Whether you know it or not, any time you write anything, you’re following a process. That process may be invisible. It may also be haphazard. But it exists. Whether it’s the most efficient way of getting your work done is up to you. But what I’d like to offer is a possible process — a barebones outline on which you can hang whatever it is you’re interested in writing.
Writing can start with an idea — or the lack of one. Ideas are a penny a pound, or at least that’s what I’ve always thought. When my readers ask me, “Where do you get your ideas?” I’m always a little surprised, because to me there are too many great ideas floating around out there. It’s like being faced with a tree that has too much fruit on it: you cannot pick it all.
Here’s what I think happens. For me, ideas come from outside of myself — a phrase I hear, a scene I see, an article I read — and then, for whatever reason, some of them take hold inside me, become a part of my inner life. I think about them, I imagine things about them. And my sense is that if you’re an artist of any kind, once an idea has become part of your inner life, then you’re going to feel an impulse, some would say a compulsion, to express it via your art. Many people find it useful to keep a notebook or file in which they slip these ideas, these snippets of conversation, these images. However you do it, reach for the ones that resonate the deepest inside you, because that’s where your heart will be.
The most important thing that I’ve learned in over 30 years of writing is this: it has to be simmered. That goes for both ideas and for the actual writing itself. If you do come upon one of these ideas that your heart and your soul have latched onto, then let it sit for a while. Let it rest. Let it simmer. Polish it, think about what it means, what are the implications, where does your imagination want to wander with this idea … and only then are you ready to put pen to paper, metaphorically speaking, and have that idea become a story.
Which brings us to the next step, and the next choice: to plot, or not to plot? As far as I can tell, successful writers come down about 50/50 on this one, so there is clearly no correct way to do it. Since I write in many genres, I’m actually divided within myself: I outline much more rigorously for articles and nonfiction than I do for fiction. When I’m writing a novel, I tend to want to have an idea of where it’s going, but the reality is it rarely ends up there: as the characters become more developed in my mind, they tend to take the story in different directions than I’d planned. Usually I’m able to get them back on track — this is important in historical fiction especially — but the places they take me are usually more interesting than the ones I’d imagined.
So, plot away. Or don’t. Find what works for you.
The next stage is the writing, taking that beautiful obsessive idea and crafting something meaningful around it, a story, a poem, an essay, a novel. And while you’re doing it, whether you start out staring dejectedly at the electronic equivalent to the blank page, or whether you start out in the zone with the words pouring out of you, inevitably you will come to a moment when it’s not fun anymore. I usually reach this point about ten minutes in.
That’s when you decide to check your email. Or do your nails. Or write to your grandmother. Anything other than deal with the story in front of you.
The best advice I ever received? Keep the seat of your pants in the seat of the chair. Seriously. Don’t go get a coffee or a glass of water. Don’t decide you need to stretch, or feed the cat. If you’re supposed to be writing, then write. That’s all that matters.
And when you have the first draft down, that’s when the bad news starts. Because part of the writing process is to understand that it’s work. It may be work you like; it may even be work you love, but it’s still work. Hard work. This is when you take off the hat that belongs to the artiste, get rid of that hollow, brooding look you’ve been cultivating, and do some of the big girl or big boy stuff.
The first thing you won’t want to do is revise. Hello: you just spent all this time giving birth to this thing! You’re probably sick and tired of your characters, or your subject matter, or even your own voice by now. This is where time is a gift. Put the damned thing away. Do something else. You can even write something else. Leave this on the back burner to simmer. Just remember that when you simmer something, you need to stir it from time to time. So when you’re out running errands, or walking your dog, or driving somewhere, think about what you’ve been writing. Let your story live inside your head. Remind yourself that it’s there. What you will find is that you’re almost always able to go deeper and write better if you allow it time to simmer.
And then revise. And then send it out to a few trusted readers, or take it to a workshop or critique group. Let it simmer some more while they’re reading it. Listen to their suggestions and see what fits. Revise again.
And finally, finally, pay to have it professionally edited. I am myself a professional editor, and I don’t edit my own work. No one can edit their own work: if you think you can, you’re kidding yourself. Whether your plan is traditional publication or self-publication, money spent on editing is always money well-spent.
Jeannette de Beauvoir helps writers establish a process through online classes, workshops, coaching, and more. Find her here.