#AuthorToolbox More Than Fiction (My Writing Process)

When learning about writing, I frequently come across succinct little pieces of advice, which can be helpful, but also misleading. “If you want to be a writer, just write, there’s nothing more to it.” “Writers need to do two things; read a lot and write a lot.” But what does it actually look like? I’m a firm believer that writing requires many skills, and I also believe it’s important to continue to work at each aspect each week (at least a little), but what are the categories, and how should I divide my time among them?

These are questions that I continue to debate, and it’s my hope that others would enjoy discussing them as well. I’m going to share my current theory (and it is very much a theory), as well as a brief explanation of how I reached it. Please, let me know what you think.

1. Writing Stories (Fiction) 35% (3-5 hours)
*Generating new ideas
*Writing Rough Drafts
*Asking for Feedback
*Revising stories
*Submitting for publication

For a long time I believed the key to becoming a strong writer was simply to write. The more stories I finished, the stronger I would become. But over time I came to the realization that most of my stories needed a lot of work.

So I’ve shifted my focus from rough drafts to revision, believing that the answer lies in finding out what it looks like, and feels like, when one of my stories does “work”. Granted, that is a very vague term, but I can say that while many have praised me for “writing well”, few have felt like the understood what my story was about, the overall meaning, and that level of consistency is a clear sign.

I still jot down ideas, and once a month I write a bit of flash fiction, but for the time being most of my creative writing time is dedicated to revision. It is my hope that once I get one or two stories to that point, I’ll have an easier time repeating the process.

2. Studying Writing Techniques & Theory 25% (2-3 hours)
*Reading articles & books on writing
*Integrating new ideas into my notes
*Discussing writing (in person and through blog posts & comments)

As part of my writing process, I maintain a set of notes. Writing helps me remember what others tell me, particularly if I write it down in my own words. Organizing by topic became a natural extension of that, and eventually I found myself referring back to my “Theory & Technique” document, looking for something I’d forgotten, or comparing what I’d written down with what I’d recently read or heard.

Converting the information into blog posts seemed like the next natural step, a way to refine my understanding, “compare notes” with other bloggers, and put my longest ongoing writing project to work (even though it wasn’t, and probably never will be finished).

Books on writing have provided some of the most valuable lessons, but blog posts often provide more relevant insights, from writers not so dissimilar from myself. And through comments we can discuss and debate, and really hone in on the heart of the matter.

3. Book Reviews 25% (2-3 hours)
*Read each scene twice
*Outline the story
*Analyze the story
*Consolidate the analysis into a brief review

Some people can casually read a story and also pick up on things like character arcs, plot patterns, and how the author tends to structure his sentences. Sadly, I am not one of those people. So when I want to really learn how the author did it, I need to outline.

First I read through each chapter, jotting down little impressions as I go, then I go back and read it again, stopping after each scene to write a quick summary. By the time I’ve done I have a several page synopsis to help me remember all the details. Of course I can’t stop there. I create another outline, this time 1-2 sentences per chapter, along with some color coding for tension, and a brief list of the major beats (active, reactive, setup, deepening).

Usually by the time I’m done with that I have a fair sense of the story. With the outline on one side of the screen, I open a fresh document and start going through one more time, sorting my impressions by topic (plot, character, etc.) and grouping similar phrases together so that I can combine them later. Gradually the review starts to emerge.

It’s a lengthy process, and I’m hopeful that over time I’ll get better at “seeing” how the author performs their “tricks”, but for now I need to map it out.

4. Upkeep and Networking 15% (1.5-3 hours)
*Reading & commenting on blog posts
*Discussing with others
*Sharing my successes, and my setbacks/struggles
*Researching places to submit
*Formatting, submitting, keeping track of my efforts, and the results

Writing is often a long, solitary process. Most write because they love it, but often that’s not enough. I blog and discuss stories to learn from others, and offer what I can in return, but I also do it so that we can connect. There’s a time for criticism, but when I first complete a rough draft, what I’m really looking for is reassurance to tide me over until the story really is “good”.

On the clerical side, I’m always adding literary outlets to my list (mostly magazines, some publishers), along with a brief description of what they’re looking for, and a URL. When I do submit a story, I make a note of the date, the version, and when I should follow up.

That’s what my writing process looks like, for the moment.
What do you think?
What does a typical writing week (or month) look like for you?
What sorts of tasks do you work on?
How do you balance the different aspects? Or do you?
What rules (if any) do you subscribe to when it comes to your own writing process?

This post was written for the Author Toolbox Blog Hop where we share our new discoveries on the craft of writing, editing, querying, marketing, publishing, and blogging tips. Posted every third Wednesday of the month. For rules and sign-up click here.



45 thoughts on “#AuthorToolbox More Than Fiction (My Writing Process)

  1. An artist friend of mine recently talked about how ‘making art’ wasn’t the same as practicing. He has regular deadlines he’s pushing towards, and so creating the pieces was his main focus.

    But, he’s thinking about taking classes, or taking the time to work on particular things — line work, life drawing, color use, etc.

    • That is one thing that’s currently lacking in my writing quotas, really experimental writing. Someone else I knew suggested writing sentences where each word had one more syllables than the last, which sounds interesting.
      Then again, part of me does want to get 1-2 stories up to “publication quality” first.
      Again, it all comes back to time, and deciding for oneself what is the best use of your time.
      I’m definitely studying & learning; all a matter of finding the right balance.

  2. I haven’t analyzed it to the extent you have here, but I do believe improving one’s writing is more than reading and writing a lot. I read a fair number of books by both new and acclaimed writers. I write at least one short story each month, even in the middle of writing a novel. And I browse writer’s blogs, such as yours, to learn from others. I recently joined a regional writer’s group that meets monthly to discuss writing. It all takes a lot of time, but I find it enjoyable.

    • All good things.
      I think part of what makes writing challenging is how subjective it is. Even the path we take, the ways in which we learn, study, and practice, are very different.
      Everyone’s needs are different, but I think it’s good to learn from many, and try a wide variety of styles. Even a Lovecraftian Horror writer can learn something from a good romantic comedy.

    • I imagine working on multiple works of fiction simultaneously has its own challenges. That’s something I have yet to master.

      • Well, to be fair, when I did that the results were not terribly good, which is one reason I shifted my focus. My hope is to better master good story writing, and then gradually accelerate my efforts without losing the quality, but that’s all a hypothetical ideal at this point.
        I find one of the biggest challenges with short stories is coming up with a story that fits within the length of a short story, or isolating the “fragment” of the idea that can be told in a short story’s length and still grant some sense of “completeness”.
        One of the best examples I’ve seen are the micro-stories (15 word or even 6 word stories). Those really demonstrate how brevity can still convey a lot.

  3. For me, improving my writing is two-fold: studying what works in my genre and taking it apart; and then writing along with a fantastic workbook called 90 days to your novel by Sarah Domet. The resource has changed my critical writing eye and Plan.

  4. That seems like a logical breakdown of time as it relates to what goes into staying afloat in this biz. My time may come out to a similar breakdown in the end, but when I’m writing, all my minutes seem to go into that effort, and then in writing downtimes, I’m learning (reading about craft, reading craft.) Right now, I’m in a learning phase. I’m ready to start writing again, but I have a trip in a couple of weeks, and I don’t want to get into it, just to be torn out of focus again. Great post!

    • Mmm. I definitely find that some weeks, for the sake of reaching a good/stable point, I focus more on one aspect than another.

      I admit, I envy/admire that you can read & learn during downtime. I find that if I don’t intentionally write out an analysis, I just get swept up in the story, unless I read it many times, which, I admit, is a guilty pleasure of mine, but there is much to learn beyond what my few favorite stories can teach me.

  5. Wow! The way you analyze what you read is a bit daunting… But I guess I do that to — minus the colour coding and outlines 😉
    On days that I have to do social media (IWSG, Authortoolbox and blogging days) I answer emails, write my blog post, answer comments, comment on other blogs, tweet and post to Google+ and Pinterest, do a bit of housekeeping on the various networks (like sending out the confirmation email to my newsletter subscribers about the new regulations everyone must adhere to) and find something new and shiny to read online.
    The rest of the week… Well, the first week of this month was all about rewrites on a story accepted for an anthology (twitter announcements today!), the second week was all about finishing up the final touches to my book coming out on the 23rd of May, the previous two days was about writing entries for an online competition and sending it in (flash pieces), today is social media, and the next couple of weeks until the end of the month will be for rewriting a novel. I’ll do social media for the launch posts at night after all the writing is done.
    Hopefully I’ll be able to take time on the weekends to play on my compost heap (it makes me happy).
    As for reading: I read a chapter before breakfast, a chapter after lunch and if the light permits, a chapter before dinner. It’s winter here and I prefer to read with natural light — lamps are for when I’m actually working 😉
    I learned a lot of new stuff about publishing, marketing, etc. at the beginning of the month, mostly by asking questions from other writers. I read a stack of books about writing and marketing earlier this year, so it will probably be next equinox before I read non-fiction again (I can only learn so many new things at a time).
    I have post-its and highlighted instructions on my calendar for what I have to do each month. It’s fun ticking off things on the to-do list.
    Currently, that’s what’s working for me. Last month it was doing fiction in the morning and non-fiction in the afternoon. Next month… We’ll see 🙂
    Thanks for sharing your own methods. There’s always something new to learn from the way others approach this business.

    • Thank you for the compliment. I’m actually gradually working to reduce the scope and depth of my analysis, free up more room for other tasks.
      If I may, what do you do with Google+ and Pinterest? Those are two aspects of the social media puzzle that I have yet to incorporate, and welcome your insights, if you don’t mind sharing.

      Congratulations on your acceptance! What’s the name of the anthology?

      It sounds like you tend to touch upon every aspect, but choose one to focus on for each week. Would you say that’s accurate? Is it an intentional decision, or something that’s grown organically out of your style?

      I imagine the choice to read 1 chapter at each of the 3 intervals creates a nice “pause” between other things, a good time to switch projects.
      Do you jot down notes after reading a chapter, or let your thoughts rest in your mind for a time?

      Any chance you’d be up for posting a list of the books on publishing (and marketing) that you’ve found helpful?
      I can definitely relate to the feeling of “only able to learn so much at any given time.” There are definitely times where my mind feels tired. I could push through, but I’m not always certain that’s a good idea…

      Thank you as well. As you say, there’s always more to learn, and sometimes it can be nice just to hear that others are using similar methods.

  6. I found that writing a short story a week really helped me improve, because I experiment with different genre and style. I think I could learn a lot from going back and revising some of those stories!

    Currently I blog twice a week, one short story and one other post, which takes about 12 hours. I also run a Sunday writing prompt hashtag game on Twitter, which takes up about 3 or 4 hours if I include graphics and interaction.
    I spend about 4-6 hours a week on blogs, emails and twitter connecting with other writers, and about 9 hours a week writing.
    I try to prioritise my writing, but there are so many other things to do it sometimes falls by the wayside. I haven’t written since Camp Nanowrimo ended in April!

    • I think there is definitely something to be learned by writing and completing several short stories. I’ve heard several novelists cite that, at first, there’s more to learn by writing several short stories than one novel. In some ways, no matter what you’re doing, there’s something to learn. Just a matter of deciding what represents the greatest return for your time & effort.
      That is an impressive writing schedule!

      I definitely need to set aside some time to learn more about Twitter.
      Thank you for sharing.

      • Short stories are definitely worth it for me. The first draft I began before I started writing them is pretty terrible. The first draft I’m working on now is far better 🙂 They’ve helped me work out issues with my writing and develop my own style.

        Twitter is great for connecting with other authors. Most people follow back, although a good bio is useful to let people know you’re an author and a little bit about yourself. The best tip I have is to interact and share other interesting posts. I’m @DragonspireUK if you want to connect, and if you need any help when you get around to it let me know 🙂 (I think we all have our favourite platforms and Twitter is one of mine!)

  7. Loved reading about your writing process! I especially resonated with this line: “So I’ve shifted my focus from rough drafts to revision, believing that the answer lies in finding out what it looks like, and feels like, when one of my stories does “work”.”

    • Thank you.
      I’m definitely a believer in the idea that a good writer needs to write many stories, rather than perfect the one, but there’s also an element of “properly aiming oneself”.
      If I keep writing in a way that is veering off course, I’m only reinforcing that, rather than correcting it.
      I’ve been told I’m very good at words and sentence structure, but the larger and more subtle “meaning” has often proven too vague or cumbersome for others to see.
      I think, for me, part of the problem is the fact that my initial ideas, my “vision”, if you will, is often not something that can simply be translated onto the page.
      It’s a good starting point, but it needs to be treated more like a Rorschach ink blot, rather than a blueprint.

      In any case, thank you. It’s always nice, and encouraging, to hear that someone enjoyed reading what I wrote.
      Next step…do it again :-P.

  8. My writing week right now is editing, editing, editing, and social media. I also post one blog post a week.
    I’m hoping to get back to fiction as soon as my book is released. But at the moment there are too many little details to take care of.
    I was fascinated by your book review process. You probably learn more from such close study than you would by casually reading. You should definitely count that studying writing techniques as well!

    • Probably good that you’re multi-tasking, give your mind the occassional a break from editing.
      If I may, what do your social media efforts look like?

      Congratulations on the book release!
      What date is the release?
      What’s the book about?

      The book reviews do help me better understand the theories and techniques I read about, but often it feels more like an application of skill than new learning.
      I’m testing myself, to see if I can recognize examples of the different techniques & theories, and if I can understand why I feel a story is strong (or weak), and how I might improve upon it.
      Many writers I’ve talked with have cited either editing or teaching as a day job (to provide some stability), so it’s my hope that these analyses will help me reach a point (eventually) where I might be qualified to provide such services.

    • Reasonable.
      As you say, if it works keep at it.
      I’m just very wary of “assuming it works”. It’s the classic conundrum of “I’ve never actually done what I’m trying to do, therefore I can’t actually ‘know’ what’s going to work, or what ‘working’ actually looks like.” I try to be very aware of my own ignorance.

  9. I recently realized that most of my time learning was spent learning marketing and PR techniques and not writing. Huh. Didn’t expect that. So, now I’ve signed up for a week-long writer’s school in August.

    • Congratulations!
      I’ve definitely had that experience. There was a time where I focused almost exclusively on reading books and articles on writing. I was going to “figure it out” so that I didn’t waste any time writing “bad stories”. But at a certain point one realizes that “I started this because I want to write stories, and that’s exactly what I’m not doing.”
      That’s part of why I try to keep records. I have a habit of focusing on the trees and trail in front of/around me, and not necessarily considering the big picture that surrounds that.
      But it’s all a learning process. Everyone has different shortcomings, and a big part of the process is learning about ourselves.
      Look forward to hearing about your experience with the writer’s school!

  10. Super interesting insights into writing processes, and you’ve given me some food for thought for my own practice. For me, I definitely structure my writing time more than my reading time, though even the structure for my writing time is going through constant revision. (Like my writing, eyyyyyy.) But I’m also thinking the same thing, that right now what I need to focus on is revision, not necessarily generating new content. But I’m also going to take a leaf out of your book and start diving deeper into the fiction I’m reading and analyzing it more for craft. Thanks so much for sharing!

    • Thank you!
      It’s very heartening to hear that one was able to help someone else.
      As others have said, it’s all a process, and there’s a way in which everything works until it doesn’t, and that’s when we all start rotating through all the different ideas and techniques we’ve come across, looking for the next key to unlock our creativity.
      I look forward to hearing how your new process works for you. Any insights you feel comfortable sharing would be most appreciated :-).

  11. I became a better writer by continuing to write, learning about my craft (through books, etc.), taking editing courses, and beta reading for other authors.

    I don’t often write reviews for the books I read, but when I do (for fellow authors in my community), I do keep pen and paper close by to write down any impressions, thoughts, as well as the story line.

    • Beta reading is definitely something I have less experience in.
      There were a couple times that I was able to respond to someone’s request, but as is often the case, the story I responded to is still currently in revision.
      I’m definitely hoping to see that someday, as I feel that reading for other authors is another powerful way to “see ourselves through others”, and gain more insight into that ever present but well-hidden gap between the story in the author’s mind and the story they’ve put down in words.
      Recently I’ve been reading a book called The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller, and that text also places a strong emphasis on defining different aspects of the story in a single sentence, including the story line.
      I think many stories, by their nature, obscure and disguise those simple/central threads of the story, so that audiences focus on what’s unique about the story, rather than what’s universal. But as a writer I feel it’s essential that we understand what those central components are, so that we make sure they remain central to the story.

  12. Do what works for you. Though I do think writing daily keeps your writing fresh. You don’t have to write a story daily, just write something.

    • Mmm. I agree.
      I forget where I read it, but one author talked about the intense anxiety and fear that they experience after completing a story; that desperate need to “start something again”, so that they have something in mind, and can say they are still “writing”, even if they’re not putting words down on paper.

  13. Revision is a very important part of the writing process, but here’s the thing–the more you WRITE, the better you GET, and the LESS revision you have to do. Everything takes practice, and the more you practice and repeat a task, the better you get at it. Of course reading and marketing are also very important, but when you hear the advice “writers write a lot” it essentially means it’s the heart of the craft. After all, if you don’t do the writing, you won’t be able to do the other things.

    Honestly, having been a writer for a long time, I’ve found that everything else surrounding writing gets A LOT easier when you’re well-practiced at the writing part. It all just sort of flows and comes together.

    • I definitely agree that there are many things one can learn by writing numerous stories, but at this particular juncture, I believe I can also learn a great deal by writing different versions of the story, to help me find the version that clicks. It’s all about finding your way, and trusting that eventually you’ll get there.

  14. I should probably strive to balance my writing process as well as you have, but currently my process is in flux as I figure out what works for me. Each month a little more falls into place and I hope some day soon I will have a method that really works for me. I know that critiquing others work and discussing writing were two things that for a long time I didn’t “count” towards my writer time. Initially it didn’t feel like that was progressing my writing even though now I know that was a foolish perspective.
    One thing I am truly envious of is your book review breakdown. That is truly impressive. I intuit a great deal of the information, but maybe its time I took a more practical approach and tried to break down a book as rigorously as you do. I may stop back and use your explanation as a guide to give it a try. Thanks Adam. This was a really great post.

    • Thank you.
      I like to think we’re always “figuring things out”. Make me feel a little better when I have to change things, and more comfortable with the reality that nothing is ever really “perfect”.
      I also struggle with “what counts” towards my writing time. One practice I adopted (which I’m not recommending), is different processes get different levels of credit. For example, writing up the summary, I might count that as 50% or 66%, while the analysis or final review might count for 75%.
      It can be a little frustrating at times, spending an hour and a half, but only counting it as an hour, but in some ways it also helps me to feel less guilty about counting my effort towards the quota, even though I feel like not all of my efforts are equally effective/productive.
      On the topic of book reviews, if you’re able to intuit what you need to learn more power to ya. Honestly, I’m hoping to get better at that. It’s one of my reasons for doing so many outlines, to try and sensitize myself to those underlying patterns and techniques that I so often fail to notice when I read for fun.
      If you’re interested, I can share an example of an analysis I’ve done, either the raw template or one of the completed ones (Dune, Ender’s Game, Harry Potter 7, or Dresden Files). If not that’s fine too :-).
      Interestingly, it started because when I reviewed the Ice & Fire series, I relied rather heavily on detailed outlines of each book that I found online to find specific passages that helped me verify my ideas, but when I came to review the next series on my list, no such outlines existed.
      In any case, thank you! I’m glad to be of help.

  15. This is such a good post. It was very interesting to see how the writing week breaks out. Mine is very similar to yours. When I write, I try to finish a draft before doing editing. I love to edit, so I have to force myself to write first. I get most creative during the editing phase – don’t know why. I also love to read about how to write. I probably spend more time doing this than I should 🙂 Now i’m going to look hard at my writing week and see if I spend it well.

    • That’s interesting. I can’t remember the exact quote, or where I heard it, but at some point I was at a convention panel, and one of the authors said something to the effect of “There’s rough drafts, and then there’s editing. Rough drafts are all about getting something, anything on the page. Editing is where the real story emerges.”
      I definitely think editing has a special place in my heart. Rough drafts can be fun, the endless and open possibilities, but that blank page can be pretty intimidating. When editing, I already have something to work with, something I can “react to”. If a particular scene feels too slow, I can add tension. If a character is too shy, I can make them more bold. Whatever’s not working, I can use that as a guideline for what to change.
      I think there’s always “something” that I wish I could/did spend more time on. I think that’s also part of the writing experience, that endless desire to “do more” or “do it better”.

  16. You’ve picked up the problem with the “just write” advice – all the practice in the world isn’t going to help if someone doesn’t understand some of the basics of writing for modern audiences. That’s where learning from craft books (or blog posts) can help. Or taking classes (have you ever done a Margie Lawson class? I love her classes!).

    I’m intrigued by your approach to book reviews. I read and review, but I don’t go to that level of effort to understand what worked, what didn’t, and why. I suspect a lot of new writers would benefit from that level of analysis.

    • Thank you.
      One of my college professors cited that an exercise they found helpful was to type up a story (or an excerpt), and in the process, observe how her own natural tendency and voice caused her to stray from what was on the page, and how those divergences served as a natural conversation piece (what is the significance of omitting that word?).
      I’ve definitely taken a few courses, and read a fair amount, but over time I started to encounter more speakers expressing familiar ideas, so I opted to reduce my focus on that aspect, though I don’t think I’ll ever stop.
      I definitely think the depth of the analysis is helpful, though whether the benefits would merit the time investment is a very personal choice. I find it particularly helpful with very well written stories, where the author has so seamlessly blended it all together that it’s very hard to see how they did it.
      Weaker stories often make it easier to recognize their flaws, though I also think there is more to learn from weaker stories, as they highlight what’s important in its absence.
      For example, Lovecraft does some things very well, but his stories often feel sluggish and dry to me, a prime example of the importance of good pacing.
      I’ll take a look at Margie Lawson. Thank you for the recommendation!

  17. This is interesting, as I love hearing about other writer’s processes. It sounds like you have a pretty good process. You may be interested in Gabriela Perierra’s book diyMFA, She breaks the writing process into three groups – writing, reading, and community – and covers pretty much everything you listed. Thanks for sharing! 🙂

    • Thank you. That’s most kind.
      I also enjoy hearing about other writers’ processes. Even if “it” doesn’t work/apply to me now, it’s interesting, and it may one day be relevant to me.
      I definitely tend to regard my writing process as a kind of “self-guided” degree program that doesn’t end.
      There are articles and books on the subject, works of fiction almost serve as case studies, and through blogging one is able to both write and submit their own content, and engage in discussions.
      I’m glad to learn I’m not the only one who feels that way :-).

  18. I think it is a very thorough and well thiughout list. Many people tend to forget that writing is also revising and researching, learning and networking. There is much more to it than just hecking away at the keyboard.

    • Indeed. There’s the old joke that eventually animals randomly striking keys would recreate many of literature’s great masterpieces, but I’d rather get there a little sooner.
      And there’s the classic idea that before one can write, one must have something to write about, and that means life experiences and interesting conversations.

  19. Good advice. Writing consistently is important, but I agree that just writing a lot won’t improve someone’s skills. Anyone can just churn out a lot of rubbish. Polishing work and learning from mistakes is vital.

    Networking is also a good thing to do. Even if most bloggers start their sites because they love to write, they won’t stick with it long term if no one reads what they put out.

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