Lee Child writes one draft per book. He does not plan, plot or outline in advance. He does not revise significantly. This process works for him. He consistently finished a book a year this way for the past 20 years. For some time, those books have landed in the #1 NYT bestseller sweetest-ever spot.
Reading about Child’s process made me trust my own more deeply. I’d only read about writers (particularly writers of mystery) who painstakingly plot their novels in advance. These writers advocate character sheets and detailed outlines and other things I never do. A part of me always wondered: is this why my novels aren’t reaching a wider audience?
Not that I’d change anything. It just wouldn’t be as fun the other way. And writing every day for hours and hours all alone in a room needs all the fun it can get. For some writers, plotting in advance is probably their idea of fun. Just like for some people, beer is the best alcoholic beverage on the planet. Neither are for me.
I think as writers we all develop our own processes, book by book. We try lots of stuff and we keep what works for us. I took a ton of workshops and attended many conferences and read a load of books about the writing process. I tried lots of stuff, and some of it stuck. But the way I start a book developed pretty early, before I’d read anything about process or taken any craft classes.
I begin each book with no clear picture of anything except for maybe a vague theme or a shadowy character.
I have written directly into the laptop and I have started with a Dr. Grip gel pen and a top spiral bound notebook. About longhand: I love writing this way. It absolutely shakes loose the story for me. But I hate transcribing all those pages from a notebook into my computer. I solved this process predicament by typing directly into my laptop every day after free-writing morning pages. My morning pages let me have that pen to paper experience without pressure. I write about everything, including where I’m at in the particular manuscript of the moment. What problems do I need to solve that day? What’s working, what isn’t, why and what I can do about it.
I love my process even more since I’ve figured out how to merge morning pages and novel writing. It really works–for me. The other thing I do is write freely without much of a plan for the first half of the book, maybe a little less. I tend to “know” when it’s time to read over the pages and begin to plan. Yes, I’m a pantser/planner. Neither one or the other, but both.
At about 25K words, I read everything I’ve got straight through, jotting notes to myself along the way. Do I need more characterization? Does the plot fall flat in the middle? Is the beginning too weighed down by backstory? After six published novels, with another on the way, I have a whole list of problems easily spotted. Writing a book about writing, and teaching creative writing for a number of years, helped me to recognize these problems in a days’ work. It takes a little longer to figure out the solutions, but it does happen while the book is still a work in progress. It happens every morning when I wake up, into that first cup of coffee with the writing pages, all through the day as thoughts and answers come to me, even at night in my dreams.