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Writing Process; The Whys and Wherefores

Writing Process; The Whys and Wherefores

I was asked recently about my writing process. I’ve decided to break it into two posts. The first will cover the planning stages. I should note that I write primarily Fantasy and Science-Fiction, so the steps I describe are to prepare stories for those genres. (If a story took place in the real world, you could likely skip most of step 3.)

One thing that writing my novels has taught me is that the planning stage is extremely important. I skipped most of it when I wrote my first novel and it caused me all manner of headaches later. The process I use now, I developed through trial and error. Writing is a very personal experience; what works for one person won’t work for everyone. But I record my thought process here, hoping it may help someone in the future.

Step 1: The Idea
It might seem redundant to say writing a story starts with having an idea. Without an idea, you can’t go anywhere. That’s true, of course; but wherever it comes from, however you get it, it’s important to contemplate that idea. Let it take root. Let it grow. Before you ever write anything down, spend some time thinking about that idea.

How big is it? Does it warrant a novel or can you tell it in a short story? Where does it start? Where is it going? Most importantly; how does it get from its beginning to its end.

The first thing you always want to do when you get an interesting idea is sit down and start typing away at it. I always write my ideas down. I’ve had several notebooks over the years that I’ve kept with me to record my ideas when I have them AFK. I have a folder on my harddrive full of the organized notes I’ve pulled out of these notebooks. But after that step, it’s best to walk away for a little while. Sure, an idea is interesting the second you have it. It’s full of wonder and discovery and it feels like the flame will burn out if you don’t write it exactly that moment.

But my experience has been that the opposite is true. If you try to write the story before you really know it, that flame burns out quickly. The story falls to pieces and it’s frustrating to pick them up and put them back together later. My most successful novel attempt circulated my head for over a year before I ever wrote a word of the story. It was unintentional at the time; work, school and other stresses kept me from being ready to write a word before that. Looking back now, I’m grateful for that grace period. The story grew so large in my head, I knew it so well, it grew all the richer by the time I started working on it.

That’s not to say that you should wait a year before you ever do anything with a story. Every story is going to have a different germination period. But you should probably let your story stew in its own juices awhile before you go at it to make sure you’ve got a really good handle on where you’re going.

Step 2: The Characters
Steps 2 and 3 sometimes overlap step 1. All the while you’re working on them, step 1 is taking place. When it comes to world building and story planning, I like to start with my characters. Characters are the heart and soul of a story. If the reader doesn’t care about your characters, they don’t care about your plot. The fate of the world could hang in the balance, but if the reader can’t identify with your narrator they might just want the world to explode and get it over with.

I like to jot down notes about my characters, partly because it forces me to think about certain aspects of them, and partly because referring back to notes keeps my writing consistent. In my first novel, my main character changed from being red-haired and green-eyed to blonde-haired and blue-eyed halfway through the novel and trying to find every instance of inconsistency to fix it was maddening!

Once I’ve identified my main characters, I go through the process for each one. Who are they? What are their names? How do they look? How do they act? What’s their attitude toward the rest of the world? What makes them special? What are their skills or abilities? Or, in contrast, how are they not special? How did they get to the beginning of the story? What draws them into the action?

I also like to jot down a few notes about where I think the character will be at the end of the story, major things that might happen to them along the way, or what they hope to get out of their journey. These are the first earmarks of character development. It’s important for the main characters to grow and change throughout the course of the story, whether in a positive or negative fashion. If a character doesn’t change, they will be considered flat. Flat characters are boring and most people don’t want to read about them.

Step 3: World Building
This step is so huge, I could devote a whole post to it (and perhaps someday I will). By the time I’ve got a good idea of what characters are at the center of my story, I know a little bit about the world they’re going to be living in. The plot brings details to this area as well. I may know that one of my characters is a mage, so it will be important to determine how magic works. A character’s history may have revealed a recent war or a distinct geographical location.

As with my characters, I like to write notes about the features of the world my story takes place in. If magic is involved, I take the time to develop rules for how magic works. How is it done? What can it do? What are the limitations? If science is involved I like to note the level of technological advancement. If I’m working in an 1950’s era setting, I wouldn’t want my main characters carrying cellphones. I try to note the current government and morality. This is an excellent time to pepper the world with little interesting details like unique forms of address, special titles, interesting holidays; things that will be commonplace for your characters but add interesting flavor for the reader.

If you haven’t already, this is the best time to start asking questions. Why? Why? Why? Always why. And how. How does it work? And why does it work that way? The richer the backdrop of the story, the more real it will feel to the reader. The greatest stories I have ever read, the ones I have most enjoyed, have taken place in a world where the author has created this vast, amazing world for their story to happen in, but has shown me only a tiny piece of it. This always leaves me wanting to learn more, wanting to discover this rich, varied world that’s been laid at my fingertips. I once read an article about what makes epic fantasy epic. The overwhelming majority of epic fantasy authors seemed to agree that what makes a story truly epic is that the world in which the story is taking place becomes akin to a character itself. The world is moving as well as the characters. It has weight and history and action independent of the characters who are living in it. That’s what takes a good story and makes it great.

It may seem as if I’ve wasted a lot of time discussing the obvious, but these steps are such an important part of the process. The more prepared you are before you sit down to write the first words, the better off you’ll be when you get to the meat and potatoes of the plot. This part of the process can take anywhere from a few hours (usually the case when I write short stories, and then I don’t always make notes) to a couple of months if I’m working on a novel or a series of novels. Sometimes writing a story is like putting the pieces of a puzzle together and it’s important to have all the pieces before you start trying to assemble the puzzle. Otherwise you might make mistakes that seem logical at the time but might have been recognizable as foolish if you’d only had that one missing piece.

Of course, once you have all the puzzle pieces gathered, it’s time to start putting them together. But we’ll leave that for the next post.

4 Replies to “Writing Process; The Whys and Wherefores”

  1. Good info on the writing process. It was a really enjoyable read. I’m linking your website to mine (unless you would rather I don’t) for other future writers to use for help. Alex

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