft, they learned which things they need to look out for and pick up more mistakes than they did at the start.
The books following TPA will probably be easier to write, because the story’s foundation is stronger, but I’ll update you on this. 🙂
Editing as I write helps me, but many other writers don’t read what they’ve written before they finish the story. And you know what, that’s OK. As long as we’re all putting out our best possible work, it doesn’t matter HOW the story was written.
So if you have a story that needs telling, get your butt in a chair and start writing. Your way.
Have a good one,