Tag Archives: Writing Process

Creating the Story Landscape

This is the fourth post in the My Novel Writing Process series. Find the others here: Overview || The Story Idea || Creating Characters

So now you have a rough idea of plot, maybe a few key scenes, and the characters are coming to life. The next most important step is setting. This doesn’t have to be a long process but bringing to life the story world is just as vital as fleshing out the characters who live there.

Discovering the Setting

I usually let this happen organically – maybe the setting is the first spark for your story, like it was with my trilogy The Cloud Sisters. When I listen to country music, I imagine rolling hills and wide open spaces. This imagery inspired me to begin writing a series of books on an all-girl Australian country music band.

Or perhaps you’ve visualized the setting from the start and the description of it comes easily for you. It could be somewhere familiar, like your hometown or a city in your state or a favourite holiday destination.

Setting can also become a character all of its own or can be chosen deliberately to portray wider themes. The setting may even be the story, like for example if your character is adrift in the ocean after their boat sunk, or they are incarcerated in prison, or trekking through a blizzard.

You might even be writing about a place that is purely your invention, like in the fantasy and sci-fi genre. There are countless articles, books and blog posts on world-building out there to guide you. The great thing about world-building is the freedom to let your imagination run wild, as I found when I was working on a dystopian novel. (Still in first draft stage but I may get back to it eventually!)

Collecting Details

Many writers (like the Australian author Di Morrissey) undertake research trips where they stay in exotic parts of the world and write about it. This is great if you can afford it, but your setting does not have to be exotic to be interesting. For example, I find city alleyways, abandoned houses and forests intensely beautiful and inspiring. Story ideas immediately spring to mind in these settings. And if the setting is too foreign to my own experience, I find it difficult as a reader to visualize it.

Of course, it’s easiest to evoke the setting if you’ve been to the part of the world you’re writing about – it’s simply a matter of recalling details – but I don’t think it’s necessary.

That’s because we have the internet.

With a bit of online research you can begin to till the soil of your story landscape and maybe even pluck out a few new story threads. Do an online search for the city or area where your story is set, read through statistics, look at Google images, immerse yourself as much as possible.

Look for unique details. What do the roads look like? What does the air smell like? What does the sky look like in that part of the world? Does the sun set in the east or west? Are there special hidden places? What do the locals do for fun?

Keep in mind too that town or city names in your story can be fictional but based on real places you have visited. This is my favourite method – that way, accuracy isn’t as important as describing a place that is innately familiar to most readers (or at least your target audience) and thus easily imagined. Everyone (or at least, most) people have been to small towns and big cities.

Once you have a visual picture of the setting, describe it in one page or use a Prompt Sheet like the one at the end of this post.

Helpful Tools

I’ve mentioned the beauty of Pinterest before in this post on creating characters, but it’s just as useful for settings. I have a board just for setting ideas. Visualizing a setting is imperative to describing it and making it come to life for the reader. Even better to have visual cues in front of you when composing the first draft to place yourself there while you write.

Google Earth is also a fun tool to use. Search for any address in the world and Google Earth will take you right there. Although I don’t use it a lot, it’s surprising to see places at ground level. You can get a better idea of perspective and see things that you may have missed. It’s also a good way to check for accuracy.

I hope these tips have sparked a few ideas. If you’re looking for a formal guide to creating setting, you might find the following Prompt Sheet helpful.

SETTING PROMPT SHEET

Name/Country/Region:

One paragraph description:

Places that will feature in scenes:

Unique attributes of the setting:

Season/Weather/Topographical information:

Sights/Sounds/Smells:

Significance of the setting to the characters:

The role of the setting in the story:

The Final Push

I’m nearing the end of rewriting Enchanting Elodie. Plot-wise, we are in the midst of the crisis or major setback and approaching the climax or final push. It feels a bit like rounding the bend in a marathon and knowing the finish line is over the hill. I can’t see it, but I know it’s there.

This is where things can get sticky.

I’ve never been much of a runner, but nearing the end of something brings about conflicting emotions in me. I’m exhausted, I want to quit, but I know if I keep going I will have the satisfaction of completion. And sometimes there is a final burst of energy when I can push myself a little bit harder.

So I’m going to set myself a deadline of finishing the second draft of this manuscript at the end of this week. This is not going to be a long drawn-out last leg. I’m sick of almost-but-not-quite being done. I probably only have about ten more scenes to write, so if I can do at least one a day, I should be done in a little over a week. Totally do-able.

I totally agree with the theory of writing drafts quickly before the spark winks out. With Enchanting Elodie, I’ve managed to sustain this spark for close to two years. I was well on my way with the first draft when I went on a 2-week overseas holiday, which threw my writing mojo completely. But when I got home I made myself sit down at my desk and I started again. I’m glad I did because the story took on a life of its own. Similarly, when I finished the first draft I was tempted to let it languish and start on a new project. There seemed to be so many problems and issues I didn’t know how to fix. I faced a tough decision: run the race again, or start training for a new one?

Maybe it’s all about perserverance, or resilience, or maybe just commitment, but after going through the process once, I knew what to expect. And I had material to work with. It was like a do-over: this time, I got to tell the story I meant to write. The kinks naturally worked themselves out when the story started to go in different directions, and characters began to act more like themselves and make better decisions that all made the story smoother.

I know I will finish this book, and I know that when I do I will have a finished (albeit unedited) piece of work that I am proud of. I just need to give myself that final push.

The Story Idea

This is the second post in the My Novel Writing Process series. To read the first post go here.

Often I would sit down knowing I wanted to write but not knowing what I wanted to write about. Now I know that the process of novel-writing begins before you turn up to your desk: it begins with the idea. The spark, the situation, or the character that intrigues you, the thing that makes you want to follow the path to see where your characters end up.

I know when I have it by the feeling inside me: my heart will skip a beat, I will feel that creative energy burning in my mind, the butterflies start up in my stomach. An idea must excite you. You will need that energy to burn bright to fuel the long process of drafting and then re-writing a novel. And then you have to take time to develop the idea, tease it out, follow the threads. You keep asking yourself “What will happen next?” because that is what you want the reader to do: to keep turning pages to find out what happens next.

You do this by brainstorming. This concept was popular in class when I was a kid, and the word always made me think of the image of a brain on fire with ideas. All it means is that you keep the story idea alive and cooking by turning your mind to it every now and again. Feed it with conscious thought and your unconscious will go to work. I brainstorm best in the shower and when I’m driving. It’s amazing the way your unconscious will continue to collate ideas and grow the story even when you aren’t aware of it. You will begin to have those a-ha moments when a tangled plotline finally unloops itself. The story will begin to have a life of its own.

The Big Overview

Free-writing is the best way to tap into this unconscious process. After brainstorming, free-write about the story idea. Begin with “The book tells the story of…” Write as if you are a spectator in the present tense ie: he does, she says. This can be as long or as short as you want it to be. Just follow it until you run out of story. List any scene ideas as they come to you, some plot points or turning points, and how you envision the ending. During this process, you may begin to hear the character’s voices and what they say. Include this dialogue.

Expanding the Story Idea

Once you have your big overview of events, grab a fresh sheet of paper or a new file on your computer and plonk yourself right in the middle of the action. Live out the story step-by-step. Try to keep this brief, about 3-5 pages. We are not writing a detailed outline (we’re pantser-plotters, remember?) and we are not going to include every scene. Just write what you see happening, the scenes that may unfold. Sketch it out a little by writing about where we are and which character’s head we are in. You can skip around and brush over unclear parts, but the idea is to get down the main beats or pivotal points of action that keep the story moving.

Start asking yourself about the relationship between the characters and observe their interaction and conflict. Again, include dialogue if it comes to you. If it’s relevant to the story, you can also go back in time to detail past events that may be impacting on, or leading up to, the main events. This is helpful if you have flashbacks or past life threads.

Now read over all your notes and tease out plot threads, then list them in dot points. Write down what you see as being the main plot and sub-plots. For example: the main plot may be about a woman’s search for her missing sister, who she hasn’t seen since childhood. A sub-plot may be the woman’s deteriorating marriage which has compelled her to seek out her sister again. Then you may have a series of flashbacks about the events that happened twenty years ago surrounding the sister’s disappearance.

In the next post, we will begin to flesh out our characters.

My Novel Writing Process: Overview

With the first book of the Cloud Sisters well on the way to completion, I thought I would look back at the process which has brought me here.

Firstly, I’ve always wanted to be a plotter. Being a Virgo, I like to be organised and plan ahead. I don’t do well with spur-of-the-moment things, and yet this hasn’t translated to my writing. I find if I plan too much, it kills my creativity. And yet, that well-ordered outline speaks to my perfectionistic heart. I like the idea of having the steps all laid out, just waiting to be fleshed out with description and dialogue.

The answer, I have found, lies somewhere in between. I’m a hybrid, a pantser-plotter. I outline but only the big picture, the main beats. I leave room for the characters to speak through me, to tell me where the story will go next. Without that freedom, it all feels false and forced.

I once wrote a detailed outline for a novel using the book First Draft in 30 Days. I became obsessed with details. Nothing was left to chance – each character was analysed and each of their actions was carefully thought out. There were no surprises. And so imagine my surprise when I sat down to actually write the book based on the outline and I couldn’t even put down one word. Not. One. Word. It was as if with my obsessive focus on the outline, I’d forgotten how to write. I was no longer a writer, I was an outliner. But unlike what was promised in First Draft in 30 Days, the process did not leave me with a first draft, but rather a very well-researched guide on how to write the book. It’s easier just to write the damn book!

Over the years, I have established my own process. Before I started working on Enchanting Elodie, I wrote this process down step-by-step to make it concrete in my mind and also to ensure I remembered how to do it next time! I share it here in this five-part series in hopes that it might help any fellow pantser-plotters who tend to think they should be firmly in either camp.

Overview of My Process

Step One: The Story Idea 

A story begins with the spark of an idea, a setting, or a character. After that point, it’s just a matter of asking “What will happen next?” and following the story through to its completion. It’s always good to have a vague idea of how the story will end, even if this changes during the course of writing it.

So I find it helpful to begin with free-writing a broad overview ie: what the book will be about. Then as the story develops in your mind, expand on the plot points scene-by-scene (although not every scene will be there yet, just the main beats).

After that, we turn to the characters. Don’t worry pantsers, I don’t advocate completing a detailed analysis for each character (I find it so tedious, although others might enjoy it so do it if you love it!). Once again, it’s all about the free-writing using a Character Prompt Sheet as a guide.

By now, you should be getting an idea of the setting or places that appear in your novel. It’s important to place the reader into the story by painting a picture that they can visualise in their minds. Spend some time creating this world. Once this is done, it’s time to turn back to the plot and conduct any research that would help flesh out the story. It also helps to plug your plot points into a Plot Paradigm to see if the story fits. I will go into further detail about this in another post.

Step Two: First Draft

This would have to be my favourite part of the process and the most creative – letting your muse take over and your imagination carry you wherever it will! The best advice I ever read, and something that freed me from my unceasing internal censor, is to let yourself write a Shitty First Draft. This concept first sunk in when I read Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott and I will cover it in more depth in in this series.

Also – word count! Setting a word count goal for each session will help you get the story down as quick as you can while the idea is still fresh and you still feel that spark that started you writing.

Step Three: Rewriting (Second Draft)

And now we get down to the nitty gritty. You’ve finished your first draft – hooray! What a massive achievement! I bet you can’t wait to read it – but, wait. Let it rest for a while. A few days, a week, however long you can bear. And then print out a hard copy and get ready to pull your baby apart.

I always thought I would truly dislike rewriting (which is why I so longed to be a plotter and have all the kinks worked out beforehand), but I have found when I pushed myself through it that it’s a very rewarding process.

See this post for more details on the wonders of rewriting!

In my pantser-plotting style, I find it too difficult to work out a timeline for events before I’ve actually created the events. Working backwards and creating a timeline after the first draft helped me to see if scenes were in the wrong order or would work better at some place else in the story. More on this in the series.

Step Four: Editing (Third Draft)

My final posts in the series detail the final step in my process – the last chance to make your manuscript shine! This is where you finally get to pull out that red biro in your mind and edit your novel with a fine-tooth comb. 

If you really want to go in-depth, you need to look over each scene individually, checking that it serves a purpose by propelling the story forward and that it has a beginning, middle and end. The characters also get another going over by taking a hard look at their GMC’s (Goal, Motivation, Conflict). Basically, you are making sure that everything makes sense and is as correct as it should be.

The last stage focuses on grammar and punctuation, dialogue, description and sentence structure. All the things that would make your high school English teacher proud! Read your finished product, re-read and continue making changes until you are completely satisfied (or cross-eyed).

Your story may now only loosely resemble that first expanded overview, but that’s ok.

You’ve written a book!!

** Note: I found Elizabeth George’s book Write Away invaluable in formulating my own process.