Monday, October 12, 2009

Writing Process--from Original Idea to Completed First Draft

I’m just starting work on the second book in the Memphis Barbeque series for Berkley Prime Crime. This will be my 5th WIP. (I have three books out and two completed books under revision.) I don’t know exactly where the book is going to end up or the journey it’s going to take me on. But I do know the process that’s going to get me through it. First drafts are so much easier when you’ve figured out your own personal process for going from start to finish.

I may not know exactly where my plot is going to go, but I can precisely picture myself writing different parts of the book: doodling out ideas to take me through the first half of the book, frowning at the middle and then smiling when I know who my second victim will be, and the end where I stew over my ending (because the endings are tough for me. I have a method for my beginnings, but the endings I haven’t pinned down.)

When you have a process that you automatically follow, you don’t ever have that worry “will I ever be able to finish this book?” That’s because you’ve done it before and it becomes almost rote.

Each person finds the process that works best for them. This is what works for me:

Listing favorite elements to include. I love it when you have a subplot that ends up affecting the outcome of the main plot. I love it when I’m reading a mystery and the suspect I’ve pegged as the murderer ends up being the second victim. I love reading books where a character’s personal failings affect the way they absorb information or gather it. I love plot twists.

Gathering snippets of ideas. Not all the ideas will make it into the book. I’ll have names, personality traits, personality conflicts between characters or the sleuth and a suspect, bits of dialogue, ideas for scene settings, etc. I’ll list these brainstormed fragments in a Word file I call “Random” with my WIP’s name on the front.

I have a vague idea where I want my plot to go, but I do use mini-outlines for just a chapter, page, or even scene. Big outlines, for me, tend to make me feel constricted. But I like to write a scene knowing exactly what I want to get out of it: is this scene mostly for comic relief and a chance for the reader to get to know my protagonist a bit better? Fine…but the plot still needs to be advanced in some way. I sketch that out on paper.

Sitting down and writing my personal goal each day. My goal is usually a page goal or a word count goal, but sometimes is a timed goal. I write straight through.

I write straight through, but—if I run into a snag that’s sucking up too much of my time and creativity, I treat it like the SATs—skip it and move on to the next scene or chapter.

I don’t revise as I go. It makes me feel like my WIP is awful, every time. Instead, I finish my goal for that day, then make little notes for the next day: this is where I left off, this is where I need to pick up, this is the scene I need to start with today. This keeps me from reading the previous day’s info to see where I left off.

I don’t mess around with research on the first draft. If I open an internet browser, I may as well just kiss off any writing for the rest of the day. Instead, I mark the part of the text that needs research or changes in any way (a character name change I want to do, etc.) with *** and then move on. Later, during revisions, I can do a Word search for *** in my document and get right to the spot that needs work.

I keep writing.

I finish my first draft.

How does your writing process go? What works for you?

Elizabeth Spann Craig:
Blog: Mystery Writing is Murder
Food Blog: Mystery Lovers’ Kitchen
Pretty is as Pretty Dies—August 2009
Memphis Barbeque Series (as Riley Adams) May 2010


Crystal Clear Proofing said...

Elizabeth I thoroughly enjoy your posts - gives me an insider view of The Life of a Writer!

Routines definitely do help, don't they? As least they provide you with some kind of plan, rather than staring at that blank page you referenced, (or blank screen)!

Journaling Woman said...

I have yet to publish a book. I have to finish one first!!! This summer I started work on two book ideas that I have gathered the characters (most of them) into one room (a notebook filled with who they are and what they've done). I have outlined a chapter or two and wrote the first chapter of one. I can't seem to get beyond that. I am feeling a little overwhelmed, don't know why.

Great information, I am soaking it in. -T

Kathleen A. Ryan said...

Thanks, Elizabeth, for this helpful post; you've included so many great suggestions.
Thanks for sharing your writing process, and best wishes with your WIPs.

Margot Kinberg said...

Elizabeth - What a helpful post on how you organize the task of writing! I, too, outline what I'm going to write, and I try to write straight through unless I hit a snag. When that happens, I put the main work aside and concentrate on something that's coming more easily (like a character, for instance). Then I come back to the main work later. If I get a brainstorm for a scene later in the book, I write it separately and then just drop it in later, so long as it still fits.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Y'all are so nice to follow me around! I feel like I've been the White Rabbit the past week.

Crystal--And what a crazy life it is! Routines really do staying focused, calm, and organized when starting out a project.

Journaling Woman--That is the *toughest* part...but only at first. The more you finish projects, the easier it gets.

Kathy--Thanks so much for coming by!

Margot--Good point. Sometimes I don't want to look at my main document, either. I'll write the scene on a separate doc, then merge the two, later. Glad I'm not alone! Sometimes the main doc is just too overwhelming.

Karin Gillespie said...

Great post, Elizabeth. I always love hearing about other writer's process.

Jane Kennedy Sutton said...

It's the stopping to look up something on the internet that gets me in trouble each time. I'm going to try your idea of marking the spot and going back when then first draft is complete.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Karin--Me too! Thanks for stopping by.

Jane--I realized I was almost looking *forward* to needing to research something so I could surf online! So I had to cut it out.

Jemi Fraser said...

Great post, Elizabeth! I tend to let the plot roll around in my mind - mostly when I should be sleeping - before I commit anything to paper.

I tend to visualize the final scenes first - not really sure why. The characters & setting spring from there. Then I crete the initial scene. Then I'm ready to write - with no idea of how to get from here to there. It keeps me interested :)

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Jemi--I like that! Working a story out in reverse sounds like a challenge, but it would keep things fresh.

Karen Walker said...

I've never written fiction, so I don't have a process for that. My memoir was easy. I had hundreds of journals to pull from. What was hard was deciding what parts of my life to include.
If it's all right with you, elizabeth, I'm going to steal this process to begin a novel that came to me while in Scotland. Thank you!

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Karen--Steal away! I'm so excited that you're going to write a novel. And that your trip was so inspirational!

Anonymous said...

I do research along the way rather than writing straight through. If I have a thought I want to capture it. If I know I need to write the outline for a few chapters, I'll bullet point research items I need to do and will go back and fill out the drafted few chapters. But I need to perform research along the way.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

I do need an overall outline - it keeps me on track without confining.

I like the idea of no reserach until AFTER the first draft! Although there'd be lots of rewrites if I did that...

Watery Tart said...

I can't believe all the things you intentionally keep track of! I feel like a rooky! *looks at neophyte badge* I guess I AM a rookie. Though I also can't believe you don't do the research as you go--I had a recent round that totally changed a scene.

GREAT list.

I start with 'set up', plot characters, maybe write a scene or two to get a feel, plot out 'main action points' then only outline up to the next one, and THEN, often very vaguely--I do a chapter by chapter single sentence of what needs to be accomplished, but nothing so concrete as an outline.

Alan Orloff said...

That's a great peek inside your writer's mind.

Different people use different strategies, but I think the two most important--and universal--tips are the last two:

I keep writing.

I finish my first draft.

Jen Chandler said...

Thanks for this, Elizabeth! It's funny, but today, every blog post I read about writing talks about how one writes or is challenging me to stop worrying about publication and just telling a great story. Thanks for this insight into the process. Routines are essential; if I don't have a time and place to write, I'll just wander about aimlessly, wishing I was writing but never putting word to page.


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Stephen--I have a feeling your research could change the course of your book? In a thriller, I could see that. In cozies...not so much.

Diane--I can see that about you--very organized and precise! I'd like to be able to work from an outline better than I do. I know authors who write detailed synopses and sell the unwritten ms to publishers that way. Not me! :(

Hart--I don't do much more than that, either, with the mini-outlines. If I map it out a whole bunch it's like I become a rebellious teenager all over can I NOT follow my own plan? It's bizarre, since I actually came up with the plan, but I start thinking of ways to stray off-outline.

Alan--That's right. Gotta sit down and finish the sucker. No other way.

Jen--Even if your routine is crazy (I write on the go or in the car a lot), you're right--it's still a routine and it helps SO much. We're making the writing a part of our day.

staceyjwarner said...

I enjoyed reading about your process...I'm currently working on my first book so my process is, wake up at 5:30am write for an hour and a half and hope for the best...I do rewrite the work from the day before. We'll see how it goes.

much love

Elspeth Antonelli said...

Thanks for sharing your routine, Elizabeth; I always find it fascinating how other people's brains work.

I start with the victim. Then I go to why, followed by figuring out who all the other characters are. I outline in broad strokes and then outline in smaller. I have to outline; if I don't then I don't know where I am.

The bottom line is do whatever works to get that monster first draft finished. Whatever works.


Word verification "demudde": What happens in France when it rains.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Stacey--5:30 is nice and quiet, isn't it? Wow-- if you can work in 30 minutes a day then it will go really fast.

Elspeth--Victims are key! More important than the murderer's identity, really...why they died and who killed them is the whole backbone of the book.

I've got demudde in the back yard right now...lotsa rain. :)

N A Sharpe said...

Hi Elizabeth - I love hearing what works for others - sometimes you can get some really good suggestions that way. I like how when you are writing a part that isn't quite working you don't sit there wasting time trying to fix it - you move on...wish I could force that habit a bit more. Too compulsive.


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Nancy--It took me a while to come around to that way of thinking. And of course it makes you dread going back to it after you finish your first draft. But I get *through* the first draft a lot quicker.

Galen Kindley--Author said...

I kinda do like to edit as I go, it does slow me down, but it also develops the chapter a bit more. Since I don’t outline…something I’m gonna try to change...I need what I’ve written to help guide me where I’m gonna go. If what I’ve written is too thin, I have a tough time figuring where to go next in the building block sequence. That make sense?

Best Regards, Galen

Imagineering Fiction Blog

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Galen--That definitely makes sense. And it sounds like it works out really well for you. I'd never mess with success!

Fallon Blake said...

Great tips, I need apply some of this!

Elizabeth Bradley said...

Great post, very informative. I don't mind following you around, all it takes is one quick click, for crying out loud. My first draft is written (usually) in a flurry. I want to get my thoughts down before they get corrupted.

Janel said...

I loved these suggestions. The hardest thing for me is to turn off my internal editor. You have some great ideas for how to get past that.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Fallon--Hope it helps!

Elizabeth--I really appreciate it, thanks! I know what you mean about the hurried first draft. It's so much easier to work with a draft than with loose ideas that I put it down pretty quickly, too.