Writing: You Can’t Do It All At Once

A while back, I was asked to write a guest blog post on the writing process for Southern Writers Magazine. I’m cross-posting it here. I hope it will give y’all some reassurance that writing takes time, and work, and that it’s all worth it.

The Writing Process: You Can’t Do It All At Once

Writing is a process, we hear. But what does that mean? That writing is like assembling cars on a factory line? Like baking a cake, or giving birth?

For me, process means I spend months brainstorming ideas for a novel, and sketching character biographies, coming up with plot twists, and researching topics that range from cryptology to cat burglary. It means I outline the story: the beginning, the middle’s big turning points, and the ending. It means I pound out a rough draft. (So rough, I could glue it to a belt sander and use it to grind down metal filings.) It means I revise that draft once, twice, maybe three or four times, adding more plot twists, pruning dead ends, and turning cardboard characters into living, breathing, bleeding people who launch themselves at the world and at each other.

Process means that writing a novel is a multi-faceted, multi-layered endeavor. Which means you can’t do it all at once.

So, if you’re gazing into the abyss that is your writing project, feeling overwhelmed, lean back. Repeat after me: One step at a time.

It took me years to figure this out. When I first attempted to write a novel, I had no idea what I was doing. I just hammered out a story featuring an embryonic version of my series heroine, Evan Delaney.

In the first version, Evan’s entire family disappeared. Ooh… it was a mystery. The problem: Evan spent 20 pages sitting in her brother’s empty living room, having flashbacks about her childhood, before noticing that nobody was home. It was lumpen. In the second version, a bunch of amateurs pulled off a sting. That version had witty dialogue, a cast of hundreds, and a major issue: I called the novel a murder mystery, but nobody in the book actually died.

In still another version, I spiced up a slow scene by introducing a revving engine and a blinding set of headlights. The characters dashed to safety, and then the would-be thriller screeched to a halt, because I had no idea who was at the wheel or why they were after anybody. I was a deer in those headlights, broadsided by the realization that I had no plot.

That’s when I taught myself to plan novels so they have a beginning, a middle, and an end. And as few blinding headlights—and other clichés—as possible.

I learned how to construct a plot: a big, strong story that builds to a conclusion that’s surprising yet inevitable, with strong, sympathetic characters in action under pressure, facing the hardest choices of their lives. Now, with twelve novels published, I know that this is the work I’ll tackle whenever I start a new book.

Process means that your writing has to develop, evolve, and grow. All that takes time. One step after another. Embrace the journey. You’ll get there.

8 responses to “Writing: You Can’t Do It All At Once

  1. That’s the coolest description of the writing process I’ve ever heard. It’s a craft and an art at the same time; both industrial and organic at once. Thanks for that Meg.

  2. This is a really fantastic post. You did a great job talking about the writing process.

  3. Great post about your process and it shows so clearly why a quality book doesn’t just pop out every week. Also enjoyed the bits about Evan’s evolution!

  4. You are so honest and real about your writing. I love that. It seems like writers don’t want to let us know there were awful drafts of their work. That they struggled with everything at some point while writing. Maybe even some of the stuff that is supposed to be simple.

    To me, it’s like they want us to believe that a professional just whips this stuff out with just minor changes, when in fact, they write dumb s**t just like me.

    Okay. Maybe not just like me. But, maybe like some other better writer person who has moments of really bad mechanics and creativity.

  5. I’m happy to talk about the work that goes into writing. It shouldn’t be a secret. Letting people think that it’s all down to some innate ability or inspiration is misleading — and discouraging! An opera singer wouldn’t claim that they just walked onstage at La Scala and nailed an aria out of the blue. Everything takes time and effort.

    • It is nice to hear. And encouraging. I so admire you. Not just as a writer, but for the person I get glimpses of. Smart, funny, always learning and up for an adventure. I bet you are a hoot to hang out with.

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