A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.

A Writer’s Process

If you only write when you’re inspired you may be a fairly decent poet, but you’ll never be a novelist because you’re going to have to make your word count today and those words aren’t going to wait for you whether you’re inspired or not. 

You have to write when you’re not inspired. And you have to write the scenes that don’t inspire you. And the weird thing is that six months later, a year later, you’ll look back at them and you can’t remember which scenes you wrote when you were inspired and which scenes you just wrote because they had to be written next.

The process of writing can be magical. … Mostly it’s a process of putting one word after another.

Neil Gaiman in an interview with Nerdist podcast but mentioned on Winning Edits.

I’ve not done a great many events, unlike others on Author Allsorts, but I have had my share of people ask me about my process and crucially, where do you get your ideas from?

I’ll be honest here and say that my process is still growing and developing with each new thing I try.  When I wrote my first ever book, an action adventure novel for readers 9-12, I found myself so swept up in the story that I literally wrote feverishly seemingly all the time with no clear thought of structure.  I just knew I had to tell this story.  Incidentally, the story itself had around four or five false starts before I settled down and finished it.  I had a “bible” for the book that held all my research and I felt I had to put Everything I Knew into that book.  I explained everything to the inth degree and basically I went a bit Dan Brown with my “as you know, Bob, when Solomon built the temple” explanations.

But, looking back at that book, I realise how much I had learned:

1. I’m a mixture of a plotter and pantser

2. Research can kill your darlings faster than you can

3. I can actually finish a book

4. Beta readers are crucial

5. It’s only words

When I was hammering out the storyline for Blackhart (commonly referred to as Grimm as it was the initial working title) I filled two slender moleskines with long hand descriptions, characters and motivations and imagery that I wanted to add to the manuscript.  I had to know what my character looked like.  I needed to know how she would fit into this world I was creating.  I knew my world had to be close enough to contemporary London but to give it extra bite.  I knew my main character, Kit, would have to be new to this world in some way so that we can learn from her. I thought about her a lot and sat around staring at people often in a weird creepy way.  I kept asking What If? and But Why?

And slowly pieces started coming together.  The first draft got written pretty quickly and my SCBWI crit group tore it apart, chapter by chapter.  I listened and took some advice on board and rejected others.  In my gut I knew the shape of the story I wanted to tell.

I read a load of how-to books (some good, some not) and spoke to other writers whom I knew, about their process and I lapped it up. And after a great many chats and interviews I did on my review blog I came away with one truth: I learned that no one’s process can work for you.  But you can imitate it and it can help you figure out what works for you.  The biggest thing we need to remember: there is no wrong way to do this writing lark.  There is no magic tip-sheet that you get handed in the back of a pub by Those Who Have Gone Before.  Each writer has to have the guts to figure out process for themselves.  Some people really make it seem easy, others I know of sweat blood and tears over the intricate layering of their stories.  It’s crazy! Why do we do this to ourselves?

I happened across a Facebook blogpost by another children’s writer and he mentioned something along the lines of: Excellent, I now have a title which means this book can get underway.  I immediately jumped in and checked what he meant by that and he replied that, having a title for a book solidified the story for him, in his mind.  I knew what he meant.  I’d become superstitious about titles too.  I knew that if I started writing a book and I managed to give it a title, that it would mean I’d finish it.  And I was relieved to see someone else mention it too.

A writer’s process, in my mind, is how they learn take control of chaos (by chaos I mean story ideas, characters, plot strands, world) and bring it to heel, as much as they can, and from that chaos they figure out what would work.   Like a crafter opening their crafting box.  You and I would see a mess of bits of paper and scissors and glue and glitter and basically a jumble of nonsensical stuff.  But the crafter sees their toolbox full of opportunities and possibilities.

Apostrophe, Baker Street – notebook, muffin & hot chocolate

My process isn’t defined.  I write out whole scenes by hand in a notebook to get a feel for it and to see how it would work.  Sometimes I flip open my laptop and write these experimental scenes straight into the manuscript and they fit, like puzzle pieces, neatly into the story.  I use coloured index cards and sticky notes to plot out ideas and recently used giant sticky notes to track my character’s emotional journey as I was worried she came across as too bad ass and one dimensional and I wanted to make sure readers saw her as a complex character shaped by the situations she finds herself in.

I recall China Mieville once saying during a talk that in his classes he teaches he tells students that he can only tell them how he does things and that they need to figure it out for themselves and to take risks.  That is what process is.  No one thing will work for everyone.  That’s why blogposts like these are so much fun to read.  Yes, there are some sense to them, and they are being touted as “rules” and maybe you should pay attention to them, but at the end of the day we need to remember that in writing there are no rules.  But you have to know non-rules that works for you and the only way to do it is to overcome your fear of the white screen or your lack of “process” and just get on with it.  BIC*, that’s all it is.  One word after the other.

Good luck!

*BIC – Butt In Chair


About Liz

Liz de Jager drinks too much tea, has too many notebooks and books crammed on her bookshelves. She is owned by a Jack Russell called Sparrow. Her website is:

4 comments on “A Writer’s Process

  1. Lovely, interesting post!
    (it’s that stripy pen what does it…)

    • Liz
      May 1, 2013

      @Claire – the pen totally makes it. And no, writers aren’t fickle AT ALL.

  2. Emma Pass
    May 1, 2013

    Great post, Liz! And oh, you HAVE to have the right pen. For me, it’s a black crystal Bic. 😉

  3. Sue Hyams
    May 2, 2013

    I find the writing process fascinating! Both mine and that of other writers. But you are right. It does all come down to BIC! x

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