Long before I even thought about writing a book, I was fascinated by the writing process of long-form fiction (and nonfiction, for that matter!)
I wanted to know everything:
Where did the ideas come from? How did the ideas turn from a kernel of a thought to a viable book idea? How did that story idea become fleshed out with characters and setting and nuance? How did all that nuance make it from the planning stage to the actual writing stage? Was there a planning stage? What about polishing and editing, how did all that work?
Fast forward a few years to having dozens of finished manuscripts under my belt, and here’s what I can tell you:
The writing process is more fascinating to me than ever. A little less mysterious, perhaps, because I know how I get a story from idea to book. But what fascinating me these days, and what I’ve learned, is how unique the process is to each writer.
For that reason, I feel I must state something I wish I’d known back then:
There is no one right way to write a book.
Yes, I’m going walk you through my exact process, and yes, I hope it removes a little of the mystery for you.
But I also hope you’ll understand that for the most part, writing a book is an individual journey—a mystery you must solve for yourself.
The following is not meant as a how-to, merely a peak behind the curtain of a full-time romance author.
My writing process
I’ll get into the ever-popular question of where ideas come from in a future post, but the most relevant point for my process is that at this point in my career, I very rarely have an idea and immediately start work on that idea. At any given point, I already know the next 2-5 books that I’ll be writing, given my publication schedule. When I have an idea for a new story, I of course jot it down, but not all of those ideas become books. I only pick the strongest ones, the ideas that feel the most compelling as though I’ll explode if I don’t write that story. And among those ideas that do make the cut, I don’t get to them for awhile! For example, I’m writing this blog post in December 2018. Any ideas popping into my head right now, today, would be for publication in in 2021. My 2019 and 2020 writing schedule is already spoken for from past ideas. And the books I’m working on right now? Those are ideas from 2016. In other words, ideas are the easy part. Finding and making time to write the ideas is much harder.
As mentioned, I already know at any given time what my next 2-5 books to be written are. This is partially because I’m currently traditionally published (all of my book proposals are purchased by a publisher, who slots those books into their publication schedule, which is usually 10-24 months from the time I give them the idea. The other reason I have my books so far planned out is because I frequently write series. Authors who write standalones (stories that aren’t connected to any other stories) have a bit more freedom with their schedule, because they can write and release books in any order. For those of us that write series, we usually like to write related books as close together as possible so the characters and “world” is fresh in our mind. Plus, there’s a fair amount of pressure from readers not to have to wait too long between connected books!
When it’s time to start the next book on my schedule, I usually do some prewriting. Not always. Every now and then, I have a book that is so clear, I’m able to dive right in and just type it as it’s unfolded in my head. Other times, I have a book that’s not clear at all, and the only way to “discover it” is to start writing and sort of let the story find its groove. Most of the time, though, the process is somewhere in between. I have a fairly good idea of what the story’s about, and who the characters are, and take some time to put a plan in place before I start the actual writing process. This prewriting generally includes a beat sheet, a storyboard, internal and external conflict for my protagonists, and scene worksheets for the story’s key turning points.
When it’s time to start the actual writing, I do what’s known as “fast drafting,” where I get the story onto the page (I use a program called Ulysses) to get the story out as quickly as possible. In other words, when I’m writing that first draft, I’m not spending a lot of time worrying about sentence structure, or setting details, or even fleshing out my characters. I’m certainly not fixing typos as I write, or agonizing over word choice in dialog. All of those elements are, of course, important, but I can worry about them later. For now, I’m just worrying about getting the story on the page. Why? I find that “the blank page” is the most daunting part of the writing process. By banging out a draft as soon as possible, I’ve removed the hard and intimidating part of the process and can get to the fun stuff. There’s also something that happens in my brain when I type The End on a story, even if I know it’s an extremely messy draft with lots of work to be done. Having a completed manuscript to work from allows the creative part of my brain to switch on.
The Second Draft
I love the second draft. At this point, I’m still riding pretty high on the fact that I’ve typed The End on yet another story, and the pressure is off. I can go back to Chapter One and start “fixing it up.” I know there’s a lot of writing advice out there that insists you should always read through your manuscript once without editing anything, just to read it and absorb it. That advice has never worked for me. If I see something I want to change as I’m reading through, I change it. Sometimes this might mean nearly rewriting an entire chapter, but most of the time it’s more adding the “flesh” to the skelton first draft. I’ll focus on adding more character point of view, developing my settings, layering in emotion, etc. On all but the most troublesome of manuscripts (that require major rewrites), this second draft is what I send to my editor.
After my editor’s had a chance to read my second draft, it comes back to me, along with an editorial letter containing her comments (all my editors have been female) and suggestions for the story. The amount of work to be done at this stage really varies from book to book. Sometimes the story’s pretty clean, and revision suggestions are minimal—filling out a too-short chapter, smoothing out the pacing, adding or deleting a scene. Other times, the rewrites are more labor intensive. For example, if I’ve got a character whose motivation is all over the place (or worse, she doesn’t have any motivation), if the conflict is lacking, if the beginning chapters are jumbled, etc, then I might end up rewriting entire sections of the book.
It’s also worth mentioning, that I don’t rewrite or rework a story simply because my editor suggests it. Some of the time, an editor comes back with comments that echo or address my own concerns on the book, and I use her suggestions to fix whatever was bothering me. Other times, I’m very happy with a particular story that the editor doesn’t like. Other times still, an editor will like a part of the story that I do not and want to change. The level of compromise really comes down to the individual author and editor. I will admit that I tend towards the diva category of arteest. It’s mystory, and telling it my way is vitally important to me.
Not all editors do line edits, but some do. It’s a very “micro” level of editing, where they literally go by the manuscript line-by-line making suggestions to wording, phrasing, etc. My job is to go line-by-line after they have, and review the suggestions, or make changes of my own.
At many traditional publishing houses, line edits and copyedits get combined into the same step, but technically, the copyedit phase is specifically intended to catch things like timeline hiccups, character inconsistencies (ie, brown eyes in chapter four, hazel in chapter six), or setting inaccuracies. For example, my copyeditors have an uphill battle any time one of my characters likes sports. I myself don’t watch or follow any sports, so I have no idea what seasons is football season vs. hockey season, etc, and almost always get it wrong! My job after the copy editor’s gone through is to approve his/her changes or figure out how to resolve the inaccuracies he/she has pointed out.
The final stage! This is where a proofreader will go through the almost final manuscript and look for typos, grammatical errors, etc. I and my various editors all change errors as we see them throughout the entire process, but often in the process of line edits/copyedits, etc, as we’re attempting to fix one issue, we’ll inadvertently mess up punctuation or paragraph breaks, etc. A proofreader puts this all back to rights! My job is to review the proofreaders changes and make sure I approve (I approve 99.9% of the suggestions at this point, as it’s typo resolution and them fixing the fact that I still don’t know the difference between lie/lay).
When I hand off the proofread version, my work on the manuscript itself is done. Then it’s a waiting game (usually 6-12 months) until that book’s release date. In the mean time, I’ve got plenty of marketing/promotion work to do on the book, but the writing part is complete!