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.