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A Snapshot of My Writing Process

Photo by Cameron Degelia.

I have been writing professionally – as in, someone’s paid me for it – for the past twenty years. In the course of these years, I’ve developed my own writing routines, found my voice, and developed my process.  I’ve even gone so far as to coach others in working with their own processes.

Today, I thought I’d give you a look at how I take an idea and then bring it to fruition.

First things first: ideation.

I have sparks for ideas.

Sometimes, it will be just a title.  I wrote a novel called Couch World which was initially supposed to be about a young woman’s experiences through various forms of therapy – the therapists’ couches – but morphed into a novel about a homeless DJ who couch-surfed through San Francisco.

Sometimes, I’ll have a concept: modern twists and retellings of classic stories, or tropes that I want to build a framework upon.

Sometimes I’ll just have characters that I know I want to work with.

This is the hardest part of the process.  It can take months or years to marinate.  I “work” a story idea by opening a “foundation” document.  It’s a stream of consciousness piece. There is a lot of “um” and “so” and “hmmm” as well as statements like “GAH WHY DID I THINK I COULD WRITE THIS?” and “BLERGH.”

I ask myself questions.  Whose story is this?  How do they change?  How do I want the reader to walk away feeling after they read this? Is this my story to write?

I’ll admit: this part often feels like I am banging my head repeatedly against a cinderblock wall.

Eventually, I’ll envision snippets, flashes of scenes. That’s how I know the marinating is working. As I’m able to “see” actions and characters, whether they’re larger set pieces or small bits of dialogue, I know I’m ready for the next step.

Developing a plot outline.

I keep my plot outline in Microsoft Excel – the result of a misspent youth as a finance analyst.

I have three tabs. The first is my GMC: Goal, Motivation, Conflict.  I make sure I come up with a GMC for all protagonists and antagonists, both internal and external.  (I will also create “chronologies”, character backstory, in the foundation document, but that comes later, once I get a sense of what they want… because who they are will need to be supported by what molded them as people.)

Once I’ve got GMCs, the next tab is creating plot points.  I identify eight:  inciting incident, plot point one, pinch point one, midpoint, pinch point two, plot point three, hopeless moment, and resolution.  I repeat plot points for each protagonist.

As I learned it (and teach it), a story does not have plot points independently. Characters have plot points, not novels.

Finally, I create the scene list. I usually flesh this out manually, using Post-it notes on my large kitchen table. I’ll use different colored ones for different protagonists, so I’m able to see at a glance if I’m emphasizing one over the other or if there’s an imbalance. Also, I can shift things around easily, push things later or earlier, or move things off entirely if I’m not sure if they’ll work.

I slot the plot points in first – they’re already identified, and they give me waystations for the rest of the novel.

I write the goal, motivation, conflict and disaster for each scene on the Post-it, doing a quick check to make sure the scene goal for that POV character ties in with that character’s overall GMC.

Once I’ve got a sequence I’m happy with, into the spreadsheet it goes.  That’s where I will keep track of word count per scene. I’ll also make any changes and revisions to the plot outline here from now on.

First draft.

The plot outline is my road map, but as they say, no plan survives first contact with the enemy – and God knows, draft can be my nemesis. I’ve discovered the key is to stay flexible, and if I get stuck or start to feel “drag”, to back up.  Odds are good if I’m in a hole, the problem is two or three scenes back, at least… and it’s usually a character behaving, well, out of character.

The plot outline is a living document. I make changes as needed.

I’ve learned that the best way to get words on the page is to have a running “pre-writing” document.   I open this at the same time I open my scene document.  Before I type a single word of draft, I’ll note the date and time, put in a sentence or two about how I’m feeling, then I’ll type a little bit about what the scene is about, what it needs to accomplish, and how it’s going to do that.  Just a little preview, so it “loads” in my head and warms up my creative brain. (I got this idea from Rachel Aaron’s book 2k to 10k: Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love.)

I was diagnosed later in life with ADHD (which, trust me, explained so much about my childhood years!), and as a result, I’ve learned some tricks. For example, perfectionism and anxiety will usually cause me to freeze up, no matter how many books I’ve written.  The pre-writing doc helps. I also use a timer, to get my brain focused on “beating the clock” rather than the crippling doubt and self-censorship. I also have the same environment… a hot beverage, a specific Pandora station. At this point, I hear certain musical scores and my brain relaxes enough to think “okay, time to work.”

When I’m done with the scene, I go back to the pre-writing document, note the time, and note how many words the scene was. This is handy for when I’m trying to estimate writing projects on spec, and also it gives me a sense of how fast I’ll have to write to catch up if I fall behind.

Revision draft.

After the first draft is finished, I try to give it at least a month’s rest time, so I can come at it fresh. If I’m under contract, I may not have that luxury.  I’ll give it an initial read-through, and make notes to myself, scene by scene, of what needs to change. If it’s a major overhaul, I’ll re-write scene descriptions in the plot outline – otherwise, I just note the changes in the document, and then I work, in a linear fashion, scene by scene.

Final draft.

Hopefully I’ll have one more rest period. Then I’ll run a spelling and grammar check, and then read through aloud, to catch homonyms and such, and to make sure it “feels” right.

I try not to give myself more than twenty-four hours on this.  Any more than that, and I’ll get into my head too much, start second-guessing, lose all perspective.  Better to let it go and move on to the next project.

Done, done… on to the next one.

In the past twenty years, I’ve written and published around twenty-six novels, gradually honing my process as I went. I’m still learning. Continual education is key.

I’d love to learn from you. What is your writing process? How do you face the page and write your novel? What tips and tricks have you learned to move forward?

About Cathy Yardley [1]

Cathy Yardley is the author of eighteen novels, published with houses such as St. Martin's and Avon, as well as her self-published Rock Your Writing series. She's also a developmental editor and writing coach, helping authors complete, revise, and get their stories published. Sign up here [2] for her newsletter to receive the free course Jumpstart Your Writing Career. [2]