Thursday, 2 September 2010

The writing process, or how to make life as difficult for yourself as possible

So this is what it’s like. I have a brilliant – brilliant! – idea. This is going to be the best romance ever written. It will make readers laugh, it will make them cry. It will make them sigh with satisfaction as they close the book. It will win RITAs and rave reviews. It will be on keeper shelves around the world. Oh, yes, this time I’m going to get it so right!  Eat your heart out, Nora Roberts.

Then it’s the development phase, working with my highly trained team of plot advisors to thrash out detailed character back stories over a few sessions at City Screen, in coffee shops or on long walks. By the end of this phase I know who my hero and heroine are, why they are the way they are, and what drives them. I know what they want, and why that’s so important to them, and I know the situation that is going to force them together and bring their goals into conflict. I’m a bit hazy about how the plot is going to work after that, true, but it’s time to get writing.

I rattle off a rough draft. Maybe 25 or 30 pages. This is so rough it lacks punctuation, articles, and often meaning, and is peppered with questions to myself (Why????) or notes as to where obviously expansion will be needed (kiss+++++) The sole purpose of the rough draft is to fill some pages so I’m not facing an entirely blank screen and to start to get a feel for where the characters are and what they’re doing.

Then I go back to the beginning. This time I’m going to write a full draft, because I’ve done this 55 times before and I know what I’m doing, right? I understand about emotional conflict and character development and dialogue and pace. I start off and the first three or four chapters go all right, until that creeping sense of unease starts. It’s not all right. It’s all wrong, in fact. It isn’t working. Time to go back to the beginning. The next time I might get to chapter 7 before that sickening certainty hits: I cannot write any more. I never could write. Those 55 books were a complete fluke. My career is over and I will have to sell my house, give away the cat and hide myself in a pit of shame and humiliation.

(Here's Douglas, at risk of having to move home ...)
I will have to start all over again. By this stage, I have ten days left. I am desperate. And then, miraculously, something happens to break my block. This time it was coffee with a friend in Marks & Spencer’s and deciding to change both hero and heroine’s names. Suddenly, it all came together and I have been writing 5000 words a day, which is all very well except that my brain is still seething when I go to bed, so I can’t sleep, and my right arm is in the grip of RSI all the way up to my neck. I’ve tried exercises, and Chinese balls, and who knows what else, but none of them seem to work, and I end up popping ibuprofen and slathering on the Volatarol. (If you’ve got any better ideas, please let me know!)

But in spite of that, I am feeling a million times better. The story is working at last, my characters have come to life and I’m WRITING!

And I can keep Douglas in Whiskas until the next time – phew!


  1. Oh I'm so glad Douglas is safe cos he's so damn cute!!! Thanks for the insight into your writing process - it's heartening and hilarious :)

  2. I've never written a draft. That could be why I'm stuck two-thirds of the way through this book and not much caring whether I ever finish it.

    But I'm really glad that Douglas doesn't have to pack up his squeaky mouse and last tiny of Whiskas in a hanky and head for the nearest cardboard box.

    Maybe I need a cat to give me an added incentive...

  3. No draft???????? Picture me with goggling eyes, Liz! I can't imagine writing without at least four (and usually a lot more than that) I'm always fascinated to hear how other people write. Hope your system comes through for the last third!

    And yes, Douglas is very relieved, thank you both. He's lying back with his paw over his eyes right now, purring 'phew' ...

  4. Wow Jessica you've just described what happens everytime I write (maybe there's hope for me yet?). I love your books and we all appreciate the physical pain you go through to get them on the shelves.

    P.S. Douglas is a cutie but I don't know, by the look of that photo, you'd have had a hard time moving him.

  5. There's always hope, Lacey! Let's both keep at it. Good luck, and may your own struggles pay off very soon!