My Writing Process

At a writing group a couple of weeks ago, someone asked me about my process.  I struggled through the answer.  I later looked back on the writing I’ve done so far this year, and was surprised by how productive I’ve been with several short stories in revision and a novel just starting to get drafted.  So I decided to let people into my brain.

It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of Trello as a project management tool.  It’s wonderfully versatile, easy to learn, and seamless in its adaptability to different needs.  My writing board in the program is made of a series of lists, each devoted to a different stage of writing: development, drafting, revision, and so forth.  Each card is a story I’m working on, and has the following checklist…

  1. Development and outline
  2. Write 1st draft
  3. 6-week break
  4. Revise 1st draft
  5. Write 2nd draft
  6. 1-week break
  7. Revise 2nd draft
  8. Write 3rd draft
  9. 1-week break
  10. Proofread 3rd draft
  11. Select beta-reader
  12. Write 4th draft
  13. 1-6-week break for beta-reading
  14. Review beta-reader’s notes
  15. Write 5th draft
  16. 1-week break
  17. Proofread 5th draft
  18. Write 6th draft
  19. Submit story to markets
  20. Review editor’s notes
  21. Write 7th draft
  22. Resubmit for final review
  23. Confirm story publication

That’s the template I use most of the time.  It can be changed, expanded, and shortened as needed, but it boils down the process to every single step I need to take.  You’ll notice that the bulk of it concerns drafting, taking breaks, and revisions.  In fact, this is nearly 80% of the writing process for me, but let me elaborate on what’s going on for all the major stages.

Development and Outlines

This is when I come up with the story and prepare the manuscript for drafting, getting all the relevant information onto the first page, and setting up a new project file on Dropbox. My ideas come from a mix of things I see every day.  With short stories, the idea pops into my head out of nowhere most of the time.  Longer pieces of fiction simmer in my brain for a while and go through a detailed outline so I’m confident that the time I spend later on won’t be aimless; I’ll know where the story’s heading and will have worked out most of the plot holes.  Because of the differences in developing a novel from a short story, the time that goes into this stage varies a great deal.

Drafting

When I was in grad school, I worked on a novel for three years, went through a dozen drafts, and ultimately threw it away when the project got so big it was out of my control.  Since then, I’ve limited myself to several drafts.  Otherwise, you’ll spend forever revising and polishing and never sending the story out into the world.  On my own, I write four drafts, and the first one is always just to get it out on paper.  The second and third drafts are devoted to solving large problems that might have unexpected arisen during the writing of earlier drafts.

Breaks

You don’t have to, but it’s a good idea to time away from a project.  It gives you distance from the piece so that when you go back to it, it’s like reading it for the first time.  That distance will make the problems with the story more apparent and the editing easier.  Per Stephen King, I take six weeks off from a story after the first draft, and work on other stories in the meantime.  The breaks are shortened to a week between drafts as I edit because I usually know what needs fixing.  It gives me some time to catch my breath before tackling the project again.

Revisions

If drafting is building a house, revisions are where I break open that house and tear through all the faulty wiring in the electrical systems and exhume the corroded piping I’ve tried slipping by in the foundations.  In the list above, you’ll notice I sometimes switch from “revise” to “proofreading.”  This is because when I’m getting ready to send out a story to a reader, I believe there’s no excuse for slacking off and giving them something with misspelled words and the wrong version of there/they’re/their.

Beta-Readers

Beta-readers are absolutely essential in the editing.  These are people I trust to give me honest criticism and point out issues I’ve overlooked no matter how diligent I’ve been.  The beta-reader is usually a close friend from grad school.  When I send them a story, I’ll wait another six weeks tops before following up so they’ve got enough time to read and digest it.  Once they provide me with notes, that feedback is incorporated into a 5th draft, and there’s a proofread and a 6th draft before showtime when I send it out into the world for reals.

Submissions

This is a tiny slice of the pie, but extremely important.  The job of the writer, I think, is to get a story submitted, not published.  Sure, you can self-publish and there’s nothing wrong with that, but if you’re going the traditional route, you’ve absolutely got to get it into the hands of magazine, agents, and publishing houses.  The worst that can happen is you get no response.  That not-knowing is such a pain.  Most of the time, you’ll get a polite rejection letter, maybe even one with notes on why it was passed.  If you are selected for publication, there might be a final round of notes from the editor to help massage the story just a little bit to bring it 100% in-line with their audience.

Retirement

Retirement is the writer’s nuclear option and should be used only when everything else has been exhausted.  You’ve exited your story until your eyes bleed out and your anus is puckered up.  You’ve sent it to every market you can think of, and they all reject it.  It happens.  If you’ve chipped and chiseled on that story like crazy, then I’d hold on to it just a little longer, maybe a few more months, before sending it back out again.  It might not have been the right time to send it out.  If everyone still rejects it, then it might be that story isn’t meant to exist.  No writer wants to retire a story because there ends up being a feeling that it was all for nothing.  In my experience, that’s half the stories I’ve written.  Once you make peace with that possibility, it makes closing the book on it all the easier.

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