Monday musings on the writing process
Every writer gets this question at some point: “Where do you get your ideas?”
Running a close second has to be “How do you get from the idea to a finished book?”
To satisfy our readers’ curiosity, we’re starting a new Monday Musings series describe share their writing process—how they write what they write.
First up, multi-genre author
Every story, the way I see it, has to start with four necessary elements:
- an idea
But they don’t necessarily have to come in that order. For me, stories or novels can start with any one of idea, character or setting.
When I started writing my first published novel, The Bones of the Earth, I wanted to create a story about dragons that was different from the usual.
I set my first mystery, Torn Roots, in Hawaii because I wanted to write a tale set in Hawaii.
Sometimes, I begin with a character. My story Dark Clouds is about the Queen of all witches, and her son, who is immune to magic.
Ideas can come from literally anywhere: a news story, something I see when travelling or even just in my own city.
Sometimes, I watch a movie or TV show, or read a book and think “This story could be better if…” Or I must think, “How would this story go if one little thing changed?”
Or you could write a story set in the future by imagining “If this goes on,” or “If that one situation changes a little, what will happen to…”
Or an alternative history, like Len Deighton’s SS-GB, or Philip K. Dick’s award-winning The Man in the High Castle, where the author asked “What if Nazi Germany had won the Second World War?”
Populating the imaginary world
I find it helps to clearly describe characters before going on to the plot. Characters are the most important part.
Often, I’ll base characters on people I know. For instance, in The Bones of the Earth, I made the main character, Javor, look like my older son but with the personality of my younger. I’ve made my lovely and supportive wife into the basis of my sleuth, Vanessa Storm in Torn Roots. It’s always fun to put friends, colleagues and neighbors into stories and books, too.
And I have to admit, sometimes it’s wicked fun when I make someone I know into a villain.
Getting to work
Once I have chosen the idea, the people it’s about (sometimes there are animals, too, and occasionally, the setting can almost become a character), I’ll work out the plot—the outline of the story.
I usually like to write down the first ideas using a pen on paper. Yes, very old school, but somehow the words flow better.
When I realize that my writing hand just cannot keep up with my brain, then I’ll go to a computer and start typing in point form.
I’ll move things around, add ideas, delete more, until I have some kind of direction, some sequence of events and descriptions.
This will grow and change, but I try to stick pretty close to it at least until the first draft is complete.
At this point, I like to format the manuscript a little bit, choosing a text typeface and fonts for headings. These choices help make the manuscript easier to read, and gives me an idea of how a reader will experience the book when it’s finished.
When I get to the end, I put the book down for a while, work on other ideas or on, you know, work that pays me. But before too long (usually), I come back to the manuscript and read it through, making little changes and corrections as I go.
That will show me at least some of the problems with the story: plot holes, missing ideas, things I forgot to write, incorrect grammar and just plain bad writing.
I’ll clarify murky areas, add description where I think it’s needed, and take out unnecessary details and sections. I have deleted whole chapters because, while they may be fun, they didn’t move the story forward.
Then I’ll go through it one more time to check that I’m reasonably happy with it.
It gets real
This is where things really get serious: I give the manuscript to my lovely and always supportive wife as the first reader. She always finds places where I’ve repeated myself. Sometimes it’s just a mechanical thing, like where I decide to move a scene from one chapter to another, but click on Copy instead of Cut.
But if it’s a book that’s taken a long time to write, sometimes repetition is a matter of an idea or a scene that I think is really good, or really important, and writing it, and then forgetting I did that when I come back to the story some time later.
Which means it’s time for a third draft.
The outside world
My third draft involves fixing all the things my first reader caught, and then another check through the whole story. Finally, it’s probably pretty close to being something I don’t mind sharing with others.
First, a professional editor. This is someone who knows writing, knows what a good book is and how to write in English.
Readers can tell when a book has not been edited by a professional.
For my last several books, that’s been Gary Henry, himself also an author. Thanks, Gary, for helping make my books better.
Once I’ve cleaned it up to suit the editor, it’s on to people who read because they like to read. Some people call these first readers their “beta readers.” I prefer to call them my Alpha Team. They’re great, supportive and helpful people, who catch more mistakes and places where readers just don’t get what I was trying to say. It’s humbling to know there are always people willing to help.
Hopefully, but this point, there won’t be too many more corrections to make.
But there are always a few.
That’s why there is one more important step: the professional proofreader.
No matter how good a writer you are, no matter how carefully you check your work, you can never catch every error in your own writing. It’s important to have another set of eyes look at your book before you publish it—especially at a point where you’ve written it, read it, re-written and re-read several times. You just don’t see what’s on the page, anymore. You see what you intended to put on the page.
A long process
That’s partly why it takes so long to publish a book. Reading anything long takes time, and to edit and fix it, you must read slowly. And you have to do this several times.
Or at least, I do.
So with all that being said, if you would like to be one of my “alpha readers,” contact me through the Author page, and I’ll send you an alpha version of my work-in-progress, The Children of the Seventh Son.
can’t stay in one genre. After a 20-year career in journalism, he turned to writing fiction. “Sam, the Strawb Part,” a children’s story, came out in 2011, with all the proceeds going to an autism charity. Next was a paranormal short story for grown-ups, “Dark Clouds.”
The Bones of the Earth, a historical fantasy, came out in 2012. It was followed in 2013 with One Shade of Red, an erotic romance.
Scott’s articles have been published in newspapers and magazines in Canada, the US, UK and Australia.
He has two mighty sons, two pesky cats and a loving wife who puts up with a lot. He lives in Ottawa, Ontario.
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