Ask A Wench—How Do You Begin Writing a New Book?

This month's Ask A Wench focuses on another craft question . . . and as you'll quickly see from our responses, the creative mind is rarely tidy! Z<G>

How do you begin writing a new book? Do you rely on outlines or charts, or do you wing it from notes?

Pat'sdeskPat: See me flying into the mist, crashing into mountains.??.??. At the start of a series, where I am now, I???ll have the kernel of the series idea and a couple of main characters. Ideas float around. I scribble notes like:

Gothic mansion hidden in cotswolds? Cornwall?
Picturesque Elizabethan village
Hero thinks he’s dying? Looking for relatives?
Hero lives alone except for wickedly interfering, annoying mother/housekeeper/nanny
Historian who has studied egalitarian societies and believes England should move that direction
They’re both not normal, not fit for others; O/C
He’s in search of something important; she was orphaned during a storm/shipwreck
He has enormous family tree of names pinned to fabric. Bottom of tree folds up and can be lifted to hang over top of tree. Hereditary short finger or toe proves lineage
House has no entail so it can be passed to female descendant or sold. People who want it sold at war with ones who want to keep it?

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Sleeping, Dreaming, and Creating


Me, sleeping creatively

Joanna here, talking about one of my favorite things in all the world, aka sleeping. Writing is another thing I’m fond of. There’s a bit of an interconnection between these.

I tend to generate new material when I’m relaxed in the bathtub or lying in bed. I even get good work done in dreams. If I were talking about the creative process I might say I try to sleep a lot.

Let me talk about Coleridge who is a more interesting topic than many of those going

Screen Shot 2021-01-11 at 9.24.25 AM

Coleridge in 1795

through my mind these days. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, of  course, is the English poet who gave us such popular thrillers as The Rime of the Ancient Mariner which many of us read in Middle School. It includes the poignant lines

“Alone, alone, all, all alone,
Alone on a wide wide sea! 
And never a saint took pity on
My soul in agony.”

As I say, Middle School. This is stuck in my memory forever.

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Ask A Wench: Our Writing Processes

AAWGraphicAnne here, hosting Ask a Wench for this month. The question today is an oldie and comes from Keira Soleore, who wins a book. Would it be possible for you to blog about your writing processes and your daily schedules? …. A few days ago, I finished reading "Write Away" by Elizabeth George. She is a proponent of detailed outlines. In her book, she describes in great depth how her process works for her.

Before the discussion opens, I'd like to clarify a small point — obviously we all plot, otherwise our books would make no sense. So when writers say they don't plot, they mean they don't plan the story in advance, before they start writing it.

Mary Jo says:  Given that Elizabeth George writes mysteries, and particularly
Neverlessthanalady150   intricate ones at that, I can see where a very detailed outline would work for her.  But process is HIGHLY variable, and part of developing into a Real Writer is figuring out what works for oneself.

I'm a moderate by nature, so it's probably not a surprise that I fall in the middle, process wise.  I don't do detailed outlines, and I certainly don't dive in and head mapless into the wild blue yonder.  Instead, I write a synopsis of maybe eight pages that delineates the main characters and the setting and sketches in the basic plot line and conflicts.  It's rather like a skeleton, and as I write I put the flesh on.  The flesh is maybe 90% of the whole—but it's shaped to that original synopsis, which seldom changes much after I send it off to the editor for approval.

I should mention here that I am that most despised of creatures—someone who writes synopses easily.  I may gnaw on an idea for weeks, months, and occasionally years, but when it ripens, I can sit down and write the synopsis in a couple of hours.  And if I can write the synopsis, I know I can write the book.  The actual writing—now there's another challenge!

Cara/Andrea writes: Oh no, this question has me cowering under my desk, making little whimpering noises. I'm a huge fan of Elizabeth George and the Inspector Lynley novels, and to have her routine held as example is . . . intimidating, to say the least. Especially as I'm not sure I could draft a detailed plot chart for my books for all the chocolate in Switzerland.

Scoundrelcover2  I am, if you haven't guessed it by now, a complete seat-of-the pantser. I come up with a (I hope) brilliant flash of inspiration for a story, and the beginning is totally clear in my head.  For maybe 20 pages. Then . . .

Well, then is where the characters start to run with the idea.  I know, I know, that sound so lame on my part. I've tried other ways. Each time I start a new book, I vow that I am going to paper my wall with charts and diagrams that will magically lead me from start to finish with nary a stop in between. I feel that I'm a slow writer, and this will, I tell myself, make me faster. More efficient.

Ha! Sheets of paper get covered with squiggles and notes. Arrows bend around corners, point to the heavens . . . and prove absolutely useless. I end up staring at gobbledy-gook.

So how does a book happen? I make up for my lack of advanced preparation by being very disciplines about sitting down each day and writing, even when I'm not quite sure where I'm going. It's a leap of faith, and at this point, I know myself well enough that I don't wake up in a cold sweat over it. As for inspiration, it strikes at the oddest times. 
Case in point — the other day it was cloudless and warm. I had been working all day and decided I needed some fresh and exercise, so went down to the golf course, threw my bag on my back and went out to walk nine holes. It was nearing sunset, and the light over Long Island Sound was ethereal. A flock of gulls landed on a nearby green, brilliant bits of white against the emerald grass. A loon was fishing in the lagoon, and as I followed the narrow dirt path through the pale gold fescue, a pair of curlews were hopping through the broken sea shells, picking up stray bits of chaff. (Where is my golf ball you might ask? Umm, sometimes I forget to watch exactly where it's landed. But that's not the point.)

As I started up the fairway, daydreaming as usual, the line of dialogue that I had been looking for all day suddenly bounced into my head. From there, the whole scene, and the villain's motivation, became clear. And then, all at once, the second half of the book started to jell. When I got home, I sat down and madly wrote up a stream-of-consciousness rush of notes that would only make sense to me. That's my storyboard, and it's become easy to add in the details.

Undoing of a lady -US  
From Nicola:
 I have to write detailed outlines for my HQN books and I do find this very difficult because at that stage in my process I have only the vaguest idea of how my story will develop. The outline is useful for helping me to start to get to know my characters and identify the themes and the central conflict in the book but I know that all the other details will probably change and develop in the course of the writing. I'd be worried if they did not because I can't get the depth I need in an outline or even at a first pass. Fortunately my editor understands this and so doesn't ask any awkward questions when the final book sometimes bears very little resemblance to the original outline! I'm a seat of the pants writer and sometimes I wish I could write in a more planned and organised fashion but the process simply doesn't work like that for me. Similarly some days I can write all day and others I feel as though I am dragging words out of treacle and so I have to stop and go out for a walk with the dog to refresh myself and try to re-find my inspiration. I do try to write a minimum number of words per day, however, so I'm not completely disorganised! One thing I have learned is that there is no right or wrong process. If it works for you then that's fine!"

Secretduke  From Jo: My writing routine is to get to work after breakfast and work through at least until lunch directly on writing. What this means depends on the stage and behavior of the MIP. It might be straight writing — getting it down — or reading through and rewriting. Or, all too often, chucking out and doing that bit again.

My creative flow doesn't usually work well later in the day, though it has been known. I can do some editing, but I'm more likely to use later time for research and noodling with story ideas.

I don't pre-plot. It doesn't work for me. Anyone who wants to know more about that can read a speech I gave long ago

My advice to everyone is a) experiment and see what works best for you, and b) don't let anyone, ever, any time tell you one way is right and another is wrong.

Anne here, finishing up: I call myself an organic writer. Plotting a book before I start writing it doesn't work for me. Like Mary Jo, I have no trouble writing synopses — I can come up with what looks like a ripping yarn without too much trouble. However if I then try to follow it I get bored, feeling a bit like I'm painting by numbers. It's only when I'm inside the story and in a character's mind that the exciting possibilities start to unfold and for me part of the joy of writing is when unexpected things happen.

I sometimes liken my process to archaeology — it's as if the characters and their story are there, buried in some dim recess of my brain, and I'm unearthing them. Messy but the possibilities are exciting.

I often have an idea of where the book is going, for instance toward a big dramatic scene, but there are lots of different possible routes, and the first one I come up with isn't always the best, but simply the most obvious. 

As for my schedule, I try to write every day, turning up for the work, but I'm not a fast writer. First thing in the morning and late at night are my two best times for working. In the afternoon I'm hopeless, so that's when I take the dog for a walk, and do shopping and things like that. 

When I begin a book I write slowly, and the closer I get to the end the faster I get. I keep a daily word count. A lot of the time I write straight onto the computer, but I'll often write a first draft of a scene by hand, often a scene that's yet to come in the book. On the computer I write chronologically, in the notebooks I jump around from scene to scene and even book to book, as the muse strikes. I keep a notepad and pen by the bed, too, as frequently a scene will come to me during that dreamy half-consciousness between sleeping and waking, and I'll write it down — not simply taking notes, but writing whole pages of dialogue, sometimes. If I don't write it down, I forget it. Here's a link to a scene that's almost unchanged from the way I wrote it in the notebook one dawn, many years ago.

So, as everyone has said, there's no correct way to write. Our brains are all different and our muses sing to different music. Only the result matters.  What about you? How you approach big creative tasks? With a detailed plan? Or do you tend to fly by the seat of your pants?