Most people have been taught, usually in an English or creative writing class, that the writing process is roughly as follows:
3. Write your first draft
5. Write your second draft
7. Write your final draft
In theory, yes, this is generally how one gets from idea to finished product. Generally. Unfortunately, newbie writers see this as law rather than guidelines. This leads to questions like, “Is it ok to edit before you finish your first draft?”, because, according to The Writing Process(TM), editing must follow drafting. On the flip side, there are those who reject parts of the processes entirely, not just for themselves, but for everyone, saying things like “Outlines kill creativity”, because, you can't revisit and tweak your outline, because outlines must precede all other parts of writing except brainstorming because that's how it is in The Writing Process.
Of course, if you’ve been writing long enough, particularly if you’ve written drastically different stories, you know why these ideas fall short. Simply put, there is no one writing process; there is only your writing process. And that process is whatever works for you.
I would even say that you can have different processes for different books. In Styx, I jumped from brainstorming to drafting with no outline. Once I had finished my WIP and started editing, I used very sketchy outlines of what I had already written and where I wanted things to go to aid in rewrites. I continued brainstorming, known in professional circles as “daydreaming”, until I finished the whole series. My writing process is not linear; most of the individual parts exist side-by-side as I go.
But the Alternate-History/Fantasy/Mystery WIP has a totally different genre, setting, tone, and target audience from Styx, so it makes sense that it’s not going to come together in the same way. Happily, it is coming together, though.
I've discussed my outlining phase before, so let's look at how I wrote my prologue and chapter one. My hope in sharing my method (and madness) with you is to dispel some “hard and fast” ideas—i.e. myths—about how one "should" begin a book.
To preface this examination, I must reiterate that I have begun three books, and a novella, and yet still find writing the first chapter to be an agonizing ordeal. It’s a whole new voice and set of characters, and it’s hard for me. But I did it. And if I can do, anyone can.
Myth one: You must “just sit down and write”.
I don’t think I need to explain how much I hate this “advice”, which is generally said in a holier-than-though tone, like “I, a hard worker, can just sit down and write; I needn’t wait for inspiration like you lazy plebeians.” Bully for you, mate, but the rest of us find staring at a screen a hopeless and depressing endeavor.
No, I did not “just sit down and write,” though I wanted to. I felt, around mid-July, that I probably knew enough about my story to start. “Any day now,” I thought. “Any day now…” And then, I was in the shower (one of the best places for brainstorming, as I’m sure you know), and it came to me: a prologue, fully-formed like some Greek god springing from the appendage of another Greek god. This was how I would begin my book. “It’s time,” I thought.
And it was.
Myth two: Don’t worry about editing the first chapter until the draft of the whole book is done.
After writing a pretty rad prologue, if I do say so myself (and I do), I began chapter one. And it dragged. I was putting way too much detail and backstory for so early in the book, introducing too many characters, and saying too much about the setting. It was heavy. It was monstrous. It had to change.
I see first chapters as the foundation that the rest of a story stands on, or the trunk of the tree from which the rest of a story grows. It needn’t be perfect, but it needs to also not fail hard out the gate.
So I brainstormed. How could I trim the fat, while still having my character flying into the city the book is set in (because the flying scene was key). Could I also be lazy, I wondered, and avoid researching the type of plane the military might use to transport this character from the battlefield to the city?
Laziness won out. I realized I could change the timing of the scene. The character had already returned from battle, sat at home for a couple weeks pre-story, and is now, in chapter one, on her way to the city on a comfy commercial airline (which also lets me add some details about the time period: did you know that everyone smoked like a chimney even on airplanes in the 60s? Cause they did!). Problem solved.
Myth three: Just throw writing out there; it doesn’t have to make sense
This is related to Myth 2, but I still need to address it, because my problems weren’t quite solved. Though the first chapter flowed much better now, it was flowing straight toward a Grand-Canyon-sized plot hole!
I knew two things:
1. My two MCs, Constance and Cherry, must become roommates at least by the end of chapter 2 for the rest of the book, nay the series, to work
2. There is a very good reason for Cherry, knowing what she knows about Constance’s situation, to not want her as a roommate.
Theoretically, and according to popular advice, I should just throw the writing out there or skip this part and worry about it later, but I couldn’t do that. First of all, Constance and Cherry’s growing friendship is a large part of the theme and plot, so it would be weird to not know how it started. I needed to see them decide to move in together. I wanted to know how it all began.
Second, and more importantly, this wouldn’t just be a plot hole, but the mother of all plot holes from which rifts in the story would be berthed! When I say Cherry has a “good reason” for not wanting a roommate in Constance’s situation, I mean a reason that relates to the plot of the entire series, the villain’s motivation, the setting, and, well, everything. If I didn’t fix this hole, the entire story could come crashing down at any point. Again, first chapters are a foundation, and mine was shaky.
What to do… Well, why not return to my outline? I had a rough sketch of how the first book in the series was going to go, the vaguest idea of the plot for the second one, and only the beginning and ending of the third. I had been wanting to outline the arcs of the main characters and villains in each book, and now seemed like a decent time to do this.
I outlined Constance’s arc, with a big, blank, circled area that said “Moves in with Cherry for some reason???”, and left it at that. I then outlined her coming to terms with her backstory, and learning secrets about Cherry, and conflict, and so on. So far, no ideas.
I started outlining Cherry, from her backstory, and what she’s investigating (she is a detective, by the by), and how this leads to an eventual conflict with Constance, which had always kind of bugged me… and then everything fell into place. This thing that she knew—that thing that would make it weird for her to invite Constance into her home?—turns out that there isn’t any reason for her to know it at the beginning of book one. Literally no reason.
So now, she can become roommates freely and easily, then learn this terrible thing by the end of the book, and her and Constance dealing with this fact is a major part of the second book. I even figured out something about the climax of book 1 because I would now have o explain Cherry’s learning of this terrible fact.
So, because I desperately needed things to make sense and did not just throw writing out there, I came up with a more organic conflict for my characters, a plot for Book 2, a key part of the Book1 climax, and fixed the initial plot hole. Not too shabby!
So that’s my process: a continual spiral of drafting and brainstorming and outlining and rewriting and drafting and so on. You probably have a different process, and that’s fine.
I know that this may not actually help anyone start their own books, because it’s not exactly advice, but that’s the point. There is no magic formula that can make you write a good book, or even a good first chapter. You just have to find what works for you, wether that’s daydreaming for three months and then punching out a novel in a few weeks, or forcing yourself to write every day, or writing when inspiration strikes.
Too often, I believe writers focus on the “how” of writing and forget the “why”. You’re not writing to produce a book the “correct” way, nor are you writing to get as many words down as possible. You are writing in order to tell your story. As long as your process lets you do that, then it is the only writing process you need.