This post is about the process of writing, from inspiration and getting ideas to actually writing. It’s about cultivating habits and getting your thoughts onto the page. This has been something requested by a few different subscribers, but it is a topic I’ve been wary of touching upon for a number of reasons.
First of all, the initial idea of the blog was that it would provide practical and actionable writing tips: things that you could directly apply to your characters, plot or prose after reading it. I wanted to provide advice that wasn’t vague platitudes about motivation and inspiration, but specific and workable tips. But as with all things, I must let the blog evolve. There will, of course, continue to be actionable advice, but there may be other things too.
Secondly, the issue with a writer’s process is that it is so personal and so based on our individual lives and activities that it is difficult to gain any real consensus. So what I will do is present my process, and you can take from that what you will.
A Quick Piece of Advice
While this may seem tautological, the best way to write anything is to actually write. As valuable as reading, sketching, thinking and plotting may be, if you don’t write things down then you aren’t actually getting anywhere. An idea in your head will stay there, forever, pure and untouched and utterly useless. When you translate it to the page, it won’t be perfect anymore, but it will also be there to work with. Only when you put it on the page can you start fixing it.
All the way through the process below, you should be writing. It doesn’t matter if it’s in a notebook, on a phone, on a computer or on a stone tablet, write your ideas down. Get them out of your head an onto the page.
Where do you get stories from?
Most writers will probably tell you that the ideas just come to them, but I think it is important to try to dissect and work out the steps that take an idea from the very early stages of germination into something truly workable. When I break apart my process, I see a clear strand of movement:
What does these mean? Let me try and break them down for you:
1. Character Stimulus
This could be anything. It’s something that sparks off your train of thought into a world of imagination. You know it when you feel it. One of my favourite descriptions of a moment of stimulus comes from the great Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, describing how he first became a novelist:
One bright April afternoon in 1978, I attended a baseball game at Jingu Stadium, not far from where I lived and worked. It was the Central League season opener, first pitch at one o’clock, the Yakult Swallows against the Hiroshima Carp. I was already a Swallows fan in those days, so I sometimes popped in to catch a game—a substitute, as it were, for taking a walk.
Back then, the Swallows were a perennially weak team (you might guess as much from their name) with little money and no flashy big-name players. Naturally, they weren’t very popular. Season opener it may have been, but only a few fans were sitting beyond the outfield fence. I stretched out with a beer to watch the game. At the time there were no bleacher seats out there, just a grassy slope. The sky was a sparkling blue, the draft beer as cold as could be, and the ball strikingly white against the green field, the first green I had seen in a long while. The Swallows first batter was Dave Hilton, a skinny newcomer from the States and a complete unknown. He batted in the leadoff position. The cleanup hitter was Charlie Manuel, who later became famous as the manager of the Cleveland Indians and the Philadelphia Phillies. Then, though, he was a real stud, a slugger the Japanese fans had dubbed “the Red Demon.”
I think Hiroshima’s starting pitcher that day was Yoshiro Sotokoba. Yakult countered with Takeshi Yasuda. In the bottom of the first inning, Hilton slammed Sotokoba’s first pitch into left field for a clean double. The satisfying crack when the bat met the ball resounded throughout Jingu Stadium. Scattered applause rose around me. In that instant, for no reason and on no grounds whatsoever, the thought suddenly struck me: I think I can write a novel.
I can still recall the exact sensation. It felt as if something had come fluttering down from the sky, and I had caught it cleanly in my hands. I had no idea why it had chanced to fall into my grasp. I didn’t know then, and I don’t know now.
That crack. That hit of the baseball. It put ideas in him that weren’t there before. I like to think it wasn’t just the inspiration that he could do anything, but that in that hit he saw a story. He watched the classic story of an underdog overcoming adversity and having one great hit. We all need some kind of stimulus, and they come in different forms, but I think the way Murakami describes it captures the feeling quite well.
The real key to stimulus and inspiration is to look for characters in things. Great stories should be about character, after all. When you come across your interesting stimulus, see if you can picture a character involved in it. For me, stimulus usually takes two forms: either an image from which conflict can be derived or a bizarre hypothetical - a ‘what if’. I’ll try to give an example of both.
I was commuting home from work and having a conversation with a good friend of mine. We were discussing what we thought the world would be like if people could be brought back from the dead. Not in a zombie way, but in a legitimate way. We got onto discussing how the dead would form another social class, and people would want to raise dead people to be their butlers or servants and then it hit me. Like the baseball bat.
I could see a character, a girl for some reason, whose job it was to be a graverobber. She steals dead bodies to bring to rich people so they can use them as servants. I could picture her creeping through the graveyard at night, unsure about the morality of her actions but also needing the money. The ‘what if’ had given me a sudden moment of character realisation. She didn’t have a name, or a background, or a family. Not yet. But she existed, if only for a sliver of a scene, in my head.
I was watching a short documentary on the civil war in the Central African Republic. I didn’t know much (or anything about it) and I was fascinated. The idea that there are so many deep, involved conflicts around the globe I know nothing about, with so many people whose lives and souls and families are on the line, continues to surprise me every day. Anyway, the documentary was describing how one of the main catalysts for the conflict was religious hatred. Christians were killing Muslims in CAR. It showed an image of one man, a Christian priest, holding a Muslim boy in his arms, while surrounded by other Christian men.
That image sparked a whole character in my mind. The idea of standing up to your own people to save one boy of a different religion from certain death really stuck with me. I could see the conflict written in that image. The choices he felt he had to make. The heroicism of it. In a flash of a second, like a baseball bat, a seed of a character was born.
I don’t know what your stimulus is. If you don’t know either, I suggest you keep an eye out for it. Look for it and recognise it when it happens.
I will give the best piece of advice about the writing process I know, though. When you encounter such creative stimulation: Write it down.
Don’t wait until you get home. Don’t wait until tomorrow. Drop whatever you are doing and write down all the ideas in your head.
Scribble in your notebook, do it on your phone, record it on your phone’s microphone, leave yourself a voicemail. Whatever. But don’t assume you will remember it later. You might not, and if you do you won’t remember it all.
So again: Write it down.
Take your newly inspired sliver of a character and start to give them some real conflict. Remember that the basis for all great stories is conflict. Start to throw up some obstacles that run deep in their life.
Tip: Consider Georges Polti’s '36 Dramatic Situations' and see if you can adapt one to your characters - http://www.wcatyweb.org/library/documents/comics/poltis36.pdf
Example 1: The girl - Jessie, as I will call her - has to dig up her parents. No - too difficult. She’d never do it. She’d just refuse. Hm.
Jessie is asked to dig up a body, but when she returns to her clients they’ve all been killed. Seems like this body is important, but she doesn’t know why. Why doesn’t she just get rid of it? Because they’re after her, too, whoever they are. She needs to find out what’s so important about this dead guy or her life’s on the line.
But I need more. Her little brother is also starving and she has to feed him. No, boring. Her little brother was brought back to life and works in indentured servitude for a family. She’s saving up to buy him back. This family is involved somehow with the dead body. In the end she needs to decide what’s more important, her brother or her survival.
I find it useful at the start to identify a clear theme of conflict in the character. For her, its family duty vs. individuality.
But I need more.
Keep pushing for conflict - as much as you can. Think about family, think about money, think about friends, think about survival. You can always cut things out later.
This man - Isaac, as I will call him - is hiding Muslims in his Church. The militia want to kill them, but they don’t know he’s hiding them. The heads of the militia come to his sermons and are part of his congregation. He has to lie to them, despite being very religious and hating lying.
Crisis of faith is an obvious one. A bit cliche, but I like it. How can someone trust in the glory and goodness of God in the middle of a civil war?
Family is good, too. Maybe the head of the militia is his brother. Great. Now he has to lie to his brother. Meanwhile, his brother is trying to get him to join the fight, unaware he is hiding the enemy in his Church.
More? The kid says they (his brother's people) have got his mother captive and she’s being tortured and killed. Asks Isaac to save her. What can he do? Refuse? Never. That’s a tricky situation. He might even end up having to choose what’s more important to him: his family or his faith. That’s good conflict.
Write down all these conflicts. Develop them. The more the better, you can cut and trim later.
Right, now I need to actually do some research. I need to know a hell of a lot more about the Central African Republic before this can go any further. I also need to know more about indentured servitude, slavery, the culture of servants and butlers and maids. Maybe more about corpses too.
Google is your friend. Wikipedia is your best friend. Documentaries are great too. Listen to podcasts, read posts, etc. Don’t just go for factual stuff. Go for primary sources. Read personal accounts and take from them.
Don’t be afraid of stealing little bits and pieces of people’s lives and pushing them into your characters. Stories are all just one big melting pot of experience in the end, anyway.
As you do this research, write down any little ideas that come to you. Whether as little notes, or experiences or scenes. Just write them down.
4. Deepening Conflict
Now, go back to your characters and feed your research into their conflicts. Remember that plot is character, and your plot will grow organically out of your character’s having deep and complex conflict.
I learn more about corpses having a shelf-life, so to speak. If they aren’t preserved in the right way, they start to rot and fall apart. I start reading about mummification and preservation techniques. It makes me think the brother might only have a certain amount of time before he falls apart. She’s got to free him quickly to get him preserved. She’s got a timeline - I like that.
She’s also not entirely sure what she will do when she does save him, as no preservation is perfect, but it doesn’t matter to her.
The conflict is deepened through research.
I learn about President Francois Bozize, who was President through a political coup near the start of the civil war but had to flee the country. I learn about the political issues there. I decide to make President Bozize the protagonist’s uncle to further tie him politically into his conflict, to add expectation.
He is ashamed of the actions of his uncle, but his brother idolises him. This is another rift between them, but one they don’t talk about.
I learn about the other crises of faith, the story of Job and the story of Abraham and Isaac from the Bible inform my character development for his character’s crisis of faith. (It’s actually why I decided to call him Isaac, as an allusion to the almost-sacrificed child).
Now you have character and research and conflict, start to plot their arc. I use my plotting arc technique that you can find on my blog in detail and I have posted before, so I’m not going to rehash it here. Go find it if you’re interested - it's in the side bar on the right.
I develop the characters arc from beginning to end and plot their full story in its major beats. Then, I write.
This is the big one. Some writers spend ages plotting, planning and developing but just can’t get down to writing. Now, I’m not sure if I’ve got specific advice for this other than just:
Write. Write all the time. Stop worrying about how good it is. It won’t be any good. Not yet.
Just get the words on the page. Writing 10 terrible words is better than writing no words. Writing 100 awful words is even better. If you don’t write it down on the page, then you can’t start editing it and making it better. If it stays in your head, that’s the only place it will ever be.
Think of it as practice. I’ve always seen writer’s block as a poor excuse, because all writing is practicing at getting better.
Think of it like trying to learn the guitar. If you are trying to learn the guitar, what do you do? You practice for an hour each day (or something like that). You know it will be terrible at the start, but that’s the point, you get better. Have you ever heard anyone skip guitar practice because of “guitar player’s block”? No. It’s silly. If you skip practice, you’re being lazy. The same applies to writing.
Set yourself a schedule and a target, but don’t beat yourself up if you miss it. When I’m writing a novel, I usually set a target of 1500 words a day, 5 days a week. If I write less - say only 500 words - I console myself with the fact that 500 is better than 400. And 400 is better than none.
The rest is discipline.
Write, write, write until it’s done. Then redraft. I will do a more extended post on redrafting and editing later, as that deserves its own post and time. But the basics of my process are here. Take as much or as little as you want.
Find out what your stimulus is for inspiration. Make sure you write it down when it happens. Look for characters in things, tease them out of situations.
Build up conflicts in your characters. Look for challenges in their life. Try to set up dichotomies and choices they have to make.
Research details of your story. Read, listen and watch things related or even unrelated. Take notes and think about how you can tie these into your characters.
4. Deepening Conflict
Use the research to make the conflict more grounded, more complex and more real. Remember that plot is character. Your plot comes growing out of your character conflict.
Now plot their character arc. Write out the full thing.
Write, write and write until it’s done. Don’t blame yourself if it is bad. Don’t worry if it doesn’t flow. If you don’t write it, it can’t get better.
Show, don’t tell. It’s the golden standard of writing advice. Prospective authors are often criticised, put down or ignored for being too ‘telly’ and not showing enough. But often it might be difficult to pinpoint how to show certain things. The point of this post is to give some tips about how to show and not tell. Emotions are easy enough, as I’ll show below, but what about character? What about back-story? What about setting?
How do you show these things without just telling your reader what is going on? To do this, I’m going to break down the three main things that you can show rather than tell. This won’t cover everything, but hopefully it will help.
An important caveat: just because you should try to show, where possible, that doesn’t mean that telling is always wrong. Remember there are appropriate moments and times for telling, it just shouldn't dominate your approach.
Emotion is arguably the easiest thing to show instead of tell, and as such it should be one that you are getting absolutely right. I’m starting with this one because, for those confused, its an excellent way of demonstrating what show, don’t tell actually means.
It doesn’t mean deliberately obfuscate things for your reader. It means making things more like real life. It means making the reader feel like they are there.
Imagine you are at work one day and a colleague has a furious argument with someone and gets really angry. What would actually happen? Would they walk in the room and a helpful ethereal voice pop up and say ‘Jim is furious!” No. You would see him storm into the room, face twisted in anger and slam his fist on his desk, and your brain would take the necessary subconscious steps to work out ‘ah, he must be angry.’
All you are aiming to do in writing is make it more like the latter than the former. By telling, we actually remove our reader from the world we are creating. Nobody really tells people things regularly in real life, at least not all the time, and so by telling the reader becomes very aware that they are reading. This is not what you want.
So, instead of writing:
“Jim was furious.”
Jim stormed into the room, face twisted in anger, and slammed his fist on the desk.
Okay, it’s not Shakespeare, but it’s a step in the right direction.
The key to emotions is to imagine what someone would do if they felt that way and describe those actions. Think about the following things:
How would they move?
What would they do?
What would they look like?
What would they say?
Describing how they would move is an important first step. We hold ourselves differently when we are in different moods. Verb choice is an easy way to describe this. Look above: Jim didn’t walk into the room, he ‘stormed’ in. If he had ‘slumped’ in, it would have shown a very different thing.
Next is thinking about what they would do. Jim is being a bit cliche by slamming his fist on the desk, but maybe he’s an emotional guy so I’ll let it pass.
Then think about what they would look like - facial expression, body position. Are they staring at the floor? Are their eyes wide open or clenched shut?
Lastly is thinking about what they would say. It’s the only one not covered above, so let me try and include it in a redraft:
Jim stormed into the room, face twisted in anger, and slammed his fist on the desk.
There. That’s better. Jim is clearly very angry. But the most important thing is that at no point have we felt the need to tell the reader, blatantly, “Jim is very angry.” and take them out of the scene. This is the heart of showing and not telling.
Let’s try another one: fear.
See if you can pick out the four areas - how would they move? What would they do? What would they look like? What would they say (if they would say anything at all)?
Sarah fumbled with the touchscreen of her phone, panting hard. “Shit, shit, shit, shit.” Her head flicked up, panicked, as though it had a life of its own. She pressed her body further into the back wall.
Again - easy and straightforward.
This is where showing starts to get a little more difficult. I’ve written in the past about how effective character portraits often move away from physical descriptions, but this is just one element of it.
Let’s look at this description I wrote a while back:
The doors swung open. Detective Inspector James limped into the room, his wide shoulders barely fitting through the doorway. The entire room froze. He looked at the officers and growled. As his dark brown eyes surveyed the scene before him, his lips curled up into a malicious sneer.
“Dobson!” He barked. “Come with me!”
Relief crossed the face of every other cop in the room. As the doors closed behind them, all that could be heard from the corridor was the scared shuffling of young Dobson’s feet and the ominous tapping of DI James’ metal cane.
Essentially we are using the same skills - verb choice, describing how they act, speak, etc. But it goes deeper than surface emotions now. We are told very little about Mr James here, other than the fact that he is a Detective Inspector, but through the words used we can pick up hints.
Consider this: I was workshopping with some writers several months back and I read this description out and asked them a few questions and to construct a backstory for the character based on this quick description. While there were key differences, the main similarities between the four backstories were uncanny:
He used to be in the military (hence ‘veteran’) and worked his way up. It was very much his life and he dedicated himself to it. He was married during his time at the military. He was injured by a piece of shrapnel, or stray bullet, or something else (hence the cane), and was forced to leave. This made him extremely bitter - coupled with his wife leaving him (one wrote that he came back to find his wife cheating on him, one wrote that his wife left him because he was growing bitter and resentful, one wrote that his wife died of an unexpected illness), he now relives his old army days vicariously by terrorising other members of the police force. He lives alone, drinks too much and hates people. He’s staunchly Conservative.
It is amazing how many of these things can be imagined from a brief description that tells very few of them. This is what you should be aiming for with your character descriptions. It’s far more engaging for a reader to work for the implications than to simply be told them. If I had written out the backstory above directly, he would be a much less interesting character.
So how to do this?
You could take the approach with emotions and think about the following things:
This is your quick and easy way to go at it.
Another way is to go at it from the other end. Write down everything you already know about your character’s backstory - make a list of all the things they’ve been through and formative experiences they’ve had. Now fast-forward it to the present day (for your character). For each one, write down the impact (physical or emotional, or both) that this would have.
Put this in a table or list, like so:
Grew up in a Conservative family, but his father was never around.
Has attachment issues ever since he was young, caused him to marry the first woman that ever really showed him love.
Injured in the army
Limps, bitter, kind of hates young people because they are physically able and they remind him of what he once had. Likes to bully them as it makes him feel better.
Wife left him
Avoids women completely. Can barely talk to them. He just barks at them and saunters off. Very lonely. Cuts himself off from the world. Alcoholic.
Made into an Officer in the army at a very young age. Mother was proud.
Still fiddles with the badge when he’s nervous. Keeps it on him at all times. Would be beside himself if he lost it.
Sometimes they will be so small that you’ll just drop them into description now and again (the badge). Sometimes they’ll be big formative parts of your character (the loneliness). The point is that they come from somewhere. The point is also that, as a reader, working out experience from impact is far more compelling an activity than working out impact from experience. Watching him bully younger people and get a sick pleasure out of it is much more engaging than being told "he's jealous of younger people because he doesn't have that physical capability anymore."
For a much more detailed breakdown of how to create character's from experiences, I strongly urge you to check out “Getting Into Character: Seven Secrets A Novelist Can Learn From Actors” by Brandilyn Collins”. It's an exceptional writing advice book and really breaks down the character creation process well.
This one is often the toughest. Setting seems like something is prime for description, right? How do you show setting without telling your reader what is there?
This is absolutely fair enough, and often the setting (especially in fantasy / sci fi books) will be key to the plot and development of the scene. However, at times descriptions of settings can come across as extremely dull, regardless of how interesting or well-thought out that setting is.
The issue often arises when setting is divorced from plot or character. It is important to make sure that setting is introduced through action and not just described on its own.
A very good example of this is from Brandon Sanderson's The Way of Kings. The chasm-filled landscape of the Shattered Plains is a wonderful fantasy terrain, but it is described for the first time to us mid-battle.
The first time we here about the drops and gorges is when characters have to cross them to get to the Chasmfiend they are hunting. Bridges to cross the chasms become an integral plot point to Kaladin’s character later on. In fact, the setting itself is as much of an antagonist as any individual. This makes the setting come alive - it shows us the setting through describing something else, i.e. a character’s journey.
I would say this is a pretty hard and fast rule I try to stick by: setting should be shown through the development of character. It should help them, challenge them or be an obstacle for them. It should make them feel at home or completely lost. It should put them at ease or make them anxious. It should push them forward in the story. If it isn’t doing any of these things, try to think about why it is there in the first place and if you really need it.
Apologies to those who look forward to new advice, but due to work constraints and the fact that I'm falling behind on my own writing projects, I will only be posting once every two weeks from now on.
The next post will be about the writing process and where we get our ideas from. See you in two weeks!
I am a writer, a reader and a teacher. I write about writing. Sometimes I write about other things too.