Writing Process #5: Writing It

FOLLOWING on from the previous post . . .

I’ve got my story in timeline form (the spreadsheet), and I’m happy with it. Is there anything else I need to do?

There probably is. It’s almost certain that there are small things I do as part of my process that I’ve neglected to mention up to this point (when I have time I’ll go back and update the earlier posts to add those other things in as I think of them).

One thing I know I forgot to address is Point of View. I usually decide pretty early on which PoV I want to write in, and in fact the way I do my spreadsheet depends on that decision. I colour-code each scene (usually green) depending on whose PoV that scene will be written from. If I’ve decided to write the story in first person, that means that all the green scenes will be in the one column corresponding to the character telling the entire story. That doesn’t necessarily make the colour codes redundant, because there might be “scenes” in my timeline in which something happens, but I don’t want to include it as an actual scene in the written story. For example, maybe this is something that gets referred to later in a flashback, say. (Not that I use flashbacks, but I’m not going to avoid using them just because some people say they’re bad; if I find a place where a flashback works better than other options I can think of, I’ll use one. Not that that’s ever happened, but it might. But I digress.)

More often, I write in third-person, and each scene is told from one character’s perspective. I prefer third person—it means I can write scenes from pretty much any character’s perspective, including an antagonist’s, so I can create dramatic irony by using that character’s PoV to reveal to the reader stuff that other characters don’t know (Fred is pounding up the stairs to get to the tenth floor in a hurry, but we know something that he doesn’t—Charlie is waiting on the ninth, and he’s got a very sharp axe). As part of building the spreadsheet, I decide who gets the PoV for each scene. Mostly it’s obvious, but often there’ll be a scene with two or more major characters in it, and it can sometimes be hard to decide which of them gets to tell the story for that scene.

Another thing I didn’t mention is that sometimes—in fact, pretty often, if I’m being honest—I might “lose” a handful of scenes at the very beginning and the very end of the timeline. I don’t delete them; I just change them from green to grey, to indicate that these scenes lead into the real action at the beginning, and aren’t necessary at the end. Trimming like this can be important, especially at the start of the story; you need to get to your inciting incident, the thing that kicks things off, but you often need to give your readers something to set the scene before you get to the real action. Balancing how much lead-in you should have can be tricky, and it can be easy to write more than the story really needs. I try to err on the cautious side; if in doubt, I’ll leave the questionable scenes in place, and then later I (or my editor) can see if they detract or slow things down too much, and I can chop out the fat.

Enough of that. Back to where I started: I have the timeline, and I’m ready to begin the process of putting words on paper (well, on my laptop screen, but you get the point). Where do I begin?


You don’t have to write the scenes in the order they’ll be read (at least, assuming your readers start reading at page one). It’s your process; do what works for you. I’ve heard of people who start at the last scene and work forward. I know of one writer who saves up the “fun” scenes—the ones he thinks will be the most fun to write—for last, so that writing those will be a reward for getting through the rest of it (in his words, looking forward to writing those gives him more motivation to write the other scenes).

Personally, I begin at the beginning—the first scene in the timeline. To me it just seems logical to do it that way, and one big plus is that it helps me keep the continuity straight. (I’ve screwed up continuity in the past; for example, in one book I wrote, I did some shuffling of scenes on the timeline and ended up with a character showing up in a scene after she’d already died in an earlier scene. Oops. One more reason to do as much as possible get the timeline right before starting the actual writing.)

Here’s what I do. I look at the one-paragraph description of the scene I’m about to write. I take it in, mull it over, and think about how it’s going to be worded. This thinkage is something I find easier to do when I have a few minutes of quiet time—in the car on the way to the store, maybe, or on the way to or from work.

I think about where the scene is going to take place. In some cases the description doesn’t say because it’s not important, so I can pretty much pick anywhere that makes sense for the story. In other cases the description does say where it happens, but not in detail. As an example, it might happen at the zoo, so I have to decide where exactly—I might decide it’s going to take place by the lion cage, or in the insect house.

I think about the ambience of the setting. Outside? What’s the weather like? Inside? Is it all brightly lit by sunshine through big windows, or dim and smoky, or maybe shafts of sunlight cut through the dusty air like in a Ridley Scott movie. Is it hot, or cold? What sounds are there, what smells?

And of course I think about what’s going to happen in the scene, just as the one-paragraph description says. How is it going to happen? Which characters are involved? What are they going to say to each other? (That leads to thoughts about the actual dialogue. If I think up some dialogue that I like a lot, I’ll find some way to record it—scribble it on paper, use a voice recorder, tap it into Google Keep on my phone; but I’ve learned from experience not to trust to memory.) Is there going to be some fighting going on? If so, I think about the moves (I’ll come back to this).

How long I spend thinking about all this for a single scene varies quite a bit. Sometimes, for a simple scene, I might have it straight in my head in twenty minutes. For a complex scene I might think about it for four or five hours spread over a couple of days. It all depends.

Once I have it all figured out, I can write the scene. Here are a few guidelines I try to follow:

  • Description: two or three short phrases is usually plenty. Give only the details that are important; let your reader’s imagination fill in the rest. A tall, grey-haired man in a black suit entered the library, his metal-rimmed spectacles reflecting the gaslight as he turned to stand in front of the fire.
  • Get straight to the point. If you need to set the scene, do it quick and get on with the action.
  • You generally don’t need the little details. Two characters sit down and talk over tea. That’s all you need to say. You don’t need to point out when they pour tea, add sugar, stir, sip. Unless the way they do it says something about their personalities, or is important to the story in some way. Jack held the sugar spoon above the cup, and watched the second hand on the clock. When it hit thirteen, he dumped the sugar in quickly, and stirred.
  • Similarly, you can do without the body language for the most part. Nodding and shaking of heads, shrugging, things of that nature, can all be left out. On the other hand, sometimes a little body language can say something better than words. Fred’s eyes went wide at the sight. (Check out a really handy book called The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression, by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi.)
  • Fights and other fast action: keep things moving. Bernie throws a haymaker at John. John ducks, and punches Bernie in the groin. Bernie doubles over as John straightens quickly and brings his knee up into Bernie’s face. You get the idea. The thing is, just saying they fight isn’t enough. You need pulse-pounding action in bite-sized chunks, shot at your reader in short, controlled, machine-gun bursts.

. . . and possibly the most important points:

  • Don’t worry about screwing up on the first stab at a scene. Fear of writing the wrong thing is real, and it’ll stop you in your tracks if you let it. So don’t let it. Remember, no-one will see what you’ve written until you’re ready for them to see it, so you can edit and polish and edit and polish and take as many runs at it as you need to get it into shape.
  • You can’t correct a blank page. You can fix a scene that’s not working for you.

. . . and with those in mind, I start writing. Pretty much guaranteed, the first sentence will be junk. That’s ok. Everything is fixable, but I make a point of not fixing anything until I’ve got the scene down. Sometimes I come up with new ideas as I’m writing that aren’t quite in line with the original description of the scene but, in a kind of Eureka moment, are better than what I was originally going to do. I put those in, full steam ahead and damn the torpedoes—just so long as it’s not going to mean rewriting the timeline (or at least, if it only means minor changes to fit it in), that’s fine too.

And I write until the scene is done, and I don’t look back at what I’ve written as I go; that’ll kill what momentum I have faster than cold water on a dynamite fuse. I know there will be mistakes. When the scene’s done I go back over what I’ve written and fix any glaring errors—missed words, spelling and grammar mistakes, other minor stuff. That junky first sentence? I might fix that, too, if I a better alternative comes to me (it often does, once I have the rest of the scene in place to give it more context).

Then . . . on with the next scene. Think it through, get it all in my head, then write it. Rinse and repeat.

One thing that tends to suffer a little bit here is that because I essentially stop between scenes, it can be hard to maintain momentum. Some people would have a problem with that. I have a problem with that—but I’ve found that if I happen to build up that kind of momentum (it just happens, or it doesn’t; it’s not something I can control), and let it flow, let myself carry on into the next scene and the next without worrying about it, I sometimes end up writing something that is possibly better than what I’d have written with my usual planning steps. Or not. Or maybe about the same. The thing is, when it happens I let it happen, and see where it carries me. When I come back to it later, if I don’t like it, I can always change it just by going back to my usual, plodding, planned method.

Like I said, think and write, rinse and repeat, one scene at a time. Given that I have limited time because of the day job, it usually takes me somewhere around twelve weeks to get a full-length book of, say, 90,000 words written from beginning to end.

But at the end of that twelve weeks I have a first draft. And the first time you do that, you get that realisation that WOW, I’VE WRITTEN A BOOK! It’s not ready to publish yet, but the whole story is there. Break out the bubbly and take a break, for in the next episode I’ll be coming to the next job: editing.

Until next time . . .

Writing Process #4: A Bit of Character

THIS post should really have come a bit sooner. I mentioned in an earlier post (#2, I think) that I begin to develop my characters in parallel with developing the story, as I expand it from a few paragraphs to a full scene-by-scene description. But I didn’t go into detail, and I should have. So let me put that right before I go too much further.


This is what I said: “Story is characters. Characters are story. You can’t have one without the other.” And I said a little bit about how I build up my characters as I’m building the story. So let me expand on that.

Character Drives Story

ALAN—our protagonist—is walking home from the pub with his friend Bert. On the way they encounter a couple of other guys. Bert’s had a bit too much to drink, and says something that one of these other guys takes offence at. Tension. There’s a fight coming. What happens next?

That all depends on Alan’s character. He might be scared of getting hurt and just step back out of harm’s way. Or he might say something to try to defuse the situation. Or he might square his shoulders and step up beside Bert to warn the other guys off. Or he might be a bit handy with his fists and relish the idea of a bit of rough and tumble. Or he might be torn between running away, and risking lost teeth to help his friend.

What happens next, then, depends on Alan’s character. Character drives the story, decides which direction things go. So it’s important to know your characters. If you don’t know Alan, you don’t know what’s going to happen, so you can’t write the scene.

One way to get to know Alan is to work out his back story. So I might say to myself something like, Alan grew up in a small town and he didn’t see a lot of violence, apart from a couple of lads who tended to bully some of the other kids. Once, one of them punched Alan and threw him into a pond, and Alan’s been scared of getting into fights ever since. And so on. I could figure out an entire history for Alan (and since he’s my protagonist, I certainly should do that in some detail), and that will help me get to know who he is and how he’ll react in a given situation.

Another thing I need to know about a character is their motivations. Back story can give you a lot of that, but I also try to think about two particular aspects:

  • What the character wants
  • What the character needs

These can be two very different things. The character will be aware of what they want, but they might not recognise what they really need. When the wants and needs are in some kind of opposition, conflict ensues. That makes for an interesting story. For example: Vernon wants the winning lottery ticket that’s being blown away by the wind, but running after it means leaving his friend William hanging from the flagpole on the side of the skyscraper—and he needs William’s friendship. He’s torn between going after the ticket, and helping William back to safety.

Story Drives Character

CHARACTERS that don’t change aren’t as interesting as ones that do. Your main characters should be changed in some way by the voyage between the beginning and the end. The story needs to punch them in the gut, open their eyes, teach them something about the world or about themselves or about something they love. And as part of planning your story, you need to plan how the story is going to affect your characters.

I have to admit that I used to be a bit vague on how I did that in my earlier writing. I didn’t really have a method for it, and I tended to just let the story happen and do whatever it did to the characters. But just letting the story push the characters around isn’t very satisfying. The characters need reasons to push back, to force their own stories the way they want them to go (and of course when different characters try to push the story in different directions you get more conflict, and your story is better for it). By having a more focused method, you gain a lot more control over how you get your characters to grow.

What I do these days is based on something I found in Chuck Wendig’s excellent book, The Kick-Ass Writer. It’s the idea of the character arc, which put simply is a way to describe your character’s changes as three keywords representing how they are at the beginning, middle, and end of their own path. For example, Denial to Doubt to Acceptance, or Timid to Pressured to Confident. Keeping the descriptions short and to the point—single keywords in those examples—makes it easier to keep them in mind as you develop your characters over the course of the story. And that in turn will help make the scenes work better, because the characters will act in ways consistent with their personalities and the arcs you want them to follow.

Until next time . . .

Writing Process #3: Review the Scenes

BEFORE I go further, I have to mention that these posts describe my own particular writing process, the one that works for me.

A lot of books about writing fiction will tell you that everyone has their own process that works for them, and that what works for one writer doesn’t necessarily work for another. But I think it’s fair to say that, in the broad strokes at least, you’ll find that many of them are similar. If what I’m describing works for you, mostly, then that’s great. As it is, my process is based on writing processes that other writers have described, with some tweaks to make it fit the way I think, the way I like to develop stories, the way I like to write. And as you, gentle reader, work on your own stories, you’ll no doubt develop your own process that you’re comfortable with.

That said, on with the show . . .

Following on from the previous post, at this point I have a set of paragraphs, each a self-contained description of a scene. I don’t include anything that isn’t relevant to the story—for example, I don’t bother to say what the characters are wearing, or where the scene takes place, unless it’s important. If you read these paragraphs in order, you’ll get the whole story from beginning to end, and it should make sense. You should even be able to give it to someone else to read, and it should make sense to them, too. (And if it doesn’t, they should be able to tell you why.)

What form does this set of scenes take? That’s up to you. You could just write them in a notebook, if you want to. But you probably want something a little more flexible. I tend to use a spreadsheet on my computer (specifically, I use Google Sheets—that way I can access it from my laptop, or a tablet, or my phone in a pinch). I know of people who use index cards pinned on a big board. The point is, you want something that lets you move the scenes around.

You see, the next step of my process involves going back through all the scenes, and doing a couple of things as I do.

First and foremost, I’m organising the scenes into a Timeline. This is a spreadsheet page where each row represents a point in time (which can be as specific as the story demands—”1pm Thursday” for example, or “Winter”) and there’s a column for each character. Depending on the point of view I’ve decided to write the story in (third person limited, say), I colour-code each cell to highlight whose point of view the action will be written from for that scene. At the same time I fill in the other cells in the same row to tell me where the other characters are at that same time—that’s great for spotting some silly mistakes, like where Fred is in London while one scene is taking place but then he’s in Glasgow in the following scene, which takes place only minutes later. It also helps me spot action that I currently have marked as happening behind the scenes, as it were, but that might actually be better done as an actual scene in its own right. (And I often spot scenes that I intended to include in the story, that are actually better off happening off-screen and maybe mentioned in passing later.)


As I build up the timeline, I’m looking for opportunities to add conflicts and obstacles to drop into the way of the protagonists. As you read back a scene, ask yourself, What can I do to make things tougher? My detective is driving like hell to get to the slaughterhouse where the evil janitor is about to chop up his next victim. What can I do to make things tougher? I know: it’s snowing hard and he can’t see the road in the dark. And . . . he hits a patch of ice and runs off the road, and totals the car. Yes! And he gets out of the car and he’s all cut up and dazed and, MUAHAHAHA, he hears the yelping of coyotes nearby. And then . . . well, you get the idea. Put your characters right behind the eight ball. Make them bleed. Then, if you like, let them dig themselves out of the hole at the last minute. But one thing to watch here is, make sure your characters act according to the rules you’ve set for them. Remember their wants, needs, motivations, and the kinds of people they are, and how you want them to change as the story progresses (I’ll have more to say about that in a future post), and make sure their actions fit.

Another thing I’m looking for is places where I read a scene and I get a feeling that somehow it doesn’t deliver—that it’s just flat, somehow. It’s hard to define, exactly. When I see scenes like that, and I get that feeling, the first question I ask myself is, Is this scene needed? If I delete it, does the rest of the story make sense? The answer to those questions determines how I deal with it, which might mean rewriting the one-paragraph description to beef things up, or trashing it altogether.

One more thing I’m doing is making sure that things flow nicely. That’s particularly important if the story has places where two or three things are happening in parallel—for example, I have a set of scenes where John is breaking into the tool shed to find the stolen Spanner of Justice, while in a separate set of scenes taking place at the same time, Janice is in her car, chasing The Mad Professor and trying to delay him getting to the same tool shed so that John has more time. So I have to make sure that as I switch viewpoint from John to Janice and back, it all makes sense in terms of the order that things happen. So I might need to change the order of the scenes a little to get that right.

Yet one more thing I’m doing is evaluating the peril and tension. I assign a number, usually from zero to five, to each scene. Some people like to assign one number for peril and another for tension; I usually find that they end up being pretty much the same most of the time, so I generally just use one number. If you’re using a spreadsheet, as I do, you can dedicate a column for that and then create a chart showing how the tension goes up and down as the story progresses. Getting a graphical display of this is priceless. What you’re looking for is a line that starts low and gradually climbs, in fits and starts, to a peak at the climax, near the end of the story, then drops in the denouement. If things climb, then drop to long flat spots, you should be thinking about how to get that tension up. You might need to rethink those scenes to add more cowbell, or combine things into one scene where the boringness can be swiped over quickly, or consider just plain tearing the slow scenes out. Whatever works.

And when I’ve been through the scenes from beginning to end, I put it all to one side for a couple of days. And then I do it again. And again.

I can easily spend a month or more doing this, until I reach a point where I really like what I have and I don’t want to change it any more. Once I’m at that point, I’m ready to start the actual writing. I’ll come to that in a future post, coming soon to a screen near you.

Until next time . . .

Writing Process #2: Building on the Idea

YOU have your story idea. Now what?

To paraphrase Stephen Koch in his excellent book, Modern Library Writer’s Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction:

  • You don’t know the story until you’ve told it
  • You can’t tell the story until you know it

. . . which of course sounds paradoxical. But the insane thing is, it’s absolutely true. You really don’t know the whole story until you’ve told it to yourself. And you can’t tell yourself the whole story until you know it.

Ok, if it was that much of a paradox, writing any story would be impossible. Here’s what I do:

I write the whole story out in a single paragraph. At this point in the story’s development, that’s all I can really do. I don’t have enough detail to go any deeper just yet. That’s the point; I start with the ten thousand foot view, and get more detailed as I descend to ground level.


So now I descend, as it were. I write the story again, in three paragraphs:

  • What happens at the beginning.
  • What happens at the end.
  • What happens in the middle.

Note the order. The beginning part is the setup, where I establish my characters (at least, in a very vague form at this point; I haven’t assigned names, ages, genders, etc.). The end is where I want them to be at the end of their journey. I can’t figure out the middle part until I have an idea of where the story ends.

The middle part is the story, in many respects. I know where my characters begin their journey, and I have a pretty good idea where they’re going to finish up. Now I can tie a rope between those pins, and figure out how it goes from one end to the other. That rope’s going to go up and down and maybe round in circles a little bit, in the sense that the characters are going to have problems and conflicts and hurdles to deal with, and while they might be forced off their trail by those obstacles, overall they’ll be moving toward the end. But they must, must, MUST! have those twists and turns. There must be things getting in the way, all the time. A story without conflict is a boring story. (George must kill the dragon. He drives his 4WD to the dragon’s lair. The dragon’s asleep. George walks up to it and shoots it with his revolver. The end. You see? Boring.)

The beginning and end don’t really need much else just yet. It’s the middle part that needs 99% of the work.

And so, I tell myself the story again. I’ve already written the beginning, middle, and end as single paragraphs. So now I write them again, expanding them to three or four (or more) paragraphs each. And then I rewrite each of those paragraphs, expanding them to three or four more detailed paragraphs. And so on. And all the time, I’ll be trying to think of conflicts and obstacles and hoops the characters have to jump through.

And while I’m doing that, I’m getting a better idea of my characters. For me, at least, this is an almost automatic consequence of developing the storyline. Story is characters. Characters are story. You can’t have one without the other. And I find that the more detailed I get with the story, the better I get to know my characters.

I begin to work out back stories for the characters. Not that all of that back story will find its way into the final typescript, but if I know that Jenny, say, has an aversion to rabbits because one bit her when she was a kid, it then makes sense when I write a scene in which she freaks at the sight of her friend Alice’s pet fluffy bunny. The thing is, back stories can help you greatly in figuring out your characters’ motivations, and those are important because they are in themselves a source of conflict between the characters themselves.

When do I stop with all the detail? There comes a point where I can say that each paragraph represents a single, self-contained scene. There’s no point going any deeper once I’m there. That typically takes four, maybe five iterations starting from my original one-paragraph story.

How many scenes should there be? That depends. I find that when I come to write the scenes later (I’m not to that point yet), each scene ends up being anything from about two hundred words to about two thousand, with an average length of about seven hundred and fifty (but that’s down to my personal writing style—your mileage may vary). For me, that means that a final scene count of around a hundred and thirty-ish will equate to a novel of around one hundred thousand words. Fifty scenes or less, and I’m looking at something that would be barely novel-length (it’s pretty standard that forty thousand words is the minimum for a novel, and less than that is a novella, maybe). If I’m working on a short story, I might aim for twenty scenes or so, depending.

But the real answer to the question is, the right number of scenes is whatever the story demands. However many it takes to tell the story, from beginning to end.

So by the time I’ve finished this process I have a bunch of scenes that tell a story. Am I ready to start writing yet? Not quite. There are a few more steps to take care of before I get to that point, and I’ll be getting to those in upcoming posts.

Until next time . . .

Writing Process #1: Ideas

I finished up the first draft of a book yesterday, and since the next thing I’ll be doing is to start work on my next book—whatever that happens to be—it struck me that this would be a good time to carry through on an idea I had a while back, which is to write a series of posts describing my process.

Shall we begin, gentle reader?



You get ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we’re doing it.” – Neil Gaiman

. . . and that really says it all in a nutshell. We all think up stories, every day or even every hour, wherever we are and whatever we’re doing. The thing is that most of the time we dismiss them, or just let them drift away. As Gaiman says, writers try not to do that. We want to remember them, cultivate them, turn them into words on paper. And it really isn’t that hard to do that. It’s just a matter of being conscious, when thinking about an idea, that it might make for an interesting story.

I get ideas from lots of places. Occasionally I’ll see something while I’m driving that gets me thinking. A lot of ideas come from reading, and watching TV and movies (I’m not suggesting you copy a story from a movie; what I mean is, there might be some element of another story that sets your thinking off in an intriguing direction). That generally gets me started on expanding that seed of an idea into the beginnings of a story.

And that’s the moment I’m talking about. That’s the time when the writer in you should jump up and say, I JUST GOT AN IDEA FOR A STORY, and you hook the thing and reel it in, and don’t let it drift away. And the more you do that—the more often you can make yourself conscious of the fact that you have an idea, and grab it with both hands—the easier it gets. After a while it becomes almost second nature, and you might be surprised just how quickly that can happen.

When you get an idea, you need to make sure you remember it. It’s extremely easy to think, that’s a great idea for a story, and make a mental note for later. The trouble is, when you come back to it later it’s all, I had this great idea and now I can’t remember what the hell it was, bugger it bugger it bugger bugger bugger. Daydreams are like night dreams; they evaporate. And it’s frustrating as all hell when you know you had this idea that you thought was just brilliant, and now it’s gone.

The answer is: record it. Write it down. Or use a voice recorder. Even just making a note of a keyword or three as a reminder can be enough to bring it back to you when you need it.

Like I said, after a bit, coming up with ideas becomes something you do so often that you have dozens of ideas. And when you want to write, you don’t know which of all these brilliant story ideas you want to go with. You can’t write all of them. The ideas will come faster than you could possibly turn them all into complete books or even short stories, even if you lived a thousand years, I can promise you that. So how do you choose?

Here’s what I do. First, recognise that many of the ideas—most of the ideas, actually—will be crap. And you’ll know it. Tear those ones up and burn them, so you just have the good ones. Then, look at what you have.

Don’t think about what other people might like to read. Don’t think about what would make friends, or family members, or anyone else, will think about the story. (Or if you can’t stop yourself, put it like this: there are something like seven billion people on the planet as I write this. If only one person in a thousand likes your story, that’s still seven million people. So stop worrying.)

And don’t think about what might sell loads of copies. There’s no way to know, anyway.

Look at the ideas you have to choose from, and pick the one you most want to write. In a lot of cases I know which, of three or four completing ideas, I want to write the most. It’s generally the one I’ve been thinking about more than others, but not always. I know it when I see it, and so will you.

Until next time . . .