Over the past few weeks on social media, I’ve posted some pictures of my process for writing and editing my current book. I’ve gotten responses ranging from Dude, something in your head is broken, to that looks great. Please tell me more about your process!

To the first type of feedback, all I can say is, “Hey, I’m aware there are issues with how my brain works. That’s why I write.”

As far as the second kind of feedback goes, I’m happy to oblige.

I’m not sure my approach will make sense to anyone else, but hopefully the mechanics of it aren’t unduly baffling. I’ve just taken ideas from various seminars and books on editing, and adapted them to the way my brain works. (I use the word “works” loosely.) Structure is a big challenge for me given my digressive nature, so I’ve developed this process to keep my stories from flying off the plot rails.

Part one here will deal with creating something you can plug into your Scroll, then, after a week or so, I’ll post Part 2, wherein the hardcore scrollage happens.

1st Draft – Writing fearlessly

Writers hear this all the time – at conferences, in how-to books, online and in writer’s groups. And although it’s something of a cliché, it’s also genuinely important for the first draft. As a person who spent a lot of time staring hopelessly at a screen, crippled by the fear of offending anyone, I speak from experience. You can’t write anything if you’re trying to please everyone.

This first draft is just for you, so you’re free to plow through it in whatever way your imagination sees fit. Sure, the first iteration of a new story might expose some ignorance on your part (“The submarine captain turned the lever thingy twice, and the other jigamabob made a noise”) It will almost-certainly contain some laughable typos (“The senator refused to make a pubic comment about the charges brought against him.”) but you can clean up that crap later. The key is to conk your Internal Editor on the head, and crank out the story while she/he is asleep.

It’s worth noting that I wrote Hard Dog to Kill in the absolute certainty no one (other than my critique group, and my buddy Steve) would ever read it. Ditto my flash fiction piece about the psychological aftermath of the Gingerbread Man’s run through the village. I’m not saying either story was anything special; the point is I let the stories happen even though they didn’t seem marketable, and both got published. And that, as Gandalf would have it, is an encouraging thought.

Writing without worrying about your audience makes the first draft a ton of fun. But then the editing begins. And that’s where I require a process.

Read through – When you tell a story, try to have a point. It makes it so much more interesting for the listener.*

*Please tell me some of you are old enough to get that reference.

Once I word-vomit a story, I take some time to think about what in the hell have I done? I read through the first draft without letting myself edit. (Cringe, yes. Edit, no.) Instead, I make a mental note of what ideas came up the most often. I try to get an overall impression of the story.

Once I finish the read-through, I go out for a cup of coffee (because, damn it, I deserve it) and decide what, after all, was the theme of this little tale. I ask myself what’s the one thing my book is about? and I try to reduce my answer to a single sentence.

From that point on, the relevance of every character/scene/chapter is judged by whether or not it relates to my central theme.

As an example, my current book is about parental failure, and the Colombian cocaine trade. (See what I mean about not expecting to have much of an audience?) Now I know that I can stray from that theme a little bit, but I have to keep that guiding star somewhere on the storytelling horizon.

Dances with Dots – digging into each scene

Great! I know what the story is about. Now I go through the manuscript, identify each scene, and put a colored dot – or a sparkly star/smiley face/unicorn sticker – next to each character arc and motif in the scene.

I keep sticky notes handy during this process, so I can make comments about broader ideas that crop up, or major issues I notice. The sticky notes go up on the cork board behind my computer, so every time I look up from my computer, I’m confronted by my multifarious storytelling failures. It motivates me to put my head down and write.

By the time I’ve gotten through the manuscript, I’ve carved every chapter into discreet scenes, and figured out which character arcs show up in those scenes. I’ve also rendered the document festive with color. Which is fun.

But I’ve really only begun to geek out on my revision. It’s time to put all these ideas into a framework that will guide the rest of my rewrite…

Stay tuned – in a few days I’ll post Part Two of this little journey, where we’ll dig into The Chart and The Scroll.