March 23, 2012

Post One on How I Write A Novel-The Research

Now that I'm on the cusp of being published and have passed the first few writerly hurdles, I have been thinking about how to help other writers who are where I just was. I tried to think about what blog posts helped me most and I'd have to say the ones that I really learned from were the ones on process (Maggie Stiefvater is one of my personal favorites for these types of posts, her blog is FULL of them). The more exact and detailed the information, the better. Since I am at the beginning stages of drafting my next novel, I figured it would be the perfect time to take you through my process as I go through it for this book. So, that's what I'm gonna do! So, beginning today, I will post at least once a week to describe what I'm doing that week specifically. This way you can follow along and we can write our books together. And I'd love it if in the comments section of this blog you would post what you're up to and how it's going as well. It'll be like we have a little online writer's group going!

One disclaimer here: Bear in mind that I am only just now writing manuscript number three. I am still perfecting my own novel procedures and so sometimes I will try something I haven't before or not do something I did for one of the other manuscripts. But I promise to try and let you know when I do either of these things and why. Obviously there's no one way to tackle a book. This is just the way I do it.

So, now that we've got all of that out of the way, let's get down to business!

The book I'm working on now is actually a sequel to the one that is going to get published next year. But, in the interest of keeping things simple, I'm going to pretend that it's a stand alone. I won't be able to give you the story line in detail (hello, no spoilers!), but I will go into what I'm doing in as much detail as possible. Once I have an idea for a story that I really like, I begin to collect information. I buy a folder like so:

Don't ask me why it's duotang and not a three ring binder because I don't have a very good answer other than this kind of folder takes up less space and can be squashed into purses in a hurry if need be (it has to have pockets, though). This is my favorite part, actually, the whole brand spanking new folder and lots of blank paper. It smacks of the first day of school. I also purchase fresh pens because I'm likely out at this point (I prefer Foray Rolle pens with a fine black point, but obviously this is a very personal preference type thing, so carry on with whatever works for you--but if you are a pen virgin, try can get them at Office Depot). I also get a package of legal pads, the economy size because on any given book I will use them all.

Then I start brainstorming.

I will write down the basic thoughts rolling around in my head first. Usually they are in no particular order and aren't always linear. They're my first impressions of where I think the story will go. Usually I will have a few sentences on what the beginning, middle, and end should include and what I believe the main character will want most. In other words, a list of actions and the intent behind them. This list is never long and always gives me a little anxiety because while I usually have a very clear vision of the beginning of the book, the middle and end are blurry at best.

Then I stare into space for a long while and meditate on characters. Since this new book is a sequel, I didn't have to invent them, but let's pretend for a moment that I did. Here's how it goes: As soon as my main character reveals herself (so far they've all been girls), I start jotting down everything about her that comes into my head--what she wears, what her family is like, hobbies, quirks, speech patterns, humor or lack of it, moral standing/perspective. I do this on paper. Whenever I brainstorm or draft I use the legal pads. I am a notoriously slow and uncoordinated typer, so typing just frustrates me. Then I begin googling names-both first and last even if I never come right out and say the last names in the actual manuscript. Usually by now I have a sense of what the character is like and so I try to pick names that I think lend themsleves to supporting her traits. I love it when I can find a name with a meaning that jives with my character's personality and intention. Then I type up a formal character page where I include a picture of a teen whose looks match that of my MC (main character). I try not to use celebs, but sometimes it's unavoidable.

This is what the typed page looks like (this character is from a book I didn't end up writing and not from my current project).

Once I've fleshed out the MC, I start focusing on the story's other players. I repeat the above process for every single one of them, whether their part in the actual book is big or small. This helps to deepen  the way that I write them, even if I don't reveal any of what's on their character page in an obvious way. It still transfers to the manuscript. The completed documents get printed out and put into the folder which I keep with me once I start drafting for reference.

Once the characters are hammered out I stop working on the story in a formal way for a few days. What I mean by that is, I do other activities and meditate on the new story while I'm doing them. I get my best ideas in the car or shower or while working out. The more I let my mind drift back to it throughout those days, the more the story begins to reveal itself. These days are still hard, though, because part of me sees this part as slacking off since I'm not actually putting words on paper, but in fact this is the most crucial part of the process.

 I will also develop a playlist of music or at the very least pick a song that directly speaks to what I'm working on and play those songs over and over and over again while I think. The one song  I am still playing from book one is "Waiting For The End" by Linkin Park. This song is so close to my MC's actual thoughts that it gives me chills. I listen to it ALL THE TIME. Am I sick of it? Strangely, it isn't about enjoying it when I listen to it now. It's about getting my head in the proper place and so it acts like a trigger now. Very Pavlovian.

Okay, since this post is already epically long, I will start with the next step in my process-research- next week. In the meantime, what's your process like? I'd love to hear about it!


  1. Love this post, Amy! I am in awe of your typed notes - they look so organised! I make notes straight onto the computer (as I get in too much of a mess if I write longhand), but they're all over the place. I have these weird conversations with myself to work out the plot and why my characters behave the way they do.

    I also make playlists and listen to them obsessively all the way through the research and writing. If I listen to them after I finish the book they belong to, it takes me straight back!

  2. They're only organized because I seem to do everything in duplicate before I get it right, lol! I revise and refine whatever I have down on paper as I type it in, even character notes--and those typed pages inevitably end up with stickies on them--but more on that in another post:)

  3. This is perfect, because I'm just starting to brainstorm my third book as well (while my second is with crit partners).

    Most of my brainstorming occurs in my head but I do have two notebooks I jot notes in, and a Scrivener file on my laptop. I've found though, that while I have an idea of who my character is in the beginning of my process, most of the details come out in the writing. My first draft is all about discovery.

    Sometimes I wish I could be as organized as you, Amy, but most of the time my characters refuse to speak unless I'm in the midst of telling their story.

  4. Oh, I'm not as organized as you think:) I end up with sticky notes all over everything and eventually my draft always takes over my entire dining room floor! I have to lay it all out and look at everything visually. I agree with you about the character developing as you write--that's where all those sticky notes come in!

  5. Oh this is interesting! I'm writing Book the Third too (except it might be fourth because I put one aside, and it might be second because I shelved the first :D).

    I haven't written any paper notes for this one, and I've never printed anything out at all. My notes are all in a Word doc. I do like to write a query/blurb thing for the book right at the start though. I think it helps with focus. I didn't do it for my first book (and my God, you can tell!)

    So I'm a reformed pantser really. This new WiP is the first one that I've fully outlined before starting. I have maybe 150/200 words on each chapter laid out right now, plus a page on my mc and her backstory. Tomorrow, I start writing the actual ms again (had a break for a revision)!