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Resources for Writers

Finding Your Writing Process by Ally Carter

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Article by Ally Carter ©.
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What’s the best process to use when writing a book?

It’s incredibly important that I say this up front and often: Every writer has a different process. In fact, every book has a different process! There’s no one way to do this, so if someone ever tells you “this is the best way to write a book,” turn around and run because that person is mistaken.

I know writers who write meticulous outlines that are almost as long as their books. And I know writers who sit down and go and don’t look back. I know writers who rewrite and tweak and perfect every paragraph before they move on to the next one. And I know writers who don’t even glance back until they’ve got a whole draft down. I know writers who write longhand or type single-spaced or do an entire draft with “Track Changes” on, just to trick themselves into thinking they’re doing a rewrite and not a first draft.

Writers are always looking for a shortcut, a scheme, a plan, a strategy, so that this time it will be easy. But it’s never easy. And we know that. Still, we keep playing mind games with ourselves – anything that helps to get us to The End.

Pretty much every writer I know has tried a bunch of different things. Some of them work. Some of them don’t. But we keep trying anyway because, as we say in this business, you never really learn to write a book; you just learn to write the book you’re writing right now.

So there is no one way to do this.

What’s your process? Are you a plotter or a pantser? I am very much a plotter. But I also like to surprise myself, so I often dismiss the first thing that comes to mind for a twist, knowing that that’s the first thing a reader will think as well. You want to surprise your readers, which is very hard to do. You really have to work at it, which means rewriting the ending many, many times until it works.

Do you write bits, then put them all together, or do you start at the beginning and write through to the end? This is another one of those things that is going to vary a lot, depending on who you talk to. I know writers who might write the last chapter before they write the first. Then they might move on to chapter 17 or 14, or 40. They just write the scenes as they come, and that process works for them. Which is totally valid. You have one job, and that’s to find the process that works for you.

But I’m the kind of writer who needs to start at the beginning and write until I hit The End. Always. I can’t even revise out of order. Every single draft starts at page one and goes through to the end.

There are a lot of reasons why this works for me. First, because that’s what feels natural. And a big part of this business is finding your groove and then sticking with it. The other thing I like about writing in order is that no matter how much planning and plotting I might do, I’m always surprised when I start writing. Always. And that’s a good thing! (After all, if the author is surprised by a plot twist, the reader probably will be, too!) So I can’t jump around if I don’t know exactly where I’m going.

It’s also important to remember that you’re not just writing a plot. You’re also writing characters. And characters have emotions and relationships and ups and downs, and those things are fluid, constantly changing – those things have to be consistent from one scene to the next, and writing in order is the best way I know to put myself in the frame of mind my characters were in in the last scene – to have just written it.

Maybe that’s not the case for you. Maybe writing out of order is going to be your process. But I do want to offer one word of caution. When I have the urge to write out of order, it’s usually because there are scenes I’m just not very excited to write, so I want to skip them. Because they’re boring. But boring scenes don’t need to be skipped. Boring scenes need to be cut or fixed. There’s no room in this business for “filler”, so if you’ve got scenes you’re not very excited to write, think about why that is and ask yourself if that also means no one will be excited to read them. But maybe you’re skipping around because that’s just the way your brain – and your process – works. And honestly, you won’t know until you try. So keep trying!

(c) Ally Carter

About Dear Ally, How Do I Write a Book?:

Problem plot lines? Character chaos? Ask Ally! The definitive guide to writing from one of teen fiction’s best-loved authors.

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Ally Carter writes books about spies, thieves, and teenagers. She is the New York Times Best-selling author of Heist Society, Uncommon Criminals, and the popular Gallagher Girls series, including I'd Tell You I Love You but Then I'd Have to Kill You, Cross My Heart and Hope to Spy, Don't Judge a Girl by Her Cover, and Only the Good Spy Young. She lives in the Midwest where her life is either very ordinary or the best deep-cover legend ever. She'd tell you more, but...well...you know...