Sometimes people ask me the process of how I write a book, so here you go.
How It Starts, Basically
Actually let’s get this out of the way: non-writers are usually asking something different, which is “Where does the story/character come from?” and it seems there is no satisfying answer to that for the non-writer. Because it comes from everywhere and nowhere. It’s just there. Sometimes it’s scraps of ideas and images, sometimes it’s fully formed, sometimes you can trace it back to a thing you saw or heard somewhere else, sometimes you can’t. The point is, one day it’s just there in your head and you feel the need to put it down on paper. This is what makes us writers and you non-writers, it’s all a mystery so hooray for the creative impulse and that’s all I have to say about that. (Actually I have more to say about the collective unconscious, ask me about the story-stone sometime, but that’s not the point of this so let's move along.)
When writing-type people ask me this, though, they are looking for brass tacks. So for me, the order in which these things appear is:
Character and/or situation: It’s usually a random what-if sort of thing, like “what if this kind of person got in this kind of situation?” Sometimes it’s not, though. Sometimes it’s just there. I dunno.
Then a character – usually the heroine – introduces herself and we start talking. In this process, I immediately learn:
The setting – time and place. My characters are very much of their time/place in history, so then my brain gets filled with why they are who they are.
After some getting-to-know-you time with the main characters, the rough outline of the plot comes to me. Actually it’s the most actively involved my fore-brain is in this process, because as the characters are telling me about themselves, I’m consciously planning events that will force them to change and grow and basically go through something interesting.
Then comes the research and writing.
I want to very forcefully note here that this is MY process and should NOT IN ANY WAY be used as a guide for How To Write A Book. Because sometimes I come across relative newbies who are looking for that, like there is a step-by-step guide for how to do it. (And actually there are guides, the bookstore is full of them. I’ve never read them. I advise others not to read them. I consider them prescriptive trash at best, total scams at worst.) Some people work exactly opposite to this and THAT’S GREAT AND WONDERFUL. Some people have steps that are crucial to their process that, if I did them, would stop me cold. Vive la difference.
You’ll hear this all the time, because it’s true: there is no one way, or best way. You just have to fumble around and figure it out and yes it’s painful and time-consuming and confusing and exhausting and you never know if you’re doing it right. Welcome!
I can’t understand why the issue of outlining-or-not is such a thing among writers. But it is. Whatever works for you, do it. I don’t write an outline. I guess I have one in my head? Whatever, I know the structure and the story arc and Basically All The Major Stuff That Happens, and I don’t need to write them down, so I don’t.
But since I write historical, I inevitably find myself writing out a timeline of events – both world events and events in the characters’ lives. Here we have the only notes I ever made for Fair, Bright, and Terrible:
It is very bare-bones and I don’t even know what some of the scribbles are. It’s more of a reference sheet than anything else. I am bad with dates, so I’ve learned if I don’t write it down then I will just be looking it up again over and over. (I finally wrote this page out when I’d looked up the dates of the Crusade for the like 50th time.) Including world events along with the character’s lives REALLY helps me know the characters’ backgrounds. Was there a war? How old were they when that happened? How did it impact them? If it didn’t, why not? How did they feel about it? Et cetera. Not all of this makes it into the book – in fact, a gigantic huge enormous VAST amount of it never makes it to the page, because it’s not immediately relevant to the story I’m telling. But it’s the story of how these characters became who they are, so I need to know it.
I will readily admit that I’m better than most at keeping details (of my own story) in my head and most writers I know find it incomprehensible that I don’t need more notes. It’s just how my brain works and I don’t think it’s the norm. Also keep in mind that I frequently forget if I’ve already showered on any given day, so this is not some overarching memory super-power, okay.
Then, after a lot of talk talk talking with my characters (seriously, it’s like summer camp – lots of late-night bonding sessions where I ask a zillion intrusive questions and they show me most of their insides), I start writing. Please don’t ask me how I know where the story begins, because I don’t know how I know. You just…listen real close, I guess. Like cracking a safe, putting your ear to the dial as you slowly spin it and listen for the tiny but unmistakable click.
Research happens as I write. Get rid of the idea that you can do it all before setting down a word. I can do enough to get started but then I’m looking stuff up as often as every other sentence. I write stuff that happened 700+ years ago and I care about historical facts, so this is my cross to bear.
I write in Word. Just a straight-up Word doc. One single document. No Scrivener, no other software, just a Word doc.
I don’t do a shitty first draft, or multiple drafts. I write from beginning to end in a straight line and what I put down the first time is about 0.5% different than the final version. This is because I do a lot of staring into space. I expend the same amount of mental energy as a re-writer, it’s just I do it all the work up front and silently in my head instead of on the page. This means that writing 500 words a day is fine and 1000 is great – because those are almost always final draft words. I mean, I’ll go back and tweak and polish, but the truth is that I don’t even have a ton of typos or anything. The exception to this is A Fallen Lady, which got some bits overhauled because I’d written it like 13 years prior to dusting it off and publishing it. But otherwise the most I’ll do is re-write a paragraph for clarity or insert a sentence here or there.
And because sometimes people hear this and act impressed, I need to say this: Please, please – please god please – DO NOT think this makes me somehow “better” than other writers, or that if you can do it this way then you are better, or anything like that. The most you can say is it’s more efficient, but even that doesn’t work because it’s only more efficient in terms of not wasting paper & ink, and I deal in pixels so I’m hardly wasting anything. The same amount of time and effort and smarts goes into it, no matter how you do it. Our brains all work differently, is all, and this is just how mine spits it out.
This is another thing newer writers agonize over: how to find a good beta-reader and when to send something to them. There’s no way to know how to do this, except to do it and see who/what works for you and who/what doesn’t. This is what has worked for me, and it’s different with every single project I write.
Throughout the writing, I’m giving bits to my beta-reader as I go. My beta-reader is Susie, always – she is my front line against Writing Gone Bad, and all I can do is wish you your own Susie because you can’t have mine. Sometimes I’ve given her a chapter at a time, sometimes 3-4 chapters at a time, and once I didn’t give her the whole book until it was done (that was FB&T and it was agonizing, I’ll never put myself through that again even though it all came out okay.) Basically I give it to her when I’ve reached a point where I need/want to know if it’s working, where I can be assured I’m not wasting my time if I move forward with it as-is. So like after a hefty bit of exposition, or after a major development in the plot or the character dynamic. Like that.
One thing I always try to do, though, is ask for specific feedback. Asking “So whaddya think?” is not helping anyone. I ask things like – have I told you enough about this character or do you need more now? Does this plotline set-up make sense? Is the political stuff incomprehensible or overwhelming? Do you need more from the other POV yet? Like that, but also always inviting comments on anything else that catches her attention in a good or bad way. Fortunately Susie is very good about spontaneously telling me things like “NEEDS MORE KISSING NOW PLEASE” and basically yanking me back to what a reader needs when they need it.
Sometimes I’ll give chunks of it – usually when it’s done – to others for specific feedback, like how I give my fight scenes to my friend Chas to ensure they are not stupid. And ideally I would always give the whole thing to at least one other person for feedback (and proofreading) before publishing, but it’s just…not…easy. It’s just been hard to find anyone who’s good at it, honestly. I’ve given it to random literate and intelligent people who are better versed than I am in the genre and still I often get back very unhelpful stuff. I just need to know more professional, experienced writers who get my writing, I think. Because right now it’s basically just me and Susie agreeing that yeah, okay, publish it, why not? And though that will always be the bottom line, it would be smart to get another informed opinion on the matter.
Yes, this means I don't have an editor. Or even a proofreader. I just have a friend saying "Looks fine to me." I strongly advise against this, because it is utter fucking madness. But hey, I ain't got no money.
NOTE: Most people know I’m friends with Laura Kinsale and they assume she’s my beta-reader but actually she’s not. Early on with The King’s Man – and I mean like 10 years before it was finished, okay – I gave her the first like 6 chapters or so, when I was stuck, and she gave me (helpful!) feedback. But other than that, her role in the process has been confined to emotional/moral support and occasional brainstorming. (And my inquiries on all things horse-related, because she’s my horse expert.) But she only sees the completed book when everyone else does.
It now occurs to me that it is vastly stupid to have this unfuckingbelievable resource at hand and never use it. I am an idiot. In my defense, it’s Laura Motherfucking Kinsale and if you can even think about casually tossing your writing her way without loading your bloodstream with industrial-grade Valium, then you and I are very different people. But I’ve always known I can ask her to look at it If I needed it, and I’ve also always known she’s (not surprisingly) brilliant at giving exactly the feedback you need. And it’s true that I now feel my writing has gotten to a skill level that I think is, like, actually worthy of her time and attention. So brace yourself, Laura, I’mma start bugging you. Probably.
I don’t know how I know when it’s done. Basically when the story’s told, when I’m sure it theoretically could be better, but I really don’t have anything left to give to it, and I recognize it’s not perfect but it’s Good Enough. It kinda starts to feel like a relationship that needs to end – you like each other, but you both know it can’t last forever and you’re getting to the point where you’ll start really ruining each other if you don’t let go, so let’s go our mutual ways and I wish you the best and god I’m gonna miss you like crazy, but this is best for both of us. Plus also, I think it’s time for me to start seeing someone new, I’ve been thinking about them even when I’m with you and that’s really not fair to any of us.
Then I format and proofread and figure out a title and commission a cover and have to write the dread summary description blurb, and all that. But that’s all mostly the publishing side of things, which I try to keep separate from the writing side as much as possible, so it’s not part of The Process. This here is how a story makes it from my head to the page, and I think I’ve just about covered it.