The Five Stages of Writing

As is the case with so many other things in life, there is no “right way” to write a novel. There’s no “right way” to write, period, and the fact that I’m continuing this sentence after saying “period” is indeed ironic but the point is that in writing, like anything else, you have to find what works for you.

That said, there are trends. You can say things like “planners” and “seat-of-the-pants” and most people will know what you mean. But then again, not everyone is 100% pantser or 100% planner and maybe you do different things for different projects…

All of this is a long winded way of saying that what follows is my own experience. Maybe it will match up with yours, maybe not. You might find it helpful. Perhaps you won’t. But this is my little corner of the internet so I’m going to hold forth anyway 🙂

The Five Stages

Today, I’m going to talk about my emotional journey through a project. I did a little finagling to break it into five stages, and it’s not entirely linear – sometimes I bounce back and forth between them multiple times, particularly on longer projects. But it serves as a good general schematic, so I’m going to roll with it.

Pretending for a moment that nothing is complicated or messy and we can move through in order, let’s start with the generation of an idea.

The Spark/The Seed

I get my ideas one of two ways, usually. The first is the more exciting way – more romantic, I suppose. In line with the fantasy of the author as a creative genius. The “spark” is that idea which comes to you suddenly, in a flash of inspiration, or the dream that would make a perfect story. It’s fast, it’s intuitive, and you’d better write it down quick before its gone. With this kind of idea, I usually move very quickly into the next stage, which lasts all through the planning process and into the first bit of writing.

The other alternative is the “seed”. This is an idea that develops slowly, over time, with deliberate cultivation. I think about it on the bus, I daydream about it, I write down my ideas. I cross a lot of things out and write down new ideas. With this kind of idea, I don’t usually move into “euphoria” until I begin writing.

Let me discuss some concrete examples, rather than just pretty metaphor. Most of my flashfiction comes as a “spark”. I think of something quickly, and I go with it. My story for the Saucy Ink collection also originated as a spark. I had been trying to force something else, and it wasn’t working, when suddenly the idea for “a fortune-teller who sees something she shouldn’t” pops into my head. “Spiderwebs” was a spark. I had a very vivid dream, then woke up and wrote out the entire outline for a story in a frantic state. Princess, on the other hand, started as a seed. I decided I wanted to write a novel and for it to be fantasy; I spent a lot of time thinking and daydreaming until I had a plot (bloody coup forces princess to flee for her life) and theme (how much is identity tied to occupation) that I liked.

Either way, I eventually move into the next stage. Usually the excitement builds through the planning stage until I finally begin to write and enter the euphoric stage.

Euphoria

I’m in love with my fresh new idea, and the writing is flowing like you wouldn’t believe. The sun is bright, the birds are singing, and everything is shiny, Cap’n.

This is the euphoric stage, where I’m in love with my idea and in love with the writing and loving every minute of the process. It’s wonderful. Unfortunately, it doesn’t last long. The shine wears off, and I start spotting plot holes. Or the idea that seemed so fantastic in my head just doesn’t quite work on paper. Eventually, if I ‘m lucky, I move into the determined stage. If I’m unlucky, I skip straight to number four.

Determination

It’s not all rainbows and unicorns, but it’s not all terrible either. Yeah, this draft is crap, but the idea is solid and it has potential. I keep on writing, slow and steady.

For a short story, usually I can make it all the way to the end in this stage. For Princess, I anticipate cycling through steps 2-5 at least a couple of times before I finish.

Frustration/Disgust

This is the killer, the stage that is responsible for unfinished stories and half-written manuscripts. This is the stage where that nagging little voice in your head – the one that says “who are you kidding? You’ll never be as good as __” — gets really loud. When I look over what I’ve written, I hate it. I convince myself that it’s garbage, that I should give up and do something else. This feeling often hits right after I’ve finished a story – or, in the case of Princess, right after I finished Act I.

It’s a hard one to get out of. Ice cream helps. So does just sucking it up and forcing yourself onward. Sometimes I do need to take a break and do something, but I try to pick a boring alternative (clean the house, empty the dishwasher, do laundry). Often that sends me right back to writing. If that doesn’t work, I write something else.

Eventually, either higher blood sugar, a good night’s sleep, or a little distance from the project normalizes my brain chemistry and I make my way into the final stage.

Satisfaction

I’ve finished something. I’ve gotten over my overreaction, and I can recognize it for what it is – pretty darn good. I’m proud of what I’ve done, and I’m ready for the next round of punishment.

In conclusion, and an Announcement

As I said, right now I’m struggling through stage four with Princess – so I’ve been working on Spiderwebs. That’s hovering on the cusp between determination and frustration right now, but I blame that on my abnormally high stress levels right now.

With that said, I don’t think I’ll be posting on the blog this week or next. It’s almost MCAT time…

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One thought on “The Five Stages of Writing

  1. Excellent post! I’m very familiar with all the stages, but spend most of my time in stage 4. I used bull-headed stubbornness to get through.

    We also need to add more stages for the post-publication pain and suffering as well!

    Good luck on MCATs!!

    Like

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