A friend of mine recently remarked that he would love to write, but doesn’t know where to begin. A common lament! We each have a different method of writing. Sometimes, a writer’s approach differs based on the medium of the story. For example, for blogging, I tend to write once, do a quick review, then immediately publish. Sometimes I see mistakes after I’ve published — a punctuation error here, a repetitive use of a word there — but in general, my prose is clean enough (thank you, deadline journalism!) to support blog posts without a deep edit process.
But novelin’? That’s a whole different bag of angry hornets!
No two writers have the same technique. Nor should they. What works for Author Bob isn’t going to necessarily work for Author Jane, because we’re all wired differently ‘twixt the earholes. That diversity is a good thing — and it’s also a reason why seeking a uniform best-practice model of writing is, at heart, a fool’s errand. We can learn from the tips of others, but we need to exercise our craft in a way that works for us instead of aping what works for others.
That said, here’s how I write long-form fiction.
Before I Write
- I need a plan. With detail. Every chapter is broken into scenes, and each scene has a plot point, character-growth moment or subplot detail to resolve. I can’t do long-form without at least a two-page script that tells me how the story unfolds. I do all this plotting in Scrivener — the outliner helps me align scene synopses, and I color-code flag icons to indicate which character’s POV leads (where appropriate). I set target word lengths and sometimes include specific quotes I want to use in the scene.
- I need moderately detailed character sketches — character demographics, motivations, attitudes, backstories. Not a lot, but enough so that I am confident I understand the character as well at the beginning of the writing process, as I do at the end of it.
While I Write
- I need time to think about the technique of a scene. I often have a moderate bit of adult libations flowing while my fingers dance across the keyboard.
- I write one scene at a time and try to polish it as much as you can perfect a first draft, before moving on to the next scene. I rarely write two scenes in a day, though. And I almost always start at the beginning and end at the ending — no jumping around.
- I diligently record progress with custom statuses in Scrivener — To Do, First Draft, Revised Draft, Final Draft, Work in Process, Resolve Note, etc. If I tweak a scene in a way that should be reflected in the 100 words or so I’ve set for the synopsis, I fix the synopsis to ensure it’s current.
- Problems elsewhere in the story that arise in a writing session (e.g., I make a statement about a character but can’t remember if it conflicts with something somewhere else) get documented for later follow-up. I don’t try to fix previous scenes while writing the present scene.
- After every 15k words or so, I re-evaluate the “script” in its totality to adjust scenes or to leave revision notes to change the directional trust of earlier work.
After I Write
- I have to let the story sit — usually, for at least six months — before I can look at it again with “fresh” eyes.
- After reading the scene synopses, I make notes about what needs to change from a big-picture perspective. Then I read scene by scene, making even more notes about what needs to be fixed. I generally don’t do any actual fixing on this fresh read. All of my revision comments are documented in Scrivener.
- I review the notes, when I’m done reviewing, and get to work. If I need to add or remove content, I do that before modifying existing scenes.
- After the revision cycle, I ask myself: “Self, am I overjoyed with the state of this manuscript?” If the answer isn’t an enthusiastic YES!, then I set the story aside for another six months or so and then begin the revision process again.
So that’s how I do it. How do you write your stories?