This week, a couple of readers asked me about my writing process, and I thought that answering their question would make for a fun post. Fun to write, at least, if maybe not to read. It depends on your definition of “fun”, I suppose, so consider yourselves warned.

[Alternate title: how I book. Hashtag: Lame post titles for the win.]

Before I begin, a disclaimer. I am not — I repeat, NOT — an expert on writing. Please don’t read this post as me giving advice or suggestions or anything of the sort. I’m merely sharing what I went through writing my first novel, what I’m going through writing my second, and the things I’ve learned along the way. A lot of other (wittier) people have written similar (better) posts, but … Wait, why am I writing this again? Oh, yeah: ’cause if there is one thing I love almost as much as writing, it’s writing about writing. Meta!

Getting Started

I started writing Archer & Bell because I was going through a mid-life crisis, and looking for meaning in my life. Ok, I’m being a little facetious. But writing a book has been on the top of my bucket list since I was a kid, and it felt like time to do something about it. I committed. I wrote a post about that before. I think this was key to the whole ending-up-with-a-finished-book thing.

The idea for the book came to me about 10 years ago, and can be best summarized as follows (no real spoilers involved):

What if Pandora’s box was actually a sentient being? And what if someone came along and decided to teach it about free will and self-determination?

I spent a good part of the last decade thinking about the framework within which to develop that idea. The vessel, if you will. For a while, A+B was going to be a kind of (fantasy) detective novel. (And then I realized that I suck at writing hardboiled/noir prose.) Then it was going to be more of a mystery/suspense. Then it just sort of floundered — always at the back of my mind, but going nowhere.

Sometime in 2014, I read Olive Kitteridge. (I liked it, and the miniseries is excellent.) And I must have filed the idea at the back of my mind, because when I decided to re-visit A+B — and there was no other book I wanted to write first — I realized I had my vessel. For those of you who haven’t read Olive Kitteridge, it’s a (literary fiction) novel written in a non-linear narrative, each chapter similar to a standalone short story involving the titular character (sometimes as a protagonist, sometimes as a background character); strung together, the chapters tell her life story. I decided to use a very similar structure for A+B because I felt that it would allow me to tell the main protagonists’ origin story indirectly (thus avoiding mountains of exposition), while distracting the reader with smaller fantastical shenanigans.

I actually had a similar assembly process for my second novel. (I will be working on volume 2 of A+B this year, fingers crossed, but it will be my third book.) The idea came to me a few years ago, although for spoilery purposes I can’t tell you much about it. Again, it sort of foundered because I didn’t know what the structure should look like. Then, last October, I saw Crimson Peak and — voila, I had my vessel. Gothic romance — emphasis on “gothic”, not “romance”.

The Writing Process

One of the biggest lessons I learned last year was that, for me, the most critical part of writing is the story outline. To give you a sense of what I mean by “outline”, my current working outline for A+B #2 is a 25 page document, which is roughly equivalent, word count-wise, to a tenth of the final product. That means it’s detailed — down to snippets of dialogue in some cases. Having this very clear roadmap helps me enormously in banging out a first draft quickly enough not to get completely sidetracked by writer’s block, or discouraged, or whatever.

Going back to my experience with A+B as an example: I didn’t have an outline when I started, only a general sense of what each story/chapter was going to be about (and the details of the origin story itself). It took me over a month and a half to write the first (very terrible) draft of the first chapter. (I’ll come back to this in a minute.) After another couple of chapters, I wised up, and started creating chapter outlines. They were only 2-3 pages long each, but they helped a lot. I wrote the first drafts of chapters 4-9 in about 3 months total. For my current project, I started with a 13 page outline (for a novel I expect to be around 70k words), and I am close to finishing the (rough but not terrible) first draft within a month of starting it.

The second thing I learned is the importance (for me, it goes without saying) of getting a first draft out quickly — no looking back. That means I don’t edit as I go along. Again, I did that when I started A+B, which is one of the reasons the first chapter took me so long. I got so bogged down! And discouraged by how bogged down I was getting. I was on the verge of quitting more times than I can count now. The thing was, once I stopped doing that, and just focused on getting a first draft — no matter how good or bad — on paper, things began to move along. I found a rhythm.

Editing is a bitch. But I found it was a bitch no matter how much time I’d spent fiddling with the first draft. I spent over 2 months editing the complete draft of A+B … and I don’t mean fixing typos and such. I mean polishing the, um, rough nugget into a diamond less rough one. But having a complete draft in hand, on paper, meant that I didn’t want to give up. Well, I did want to, but I couldn’t let myself throw all that work away — even if, on a 6th read-through, I had more revisions than on the 5th.

This is the same process I’m using with my current book … although I did allow myself a cheat. After finishing Parts 1 and 2, I had a quick read-through before starting the last part. The draft read far from perfect, which was not surprising given the breakneck speed at which I wrote it, but struck me as a promising nugget. I am finishing up Part 3 as we speak, and am actually very excited about editing. Good lord, what am I saying?

The Mechanics of Writing

I’m a self-taught writer. And by that, I mean that I read a lot — a very diverse lot — for 30 years. By reading, I studied writing indirectly, which I think worked out alright for me, given my personal preferences and limitations. I am not able to think in a schematic fashion about writing. A writing workshop would be my worst nightmare (which is not to say that they can’t be precisely what helps other people write.) My plot outlines develop “organically”; I just think about the characters, and let them talk to me. I like doing that on my commutes to and from work, while I listen to music. (Funnily enough, I can’t listen to music while I write. Too distracting.)

If that sounds really airy-fairy, I’m sorry. My attitude has always been: trust your gut. If you love to read, you’ve probably developed an “ear” for narrative without realizing it. Personally, I might not get the flow right on the first draft, but I can usually “hear” the weaknesses on a read-through, and then I can work on fixing them. (Sidenote: I found reading the draft out loud to be super helpful.) I might not always succeed in fixing them as well as I’d like (or even close) … but that’s another story.

One thing I’ll add here (it may deserve its own heading but this is a long enough post already): feedback is awesome. I found I needed different kinds of feedback at different times. I have to give a bit shoutout and thank you to my awesome, ever patient beta readers. (You know who you are.) I could write a whole post about the role of feedback in my writing, but I’ll only add two quick comments:

1) I didn’t hire a professional editor for A+B because I was kinda afraid of the cost. (Paying for the cover art ate up my entire publishing “budget”.) As a result, all typos and grammatical errors are my very own, and I can’t speak to the value of having a professional editor working on your book. With the right person on board, it’s probably amazeballs.

2) I didn’t implement all of the feedback I got, although I appreciated the time and effort people put into providing it. Sometimes, as the writer, I had to make an executive decision. For example, one of my beta readers indicated that they weren’t crazy about the format of A+B (interconnected, non-linear chapters). As I mentioned before, that was a deliberate decision I made very early on in regards to how I wanted to present the story. The feedback made me realize that that stylistic choice would not appeal to everyone; I was disappointed (not gonna lie) but I accepted it and decided to take the risk anyway.

Finding Time

Truth time: next to writer’s block, this is the hardest part of writing. I have a (occasionally very demanding) full time job, two kids, a (very supportive) husband, and as much on my plate as any typical working parent. Like I said above, last year, I made a commitment to write my first novel, which meant that it became my no. 1 priority after work, family time, and sleeping. At the end of that process, and not least because of the stress involved in trying to find time for writing, I basically had a breakdown and vowed never to write again. And then, in typical Adina style, I came to grips with that by doubling down: this year, my only resolution is to write TWO novels. I’ll let you know how that works out *twitch, twitch, cue hysterical laughter*

The real answer is that I write … whenever I can. Usually during my lunch hours at work, and in the evenings after the kids go to bed. Last year, I also wrote on weekends whenever I got some “me time”. This year, I promised myself I would only write M-F, and take weekends off — for my sanity, and everyone else’s. I’ve had … mixed success sticking to that. I am hoping that once I get this bloody (not literally … or is it? dun, dun, dun) story on paper, I will take it easier. The thing is, like, haunting me, you guys. That’s what I get for trying to write a gothic novel.

Alright, I think I’ve blathered enough. In the extremely unlikely event you have any other questions about my writing process and/or Archer & Bell and/or my current project, hit me up in the comments.

7 Comments on The Write Stuff

  1. Ohh I was so happy to see this post pop up in my email! At the first of the year I decided to attempt writing a novel again. I have attempted many times in my life and actually did write one about 7 years ago and then trashed it because I hated it so much. So for 7 years I’ve been unable to write because I was so disappointed with the one big effort I made. Perhaps I was inspired by you, but I decided to give it a go again with the new year (totally different story/concept this time that I had been brooding on for a while). I wanted to go about it more structured and professionally this time, so I went searching for books on writing. I heard about the book Story Emgineering by Larry Brooks and that it was supposed to be great for the very structured and organized person so I started reading that while I brainstormed in my new notebook a few minutes a day. One of the first things that book says is to start out with “what if” questions to come up with your concept. I saw your “what if” in your post and wanted to high five you. Lol 😉 Anyways that book has helped me a lot so far. I have taken my very general and broad idea and been able to hammer away at it and narrow it down to a more concise concept. That book has been really good for me. It has helped me get on a path again. I’m excited to see your process. Thank you for taking the time to write this post!

    • That’s so exciting!! I hope you keep at it. I totally know how you felt though. I always felt that writing was my calling, and it was frustrating and embarrassing that, for years and years, I had nothing to show for it. So, in a way, just having a finished book means a lot to me.

  2. I write a lot at work (non-fiction, obviously!) and what strikes me about this post is how similar my non-fiction writing process is. I always do so much better when I take the time to build out a small outline (within the confines of whatever type of document I am working on), so then I know what I’m going to be writing. I also like to get out a first draft quickly as well, because after you’ve got that draft down, you’re not writing, you’re editing – and for some reason that’s easier! I feel like I have a couple novels swimming around in my head – maybe I should use some of these tools and write them down! I like the fact that you mix process and creativity – you have an outline, but there’s still room within that outline for the characters to breathe and grow and develop organically and maybe take unexpected turns. I appreciate that blend of structure and fluidity.

    Quick process question – did you write on the computer or handwrite? I’m used to non-fiction/work computer drafting, but any prior fiction attempts have been handwritten. Do you find it easier or harder to be creative if using a computer for your draft?

    • That’s such an interesting question, Laura! I prefer to write the first draft on the computer — it’s easier to keep up with my brain (and to delete/re-write), but I generally edit by hand on a hard copy. Weird how that works. It’s more time-consuming (because I have to then make the changes in the electronic document as well) but I don’t seem to be as effective when I edit online.

      Oh, and I too find outlines incredibly useful for my non-creative writing as well.

      • Interesting – I edit much better on paper too (work writing, sadly), but it’s so much easier to get the first draft of anything on a computer. I look forward to your further literary output!

  3. Great post! I love reading writers’ writing about writing. After college, devouring Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott almost convinced me to write a novel. Instead I joined roller derby and started a new job, which sucks up a lot of free time. I definitely feel you on being haunted by a story that needs to come out. I was wondering – do you journal, or have pen pals, or do much other writing in your daily life?

    • I haven’t journaled in years, but I do write a lot at work and, of course, I have the blog as well. But until last year, I had not done any creative writing in almost a decade. I think the urge never left, but it was in the background as other things took priority (work, getting married, having kids, etc.). The thing about writing is that you can always just pick up and start again.