My Writing Process


I see a lot of dis­cus­sion over social media and at con­ven­tion panels on writing process. Folks are always grasping for the per­fect way to get them­selves sit­u­ated and pro­duc­tive and seem to be inter­ested in hearing what works for other people.

I’m careful to ignore these con­ver­sa­tions. This is because I’m easily influ­enced and don’t want to throw my own mojo off by trying to model some­body else’s (this is the same reason why I keep a very small group of beta-readers and never par­tic­i­pate in cri­tique groups).

But seeing all that con­ver­sa­tion got me thinking about my own writing process. I never really thought I had one before, but it turns out that life as a full-time writer has crys­tal­ized my method to where I think I can describe it.

Now, keep in mind, this is just my writing process. It has nothing to do with my super­sti­tious habits (we’ve all got ‘em), work ethic, dis­ci­pli­nary habits, the hours I keep, etc … What I’m talking about here is how I go about writing a book. Every­thing sur­rounding it is some­thing I’ve described in a bunch of inter­views already, and might save for another blog post.

Anyway. Here’s how I write a novel. Notice the points at which I solicit feed­back and why.

1.) I write a “treat­ment” or “ele­vator pitch.” This is any­where from 1–5 pages of the basic con­cept of the story. It describes the set­ting, the plot and the char­ac­ters vaguely. I try to refine this and put it in back-of-jacket-copy style. If I had to pitch my busy agent or pub­lisher, I’d want this doc­u­ment to be ready to do that.

2.) The pitch goes to my beta-readers (I have three: one pro, one semi-pro and one non-writer. I will occa­sion­ally add “ad-hoc” beta-readers, but that’s the core group). I am looking to see if they roll their eyes and ask “are you kid­ding me?” Or if they say “Sorry, dude. So-and-so already did that.” If I get “sounds cool” back, I’ll send it to my agent. If he responds that he thinks a decent story and he might be inter­ested in rep­re­senting it, I’ll move to my next step.

3.) I write out char­acter sheets for each Point-of-View (PoV) and major sup­porting char­acter. These are usu­ally one page each. They lay out the character’s appear­ance, goals, per­son­ality, flaws, and his­tory. It will also con­tain notes about impor­tant rela­tion­ships with other char­ac­ters in the story.

4.) I write a notes file. The pitch and char­acter sheets go in there, and I begin pop­u­lating it with stream of con­science infor­ma­tion (usu­ally world­building, such as lan­guage, cul­ture, geog­raphy, pol­i­tics, etc …) that may or may not make it into the story as I develop the book. This notes file is always open, always being added to and always being consulted.

5.) George R. R. Martin famously described writers as “gar­deners” (just laying down prose until the book is done) or “archi­tects” (plan­ning, usu­ally off an out­line before writing any prose). I am an uber-architect. My friend and mentor Peter V. Brett once told me “make sure that skeleton is adaman­tium strong before you start slap­ping flesh on it.” I think this is crit­ical. In my expe­ri­ence, if I don’t plan and plan and plan some more, I  risk run­ning into a major error 2/3 or 3/4 through the book that forces me to throw out much of the man­u­script if not the whole thing.

So, I now write an out­line that I call a “stepsheet.” This is usu­ally around 100–150 pages of bul­lets that lays out absolutely every­thing that hap­pens in the book, step by step. It is usu­ally shot through with clumps of prose/dialogue that came to my mind and got plugged in because I was afraid I’d lose it otherwise.

6.) The stepsheet goes through the same beta-reads/agent-read cycle that the pitch did. This time, though, I am usu­ally get­ting com­ments back, pointing out plot holes or major char­acter devel­op­ment prob­lems. I have to really work not to edit as the com­ments come in, but I try hard to force myself to *wait* (waiting is always a problem for me) to get *all* com­ments back before reading and con­sid­ering them all, and THEN sit­ting down to edit the stepsheet.

I also try *not* to go back out to my beta-readers or my agent for more com­men­tary (though they would be happy to give it to me). They are busy people and I think it’s really impor­tant for a writer to be able to judge their own work and spot prob­lems on their own. That’s a crit­ical dif­fer­ence between a pro­fes­sional and an ama­teur and some­thing I am always con­cerned about in my own work. Of course, I fre­quently do break down and ask for help again, but it’s some­thing I strive not to do.

7.) Finally, I write the book. Which is to say, I lay down the prose. Slap the flesh on the skeleton and fill in the bul­lets on the stepsheet. I may have phone or email con­ver­sa­tions with my beta-readers about parts I’m strug­gling with, but I gen­er­ally try to write an entire and com­plete first draft on my own. I’ve already had feed­back on a pitch and very detailed out­line, so I know that it’s already solid in most respects. I stifle my doubts and press on.

8.) I reread the man­u­script a min­imum of twice, but prefer­ably three times or more. Two of these passes are “cre­ative” (looking for plot/character/pacing/etc prob­lems). One of them is a “line” pass where I am looking at lan­guage (pruning unnec­es­sary verbage, replacing $5 words with $0.05 words, etc …). I don’t worry about spelling or grammar at this point (though I do fix stuff as I see it). I nor­mally wind up making around five passes in this process.

9.) First draft off to my beta-readers. I work their com­ments into a new draft. Again, I try not to pull that trigger twice.

10.) Incor­po­rate beta-reader com­ments into the new man­u­script, read it through again a min­imum of 2–3 times, but usu­ally around five.

11.) Finally, I make a “polish pass” (grammar and spelling) and it goes to my agent for his con­sid­er­a­tion. Now, this is impor­tant. Look how careful I am NEVER to show any­thing to my agent until it has been seen by beta-readers and I’ve edited the crap out of it. Also note that my pub­lisher (or any pro­fes­sional editor) hasn’t seen any­thing yet. This is because I believe that my agent/publisher’s con­fi­dence in my ability to pro­duce top-notch work is crit­ical in their con­tinued deci­sion to represent/publish me. I do NOT want them seeing work that is any­thing less than the best I can pro­duce (at any par­tic­ular stage of the process). I’m okay with my beta-readers seeing me at less-than-my-best. They don’t have a vested busi­ness interest in my ability to write effec­tively. With the market as storm-tossed as it cur­rently is, and pro­fes­sionals in the field guarding every dollar they invest care­fully, I want industry folks com­pletely assured that they made a good bet in hitching their busi­ness to my star. I want them to see it rising.

12.) My agent comes back to me with edits, and the process con­tinues. At this point, I will engage in a series of con­ver­sa­tions with one or two of my beta-readers, bouncing ideas off them if I’m unsure whether or not I want to concur or stand-pat regarding a change my agent suggests.

13.) After this, my writing process “con­cludes” and the pub­li­ca­tion process begins. The man­u­script goes off to the pub­lisher to be sold (or to be deliv­ered if it’s already under contract).

That’s how I do it. I want to point out that there are essen­tially 3 major rounds of reads/feedback, the first two times to ensure that I’m on the right track with the story and not wasting my time, and the third to make sure I wrote a great book. The rest of the time, I struggle mightily (and often fail) to rely on my own judg­ment and pro­fes­sion­alism to ensure that I’m pro­ducing quality work.

In a busi­ness as sub­jec­tive and opinion-based as writing, that’s a tough row to hoe, but I feel I’m get­ting better at it with each man­u­script I pro­duce. I can see that this process won’t work for everyone (and I reserve the right to alter/discard it myself), but for what it’s worth, that’s how Myke Cole writes a novel.

  • Mhairi Simpson

    Holy cr*p. Respect. Or fear. Not sure which…

  • http://twitter.com/SheckyX Shecky X

    Very solid approach, Myke. Hugely at odds with some other processes I’ve seen up-close and per­sonal, which means pre­cisely squat — one man’s meat is another man’s poison. Cre­ative processes are so indi­vidual that there’s no way to TEACH a cre­ative process that’s basi­cally valid for every person involved. This one obvi­ously fits your char­acter and mindset very well, so it’s the best one by definition.

    And remember, if you’re ever in the market for an extra set of very sharp eyes, you know where to look. :)