Writing process

John C. posted a comment recently asking about my writing process for MIRRORED HEAVENS and sequels:

I was wondering if you could write a little bit more about HOW you go about writing. Do you outline the chapters first with a general idea of what u want to write about within a chapter. Or just shoot from the hip and figure it out later?

And I’m glad he asked it, because this is something I feel pretty strongly about. I plan it all out, and I’m firmly convinced that one of the biggest mistakes new/aspiring writers make is that they don’t. To some degree, I think this is because they get terrible advice from the senior/pro writers. I’ve been struck by how many professional writers who should know better proudly tell neophytes about how they write novels by “just diving in”, not knowing where the whole thing was going, and often having no clue whatsoever about the ending. And this may not be such a bad approach . . if you’re a seasoned writer with several books under your belt, and you’ve got well-honed instincts and a well-trained subconscious that’s used to bailing you out of tough situations.

My subconscious, on the other hand, hits the rip-cord when the going gets tough (thanks dude). And I don’t have time or resources to plow 40,000 words into something and then realize that it’s not going anywhere. To me, not planning out what you’re writing is about as irresponsible as a Hollywood director hauling a million dollars worth of cameras into the desert without having a fucking script.  Writing is painstaking, and I’ve got to have maximum assurance (it can never be total) that the hours I’m spending writing a page are well-spent.  Which is why I map everything out at a several levels, and I never, EVER write a scene without knowing (a) how I’m getting in, (b) how I’m getting out, and (c), most critically of all, what’s the center of gravity of that sequence.

To be clear:  I’m not saying there’s no room for spontaneity.  I’m just saying there’s plenty of room for good planning.  In fact, I’ll go out on a limb here and define writer’s block as being fundamentally about the failure of the planning process.  My formula in four words is brainstorm hard, write easy.  Even though writing never is . . .

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9 Responses to “Writing process”

  1. John C Says:

    Thanks! I was hoping you would respond. Ok, lets take it to the moment where you have finished your work.

    Who proof reads it?

    Recommends changes to story line?

    Points out possible conflicts in story line etc.


    Is this a task u take upon yourself?

    MH had a complex story line as the cast went along their merry way wise cracking/back stabbing/double dealing each other.

    Did u use a black board to keep track of where they were at?


    is everything kept on your laptop?

    John C

  2. xxnapoleonsolo Says:

    For the polar opposite to your approach, take a look at The Writer’s Tale by Russell T Davies, detailing the making of the Doctor Who Titanic Christmas special and series four.

    It is amazing how last minute everything is, and how much of the series Davies thinks up on the spot

  3. David Williams Says:

    @John C: answers to come, sir. . . : )

    @ NapoleonSolo: totally, and Davies delivers. See, that’s the thing, I’m not saying it’s a BAD approach, I’m just saying it would be a shit approach for ME. I also think it’s an approach that works disproportionately for very experienced writers, and a lot less well when you’re just starting out.

    And (I suppose) I’m also saying that it’s a far more *risky* approach than planning it all out. Endings are the toughest thing, so why start in on 100,000 words if by the 50,000th you’ve just done the proverbial Wile E. Coyote off the cliff . . .

  4. Chang Says:

    Thanks, David! I have Mirrored HEavens on the guilt stack waiting to be read soon as I am done with Born Standing Up.

    It’s funny but I have always been a make it up as I go along writer. It’s gotten me through a couple of books and some short stories. And I used to think that people who outlined were soulless squids.

    Then one day I discovered I had written an outline for a story and realized outlining is your friend.

  5. David Williams Says:

    Chang – keep in mind that I’m really just talking/pontificating about novels here. Short stories are a whole ‘nother beast . . spontaeneity there may make more sense than it does if you’re trying to get 500 pages together. think sprint vs. marathon.

  6. PaulB Says:

    excellent advice and something I will put into practice when I eventually get round to sorting out my notes :-)

  7. jW Says:

    The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator may provide clues for the difference in preference, if you believe in the MBTI. The different ways people process information and make decisions sometimes strains relationships: planners frustrate the “just do it” people and vice versa…and have difficulty understanding the vantage point of the other. Just ask my wife.

  8. Tinatsu Says:

    Thanks for the post, Dave. If I ever have a few months with nothing else to do, I’d like to take a stab at seat-of-the-pants novelling; but since I can barely squeeze in the time to do any writing right now, I’m sticking with the planning approach. Also, I hate revising, so I’d rather do as much problem-solving up front than when I have pages and pages of lovely prose to consider killing.

  9. David J. Williams » Blog Archive » Writing process, part deux Says:

    […] post of last week on the writing process generated some follow-up questions; one of them centered on how much editing occurred to MIRRORED […]