twelve stages of writing

I don’t know how it goes for you, but I have a process when I begin a new novel. It goes something like this:

Stage 1 — I have a character and a name. I come up with bare-bones character sketches and a synopsis. I try to keep things simple, because as I write, the characters will supply the details that I’ll use to build my story toward the novel’s climax. Not a lot goes into my files at this point; however, there is a lot of mulling and hemming and hawing.

Stage 2 — I perform the necessary research so my details are accurate. My current novel begins in Spain in the province of Aragon in 1348, so I’ve been reading as much history on Aragon and Pedro the IV as I can possibly get my hands on. I need to know everything from what kinds of trees and crops were grown in the area to how fast a horse can travel (without killing the horse).

Stage 3 — I am now ready to sit down and write the first chapter. There’s more hemming and hawing and muttering as I try to ram this novel into third person POV, but it’s just not going to happen. I swear at my protagonist and promise him excruciating miseries for making my life so hard, then begin writing in first person. Eight false starts later, I finally have my opening paragraph.

Stage 4 — The inciting incident. Well we must have one. So what motivates our hero into the unknown? I stalk the house, weed the garden, and stare into space like a brain-addled dope fiend. Finally, I come upon the thing that will light a fire under my protagonist and get him moving. I also narrowly avoid rear-ending the vehicle in front of me, because I’m trying to write and drive at the same time.

Stage 5 — I begin writing the scene, each night rereading what I’d written the night before and grooming the prose to capture my protagonist’s voice. On the fifth night, I reread my work and realize I have written approximately 1,300 words of shite.

Stage 6 — I scroll up and read it again, unable to believe this is my work. I mean, seriously, someone must have opened a window and let squirrels run across my keyboard. This can’t be my writing. I glare at the cat, but he remains asleep, oblivious to my predicament. Ingrate.

Stage 7 — Unable to deny otherwise, I must accept the impossible — this is my writing. I chew my knuckles and rock back and forth before my laptop. This is horrible. I can’t write another book. I’m finished. What madness possessed me to believe I could do this? Utter panic sets in. I decide to join a circus and become a clown. Might as well. I’ve humiliated myself before my friends and colleagues. I really, really, REALLY suck as a writer. As a matter of fact, you can knock the nice, Englishy “e” off shite and call this what it is.

Stage 8 — Now major doubts arise about my last novel, which probably sucks righteously too. Oh. My. God. What have I done? I’m in a tailspin and immediately burst into my daughter’s room and scream incoherently at her, because it’s all her fault for encouraging me to write that other story in the first place. I used up all of my good ideas in that book. I’m dry. I’m ruined, RUINED!

The cat decides life is quieter under the bed. My daughter yawns, shakes her head and speaks calmly for a few minutes, kind of like people do when they’re talking to a frightened animal that could bite. My husband comes upstairs to see what all the yelling is about and reassures me that he believes in me. He tells me he knows I can achieve whatever goals I set my heart on and he’s behind me one hundred percent. To lighten the mood, he also tells me that the new SC 430 that I’m supposed to buy him when I’m published isn’t as important to him as my sanity. I love my husband.

Stage 9 — Sniffling and weepy, I go back to my computer and reread what I’d written the night before, but the distance from my laptop to my daughter’s room and back again didn’t make it better. Okay, okay, okay, okay. I can fix this. I can fix this. After all, this is what I WANT to do, right? I need to see a doctor.

Stage 10 — I go to bed.

Stage 11 [the next evening] — I open my laptop and reread what I’d written the night before; this time I see one line that may redeem me and my protagonist. I make a deal with the guy: I’ll write his story in first person if he’ll stop being such a jerk. I am making deals with imaginary people. I realize there’s something really wrong with me. I am slightly insane, but it’s starting to be okay. I cancel the doctor’s appointment.

Stage 12 — I’ve found eight lines that work, and my army is finally on the correct side of the river (thank you, Google maps). In a great epiphany, I understand why the bridge at Jalón was so important to both the Unionists and Royalists, and the scene is starting to fall into place. I’ve shot my rusty Spanish with a hit of WD-40, and the place names are sounding less foreign. I’m also learning to swear in Spanish, which has somehow improved communication between me and my protagonist. Hysterics are coming less frequently, and my family has stopped padding my office walls with soft, foamy materials.*

So what about you? Do you have major doubts about your skills when you begin a new project? Or do you just swim right in because the water is fine?

*My family should be canonized, by the way, just for putting up with me and my moods! I am eternally grateful for them.

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About T. Frohock

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42 Responses to twelve stages of writing

  1. ram0singhal says:

    divine….very thoughtful and nice…….wisdom grows on sharing…

    All “creative arts” which include “writing”,”poetry”,”singing” “painting”,”photography”,and various” sports” ,and “hobbies “like “gardening”, “cooking “are like various paths and worship of works are prayers to bring subjective and objective together for creative enlightenment.
    love all….bless you..

  2. jenniferneri says:

    ahhhhh I just lost my comment……it was something along the lines of how good it was to be catching up over here and how exciting it is that you are writing a new novel!

    In regards to this post, I normally begin at your stage 4 – it is a moment that usually triggers it for me. Then the writing is like a marathon, with me pursuing the characters and events. The conscious thinking comes after first draft for me. I realize this is backwards for most, but it is how it has worked for me thus far, even though it creates a lot more work than beginning with a planned action. I love working in this way, because the unfolding story is like a gift to myself.

  3. Glynis Smy says:

    I am about to embark on my second novel. The first was a catalogue of mistakes, and I am determined this journey will be smoother. I can relate to so many items on your list. Hope all calms down in your world asap. 🙂

    • Mine was the same way, Glynis. My first novel was a mess, but An Autumn Tale is my second novel, and after what I learned during several writing classes, An Autumn Tale went much more smoothly than my first novel, which shall remain untitled. A Rose for Guillermo is my third, and after the combined lessons of my first and second novels, Guillermo (in spite of my hysterics) is coming along much easier. Good luck on your second novel! You’ll find it’s a lot easier than the first.

  4. erikamarks says:

    Great post, Teresa. We ALL go through this, don’t we? I like how you seize on the lines that work–yes! I do the same–sort of a forest-for-the-trees thing. If I look too far ahead, I can get quickly discouraged, but if I take pieces of what works (a character’s personality, a scene, even a few lines of dialog) I can usually boost myself up over the mountain. For the time being, anyway!:)

  5. erikamarks says:

    And thank you too for the link to my post, Teresa–I so appreciate that!

    • I like that: “boost yourself over the mountain.” That’s how it feels, then I’m back to that “being chased” analogy you have on your blog. ;-D No problem on the link, I’d been trying to come up with a description for that feeling and you hit it beautifully.

  6. good writing, here!

    your lite insanity makes me feel more sane.
    and i think you’re right – subsequent works
    seem to benefit from our wisdom & experience.


  7. Lua says:

    Hi Teresa, glad I discovered your blog 🙂
    With me, before I begin writing my first draft, I outline the whole story in my head, then in a notebook to see if it works. I write detailed character profiles, get used to my characters and then I begin writing.
    Thank you for sharing your creative process!
    Lots of love

    • Hi Lua, I will definitely get to that point. I’m working with sketches until I get a good feel for my first three chapters. One thing I learned on my last novel was the best way to see my characters was to have them interact with other characters. Sometimes that told me more about their personalities than anything else. Then I use that information to really develop a serious character bio.

      Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting.

  8. Kelly Bryson says:

    Ahhh, you’re the one who has my squirrels. Many thanks for getting them out of my hair for a few weeks.

    Did you really start yelling at your daughter? I do that sometimes- like tonight, but it’s more satisfying with four, I’m guessing. They were all hitting each other and not putting their shoes on when I asked them nicely ten times and I mailed another query letter today and oh my goodness, I really suck, what was I thinking…etc.

    So, basically, I feel you. Good luck, crazy lady. It’s fun being in the trenches with you.

    • My daughter is twenty-four so she knows I’m not angry with her, but blowing steam (hence the eye-rolling). 😉 It’s when I stop yelling and speak very calmly and methodically that she knows trouble is coming.

      Good for you on your new query letter! I’m rooting for you, and yeah, it’s great to be in the trenches with you too.

      • Kelly Bryson says:

        I was sure Rhi could stand up for herself;) It’s only ugly to get upset with little people who, through no fault of their own, have to live with a neurotic suddenly noise sensitive person. My poor kiddoes;) It’s not been all that bad, but I am definatley a little high strung these days. Could you just tell me how wonderful my story is and promise me this will end well?

  9. Ann Best says:

    I found you through Glynis Smy, and glad I did. It will take me a while to read through these excellent posts. Good information for writers. I’m on my second revisions of my first contracted book, and this information will be useful, now and in the future.

    • Hello, Ann, thanks for stopping by. Congratulations on your book contract! That must be real exciting, although I’m sure the edits aren’t much fun. 😉

  10. Hannah says:

    I can so relate to this. And knowing that even writers who must have certain skills and talent still have to go through a similar process is really helpful. Like, really, really helpful 😀

    Mostly I have a first line or paragraph I’m completely in love with and the rest is… well, just the rest and doesn’t quite live up to any expectations. When that happens I bribe my characters and if they still won’t co-operate I kinda threaten them (I have issues, I know), but then at least someone does what needs to be done. Works so far. Deals with imaginary people = win!

    Anyway, thank you for this blog; guess now I’ll check out the other posts 🙂

    • Threats work, Hannah, trust me, I had my last group well in hand by the end, but starting new — well . . . 😉

      I’m glad you stopped by and took a moment to comment.

  11. authorguy says:

    This was a great and funny post!

    Never had the problem, though. My characters are always doing something, and I have to take it on faith that it will all mean something in the end. Lots of faith. Or to put it another way;

    “I have no idea. I figure I’ll have the book finished for two weeks before I figure it out. Thank God for word processors.”

    “Only two? My goodness, we are feeling clever this year, aren’t we?”

    No, not really. “Of course,” I said aloud. “I’m immensely clever all the time. I’m so clever even I don’t know how clever I am.”

    “No doubt it is this ignorance which accounts for your incredible modesty.”

    “You got that right,” I said, tippety-tapping like mad on my keyboard. “There’s no religion like being an author, taking it completely on faith that this incredible hash spilling out of your brain will all come to make sense in the end. It’s humbling.”

    “Yes, I can smell the…humility.”

    Marc Vun Kannon

    • Ha! I like the smell of . . . humility. 😉

      My very first novel, I typed on a typewriter (that should blow minds all over cyberspace). I remember re-typing page after page after page . . .

      I too am heartedly grateful for word processors. Thanks for stopping by, Marc!

  12. missdotcom says:

    Wow. Here I was musing about how to start with a novel that I’ve postponed for over two years now when I read your blog. Those twelve stages sound rough. I wonder how rougher it will be for me with my first novel. Anyway, your blog inspired me to start working on my piece. So thanks for that 😀

    • How wonderful! Try, you absolutely must try! Sometimes you’ve just got to dive right in there and begin. I hope you’ll be back to let us know how you’re doing.

  13. Heh. I begin at stage 5, mostly because my stories so far are contemporary and inspired by settings I’ve been able to walk/swim or climb. (And I’d be lucky to have a synopsis emerge.) Also, I think I trademarked the Shite label a while back. 😉

    Great post, T. Both truthful and funny, which you know I adore.

    • Oh no, if you’ve trademarked the Shite label does that mean I’m in copyright violation? Or did you specify virtual Shite (must find Andrew Wylie). ;-D

      Thanks for stopping in, Jan!

      • Andrew Wylie will be of no help to you. As of this moment, you are neither famous, nor dead, though I’m certain it’s only a matter of time until you’ll qualify. Just make sure the former happens before the latter, okay? 😉 And you’re welcome, unless you want to rescind your thanks, in which case, too bad you’re too late. Got it?


        • Thank you for one of the best laughs I’ve had all day! Right when I needed it too! 😉

          I’ve already told my daughter to hold on to all my manuscripts — it’ll be my luck to be dead then famous. I’ll stick a note inside to tell her to contact Wylie upon my death. He’ll probably still be around . . . in e-format . . .

          Oh and be sure to check out @EvilWylie and @GoodRandomHouse on Twitter. Their tweets have gotten me through the day! 😉

  14. Laurelyn Estes says:

    Very amusing post–the part about squirrels running across your keyboard made me giggle. I think we all argue and plead with out MCs at some point–it’s a part of the writing process.

    Your family sounds wonderfully tolerant and supportive. I amuse mine constantly because more often then I like to admit I end up screaming as someone walks into the kitchen where I’m standing and brainstorming. They jolt me out of my head and back to reality and even though it wasn’t anything crazy, they surprised me. It once happened three times over the course of several minutes. No lie.

    And to answer your question, I don’t doubt myself when I begin writing something new because I expect the first draft to suck–that’s what rewrites are for, yay!–and I’m far too interested in learning all about my characters and their journeys. I try to never look back until I have the first draft done because I end up getting hooked in by all the horrible crap I’ve produced and trying to fix it and then the story never gets finished because I lose my drive.

    • Hi Laurelyn, I really like what you had to say about first drafts sucking. 😉 I think they always do, and now that I’m getting grip on my protagonist, it’s starting to run smoothly. However, it’s always so encouraging to hear (or read, as the case may be) that other writers go through the same thing. Thanks so much for your comment, because it made me realize I’m on the right track after all.

  15. Yudhvir says:

    this post was retweeted by AdviceToWriters. I just loved it when I read, I am trying to improve my writing and post like this completely honest, insightful & interesting is inspiring. When I started I was expecting some quick tips out of thousands available on web, but I must say it was real treat reading it.

    • Hello Yudhvir, I’m so glad you enjoyed the post. I’ve been surprised and delighted that folks have enjoyed this, because after all, isn’t that what we want to do — write posts and articles that are helpful and fun?

      It’s very nice of you to take a moment out of your time and write a comment. Thank you!

  16. Kimberlynn says:

    Thank you for this post. Happy to know I can cancel the referral to the shrink. My problem isn’t the beginning: I have great beginnings. It’s after about 30K words and my characters are all sitting on my couch refusing to give back the remote and raiding the fridge in the middle of the night. I’d really like to start the search for an agent, but alas, they refuse to cooperate. I thought about cancelling my cable and refusing to buy groceries, but I fear they would take up all night poker games if I did. I’d threaten them, but the problem with that is I’m pretty sure these guys are much tougher than me and I’d end up regretting it. However; I’m not above a good bribe…hmmm.

  17. kat magendie says:

    Makes me think of the stages to accepting our death *laugh* – but a lot more stressful and fun, right? -haw!

    Love your posts – I see your blog growing and growing and this makes me very happy.

  18. amanda says:

    Ha! This was a great read, Teresa! Do I have doubts when starting a new project? Heck, yeah! I often have to let those first pages ferment for a few days until I can even look at them again. And, you can often find me looking through the “Help Wanted” section of the newspaper at that exact time…

  19. Vicki Lane says:

    Oh yes. And for me, it never stops. As my friend, the novelist John Ramsey Miller once said, ‘Every time I send a finished book into my editor, I’m convinced it’s so bad it could suck the bark off young oak trees.’

    But then I read it a few weeks later and it seems miraculously to have improved. Thank god.

    And then I go and start the process all over again.

    Funny, funny post! I came here via Kat Magendie and Angela Dove.

    • I’m so happy you found me, Vicki. I’ll be popping over to see you as soon as our Internet issues are resolved at home. I’m glad you enjoyed the post!

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