The Two Questions Every Writer Is Asked

At some point, all writers get the following two questions:

  1. Where do you get your ideas?
  2. What’s your process?

I think number 1 is hard to answer.  One of the main reasons that I write is that I have so many ideas bouncing around my head.  When I told my wife of my dream to one day make a living as an author, she asked if I’d be able to come up with more books than just Power of the Mages.  Even though I’m not yet published book one, I already have ideas for two more series and a standalone novel that could expand.

If you’re having problems developing ideas, there are a lot of sources for writing prompts out there.  Google that term, and something you find may get you going.  I’ll cover some of my methodology under Inception below.

In asking the second question, I think that beginning writers are looking for that magic bullet that will turn them from struggling amateurs to successful professionals.  “If I just use this guy’s technique, I’ll be writing best sellers in no time.”

Sorry, I don’t think it works that way.  You have to put in the time and then develop what works for you.  However, there is value in learning various methods so that you can try them out.  Here’s what I do:

Inception:

I tend to think of a genre, a character, and a situation and go from there.  For example, I love alien invasion books, so I want to write one.  That gives me a genre and a situation.  Now, I need a character.  I like nerdy protagonists, so I chose a grad student. 

What next?  I sit back in my thinking chair (been watching way too much Blue’s Clues lately; speaking of which, you know you have a toddler in your house if you have a definite preference between Joe and Steve) and let the events unfold.  How do the aliens attack?  What’s their motivation?  How can this grad student stop aliens from killing everyone?

Answering these questions gives me the ideas that I need to write the book.

First Draft:

To put it bluntly, my rough draft is word vomit.  I want to write a minimum of 1000 words a day.  I don’t care about the quality or anything else.  “She was hungry” is perfectly acceptable.  I’ll show instead of tell in my second draft. 

There’s nothing worse than a blank page.  My only goal is to fill it.

Second Draft:

This draft is, by far, the hardest.  Whereas it takes me an average of an hour per 1000 words to complete my rough draft, this one takes a minimum of two to three. 

I’m looking at a lot of issues on a per scene basis: 

  1. Readability – Does the writing flow?
  2. Plot cohesion – Does the story make sense?
  3. Characterization – Are the character actions realistic?
  4. Tension – With each pass, I try to add tension.
  5. Emotion – Some as with tension.  I want to add emotion with each pass.

I’ll usually make four to five total passes.  The first time through is the hardest as I revise almost every sentence.  The next two or three passes are much easier.  I try to build conflict, increase emotion, and smooth out any rough spots.  Once I make it through with making only minor changes, I know I’m almost done.  For the final pass, I start at the end of the scene and focus on each sentence to do a line edit.

A word of caution: the methodology listed above is not efficient.  I develop my characters through their actions and the plot as I go along.  Because I don’t do anything more than the most broad of outlines, I don’t fully know the plot or the characters until after I finish the second draft.  Making detailed line edits of a section that might get thrown out can be considered a waste of time. 

My defense of my methodology is this: if I were an established professional writer, my main concern would be my work product.  Right now, I’m still working on developing my craft and feel that the time I’m putting in with all this additional editing pays dividends that makes the risk of having to throw it all out worth it.

Third Draft:

I send my second draft out to my beta readers.  Picking up their comments and smoothing out plot and character issues make up the majority of the work for this draft.  I also try to increase both the tension and the emotion (by now, you might be starting to suspect that I think that tension and emotion are important.)

Fourth Draft:

I haven’t gotten here yet, but my plan is as follows:

  1. Put my completed third draft in a drawer and not look at it or think about it for a minimum of eight weeks.
  2. At the end of the period above, convert the 3rd draft to Nook format and load it up.
  3. With a notebook in hand, read the book cover to cover, stopping only to make the briefest of notes regarding pacing, characterization, plot, tension, emotion, and any sticky parts.
  4. Make corrections based on the notes.
  5. Error check the corrections.

Fifth Draft:

I’m going to send my completed 4th draft to an editor for a manuscript review.  I’m hoping that picking up those comments will become my finished product.  If the comments are too extensive, I may need additional drafts.

Note that the above process is for my first book, Power of the Mages, and my methodology is being dictated by where I am on the learning curve.

In any endeavor, the more time you spend on learning an activity, the better you become.  It’s universally considered to be true that, when you first start an activity, you increase in ability at a rapid pace.  As you put more and more time into it, you still increase in ability, but the pace of that increase slows.

In writing, you can easily tell when you’ve increased in ability.  Edit something until you’re completely happy with it.  When you come back to it and find that you feel it sucks, you’ve increased in ability. 

I’ve had four such quantum leaps while writing Power of the Mages.  The first took me from having no idea what I was doing to being able to present material to my writing group that didn’t get bled upon in rivers of red ink.  From there, I started writing my book in earnest. 

I still didn’t feel completely satisfied with my ability, however.  I got to about the halfway point of my rough draft and stalled, spending several months re-editing the first chapters.  Finally, I made the next leap and felt that I would be able to do the material justice.  Since then, however, I’ve made two more, with each one being smaller and more nuanced than the previous.

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