Since I just sent the manuscript of my latest novel to my agent, I thought I would begin today a series of blogs about my writing process. To keep some variety in my blogs, I’ll post to this series every other week for the next several weeks. When I meet with book clubs (whether over the phone or in person) questions about my process always come up. While I can’t tell you what is the best way for you to write a novel—because everyone works differently—I can tell you a little bit about my process.
My first step is what, in elementary school, they used to call pre-writing. Basically, this involves thinking. Sometime I am sitting in a chair at my desk, often I am on a walk or a run or sitting on an airplane waiting to take off or on a long car trip. In the case of The Bookman’s Tale, I was taking a walk in the Yorkshire countryside thinking about what I wanted to write next when I hit on the idea of a secret in an old chapel. With First Impressions, I first got the idea for the mysterious book at the center of the narrative and then began to add characters to the story. A lot of the details I worked out while training for a marathon—going on long runs in the English countryside. I would come home dripping with sweat and immediately grab a pen and some bit of paper and do my best to write down my ideas before they fled away.
For me this stage can last from anywhere to a few months to a few years. It involves writing, but not sustained writing on the computer. At this point I am just jotting down ideas. My wife will tell you that she never throws away any scrap of paper (junk mail envelopes, credit card receipts) that has my nearly illegible scrawl on it. During this process, I do my best to keep my editorial voice silenced. It’s like brainstorming—there are no bad ideas. Often what seems like a small detail will grow to take over the story, and what I thought, at first, was the main point will become minor or even disappear altogether.
As I move through this period, I gradually write longer pieces—complete paragraphs, short scenes, character sketches, sometimes even a several-page description of the book as I see it at that time. Most of these documents will fall by the wayside during the writing process, but they represent an important step for me in developing my story and characters. Unlike some writers, I do not prepare an outline before sitting down to write, but by the time I’m ready for the next step, I do have a good idea of who my main characters are and what the overall arc of their story is. Then it’s time for the most intensive part of the process–writing the first draft.