Writers ask writers: The Writing Process
Writing is a solitary business, and being in Western Australia, it can seem even more isolated from the east-coast-centric Australian publishing industry. During the recent Perth Writers Festival, I met five other Perth-based female authors and we have formed a group to support each other. One part of this is our new ‘Writers Ask Writers’ blog series, where each month, we will all discuss one aspect of the writing life. This is our first post – the writing process.
When I sat down to write this, I wasn’t clear that I really had a ‘process’. As a mother of three young children, I have to grab writing time when I can, either when the children are asleep, or when I have a few hours of babysitting. The most important thing for me when I write is knowing that I won’t be interrupted, even if that’s only for an hour. And when I know I only have an hour, I make sure that I use every second of it. Writing a novel to me sometimes feels haphazard and disorganized, but on reflection, underneath all the snatched moments at the computer and the scribbles on pieces of paper, there is some sort of order…
The first draft
When I first started writing, I would never get past the first page as I’d read what I’d written, declare it was terrible, become despondent, then give up. The best advice I was ever given is, ‘if you want to be a writer, you have to write’, and that’s what I do in the first draft of a story: I just allow myself to write, to spill out ideas onto the page, and to explore themes and ideas. I don’t let myself read back or edit what I’ve written until the end of that draft. I tell myself it doesn’t matter how terrible it is, I can fix it later. To make sure I keep writing, I set myself a word target, starting at 500 words a day, 5 days a week – easily achievable when the kids are napping. That’s 2500 words a week, 10000 words a month, but inevitably I write a bit more than 500 words and the count goes up further. As I pick up the pace, I increase my target to 750 words a day, then 1000. It takes me 4-6 months to write the first draft.
It’s later…now I have to fix it
After the freedom of allowing myself to write anything and everything for six months, I now reach the time when I have to fix it. In a way I dread this stage, but on the other hand, it appeals to my logical side, and I can break the task into chunks.
I congratulate myself on finishing the first draft, send it to be printed and bound, then collect the thick manuscript from the printer to see and
feel the work I’ve done. While I’m at the office shop, I buy myself some new stationary: an A4 notebook, highlighters, post-it notes, maybe a new pen. Ah yes, then I feel like a real writer…
Over the next 2 or 3 days I read. I don’t write anything, as much as I want to. I try to just read it, to let the story sit in my mind for a few days while my subconscious works out what needs to change. A few days later, I open up my new notebook and read it again, this time starting to add notes and scribbles. And then I go back to the beginning again and start writing again.
This is the stage I’m at with my second novel: I know where the (huge) gaps in my story are, and I’m writing new scenes and working out what I need to join up the story. I tend to write initially in a linear, temporal fashion – this way I know each character’s emotional journey, but that’s not necessarily the best way to tell the story. That comes next…
Research, plot and restructuring
I don’t allow myself to do too much research until this stage. For me, researching the facts of a story too early constrains me and makes me worry too much about the facts rather than the psychological journey of my characters. For my current work in progress, I’m only now doing legal and medical research to make sure I have correct timelines and facts, then I’ll add scenes to make the storyline realistic, and fit my first draft ‘story’ into that.
To be an appealing book to read, the story needs to follow a dramatic arc, with a plot and structure. For example, in Fractured, I structured the book into alternating sections before and after the central event of the story. I don’t know how I’ll structure my new book yet! I know a lot of writers plan this before starting to write, and sometimes I think it would be easier – but what I love about writing is not knowing where the story will go and how it will end.
Rinse and repeat
Once I’ve picked apart my first draft, re-ordered it and written more scenes to fill in the gaps, I print it out again and go through the same process. Then I do it again. And again.
Fractured went through about five or six drafts before I was ready to move on to the final stage.
The small stuff
Once I’m vaguely happy with the structure (and I’m NEVER happy with it, not really!) I go back to the beginning, and print out each scene individually then start painting in the layers, adding depth to the characters, looking at the language, the words, the dialogue – I will do this a few times before declaring that scene is ‘finished’, send it to a friend to read, then move on to scene two.
I read the novel again and tinker with it some more, but it gets to the point where I know that I can no longer look at it objectively. In Fractured, I knew the characters so well in my head that I could no longer tell whether I was conveying things well on the page to someone completely new. I was sick of reading it, and was going cross-eyed every time I looked at the text. This for me, was when I knew it was finished. Not perfect, but as good as I could make it at that stage. I knew that if I edited it any more, I might ruin what I had, and I needed to send it out to a professional for an objective opinion.
As I wrote this, I started to panic a bit about just how much work I still have to do with book two! But the benefit of this being my second novel is that I know that with each edit, the manuscript improves, and the later stages become easier and easier.
I love to read about how other writers write, as it gives me ideas for my own work. Here, you can read about how the other authors in this group write – it’s fascinating reading because we all work in different ways:
Amanda Curtin, editor and multi-award winning author of The Sinkings, Elemental and Inherited.
Amanda has written her blog post as beautifully as she writes her fiction, such as her description of research, “a truly spidery activity: throwing spinnerets far into the breeze, following them as far as they’ll go, or as far as you want to take them, seeing what sticks, and where, finding bridges between strands, filling in, unpicking, abandoning, rebuilding.”
Natasha Lester, author of the TAG Hungerford award-winning What is Left Over, After and If I Should Lose You
“Writing longhand feels like a better match for the pace of my thoughts when I’m crafting a piece of prose. Typing is so much faster, it sometimes feels like my fingers are waiting impatiently while my brain fumbles for a word or phrase.”