How a Story is Born

My writing process is not that dramatically different from that of other writers. I’ve heard all of these steps or processes in one place or another, and sometimes in the same combination that I use them. Heck, I’m not even terribly consistent: I’ve tried to have this elusive “writing routine” that others have, and with the exception of the times that I do NaNoWriMo or this blog I don’t generally give myself deadlines or any concrete goals. But for the most part, I go through all of these steps and in roughly the same order. Occasionally I’ll throw something a little different into the mix, but I’ll save any anomalies for future posts.

In the NaNoWriMo community, writers tend to identify with one of two unofficial categories depending on how they write. The Pantsers are those that write by the seat of their proverbial pants, hence the name: they pick up a pen or word processor at midnight on November 1 and go at the blank page with whatever comes to their mind. The Planners are more meticulous: these are the folks that spend October making outlines, interviewing characters, doing worldbuilding exercises, and researching so that they have a veritable encyclopedia at their disposal to reference by the time November rolls around.

I’ve been bad about it this season, but I’m very much a Planner, because the idea of writing in the style the Pantsers do is terrifying to me. One of my big fears about life in general is being lost, and this is especially true of my writing. I’m open to things changing a little on the way, but I need to know where I’m going before I get there. My writer’s block tends to happen when I get hopelessly lost, and most of my planning is taking measures to avoid that. It doesn’t always work, but it makes me feel more confident about plunging forward, especially when I’m on a deadline and can’t stop.

For my worlds and overall plots, I usually start with “What if?” kind of questions and end up expanding on them. I can’t pinpoint exactly where these ideas come from, but what I can tell you is that I do a lot of thinking in the shower. Long walks and car rides (not driving, though, at least for me) are also good places to think. Sometimes conversations can spark something, but this is a rare occurrence just because my focus is so divided: I need some quality time with an idea when it first appears so that I can get it into a rough shape, which I can’t do when I’m also trying to pay attention to a conversation.

Once I have a loose scenario worked out, the next thing that generally comes to me is the climax of the narrative. I don’t even know who’s involved, why we care about them, what the stakes are, or even where we’re going to start or end the story, but I know where the emotional high point is and what happens there in downright cinematic detail. This works for me because then I know what I’m working toward: I might not have a detailed map of how to get there, but I know where I’m going and I’m not completely lost. Like I said, starting at the beginning with a wide, open page in front of me and no clue where I’m going is the scariest part of working on a new piece: I can’t even start with the title (which I consider to be the hardest part of creating the manuscript). I need more help than that.

Once I have an idea of what the end result of the plot is, this is when characters start showing up, usually in order of narrative importance. I use the phrase “showing up” specifically because I’m not one of these writers that “creates” characters: they just kind of show up as fully-formed individuals ready and willing to tell me about their lives and eat stuff out of my fridge like they’ve known me for years. Even when they evolve, it’s organic and not something I actively control. It’s more like they showed up to an audition and got the part rather than being built for a particular task. This is the part where I interview them to find out more information.

If I have time for it, I research. If I’m making a lot of jokes about ending up on a watch list, complaining about a character insisting on accuracy, or tweeting the words “Questionable Google Search of the Day”, this is where I am in the writing process. If what I’m working on is a very rough first draft or the plot doesn’t heavily rely on hard sciences, I won’t worry about getting minute details exactly perfect (probably to the chagrin of the scientists that I know—sorry guys): I save specifics for later drafts and just try to keep things simple enough that I don’t lose momentum in the actual storytelling. If I’m stuck, I might hit Google to help me write my way out of something, but generally the narrative trumps factual accuracy in the early stages.

When I say “research,” you’re probably thinking that I mean cracking open books and search engines and going at it, and that’s very true. Sometimes I research to procrastinate (come on, there have to be other people out there that do that, too). However, I also count the responses to questions that I’ll pose to a few close, trusted friends that directly relate to what I’m writing. For best results, I don’t give any warning other than “Hey, Writer Question for you!” I tend to go this route if this particular friend has an area of expertise that I don’t or if I’m just looking for a different way of reacting to a situation. I’ve asked people what their majors would be if the subjects in Harry Potter were academic disciplines, how they’d react if I told them I’d been homeless the entire time they’ve known me, and under what circumstances they’d unleash a zombie-creating virus on their closest large city, among other things. I’m lucky that I have patient friends, and three of them have even said that they enjoy when I subject them to this part of my process (although they could have just been saying that to be nice), so I consider this method successful and will keep doing it until it stops working.

Once I do all of that… I don’t have any more excuses. I should have most everything I need to get through a draft. Speaking of which, I have more research to do.

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