As I'm about to embark on my next project, Scouring Juventas, I've realised I seem to have settled upon a writing process that works well for me. The first novel that I started applying an approximation of this was A Revision of Reality, and I've honed it over the three subsequent novels. I'm sure I'll keep tweaking it, but it seems to suit how my brain works well.
If you've been following my blog, you'll know that I tend to over-document what I'm doing along the way when writing a novel. That's probably part of my process too, but I thought I'd pull it all together in this one post. I'm not sure whether it will be useful to anyone other than me, but that's never stopped me before.
Although it's generally applicable, I'll mainly use examples from Scouring Juventas, purely as that's what I'm about to start writing.
Let's start briefly with the tools without which I'd be even less productive.
I use the wonderful Scrivener for all my writing. It's probably my career as a software developer that makes this feel so natural to me. I can see the structure of my novel in the binder on the left of the main window, expand and get at any part of it instantly. It's so easy to restructure when I've (inevitably) got something wrong. This is an example of what it looks like for the opening couple of parts of The Muffler's Mission, showing the part, chapter and even scene structure within a chapter.
Then, once everything is completed, I can press compile and get it to spit out my novel in whatever format I want: a Word document I can directly publish on Amazon for Kindle, another formatted for paperback, another ready for Draft2Digital publication, a double-spaced manuscript to submit to agents, or even e-books in epub or mobi formats – all with different front and back pages. Whatever I want. It needed a bit of work to get it set up in the first place, but now it makes life so much easier.
The Scrivener documents are saved to Dropbox without any action on my part, which then syncs between Scrivener on my MacBook, my iPad, and even my iPhone. When I was working full-time, I wrote in the evening and edited it at work on my iPhone at lunchtime. Similarly if I'm feeling lazy, I'll edit my previous day's work in bed on my iPad before getting up!
Then whenever I exit the app on my MacBook, it automatically makes a backup copy to my network disk, keeping the last ten backups. Helps me feel confident nothing will be lost.
There's a lot more to it than that, which I'll cover as I go through the rest of my process. Other than the final output, I hardly ever use Microsoft Word these days, and haven't missed it for a moment.
The other tool I use most regularly is Grammarly. I don't slavishly follow its suggestions, but it does help spot typos, bad habits and things that are just a little bit rubbish. I use this on every chapter after it's drafted, and at every stage of redrafting after that.
The tools aren't much use without ideas for a story, so where do I get those from? There's no single answer to that, but I keep one or more Ideas documents in the Scrivener notes section for my current work in progress, and I'll record ideas in there.
Sometimes when I'm reading, or watching TV, I think a story is going in one direction, and it doesn't, and I think what would have happened if I was right? So I'll make a note about it. That's where the setting in A Division of Order came from.
I may visit somewhere and think, this would be a great location for a story – like the West Kennet Long Barrow in Wiltshire that I've used more than once. Another note is formed.
I might see a picture of something that similarly inspires me. The castle in The Muffler's Ministry came into being like that.
Sometimes you'll see something in reality that makes you think, well what if...? I happened to be visiting Lacock in Wiltshire when they were filming the Downton Abbey movie there and saw a man smearing mud on a shiny vintage car. He ended up being a recurring grumpy character in In Memory of Chris Parsons, not happy with what he was asked to do to his beloved vehicle.
I usually have themes that might form the basis of a story, people you know who make you wonder what they'd be like in a story with that theme, then you start piecing other ideas from the notes and sometimes a story organically pops into being. It won't be a surprise that the theme of A Division or Order was inspired by reading An Anatomy of Fascism by Robert O Paxton.
So what inspired Scouring Juventas?
The story's location came from a short story in my collection in which a generation starship left Earth. I thought... what happens to the colony when it arrives? Do they stick with the same rules that worked for them on board ship for a while? For how long? What happens when things change?
With all the kerfuffle in the last US election over voting machines and the misinformation spread by Trump and his supporters over them, it got me thinking of a society that has personal secure voting terminals in every home as the basis for ongoing democracy within the society. What would happen if something went wrong?
There was also something implied to have happened historically in one of my other novels that I thought would be interesting to explore from a different perspective. I'm being intentionally vague here, as this part would be too much of a spoiler.
Sometimes real-life people can inspire characters. That's definitely the case in Scouring Juventas. Having gone through a marriage break-up in the last year, I'm happy to base some character conduct on the less pleasant members of her extended family, mainly as catharsis! Not my ex herself though. Not only would that not be fair, I already used our failing relationship to inspire aspects of In Memory of Chris Parsons – partly catharsis again, partly to make sense of what was happening. At least it helped prepare for subsequent events, even if not stop them from happening.
Put all that together, then there's plenty for me to work with.
As with the last slightly facetious story inspiration above, usually the primary protagonist(s) and antagonist(s) evolve with the plot, although they need a lot more work once the initial story arc is complete. I try to know the insides and outs of the primary characters, how they'll behave in the type of circumstances they'll come across, relevant physical and emotional characteristics, etc. Secondary characters are more lightly sketched, but I firm up on that once they become involved in the story. Usually when I start, there are characters that I know exist, but I don't worry about them until I get closer, just naming them as placeholders.
As a matter of principle, I try to have a diverse range of characters, whether racial, gender (including transgender) or sexual diversity. I don't consider myself enough of an expert of the issues facing various minority groups to even attempt to address them directly – it would only be a clumsy and unhelpful attempt. As my novels are largely set in the future where societies are different (which is often part of the story), it would be wrong to do so anyway, other than where it reflects on this future society. However, I want my worlds to reflect all of humanity equally, and not just stale white males, although naturally, my own perspective and biases will always be in there.
Again, Scrivener is good at managing all this. You can keep characters sketches in the same binder as the novel, even adding some structure. This is what it currently looks like for Scouring Juventas.
I've got a document for each character that has significant impact on the story, at least in the early stages. I've also got light descriptions of multiple characters in the family tree and the expedition party, ready to be fleshed out once it's needed.
This just gives me the starting point. It always changes.
There's usually something I need to record about the world within which the story is set. It might be its history, its geography, its laws, whatever I think is necessary, even if I end up never using it. It's surprising the impact it can have.
For example, in The Muffler's Mission, I documented the ethos and laws of each of the regions before I started, unsure how it would affect the story, and let everything play out. The story evolved completely differently from how I was expecting because of it, and for the better. For example, everything that happened on entry to Ringwall spun out of Ringwall's laws and the Locality Accords, which will have ongoing ramifications into the third novel, The Muffler's Misery, when I write it.
Again, Scrivener makes this easy to manage. I have the following in my binder already for Scouring Juventas.
As you can see, currently I have four different aspects of history that affect the story, including how that's left the laws of the colony of Juventas. I've then got notes covering the geography of the planet of Juventas – including a rough drawing of the map of the world, and the same again for the Afua region of the planet. I'll add more later when I need it.
It always surprises and delights me when these have unexpected impacts on the story.
Once I have a story outline in place, I try to add some structure to it. I usually split the story into multiple parts, usually around natural breaks, changes in location, changes in perspective, or just major story beats. This helps me keep the scope and pacing under control and not let it meander too far. I then create a rough outline for each part.
Sometimes I add interludes between each part, perhaps a historical narrative, perhaps background events from a different perspective. I'm doing that for Scouring Juventas, although slightly differently in this case. They're called Duties, but the reason for that is part of the story.
Before setting out, I split the first part into chapters, and often add target word counts for the parts and chapters. It may well change when writing – I often add or delete a chapter, for example – but it helps keep me on track.
I also check that each chapter has a purpose, particularly how it affects the protagonist. Something has got to advance along the way, as well as world-building in the early stages.
This is what I currently have for Scouring Juventas.
Then I start writing.
Usually I go linearly through the novel. Sometimes I complete all the interludes in one go – that's what I'll be doing for Scouring Juventas, writing the Duties first, as how that goes could affect the early chapters. I have written parts out of order once, but that's a rarity. In A Revision of Reality, parts one and three were from the same perspective, so I wrote those consecutively before swapping to a different perspective for part two.
After a few chapters, usually around three, I take a step back and review what's happened to the story and the characters. I've had enough time to get a feel for how things are going, and whether I'm on the right track. I may need to think again, to rework what I've already done, change the later story arc – it's hard to predict.
I do the same thing at the end of every part, although the changes at this stage tend to be more forward-looking, including breaking the next part down into planned chapters. The plan is only to get my thoughts in order. I'll rarely stick to it, especially when the characters start misbehaving and doing what they think is right.
As I'm progressing through the first draft, I keep a set of notes of things I'm worried about, or changes I might want to consider in the second draft. However, if it's simple, and it's clear what and where I need to do it, I'll make the change straight away. I know many authors like to plough through the first draft as fast as possible, but I've never been like that.
It's a bit like when I'm cooking – I tend to tidy up as I'm going along, rather than leave it all to the end. It seems to help me relax more, knowing I don't have too much baggage hanging around behind me, even if it means going back and adding new scenes during the first draft.
I'm a slow starter writing every day, and it takes me a while to build up a head of steam. I've found that the most effective way is for me to start by going back, reading and editing what I wrote the previous day. This is often about trimming and improving clarity, but I'll also expand things I feel I've skimped on the detail, especially where there are long sections of dialogue.
This seems to get me into the swing of things for the rest of the day and make the second draft a little smoother.
I have learned not to worry about the details in the later parts of the novels. I'm happy to leave things hand-wavingly vague until I'm at least halfway through. I know writing the earlier parts will make it spring into clarity.
For The Muffler's Ministry, I did have an unusually clear idea of what was going to happen in the later parts and made copious notes about it. Then I started writing the character of Tia Tobin in part two, and everything changed. Sometimes a character can alter the nature of the story completely, and it was definitely for the better in this case. I enjoyed writing her so much that the third novel in the series, The Muffler's Misery, may be more from her perspective.
Eventually I'll reach the end of the first draft, breath a sigh of relief, and give myself a couple of days off.
For me, the second draft is a more sedate affair, as I've tried to keep things as coherent as possible during the first draft, and my daily edit has polished the turd a little along the way.
I'll still have a list of concerns and things to consider, but they'll usually be best addressed by a slow and considered read-through. As I'm doing so, I'll edit on a line-by-line basis to make things a little more succinct. This usually reduces the word count by about ten per cent.
At the same time, I'll be addressing my concerns, adding the odd sentences here and there where the break in time from the original drafting has made me realise how unclear something is. Sometimes it's easy to leave context in your head when it should be on the page to aid the poor reader. This all usually adds that ten per cent back in, leaving me roughly the same length as at the end of the first draft, but in a much better state.
Naturally, I recheck with Grammarly as I'm going too.
Another useful Scrivener feature is to be able to take snapshots at any stage, so I'll mark the first and second draft as a snapshot, which allows me to easily see the changes I've made at each step. I'll do the same for subsequent drafts.
This is the point where I need to get an outside opinion.
I'm fortunate that my son is also an author, and increasingly expert in providing criticism. So I'll send off the second draft to him and wait.
There's usually a gap of a couple of months here, as my son will fit it in around his own writing, which works well for me too – the break gives me the chance to come back at it fresh. I'll be working on my early plans for a subsequent novel at this stage, or writing short stories. We've also timed it nicely for the last couple of books, so that my son sent a draft of his novel to me for feedback in the same period.
Once I get the feedback and we've had a good long chat about it, I'll start planning out the third draft.
I really enjoy this bit – taking the disparate elements of his feedback and deciding how best to address them. Again, sometimes it's just stuff I've left in my brain and forgot to put on the page for context. That's the easy bit.
The more challenging thing is where aspects of the story are unconvincing, the pacing is off, character arcs are left dangling, or the characters don't act in a way you'd expect given how I've built them up. That's where the real creativity comes in. It can be a series of smaller changes, or just as likely, I'll add in whole new scenes.
In The Muffler's Ministry, I split the last part into two, changed the ending completely, incorporated much of a sequel short story I'd written, and repurposed something from part one into a later part. That fixed some early pacing issues and built up to the finale better. I'd never have thought of it without his feedback on what wasn't working, but was exceptionally pleased with my solution.
Depending on the nature of the changes, I may discuss them with my son to ensure they managed to address what he was concerned about – or at least was in the right ballpark. Interestingly (or not), the right ballpark was a dialogue phrase that he rightly criticised in The Muffler's Mission, as it made no sense in the context of the world I'd created.
Once that's done, it's time for one final read-through and Grammarly check, and then I'm happy. I have done more drafts in the past, but not for the last few novels.
What comes next depends upon whether I intend to self-publish immediately, or want to see if I can get an agent interested in the story for traditional publishing. Whichever I choose, I'll get Scrivener to spit out either a manuscript for submission or the formats I need for publication and go from there.
Sorry, this was longer than I expected when I set out on this post. I've realised a few things myself along the way.
This process is probably pretty unique to me and the way my mind works. I can see all the parallels between how I used to approach software development projects – which could last eighteen months or more – and this. It feels comfortable, and has made writing a novel feel like a routine process for me now. Not easy, far from it, but little is frightening about it.
I also use writing blog posts as a distraction when I don't quite feel ready for starting something new. What do you mean, you've noticed? Huh!
I suppose I should get on with Scouring Juventas then.