This is my first post as part of a new collaborative venture with five other fantastic Perth-based writers, in a series we’ve called Writers Ask Writers. Each month we’ll be sharing our thoughts and experiences on the same topics, beginning with our writing process. However, before I get on to that, let me introduce you to the others:
Dawn Barker is the author of the widely praised novel Fractured, which was published earlier this year by Hachette. She is currently hard at work on her second book.
Emma Chapman’s first novel, How to Be a Good Wife, has already been published in the UK and Australia and sold in the US and and across Europe. It has received extensive praise, including a fantastic endorsement by Hilary Mantel!
Amanda Curtin has won numerous awards for her fiction and short fiction, and is the author of a collection of short stories, Inherited, and two novels, The Sinkings and Elemental (the latter will be on sale in seven days – and Amanda is busy counting down with teasers on her blog!)
Natasha Lester won the TAG Hungerford award for her first novel, What is Left Over, After, and released her second book, If I Should Lose You, late last year.
Annabel Smith is the author of two novels, Whisky Charlie Foxtrot and A New Map of the Universe, which was shortlisted for the West Australian Premier’s Book Awards. Her third novel, The Ark, will be released as an interactive digital app later this year.
Writing is often a solitary business so it is a pleasure to be part of this group, and I am already learning a lot from them. You’ll find links to their thoughts on their own writing processes at the bottom of this post, but now I will move on to telling you about mine…
Oh how I wish it were that easy to reflect on my writing process! I remember hearing of a very well-known children’s author who every day, without fail, writes 500 new words and edits the words written the previous day. I lust after the idea of such a structured way of working, but in my semi-chaotic life it rarely happens.
Come Back to Me, my first novel, was written over four years, back when there was no pressure of a deadline. Even then I needed to take a three-month hiatus from my day job as a book editor to really tackle and finish the story. Beneath the Shadows was the first time I’d had a deadline and I also had a new baby by my side, so a combination of adrenalin and terror saw that one through. It was also during this time that Come Back to Me was published, and people asked questions about my ‘writing process’ for the first time. So it was really only at this point that I began to reflect on it.
There are things I have always done as a writer. I have always had ideas in the middle of the night, while sipping coffee at the shops, or on a long journey – those times when my mind has been a little less crowded with the other affairs of the day. I call them ‘snippets’ – they might be a phrase, a word, something to research, the beginnings of a scene – and I write them down immediately and try to file them appropriately so that I can come back to them. Other than that, I usually hold a story in my head for quite a long time without making any formal attempt to write it down. During this time I’m getting to know the different characters, looking at the plot, and basically seeing if this concept is strong enough to gain a hold on me. One thing I don’t have a problem with is ideas for stories – but although they come to me regularly, not all of them are enticing enough for me to want to chase them down and capture them on the page. So I like to let things sit and settle before I write.
Chapter planning for Shallow Breath with stylish pink Post-Its!
Life ALWAYS gets in the way of writing! Sometimes I let it, because I don’t want to be too obsessive and because my books often develop nicely, and in unexpected ways, while I’m doing other things. However, during this time the core of my story is growing in my mind, like a bubble, and when I feel the pressure of it increasing I know it’s time to sit down, let everything else take a back seat, and start to write. This all sounds very organic – however, it’s not so easy when there’s a publishing contract and a big X on the calendar marking the deadline for Draft 1. So, if it feels like it’s taking too long to start writing, I speed this process up by researching.
Researching a novel is, for me, one of the greatest joys of writing. I want to try to live in my story as much as possible, which means getting inside the heads of the characters, and visiting the locations of my story – in person if I can, otherwise through books and movies, online clips and everything else I can find. Researching a book leads me towards experiences I would never otherwise have, and the opportunity to learn and observe life outside my own little sphere is a blessing, opening my mind even when what I’m looking at is difficult or traumatic – as it sometimes was with Shallow Breath. At times it’s very hard to let the research go and start the story, and with Shallow Breath it required a short period of adjustment to release myself from an avalanche of factual information and get back to my characters’ lives. However, researching a book means I’m always learning about my topic, and gaining new ideas on where I might go with my story.
Once I’ve begun to write those terrible first drafts, I use what I call a ‘building block’ process. This means that when I have written chapter 2, I return to chapter 1 and read the whole thing together to see how it works. I do this all the time, going back over sections or sometimes the whole book, shoring up the foundations of the story as I go, so that I probably read chapter 1 many more times over than I do the final chapter. This doesn’t make my story finished when I get to the end of the first draft, but it does make the sometimes arduous editing stage a little easier. Along the way I’m usually checking all those snippets to see what might fit with the story, or inserting sections I might have written out of order because they were particularly assertive and just wouldn’t wait their turn.
Finally, with deadlines there is little time to get caught up with writer’s block, but that doesn’t stop me from getting stuck. When that happens I go back to planning – I record the outlines of each chapter on a document and try to figure out why I’ve fallen into a fug – because getting stuck is usually a signal to me that the story has gone off track. Writing became a lot easier when I realized I didn’t have to fear these moments, because writing the wrong words might ultimately point me in the right direction.
So, now you know a little more about how I work, check out what the others have to say – I found it fascinating to see how we’re similar in some aspects but very different too.
‘The most important thing for me when I write is knowing that I won’t be interrupted, even if that’s only for an hour.’ Read about Dawn Barker’s writing process here.
‘I imagine I am looking at the book through the eyes of someone I admire: a favourite writer or my agent, and ask myself what they would say about each scene, each sentence.’ Read about Emma Chapman’s writing process here.
‘Process seems to imply a series of steps—linear, organised, focused. What I do is more spidery than that. And it’s been different for each work, although there are threads common to all.’ Read about Amanda Curtin’s writing process here.
‘I try not to edit at all when I’m writing a first draft. I need to get the draft out, fill in the flesh of the story and not slow myself down by polishing words and sentences until they shine like little nuggets of gold. That can happen later, in the redraft.’ Read about Natasha Lester’s writing process here.
‘I may begin with a single scene in mind, a setting, a character. I don’t research, or make notes, or even spend time imagining. I simply sit down and begin writing and see where the story leads.’ Read about Annabel Smith’s writing process here.