Many writers are familiar with the moment of panic right before starting a new draft. What if I forgot how to write? What if my skills have gone backward? What if the challenges in my life since the last time I wrote a book have broken me somehow, and left me incapable of writing something beautiful again? During high school and university while working on my first few manuscripts, I used to think that one day I'd have written so many books that I would have a solid process, one that would carry me through my many, many ideas. I thought that process would mark me as a "real writer."
I recently finished writing my third book under contract, and for the most part it was a wild rush of inspiration. There were a few bumps along the way, including an injury that left me writing the last 20,000 words with one hand—my left hand is quite proficient now, hah!—but the most wonderful thing about it was that my process was very different from anything else I'd written. And then I started thinking more on that.
Of the 15-20 manuscripts I've written, every single one has had a different process. Now, whenever I decide to change up my process, it's a moment of relief.
It's proof that I'm discovering new things about myself and my books, or even just realizing that a particular story needs to be created in a specific way.
And in my opinion, change is the most beautiful thing in the world, and often the most necessary.
I often embrace change in some areas of my life and eschew it in others. For a few years, I wanted to avoid it in writing because I was so determined to find my process. But now I'm absolutely certain I don't have one, and that makes me quite happy!
The first few manuscripts I wrote, I had a slim outline; short chapter descriptions, a general sense of character growth, a plot that likely had more holes than I realized at the time. Being a fantasy nerd, I had way more documents on world building than anything else. That was during university, where I had very little time but still managed to write during my free moments. For the first two years out of uni, that's when my writing picked up a lot and started to change. For the first time, I only had one full time job and no school, and I got out of work at 5 or 6pm each day. I had a 40 minute commute on the metro each way, during which I'd write nonstop on Google Docs on my phone. A couple of those projects were "pantsed" (written with no plan), but most had at least a rough outline with chapter descriptions. I didn't know much about revising, but I got very good at churning out drafts in one or two months and then jumping to a new, shiny idea.
If I ever got stuck, I simply switched my process.
For example, if I were writing on my laptop and got stuck, I would switch to my phone, or switch between Google Docs and Word. Any slight format change would almost always jog me out of a block, and kept the words flowing. I wrote a LOT in those two years, roughly 5-6 books each year, and finished that time period with the book that would get me published: Diamond City.
Let's talk about "change" again, because I started writing Diamond City in January 2017 when Trump was inaugurated, and now, the final book of the duology will be published in January 2021, when he will be evicted from the White House. Whew. That thought makes my head spin sometimes. But also, starting from when I signed with my agent, my "process" started to change significantly. Part of that was the pressure to always write something publishable, but a bigger part of it was that I finally started learning about craft and revision (thanks to my wonderful and very editorial agent, Peter Knapp!). I became very nerdy about it and wanted to learn as much as possible. But this slowed down my drafting because I started being more critical of my work and less able to work on more than one thing at a time. While revising Diamond City with my agent before going on submission to publishing houses, I started four different manuscripts, and abandoned them every time I got a new edit letter. I couldn't pick up the inspiration again once I'd gone through a round of revisions, and would jump to a new project. It was honestly frustrating, because I'd gotten used to being able to produce a lot of material, and then suddenly I lost that. But now I know it was for the best, because I'd finally started caring about craft. Also, I never wanted to have to edit that much ever again (spoiler alert: there is ALWAYS more editing to do).
Drafting books under contract is hard, especially as a debut, which is one reason so many authors struggle with their second book. It's a new level of pressure and suddenly there's a time limit.
I definitely struggled at times and it took me a while to become comfortable with drafting again. But since debuting with Diamond City, and writing and editing the sequel, Shadow City, I've gotten back into drafting other projects and it's a whole new world. I do the thing people say you're not supposed to do, and I edit while writing—which is very different from my old process of speeding through a first draft and never looking at it again. Now, by the time I consider a manuscript "finished," it's around a 3rd or 4th draft in quality. This might not work for everyone. For me it does because I know I can get the words out when I have to, and I'm ready to change or cut them the moment I know it's necessary. There are a few craft books I look over frequently—Wired for Story, The Anatomy of Story, and The Emotional Craft of Fiction. But now, I always start drafting a story differently, in whichever way I feel it will best be told. Each project is a new journey, and it's always exciting to see how it will unfold.
There are a few methods I use that haven't changed, because they work for me all the time when I get stuck.
I've learned that if a scene isn't flowing onto the page, that means there's something in it that's not working, even if I haven't consciously realized it yet, and so it needs to change.
I'll add another dynamic to it or start it in a different place or amp up the stakes or solidify the character arc.
The key when doing this is to be honest to myself about why it's not working—is a certain character losing focus of their goal? Am I only writing this scene because I want to get in one cool line of dialogue at the end? Is there insufficient buildup of the plot or character arc that's making this hard to write?
Whatever it is, we writers often have a gut feeling of the problem, but are hesitant to act on it because it might mean cutting a lot of words or going backward, or it might mean one of our ideas gets sacrificed. My "method" is to act on it as soon as possible so the problem doesn't infect the rest of the story, and to change my process whenever it's not working. And 100% of the time, this helps me break through any blocks.
In conclusion, change is great. It is often necessary, especially when we're afraid of it. I embrace it in some ways and run from it in others, but writing is one aspect of my life where I love change.
Every time I feel my process changing, I hang on tight for the ride and let that change carry me to where the book wants to go.
If you feel like you need to change your process, remember you can always try out a method before committing. You can always change to a different path if the one you're on no longer suits you. Listen to your instincts when things aren't working.
That's the great thing about change: if one change doesn't work, you can always try another.
Francesca Flores is a writer, traveler and linguist. Raised in Pittsburgh, she read every fantasy book she could get her hands on and started writing her own stories at a young age. She began writing DIAMOND CITY while working as a corporate travel manager. When she’s not writing or reading, Francesca enjoys traveling, dancing ballet and jazz, practicing trapeze and contortion, and visiting parks and trails around San Francisco, where she currently resides. Her second book, Shadow City, releases on January 26th, 2021.