Rachel McLean

Author of Twisted Realities

How I Write

A week or so ago I posted a photo of my completed plan for Divided We Stand on twitter and Facebook. It showed the story all plotted out in Scrivener and ready for me to start writing.

A couple of people asked me to tell them more about my writing process – exactly how do I plan stories and how does that then feed into the writing?

This post is the answer to that question.

This is how I write a novel from start to finish (not including A House Divided as that took 14 years and went through a bazillion rewrites – such is the way for writing your first book!)

Stage 1 – Thinking

Before I dive into detailed planning for a new book, it spends quite a bit of time swishing around in my head. It won’t find its way onto paper or the screen for anything from a month to a year, depending on how it fits with my writing schedule.

For example, Murder in the Multiverse, the book I wrote in a week, was in my head for just a month before I started the detailed planning. I was so excited by the idea that I wanted it to be the next book I wrote. So I moved my schedule around and put time for the first draft into my calendar straight away.

The book which will be coming out after Divided We Stand, on the other hand (working title Sea of Lies) has been wandering around in my head for a few months now and will continue to do so until August when I’m scheduled to write it. It’s a psychological thriller featuring some of the characters from Thicker Than Water, so the kernel of it has been there since I finished writing that last year.

During this stage, I write nothing down. Sometimes I come up with an idea I love and I’m tempted to grab a notebook. But I resist. Instead, I want it to germinate, to take its time coming together. I trust that if an idea really is good it’ll stick, and I won’t forget it when the time comes to plan.

This stage takes place twenty four hours a day. It’s influenced by dreams, by other books that I read, by news stories, by conversations I have (and overhear) and by idle musings that pop into my head.

Stage 2 – Planning

Now the work begins. I’ve been developing a process for this over the course of a few books now and this is what works for me. It takes about two days – if I try to cram it into one, I’ll miss the benefit of mulling my plan over in my spare time and putting amendments and new ideas into the plan the next day.

I make rough notes in a notebook. One of the things I love about a new writing project is the opportunity to buy stationery! These will be the more structured and focused version of what’s been going around in my head, and will focus on the theme and characters, with snippets of the plot at this stage.

Sometimes I also use a massive piece of paper, like the back of an old poster or a wallpaper sample. This helps me indulge in mind mapping and not worry about being linear.

Plan your story - a notebook to help you write your novelI write this up into the notebook I created to help me with this, Plan Your Story. This puts more structure on the plan and lets me focus on the ten major plot points:

  1. hook
  2. inciting incident
  3. first plot point
  4. first pinch point
  5. turning point
  6. second pinch point
  7. darkest hour
  8. second plot point
  9. climax
  10. resolution.

I’ll write these down and make notes on how the main characters respond at each of these points in the story, looking at the character arcs, and the protagonist’s transition to pursuing the wrong goal to identifying the right one, and throwing off the ‘lie the character believes’.

I then transfer this into Scrivener. I use the corkboad view to create a visual representation of my story. I add in those ten plot points, with each card highlighted in red. Then I add chapters around them, which form the story and will be instrinsically linked to those ten plot points. I then highlight those according to the point of view if I have multiple points of view, or if not, the theme or major story arcs.

book outline in scrivener

This gives me an outline of about 40 chapters, each of which has a short sentence outlining what happens in it.

Stage 3 – Writing

Now it’s time to get pen to paper, or words on the screen!

I start at the beginning. I know some authors write non-sequentially, but I find that impossible. Unless I have to skip a chapter because it needs a lot of research, I write each chapter in order.

Before I write each chapter, I’ll use the metadata and notes features in Scrivener to make detailed notes. I start with the metadata. I create fields for each project that will help me identify what needs to happen in the chapter and ensure it adds to the story’s whole. These might include the main character’s arc, where they are on a specific journey, notes as to what’s happening to another character offstage, or anything that’ll help me stick to the structure and theme. One of these fields is always ‘What happens?’

I then transfer these notes into the Notes view in Scrivener, which I will have visible while I write. I flesh them out into a blow by blow outline of what will happen in the scene, which could be anything from 100 words to 400 words. That sounds like a lot of extra writing (4000 to 16000 extra words!) but it makes the process of actually writing the scene much, much easier.

Then I write the chapter, using those notes. My chapters tend to be around 2,000 words long. This bit takes me about 45 minutes to an hour, and flows easily thanks to the planning.

When I’ve finished writing the chapter, I change its status in Scrivener to first draft and take a snapshot of it. Then I plan the next chapter in detail. Then, and only then, I take a short break, getting up to make a coffee and stretch my legs.

Having planned the next chapter out in detail, coming back and writing it is easy. This is how I can write fast. I know exactly what I’m going to write and can dive straight in without having to revisit the previous one. This helps even more when I sit down to write the next morning.

Writing the first draft takes me 3-4 weeks, although I may try writing another first draft in a week. I find this part of the process the hardest, and powering through it quickly gave me an energy and focus that stopped me procrastinating and helped me push through the spots where I normally lose motivation – which are around the 10,000 and 30,000 word marks. I’m currently at 30,000 words in Divided We Stand, and I’m a long way behind – I should be at 50,000.

Stage 4 – Editing

Most writers hate editing. I love it!

Editing is my favourite part of the process. Instead of trying to wrench a story out of my head, I’m working with something that’s already there and trying to make it as good as I possibly can. I find this much easier than the first draft, especially since I’m turning the inevitable dross of the first draft into something much shinier (Ask any writer, they’ll tell you that first drafts are always terrible).

I go through a number of editing stages, some of which are done by me, some by other people:

The second draft is all about fixing the story and bringing the characters and setting to life. I don’t worry too much about the actual words at this stage but I do move scenes around, delete ones that serve no purpose and add new ones. I also put a lot of effort into beefing up the characters and setting, and I’ll spend time making character notes before I start. All this is swishing around in my head between the first and second drafts, during which time I’ll be working on another book.

The third draft is about the language. I go through with a fine tooth comb and polish the language, cutting unnecessary bulk and improving word choice. I really enjoy this edit, it gives me a very different level of confidence in my writing abilities compared to the other stages. This takes a week or two depending on how clean my first draft was. For A House Divided it took three years!

Once I’ve finished the third draft, I take a day out to sit down and read the book the whole way through. Here I’ll spot any silly errors like changing a character’s name, hair colour or job partway through the book. I’ll also catch a few typos. I fix those before sending them to my editor.

The next stage is copy editing. My editor goes through the book in detail and makes line by line edits, and will tell me if there are any structural or character elements that don’t quite work.

My fourth draft is where I go through my editor’s changes and accept them, undo them or make alternative changes according to what works for me. It’s important to remember that the story needs to be told in my voice – occasionally I’ll see an edit which jars with my writing style and I’ll nix it. This is one of the big benefits of being indie – in the past if I’ve rejected editors’ changes when working with a publisher, I’ve had to justify it to them.

Next it goes to the proofreader. This takes a couple of weeks.

The fifth and final draft takes a couple of hours. I go through the proof reader’s changes and accept them all, taking the opportunity to identify things I keep getting wrong so I can learn next time. It’s rare for me to reject a change made by the proofreader – this isn’t stylistic at this stage, it’s simple grammar and punctuation.

Stage 5 – Formatting and Publication

This is the easy bit. I use Vellum to format my books which takes an hour or so. I check that the chapters have carried across from Word correctly and add any custom images. I add front and back matter. Then I export a .mobi file for Kindle and a pdf for print.

While the proofreader has been working, the paperback cover will be produced, as you need to know the page count to calculate the spine width. The front cover was probably done months earlier – I normally write the blurb before the actual book, as it gives me focus.

Then it’s published, and I try to resist the temptation to check the sales figures every hour!

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