The Writing Process, Part I: Getting Started
I've been asked many times over the years for various bits of writing advice, much of which I have covered in my video series, Olivie Blake is Not Writing, and on Tumblr under the tag writing advisements. In an attempt to organize these various posts and provide a central location for these topics, this will be a series of blog posts on various writing subjects.
In this series of posts, we're going to talk about how something makes its way from your personal void of nothingness to a final, polished draft. I have always been fairly open about the fact that I don't do a lot of pre-writing; I tend to consider most of it a procrastination technique rather than truly helpful to the writing process. My general advice is usually to get started and then troubleshoot as you run into issues, which is just my personal preference in order to maximize my writing time. That being said, I am a "reformed pantser," as some people like to call it, in that I have had to learn how to provide some constraints in order to reconcile some repeated issues I was having.
So, here is the first segment in the process of how I write something from beginning to end.
People ask me how I get ideas all the time. Tough to say! A book's initial concept is often pointed to as the source of its genius, even though that isn't necessarily the case. Plenty of tried and true ideas can still lead to a truly brilliant book, just like great or original ideas aren't always executed well. The idea is only one piece of what makes a brilliant story.
How you get ideas is a fairly unknowable thing (particularly when it comes to having the "right" or "timely" idea), but I think it generally comes down to exposure.
Firstly: the more you write, the more you'll get ideas. Each time you see an idea through, you will become more comfortable navigating new ones. That will lead to 1) more ideas and 2) better ones. The first idea you ever write has probably been done before—that's okay! Finish it anyway. The next idea you write will be a little cleaner, a little more polished, a little more complex—but that only happens after you've learned how to finish something. Writing is like any skill: the act of doing it gets easier every time. Even, or perhaps especially, the elusive idea-having part.
Secondly, thinking critically about the world around you and opening yourself to experiences is basically giving your brain new toys to play with. That's what I mean by exposure, because the more of the world you experience (art, theater, music, science, literature, what have you) the more tools you have to build something interesting. On a personal note: I have failed at like, a shitload of things. I’ve had about a million lives in terms of career pursuits, which means I possess a small amount of expertise in a lot of random things. I have a masters in urban planning, I worked as a law clerk in felony crimes, I worked for a year at a contemporary art gallery, I sold specialty eyewear, I did some interior design, I lobbied for prison reform, I designed maps for real estate developers, I worked for two city governments, I dated MANY idiots and had many excruciating friend break-ups… which means my life is the accumulation of a lot of random stuff. I say this to assure you only that I am not a writer by any formal training. As much as I wish I had majored in literature and taken that interest further when I was younger, it took me a while to find a path that felt right. In my opinion, my vault of experience is all the richer for it.
Put it this way: everyone has ideas. Everyone experiences life, and therefore anyone could have an idea. The important thing is understanding that it's never too late to start giving your ideas legs.
Research and Meditation Phases
I often say I need to meditate for a bit after I've had an initial idea. For me, this is usually a process of a few days (sometimes weeks) of letting something simmer in the back of my head until I get a feel for the atmosphere I'd like to write. For the record, an atmosphere involves about as much detail as an Impressionism painting; i.e., very little. Most often I am trying to determine the texture, mood, or sensation of reading the story I'd like to tell. This is in some ways a characterization exercise, sometimes a voice or pacing exercise. This is how I decide how the story should be told. Is it distant third person? Is it first person from an unreliable narrator? How many characters should be there in order for the story's themes to come through? Should it be told chronologically, or are the missing pieces from the narrative part of what establishes the story's sense of motion? There's no wrong or right way to tell a story, but deciding something broad—like how you want the reader to feel while reading—is probably the most important thing to decide before you start writing.
The level of research you put in depends on what you're writing, but I always like to pay close attention to sensory research: how things smell, sound, or feel vs. how they work. I always think it's possible to use some sleight of hand to draw the reader's attention away from things you might not know, but the one thing you can't get wrong are the sensory details. Most readers are either also not experts or willing to overlook small technical inaccuracies, but they will be very thrown if something doesn't look or feel right. This can include inappropriate dialect in dialogue, the wrong foods, or an inaccurate description of something everyone has seen (like a sunset, for example, or a bleeding wound). Basically, you want to do just enough research that you can craft the atmosphere: the time period, the character archetypes, and the location. Everything else can either be addressed in edits or addressed on the spot (cue the odd google searches) as you stumble into something you don't know. Other things I don't bother with figuring out in advance: specific plot points, or how I'm going to make those events happen. Those I deal with as I go, because for me, they are dependent on character development. (We'll talk about that more another day.)
The best case in terms of research is making sure your audience can't feel your research, which to me means you want to feel comfortable with something before you start writing. Basically, that boils down to the equivalent of being able to recite something from memory vs. being prompted with lines. I sometimes refer to this as a book's "sweat." A story with a lot of sweat means you can feel the author working, which is what you want to try and avoid. If you have to stop often while writing, the story will probably show its sweat, so I advise knowing at least as much in advance that you can write a full scene with a fair amount of ease.
A warning: that does not mean obsessively reading the Wikipedia page for a place, for example, but actually having gone there. Yes, it's always a matter of knowing what you write vs. purely writing what you know, but still. Choose your settings wisely.
Pre-writing and Outlines
For the first three years of writing, I didn't use outlines at all. I found that if I did try to outline something, I almost immediately veered away from whatever I'd plotted out. Ultimately the whole thing got scrapped, which meant the day or so that I spent working on it was a loss of time I could have spent actually writing. Instead, I would start with a vague direction and a concept of what I thought the themes would be (a result of the meditation/research phase), which sometimes involved an intuitive knowledge of the ending and sometimes not. But because my word counts were too high and the middles of my books were too slow, I've since started working with something I call a "living outline."
Basically, all that means is an extremely elementary outline (less than a page) that I revisit frequently while writing and add to as I go.
The best example I have of this is my writing outline for THE ATLAS SIX, which is a book consisting of eight parts containing four or five character POV chapters. Initially, my outline for the book was only eight items: one word to represent the theme of each overarching part. I wrote Part I, which provided the character backstories, without any pre-writing whatsoever. Once I got to Part II, I broke the section down into the four characters I specifically wanted to feature. As I got to Part III, I broke it down further: the featured characters I wanted for that theme, which events needed to happen in order to move the plot forward, and details I needed to address in order to set up for interactions, pairings, or characterization shifts in future parts. As I reached a new "milestone," I started to fill in more things: which plot holes needed to be filled, which questions I needed to answer for myself in order to establish what might follow, which characters were more or less featured than others and needed to be addressed. My one page outline eventually grew to about five pages by the time the book was finished, and also ended up being a great tool during revision. It allowed me to easily find events in the book that I needed to revisit, and also allowed me to focus in on places I needed to add or edit scenes with missing or incomplete information.
Things I don't outline: specific events or details from individual chapters. For me, that fits into the first draft, which we will cover in Part II: Drafting.
I do scribble down notes if I have ideas but don't know yet where I want to use them. For those, I usually throw them into something like a checklist vs. placing them in the outline. Before I start writing for the day, I glance over my recent notes to see if anything is particularly relevant. I recommend having a note on your phone or in a small notebook that's 1) always next to your bed (cannot emphasize that enough) or on hand whenever you're out and about, and 2) easy to glance over. You should have somewhere you check every time you write, even if you don't remember having new ideas, but it shouldn't be the outline. The outline is something you only revisit when you've reached a major milestone and are ready to begin focusing on what comes next.
As you can probably tell, I try to keep my writing process fairly organic. My process is built to troubleshoot my personal issues and capitalize on my strengths, so this advice—like all writing advice—is very subjective. Still, I hope you find it encouraging, because I think it is particularly helpful if you're the kind of writer who gets bogged down by anxiety before you start, or one who struggles to see an idea through because you get bored easily. Ideally, minimizing pre-writing and allowing yourself to solve puzzles as you go will both lighten your load while drafting and keep the process interesting, even if it can feel scary to jump right in.