As I’ve been asked this before, I thought some of you might be curious and maybe find my process useful, too. But as with everything, this is *my* process so it may not work for you. Your mileage may (and probably will) vary. This is by no means an exhaustive look at how I write a book from beginning to end, but it does cover the highlights. What’s missing is all the tears and frustration and joy and endless cups of tea and gummi worms and trail mix.
It starts with, as do all things creative, inspiration. A particular song lyric, a film, an episode of TV, another book, a photograph, an overheard snippet of conversation at my local Trader Joe’s. The idea takes hold in my brain and I spend the next few days thinking hard about it. For me, it’s usually a character. Recently, I saw this painting on Facebook and I knew that at some point in the future, she would be appearing in one of my books.
Then I play an epic game of “Questions”. We’ll use the photo above as our case study. What is her name? Why is her face covered? What does she do for a living? It the owl real or magically conjured? Where does she live? After about fifteen minutes of asking myself everything I can possibly think of, I spend some time writing down the answers to all my questions. At this point, I’ve got a pretty decent idea of who this character is and why I need to write about her.
The next step is to fill out one of two different character interviews. One is pretty exhaustive and contains 80 questions. I usually only use this one if the game of questions didn’t yield anything good. The other interview is shorter and less intensive. It’s only got 45 questions and this is the one I use most of the time. I take a day or two to really get into my character’s answers to the questions, taking my time and being super thoughtful and digging deep. When I’ve finished, I know this character better than I know myself, and it’s time to move on to a little world building.
World building after creating a character is a bit like reverse engineering. If you know a little about anthropology (or how and why a particular culture is the way it is), it’s pretty easy to figure out what your characters’ world is like based on the answers to your game of questions and the subsequent interview. Staying with our woman, I’ve decided that she is an assassin for hire who has magically bonded with that owl. The bird is her eyes and ears at night, helping her stay safe as she fulfills her contracts. Her world is a desert world so I head for Wikipedia and start reading about ancient Persia. I start jotting down anything and everything that catches my attention, and following links like Alice down the White Rabbit’s hole. Once I’ve amassed a few pages of notes, it’s time to fill out a world building packet. It’s not exhaustive; indeed, it’s only 21 questions, but it’s enough to help me organize my thoughts.
So now I’ve got a character and the world in which she lives. Now I need a conflict. This one’s pretty easy–she’s an assassin, so there’s plenty of conflict there, but probably not enough to support an entire book. So I play another game; this one’s called “What If”? What if she goes out to fulfill her contract only to find the mark already dead? What if she’s hired to kill a child or another woman or the king? What if she stumbles across a vast conspiracy aimed at removing the king from the country’s throne? What if she’s hired to kill a friend or her lover? Again, I spend 15 minutes or so jotting down every single What If question that comes to me and then take some really thoughtful time to answer them all. Often the answers create more What Ifs, so I write those down, too. After a day or so, these questions have helped me come up with a great conflict that will serve as the framework around which I’ll build my plot.
After I’ve got my character, my world, my conflict, and my plot, I need to populate the rest of my story with villains and secondary characters. I repeat the same steps as above, playing my question games, filling out my character sheets, and thinking about how these other characters fit into my assassin’s life and her world. I usually try to create at least three other characters at this point–a villain, a love interest, and a best friend/helper character.
Then I very roughly outline the book. And by very roughly, I mean I write down the beginning, a bit about the middle, and the end. I should really try to outline in more detail; the two times that I’ve done this has made writing the rest of the book incredibly easy and bloodless, but outlining scares me. I’m worried, quite frankly, about losing interest in the story after creating a more complete outline. I like the idea of discovery writing, of not knowing exactly what’s going to happen next until I sit down and it comes out on the screen. This does not, however, lend itself to easy writing.
Finally, the groundwork has been laid and I’m ready to start writing. I try to begin my story as close to the inciting incident as possible. That’s not always easy, but I don’t worry too much about getting it right during the zero draft. My only concern is getting it out as quickly as possible, just purging myself of the story and writing down whatever comes to mind. Yes, it’s a big steaming mess when I’m finally done, but you know what? That’s what editors, beta readers, and author revisions are for.
As far as the actual mechanics of writing go, I have to admit that I’m not a particularly disciplined writer. I don’t have a set time when I sit down to write. I used to write every morning after breakfast, but now that time is occupied by my day job as a freelance editor. I usually end up writing after dinner now, and I always try to get at least 1,000 words in. Usually, it only takes me an hour, but occasionally, it takes two or three hours. I rarely have an exact final word count in mind, but I do usually have a vague idea of about how long I’d like the final book to be.
From there, it’s just a matter of writing. Sometimes it takes me almost 2 years to finish something. Sometimes it only takes 3 months. Regardless of how long it takes, once I’ve finished the zero draft, I put it away and don’t look at it again for at least a month. During this time, I start the process all over again, searching for new inspiration, creating new characters and worlds and conflicts. Then, with the help of my husband, I start revisions and create a first draft of the first story. When it’s finished, I send it off to some beta readers and wait for their feedback. While I’m waiting for feedback, I continue working with my last idea, writing the zero draft. Once I get my beta readers’ thoughts, it’s another round of revisions to create the second draft. At this point, the second draft goes to my editor for yet another round of revisions and when I have her feedback in hand, I work on the third and final draft. And then it’s the fun part–cover art, formatting for both print and ebook, and finally, publication.
So that’s it. That’s how I write a book. I think it’s pretty straightforward and easy.