Monday, March 31, 2014

How To Make Your Writing Process Your Own

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and the Ellie Sweet books (Playlist). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website including the free novella, Throwing Stones.

Last week we started talking about building a writing process. (Why I've Decided to Stop Setting Writing Goals, How to Build a Strong Writing Process) These set up a way for us to evaluate where we are as writers, what our habits are, what's working for us, and what we need to change.

Once you've done that, how do you go about finding your own system? Here's what's worked for me:

1. Build your knowledge

When I went to a writers conference at age twenty-two, I had been serious about writing for about six years. I had written several complete novels and dozens of partials. I wasn't completely ignorant —I knew what genre I wrote, that I needed a literary agent, and I had queried a few times—but I still had loads to learn about how to write a book.

At the conference, I took a class from veteran novelist Angela Hunt. I was blown away to learn that she had, like, a system for writing a novel. I didn't even know you could do that. My system was to have an idea and work on that book until I burned out and started another one.

Then I found out this crazy thing—all career novelists had learned what worked for them ... and they did those things every time they wrote a book. While this likely seems obvious to you savvy Go Teen Writers, it was revolutionary to me.

I've developed what some might call an obsession with learning how writers write their books. I'm always looking for a way to improve what I do and write more efficiently. That's why I'm addicted to craft books, why I listen almost exclusively to writing classes on my iPod, and why I subscribe to way more writing blogs than I have time to read. While there's no need to be that extreme (seriously, I should probably diversify my interests a bit) I encourage you to be open to the knowledge of writers who have gone before you about what works for them.

2. Anticipate trial and error

After you've gathered all those great ideas, there's only one way to find out if this is something that will work for you.

Try it.

This means you'll find lots of things that don't work for you, but there's really no other way to find out what does.

Going back to my class with Angela Hunt. At the time she had been writing novels for twenty or twenty-five years. She had a system—but part of that system was trying something new with each novel she wrote. That made a big impression on me at the time, and the longer I'm in this business, the more impressed I am by Angela's attitude. Because there are a lot of writers who, after a while, seem to just be going through the motions. I love that Angela had built into her system a way to stay fresh.

Sometimes I've tried things that just flat-out don't work for me. Character interviews are a no-go. Character journals, however, spur my imagination. Plot and chapter-by-chapter spreadsheets bore me, but I've grown rather fond of hand writing lists of how I think the story will play out. I've yet to write a book exactly the same way as I did the last, and I've decided that's not just okay, but maybe even a good thing.

3. Accept that time, patience, and hard work are key parts of the process

Time, patience, and hard work—groan, right? I wish it were different. I would absolutely love to be the best writer I'm going to be NOW rather than fifty years from now. And if I could achieve that by just doing my favorite parts of writing, that would be great.

I had already published three books before I learned a few key pieces of my writing process. And I'm planning my books in a way now that would have my life SO much easier if I had known how to do it at the beginning. But that's just part of the journey—allowing what I learn to take root in me. And roots don't happen in a snap.

And even thought I love writing and how it's turned into my career, writing well is hard work. It's impossible to crank out a good novel in a week. A first draft? Sure. Difficult, but doable. But not a great book. To write a great book—and to learn how to write a great book—takes time, patience, and hard work. Finding a system that works for you, however, will go a long way in making it pay off.

Can you think of a part of the writing process - where you write, how you write, when you write - that you've recently tried and found it worked for you?


  1. I don't know if you could call this a system or not. And this is the first idea that I've really stuck to and haven't thrown away for a new one (yet, at least), so I really don't know much. But here's what seems to do it for me: I can sit down and crank up a scene or two (maybe 3, I don't know) and that's all the energy I gave for the day, it seems like. I used to have writing scheduled for 3 times a week. That not only doesn't go far, but also if I miss a day I don't get much done that week. So I've changed it to 6 days a week (going to start doing that in April). That way even if I do just one scene a day, that's already six scenes a week. And it's OK if I miss a day.

    So... Hope that works. Do you think I should work on writing more in one sitting? Thanks for this blog SO much!

    1. I think that sounds like a great thing to try, Sofia. And some days you might feel like writing more, and I would just go with it :)

  2. I guess right now I'm at the gathering knowledge stage. Right now I just started doing a mentoring thing with Tessa Emily over at Christ is Write. And I am hoping that this will help me get more organized and figure out my own writing process.

    Thanks for the post!

    1. Tessa is a lovely person! What a great thing.

  3. I am probably still at the gathering knowledge step. I don't really have a process for writing a novel since I have never been able to write one. I have only been able to write short stories.

  4. Great post! Not to rush you or anything, but I was wondering when critiques for the 1000 words contest are going to be sent out.

    1. Finalists will be announced tomorrow, and feedback should be sent by the end of the week.

  5. Great post Stephanie, thank you! I have done trial and error so far especially when it comes to developing my characers. I couldn't really figure out the right way. Interviews or long fact lists didn't seem to do the job, but I have fallen in love with journalling and writing their biographies. It has really helped me to get a better understanding of my characters.
    Though there is a lot more trial and error for me to figure out what will work in the whole book writing process I guess, but this has been a good few steps already.

    1. I'm so glad you've found some techniques to help you with characters! That made such a huge difference for me as a writer.

  6. I started doing character interviews which helped me a bit. I label each interview with the name of the character in a font that I feel fits them and turn the words their favorite color. It can be funny at times and has helped me understand my characters better.

  7. I've been experimenting with outlines and I'm finding them a big help.

  8. I've learned that, no matter how hard I try, I can't plan a story from the beginning. I have to take it a little bit at a time, write a scene, then figure out what's going to happen next. My best ideas come as I'm writing and, while that is a bit nerve-wracking, I've learned that it's something I just have to deal with. Besides, the mystery of "What's gonna come next?" is actually kind of fun.

    Alexa Skrywer

  9. I learned that I don't like to use outlines. I really like the freedom not having an outline brings, and I also enjoy not knowing what comes next. As crazy as it sounds, the other advantage I've found in not outlining is that it really lets the characters "take over" and grow in ways that I couldn't have imagined when I first started the novel. I've learned that no outlines are the way to go for me!

    ~ Kayla

  10. I am making a list of things I want to try with my process: setting a timer, outlining, using the tentpole method that I've heard about before, writing in a more quiet and less distracting place, etc.

  11. well... I'm not writing a book but planning a manga/comic and find the tips helpful on this site. :)

    what i recently tried was to divide the whole plot into a 3-act structure which gave me a great overview of the and helped me with planning the story.

    Also, I am in the process of rearranging my room, putting anything out that doesn't have anything to to with
    creating mangas/comics and hanging up posters with basic information that I would like to memorise or have at hand at any time when working on my projects. Plus, making everything more convenient, for example by having paper and notebooks within grabbing distance so that I can take notes anytime I have an idea. :)
    -> this action helped me the most! :D (all distractions out ;))