From Spark to Story: My Writing Process

One thing I’ve always found interesting is how the development of a story can vary from author to author. Everyone eventually finds techniques and patterns that work for them, helping them to cultivate their initial idea into a finished product. Personally, my process has developed through a great deal of trial and error of different methods until I arrived at the way I approach stories now. Today, I want to share what my process looks like.

The Idea

Yes, the elusive spark to a greater story.

Like many authors, I can’t really tell you where all my ideas come from; a lot of us honestly don’t know. But there are a number of things that can spark those thoughts. For me, my initial ideas have come from things like dreams, other people’s works (books, movies, magazine articles, etc.), things I’ve learned in school or through my own research, or even something as simple as a photograph, as happened with my most recent idea. But that’s all it takes: one simple moment of “that could be an interesting story.”

The Slow Simmer

After I get that idea, it simmers on the burner for a while, building up some flavor. Okay, metaphors aside, after I have an idea, I sit with it and simply think about it. This simmering phase can be anywhere from days to weeks to months long before I’m ready to move on to the next phase. I let the idea build until I know where I want to start.

The Exploration

Once I have an idea and I’ve given it some thought, I pick a fresh, brand-new notebook. I have a separate notebook for every project, one that I love to pick up and open. Sometimes I’ll even match the look of the notebook to the aesthetic I see in my head. And I also keep a small library of blank notebooks for the sudden idea I MUST write down immediately. Those can be unpredictable, and I need to be ready!

Then, the research begins. I start my notebook with research on what exists in our world that relates to the story. To keep with the theme of my most recent idea (which is currently in this phase and the next two phases), this was when I sat down and researched the picture that sparked it all, a photograph in a unique setting. So I looked up information about that setting, its geology, its geography, the earth science behind it, the flora and fauna associated with it. I learned everything I could and let that build on the ideas I already had.

In this phase, I also tend to make a board on Pinterest to help me envision what is to come, the Build. I save pictures for anything that could relate to the story, real or fantasy, any character inspirations, setting inspirations, or aesthetics to help me feel how the world feels, to achieve the emotion I want to achieve, to visualize the things I need to create.

Then I take it further.

The Build

I move past the real and into my own creation. I begin the worldbuilding stage. I get to know what my world looks like from the layout of the country to the ecosystems to the culture. I write down everything I can think of to build the setting for the story. This naturally leads to filling in other details, such as characters. In this stage I complete (or set up a solid foundation for) the setting and the major characters I need to start the story, any details I want to include, what makes it unique. And I fill all this information into my notebook.

Note: sometimes the characters come first. Some of my story sparks are a character, and I build out from there. Every story is different. But the general process remains the same, even if the specific parts change and rotate.

The Simmer, Part II

Then I let the story simmer again. This phase could last anywhere from minutes to weeks to months, depending on how the previous phases went. This is where I need to take the build I created and turn it into a story. What is going on in the world that could create an interesting tale? What are the characters facing? Where is the story in the place I found? With these people I met? I ask myself these questions, write down the possibilities, and let them sit in my brain as more ideas.

The Plotting

After I brainstorm the direction I want to go (which can happen all at once or in stages), I generally sit down and write a basic outline for the story. (Side note: I tried to pants one of my books…write it without an outline or any clear direction…and have decided to never put myself through that again! The editing has been a monster.) This helps me find my story beats, lay out the map for the story, and understand where everything is going before I begin. Sometimes, after that basic outline, I will fill in more detail, such as chapter by chapter, but this doesn’t always happen.

The Writing

Finally, I’m ready to draft. And this is my favorite part! I tell the story.

I typically write in a dedicated word processor. Previously, I used Word, and I tried Scrivener, but it didn’t benefit me much. Now, I do most of my drafting on Google Docs so I can open it anywhere and on any of my devices. I wait to convert to Word until I’m ready to share it. This may change in the future as my circumstances change, but I doubt it would deviate much from this basic setup. I prefer to type my stories directly in manuscript submission formatting.

The Revising

After I complete my first draft, which has historically taken me anywhere from a few months to years to complete (depending on how dedicated I was at the time of the writing, how motivated I was, or my health and life circumstances), I am ready to fix the problems.

First I let it sit for at least a month before touching it again. I want to forget what I wrote so I can look at it with fresh eyes.

Then, I read through the entire thing, changing nothing and keeping minimal notes, just to get a feel for how the story flows, feels, and accomplishes what I want it to accomplish.

Then, I do the first rewrite. A brand new, fresh document, where I write the story over again. I use some of the first draft, but the story typically morphs and changes along the way, so many of the scenes, especially early, also change.

Then comes more of the cycle of revisions, allowing others to read and critique my work, and revising again. This process never really ends, so at some point I say I’m done changing it (until I decide to revise again).

The Sharing

This is the end of my work on it. At this point, either it gets shoved into a word processor deep down on my hard drive or it moves to the next step in publishing. This could be anything from sharing it online, such as with Wattpad, to beginning the query process.

And then it is out of my hands.

 

Now that I’ve shared my process, I’m curious to know yours. Do you do any of these things the same way? Do you keep a dedicated project notebook or Word file for every new story? Tell me about your process in the comments. Let’s talk writing!

Night Tales

I recently went on my annual family vacation, and this time things were a little different.

First, my boyfriend came with us. I’ve never had someone to bring along before, and he’s never been to the Outer Banks, NC. My family has been going there for at least a decade, nearly every summer. So for us, there really wasn’t anything new. But for him? It was all new.

And this time there was something new for me, too.

Boyfriend wasn’t really interested in most of the usual tourist-y things: climbing lighthouses, visiting the Wright Memorial (he would have wanted to go, but the museum is under construction until fall 2018, so we decided to postpone that one), going to the Roanoke Island Festival Park, etc. Instead, the one thing he wanted to do is something none of us had ever done before. He wanted to go kayaking at night.

Now, we had done some kayaking tours in past years, mostly around the Alligator River (I’ve never seen any alligators, but some of my family has). Those tours were pretty awesome, but we always went early in the day to avoid the summer heat. But to go at night… that was something all of us were afraid to do. So afraid, in fact, that only I would go with boyfriend this time around.

So we signed up for the Maritime Forest Bioluminescence Tour. I dreaded the coming of the night, afraid to be lost in the dark, by myself, in a salt marsh. Who knew what lurked just beyond my sight? How much would I really be able to see? How would I find my way back?

Turned out that a huge storm system rolled in and we were forced to reschedule right as I was starting to get excited about the tour.

So we went the next night to the Bodie Island Bioluminescence Tour. The night was warm and clear, the moon was nowhere to be seen, and even if it was, there wouldn’t be much light as it was in the waning phases. We also found out this was the better of the two tours being offered. It was a perfect night for such a tour.

All we really expected to see were fireflies, but it was so much better than that.

We left the shore into the super calm waters across from the Bodie Island Lighthouse. It was so quiet, and it got even more quiet (and dark) the further we got from the highway. We saw the International Space Station fly by overhead. The stars became clearer and more abundant. We could even see the cloudy light of the Milky Way overhead.

And then something happened that I had never expected to see in my life: bioluminescent plankton began to glow and sparkle with every stroke of the paddles. Every drop to fall from the paddle, every stroke, every hand drawn through the warm water stirred up these plankton.

It was magical.

The guides instructed us to put our hands six inches down and snap our fingers if we couldn’t quite tell, if they just looked like bubbles, but it just became more and more apparent the farther we paddled from shore (and the light pollution). I put my hand in the water, which terrified and exhilarated me at the same time. Around my hand, the plankton were almost a white cloud of light, and the bright blue of their glow grew brighter as they drifted away from me. It truly did look like magic.

All around, fish began jumping in the water. You see, small fish are attracted to the bioluminescence of the plankton, and they pursue it for their dinner. The glow then also attracts larger fish, the ones who were jumping, to go after these small predator fish. So the glow attracts the predators of the plankton’s predators, thereby protecting them. Weird, right? But so cool (I know, I know. But hey, I’m a biologist!). Other than the fact that one of these larger fish jumped out of the water and right into my shoulder! I smelled like fish the rest of the night, and it scared me more than anything else. And now I have a funny story to share!

But, besides sharing this magical experience with you, there is a point to my story.

If we never do something because we are afraid, we miss out on something that could be truly magical. Perhaps this applies to your creative processes, such as writing or drawing. Perhaps it is in sharing what you create. Perhaps it applies to an activity that scares you, like this nighttime excursion scared me.

Sometimes we need to do things that scare us, because those can end up being some of our best experiences. And if we can’t do them alone, we find those people who push us and encourage us.

So this is my learned lesson shared with you: do the things that scare you. And if you are having trouble on your own, find those people to push you past your comfort zone. Let the magic happen.

As for me, I’ll be forever grateful to boyfriend for making me go on this tour. I have beautiful memories with him and of the experience, I have a painting to make of the experience, I have material for my writing, and I have pride in knowing I did something no one else in my family would do.

It was a good night, and I can’t wait to do it again.