I’ve been asked several times how my stories move from idea to polished story. Every author’s writing process is a little different. Often, every book’s process is different! However, the overall process tends to follow the same patterns, even if the details differ from book to book.
Inspiration and Pre-writing
A story can be inspired by nearly anything. Generally, my stories start with a scene. Sometimes it’s a conversation between characters, or a critical decision being made, or even just an impression. I’ll write out the scene, and no matter how it turns out, I’ll have questions. Who are these characters? What is their background? How do they relate to each other, and why? Where are they? What importance does the setting have in the scene, and why? Sometimes I’ll use a mind-map to keep track of ideas and figure out where the story might go. There might be contradictory ideas, and I’ll explore those by asking questions and filling out different sides of the mind-map with answers. It quickly becomes clear which story is more satisfying.
I’ve written quite a few academic papers and other nonfiction pieces. Pre-writing for essays and other nonfiction generally takes the form of an outline. It could just touch on general ideas, or it could be very extensive and detailed. Some people like to outline fiction stories as well as nonfiction works, and others feel that outlining and planning too much can suck the enjoyment out of writing.
I tend to fall somewhere in the middle. I’ll write some, then outline and plan a little, write a little more, plan a little more, etc. The King’s Sword was outlined extensively, but when I began writing, the focus of the story changed. Most of the actual events in the book followed the outline I prepared, but the story shifted from being entirely about Hakan to focusing much more on Kemen. I learned so much about plot vs. story as I edited The King’s Sword , and that greater understanding has been critical in the books I’m writing now.
In contrast, A Cold Wind began with a beautiful, heart-breaking scene near the end of the book. But I had no idea why the characters were at this point, what had brought them there, or what happened next. Writing the story was a matter of “why.” Of course, by the time I reached that beautiful scene, it had to be re-written! As a quick note for readers and new writers – even extensive pre-writing does not negate the requirement for editing! However, writing process can greatly affect the amount of editing needed. A well thought-out story written by a competent writer can produce a relatively clean draft with few major holes to be fixed during editing. A more scattered writing process can produce a great story, but the pieces may be out of order, with unclear logic and story flow, and other issues. These issues can definitely be fixed, but it does mean that editing may take more time and energy. That doesn’t mean those processes are bad! It just means that if this is your writing style, it’s helpful to understand that editing is of paramount importance in producing a polished story.
Most writers think this is the fun part! Depending on how much I outlined or planned, I may jump back and forth between writing and pre-writing. If there’s research to be done, it’s helpful to do it ahead of time, so that writing isn’t derailed by exploring all the internet has to say on how leather is cured or how rail guns work. I’m a relatively slow writer, and my first draft is generally FAIRLY close to the final draft. Obviously editing is very important, but there is a marked difference between the first drafts that are dashed out quickly, to get the story out, and the first drafts that are extensively planned and well-executed. I edge toward the latter. Neither is necessarily “better” per se, but it’s important to understand as a writer. For example, a very high percentage of the first draft of The King’s Sword is actually present in the final, published version. HOWEVER, and that’s a very important however, editing was still critical. The first draft was only about 50,000 words, and the final draft is around 75,000. What happened?
Editing is the phase in which you fix story problems. Some people call it revising. It includes removing, adding, rearranging, and replacing sections of text to make your story stronger. It’s best to take some time off from your story between writing and editing in order to gain some mental and emotional distance. This helps you see the writing as it is, rather than as you imagine it. This is actually one of the things I struggle with as a writer – taking time off! When I’m excited about a story, I tend to move directly from writing into editing, but that’s not ideal. Even if I do the majority of the editing before taking a break, I do try to give the story a rest and leave it alone for a while before the last editing pass.
I edit in several passes, but they’re not always discrete. Depending on how complete the story is at the end of the first draft, editing may take a matter of weeks or months. Some authors run through the story focusing on one thing at a time – pacing, characters, prose, or some other aspect of the story. I haven’t found that to work very well for me. Instead, I’ll fix any major holes in the story that I’m aware of at the end of the first draft. Then, I’ll run through the story and note anything that seems amiss – more characterization, a sense of setting, pacing that seems too sudden or too slow. I’ll fix those issues and then read it through again, considering the story as a whole while tightening the prose. Then, I’ll try to give it a break and think about something else for a few weeks. Coming back to the story with fresh eyes, I’ll go over it again, to see how it reads.
At this point, it’s fairly polished, because my first draft starts out fairly clean. But I still need new eyes on it, so at this point I’ll send it to a few beta readers. With certain stories, I’ve bounced ideas off of beta readers / brainstorm buddies much earlier in the process – my current work-in-progress is an example. I’ve been brainstorming extensively with one buddy, and I’ve had a few others see fairly early drafts. That works for me with a relatively clean first draft and the understanding that A) beta readers are not editors, and B) you don’t pester your beta readers with 87 versions of the same text. Beta readers are a precious and valuable resource! Don’t take them for granted. I wrote a post earlier on How to Choose and Use Beta Readers. The most important thing is that your beta readers understand the story you’re trying to tell, and then help you tell that story better. Generally I don’t use beta readers as a brainstorming resource, but when you find a beta reader who understands your direction, brainstorming with them can be immensely valuable.
Beta readers can often be other writers. If possible, return the favor! Sometimes the beta reading relationship only goes one way, for a variety of reasons – genre, writing style, experience level, or just personal preference. In either case, it’s important to understand how important beta readers are and appreciate the time and effort they put forth.
I LOVE my beta readers! But I wouldn’t mind finding a few more. If you are interested in beta reading some upcoming work, please contact me!
Authors often have professional editors to assist with the editing process. Editors can vary widely in skill and style, so it’s important to find the right fit. A good, varied group of beta readers can help a lot, so professional editing may not be necessary for some works (short stories, etc.). But editing as a phase is incredibly important and beta readers may not have the specific skills that an editor needs. If you’re a writer and plan on using a professional editor, be sure to give them as polished as story as you can. This will save you and your editor time and energy.
This is the final phase of writing before publication. I include copy-editing in this phase as well. During this phase, I go through the story word by word to ensure that everything I imagine is in the story is actually on the page. This phase is more about fixing the prose, finding typos, addressing grammatical issues or lack of clarity, etc. At this point, major story issues should already have been addressed.
Even after reading a story many times, looking at it with fresh eyes during this phase is important. I try to give myself time between editing and proofreading. I’ll also have either some talented, skilled friends or a professional proofreader or copyeditor look at the story at this point. I’ll go through it multiple times both with others and myself, trying to catch those last little errors.
Publishing is so different from the writing process that I’ll write a separate post on publishing instead of including it here. There are several ways to publish, from traditional legacy publishing, to self-publishing (AKA independent publishing, AKA indie publishing), to vanity publishing. Between ebooks, small print runs, large print runs, and print-on-demand, there are myriad options for publishing. Smaller works such as novellas and short stories can also be published in anthologies, serial publications and literary magazines, and other venues.
Self-publishing does have some unique challenges, but in many ways I believe it can be even more rewarding than traditional publishing. I’ve been happy to choose indie publishing for most of my work.