“Writing process” is a term you hear a lot. It’s basically how writers make a book. A lot of time people talk about it with as much respect as their family’s secret lasagna recipe, except this way, you’re cooking up a good novel instead of a yummy dinner for six.
Honestly, though, if the writing is like a recipe, it’s the kind you make up as you go along.
Writing processes vary widely. You expect to find different writing habits from different people, but even with the same author, it can vary from book to book. Neil Gaiman has a great story about what happened to him when he finished drafting American Gods, his second solo novel:
I said to Gene Wolfe…that I thought I was starting to learn how to write a novel. Gene chortled, and said, “You never learn how to write a novel. You only learn how to write the novel you’re on.” [full post]
Writing-wise, every single book in The Ever Afters series was a different experience. I wrote Of Giants and Ice pretty fast (five months—with a six-week-long break in the middle, and the last 40K in two weeks), but it took the longest to revise. Of Witches and Wind took so long for me to finish that I panicked and wondered if I was meant to be a writer after all; the revision process was more fun. For Of Sorcery and Snow, I had a very strong outline, and I churned out the entire book, start to finish, in less than nine months. Of Enemies and Endings challenged me the most, and I’m still trying to wrap my head around why.
But still, now that someone has asked, I’ve noticed a pattern. For these novels, the five stages of writing were:
I’ll make sure to go into more detail on all of these, but for now, here’s a quick overview:
Before I dive into a draft, I usually have a decent idea of where the story is heading. I outline—first, in an idea book (a notebook where I gather all the ideas for the story) and later, for specific chapters/scenes. I also do some other prep work: making playlists, pondering questions through freewrites, researching elements, deciding names, etc.
Then I write the first draft. There is no magic formula for this, and very few tricks make it easier; you just make sure you write word after word until you have a beginning, middle, and end.
If you’ve spent a lot of time in the planning stage, you may feel like you’re breaking your book. That’s pretty normal. The honeymoon of the brainstorm is over; the hard work of creating has begun. This is where determination kicks in—and trust that you’ll be able to fix it later. (The later grows easier with experience.)
Once you’ve finished the book, the revision process begins, and for me, that’s where most of the real work is. Most of the time, the first draft just feels like raw material: it doesn’t turn into a book until I shape it into better story. The first step requires the most heavy lifting.
Sometimes, the second draft has some gaping holes you need to fill. For OGAI, the first book in the series, the early manuscript was missing a lot of key elements—important stuff, like character motivations and series-specific world building. Jo helped me develop those bits: The first draft she saw was less than 70K words/230 pages. The first draft my publisher saw was 110K words/347 pages.
More often than not, though, I need to carve a coherent story out of a big, unwieldy manuscript. You must decide what is really important to the plot and cut out everything else. That was what happened for the other three books in the series, and it grew easier with practice. The first draft of OEAE, the last book in the series, was just under 164K words/514 pages; the second draft, the one I sent my agent and editor, was 111K/373 pages.
Once the structural work is done, filling in narrative holes or carving away excess material, I try to drive the story deeper. In other words, I look for opportunities to create meaning—either to add another layer on an existing story line or to link different plot threads together.
I started doing this in order to save one of my manuscript’s darlings. I loved a particular scene in OWAW, but it wasn’t completely connected to other story lines. Typically, that makes it a prime candidate for the chopping block, and since the novel was already super long, I was afraid my editor would suggest deleting it. I was like, No! Not this scene!
So, I figured out a way to link that scene with two totally different plot lines, adding a touch of backstory that gave the scenes more narrative meaning. When I sent it back to my editor, I crossed my fingers, hoping I made it believable. Then NO ONE EVER SUGGESTED DELETING THAT SCENE! I SAVED IT!! (insert evil author laughter here).
After nailing down the manuscript’s structure and layering in as much meaning as possible, then I try to make sure that the book is as pretty and as perfect as I can possibly make it. In other words, I line-edit, going over every single sentence to look for ways to improve. I try to make sure each bit of dialogue sounds like what the character might actually say. I push jokes; can they be funnier? I even try to strike out unnecessary words like “that” or “very” or “a lot.”
This stage includes the copy-edits and the galley pass. It also includes me starting to obsess about whether or not to include this comma or that comma, and when I’m down to the nitty-gritty like that, I usually have to tell myself, Shelby, it’s time to let the book go.