Words for Writers: Tag, You’re It! – Writing Process Blog Tour

Yay, you found me! Here is my post on the dreaded “P” word – PROCESS. How, how, how do you write? I get asked this a lot.

Unfortunately, I can’t tell you how you should write. Every person’s process is different, and forms out of years of habit and the situation in which they live and work. What I can tell you is how I write, and that might help you figure out your process.

1) What am I working on?

I have two novels on submission right now (one steampunk YA action/adventure; one high fantasy). I’m also working on a TV series backdoor pilot/ tv film with a co-writer (I’m just doing the dialogue pass now). I just handed in about a hundred short stories to various people, and at some point I’m hoping to get around to starting to draft out a radio drama. I also have a shortish novel out with the beta readers; once it’s back I will be into revisions for that.

Currently, I’m writing a pitch package for a new novel (synopsis, long pitch, short pitch, first three chapters); once that has been through revisions and is off to my agent, will return to a beloved novel project that I had to set aside after an emergency trip to the hospital a few years ago. I’m really excited to be coming home to that one.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I’m told that I write the thinking person’s sci-fi/fantasy. No matter what the story is, I always try to be honest and thorough about the issues inherent in the narrative. I don’t write “issue books”, as in, narratives whose sole focus is an after-school-special broad spectrum ‘issue’; but I don’t shy away from discussing or including realistic issues that people in these situations may encounter. I do try to be realistic in how I portray grief, non-neuroptypical characters, microaggressions and the misogyny that women encounter daily, etc.

And of course, I do my best to try to steer clear of writing white, heterosexual, able-bodid and neurotypical cismen. Not because I hate them, but because the market is already saturated with characters like that. I can do something different, reflect the variation of world around me more accurately. I try to be very respectful when I write from the POV of someone unlike myself – I talk to many people like that, read articles and blogs, etc. Of course, I don’t always get it right.  But I do my very best to be as accurate to their lived experiences as possible, and to be respectful of the problematics inherent in writing from a POV which I don’t live.

And of course, I like to do that all with aliens and dragons and magic and vampires. That’s part of the joy of writing SF/F work; you can speak in metaphors and similes or you can use fantasy creatures to speak about current issues, or any combination.

I very much enjoy telling the story from the non-traditional point of view, too. When I think of a story, I try to think of who the protagonist would traditionally be, and then try to figure out a way to tell the story from the POV of someone who isn’t the traditional protagonist of that kind of narrative. Sometimes that doesn’t work for the story, and I can’t be tricksy with it, but generally that’s where I start when I’m trying to determine who is narrating my tale.

3) Why do I write what I do?

Because I was sick of SF/F filled with people who weren’t like me, didn’t deal with the kind of struggles that I deal with daily, didn’t have any concept of what it was like to live in my situation, and my body.

I also began as a fanfiction writer, so a lot of the tropes, sentence structures, imagery, and my desire to engage in elastic-play with narratives comes from that community.

4) How does my writing process work?

Asdfghjkl. Good question!

Normally I begin a story with a thesis phrase or idea. I do a lot of thinking, and a lot of noodling about writing little dialogue scenes or character sketches, until I feel like I’ve hit on something that works. Then I usually try to write the pitch/back-cover copy for the idea. If I can encapsulate it in 200 words, really make it pop in nearly no space, then I know I’ve hit on something worth pursuing.

From there I open my Scrivener, copy all the notes I’ve made into the appropriate sections and … well, just write. I write whatever pops into my head, whatever scenes or arguments, or cool ideas I have. If I get a different or new cool idea, I write that down too. Sometimes I end up writing hundreds of pages of just STUFF. Some of it gets moved to different book projects. Some of it gets shoved into the morgue. (Sometimes I pull things out of the morgue and add it).

As I’m writing all these big chunks of awesome stuff, I slowly develop the characters. I find out who they are through all these scenes, and make notes in my files. Sometimes, if I really need to figure out something about a character (who they are, what they love, what they fear), I’ll do some of the character-building improvisation exercises I learned in acting school.

I’ll wash the dishes and talk aloud to myself as the character. I’ll hold a conversation between a character and myself, forcing them to answer. Sometimes I even record it, so I can use the dialogue later.  When I’m driving, I’ll turn off the radio and engage in friendly daily chit-chat with the character. If I write myself into a corner I’ll sit back and ask my characters why they just did or said what they did.

This all sounds a bit kooky, but in engaging with characters in this manner, I find I can hone in on their speech patterns, voices, and traits much better than if I just sat in my desk chair and thought about it. I’m a very physical, verbal, tactile person. If you were to ever meet me, you’d know that I speak in essays, driving always to a thesis. (Some people find it cute; some find it super annoying. I have to work hard to be conscious of my tendency to ramble and lecture during a conversation).

So, once I have a solid grasp of character (and through them, usually a world and culture), ad a big old pile of scenes, then I usually start to do something I call “Laying the Garden Path”.  I figure out where the ending has to be, first, and if one of the scenes I’ve written already can be the ending or if I need to write something else. From there I figure out what the climax must be, and then where the story starts.

Sometimes at this point I end up abandoning the project, because I realize that while the moments are cool, there’s no novel here. The writing that I did gets shuffled into the morgue to be used for another project, if the opportunity arises.

Once I have the path of the novel projected, I can start to lay the scenes out like flagstones in the garden. I turn and twist, flip, invert, rearrange, break up, smash together, or straight up reject all the strangely shaped elements of the book, and otherwise determine how they all fit together. Once I’ve finished that, if any more cool scenes/flagstones have occurred or popped out at me, I write those next.

Once the stones are laid, then I generally go back and start straight from the beginning and do all the mortar work – that is, the storytelling that stitches together those pivitol moments. If more flagstones want to be written, I jump ahead and add them, and then just return straight to where I left off with the gravel and mortar.

Once the whole book/path is put together, I usually let it rest for a bit before giving it a full re-read to make sure it all works as one smooth narrative. From there it goes to my beta readers, back to me for edits/revisions, off to my agent, back to me for edits/revisions, and then from my agent to the editors.

And then I start it all over again!

(And to further the analogy, I feel like fanfiction is the flowers that grow up between the paving stones – organic, engaging, and proof that someone’s passion can never harm and only beautify your own creation).

This process has taken me as long as ten years for some books, and as little as three months for others. It all depends on my free time, availability, the amount of research I need to do, and how urgently the book wants to be written.

 I tag GABRIELLE HARBOWY and LEAH PETERSEN. Go check out their answers to these questions about process.

Gabrielle Habrowy – Editor, writer, and anthologist. Gabrielle edits and proofreads for publishers including Pyr, Circlet Press, Paizo, and Seven Realms Publishing; she is Managing and Acquisitions Editor at Dragon Moon Press, a Canadian independent publisher of fantasy and science fiction; and is available for hire independently by publishers. She is also a staff proofreader and columnist for Lambda Literary and an Affiliate member of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). She’s worked with first-time authors and aspiring authors, as well as New York Times Bestsellers and Hugo Award winners.

Leah PetersenLeah Petersen lives in North Carolina. She does the day-job, wife, and mother thing, much like everyone else. She prides herself on being able to hold a book with her feet so she can knit while reading. She’s still working on knitting while writing. She is the author of the Physics of Falling YA SF series.

And please check out the REST of the blog-tour and enjoy the Choose-Your-Own Adventure of finding everyone who was tagged. I was tagged by Ruthanne Reid!


For more posts on the business and craft of writing, search my Words for Writers tag.

JM FreyWords for Writers: Tag, You’re It! – Writing Process Blog Tour