#WriteTip – Sam’s Process Part 2: Writing

Sam av

This is now part three of a series about how I write stories. You can find previous posts here:

This post is going to cover the main event: writing the story. It sounds like a simple action. It should be the fun part. All you have to do is sit down and put in the work. It’s not that simple, of course. Although I can type at 80 words per minute, that doesn’t mean I’m going to write a complete novel in 21 hours. Just because you can write fast doesn’t mean that you will or that you should. My best NaNoWriMo day was about 14,000 words. By that logic, I could finish NaNo in 4 days and write 50 books a year.

That’s obviously not what happens.

But I can tell you how my writing process looks, and you can draw your own conclusions about yourself.

I’m going to reference NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month in November) because I am the most productive in November. I get into a routine and I write the words. If you’re interested in NaNoWriMo, I recommend giving it a try. There’s no cost to participate. It’s just you against yourself with 50,000 words between you and your goal in 30 days. If you fail, there’s no harm done.

When I decide it’s writing time, the very first thing I do is make a strong pot of coffee. It doesn’t matter how awake I am already or what time of the day it is. I need coffee. It’s not that I need the caffeine to stay awake or anything. Caffeine speeds up my brain. I think faster, I become more articulate, and I get a little silly.

I’m dead serious about my coffee intake. I have a level I call ‘baseline caffeine.’ That’s the amount of caffeine it takes for me to be a normal human being and function properly. This is for the first two to three cups of coffee I have in a day. It makes me pleasant, awake, and focused.

Anything after that is nice, up to about 6 cups. In this area of coffee intake, not much changes. It’s just a slightly increased time during which I am pleasant and productive. I use this time to finish my workday at my actual job, and maintain general happiness until I get home.

But past that, things get a little crazy. I have miraculous abilities to recall vocabulary words and turn clever phrases. My brain starts spitting out crazy lines of poetic prose that just flies off my fingers like mad. If I am with a friend, it translates as saying the most ridiculous, outlandish stuff. It’s a fantastic time.

So between the time I start writing and the time I finish about 8 hours later, I consume another 2-4 pots. Yes, pots, not cups.

After the coffee is made, I ease into my work by reading over where I left off the last time. It reintroduces me to my own world and provides a bit of momentum. When I’m done with my first cup of coffee is when I will begin writing, and then it’s writing + coffee until I get too tired to continue.

Writing time occurs for me between 5pm-5am. I operate at my absolute best after midnight, actually. The entire house is quiet and none of my online friends are awake. There isn’t even anything good on TV at that time. There are no other distractions…just me, the coffee, and the words.

If I try to write before the quiet time of night, I get dogs in the lap, cats in the face, a husband who keeps only lightly interjecting at the most inconvenient times, and a roommate who could keep talking for hours.

Some people prefer to write in the morning, like they prefer to run in the morning. I disagree with the entire concept of mornings (and running, now that I think of it), so this doesn’t work out for me.

I like to write about relationships. I don’t mean romance, though, although I do dabble in romance and erotica (a bit…). I like a book that is character-driven, where the characters are complicated and real, make all the right mistakes and have all of the best flaws.

I like characters that make poor choices sometimes in a moment of panic. I like characters that mess up. I have main characters that aren’t necessarily lovable, but that you can’t help but admire at the same time. I get some criticism sometimes in my fan fiction for not following what I would call “fairy tale” plot lines. I’ve had perfectly decent characters cheat on their spouses or lie to a friend. I’ve had love stories that don’t work out. I’ve had villains die by freak accident rather than epic showdown (sometimes, it just happens).

The reality of the world is that most people are good people…they are decent, hardworking, loving people who take care of their families, donate to charity, and help out the helpess. But everyone has flaws, and the world is full of surprises. Everyone has done something they aren’t proud of. Some of us never talk about it, but that doesn’t mean that it hasn’t happened. Books don’t let characters hide these flaws.

I like to challenge readers. I like to give you a character who you mostly love that does a despicable thing you aren’t sure you can forgive. I like to mislead a reader into thinking someone is all good or all bad and then challenging that perception. I like to force a character to make a difficult choice with no good answer, hopefully one you would struggle with, too.

Basically, I like to show you real people you might actually know, and show you a side of them you might not have considered…it’s a side that might have been there the whole time, but now you have to decide how you feel about it. Can you forgive them?

Can you admit when you’re wrong?

Would you have done the same thing?

…Can you be so sure?

I build plots around the interactions and characters I want to work with. I start with the relationship and I think about what kinds of situations would yield this kind of drama, and I build out from that.

Trajectory and Pace

For the most part, I start writing at the beginning and just follow a linear path all the way to the end. I just move from one scene to the next. When I am thinking about a particular scene and where to go from there, I’m usually thinking about where the biggest reaction or the most impactful initiating action would occur. For instance, if you killed off a major character, you might go to the next scene where someone important to that person finds out, or you might go to that person’s friends/advisors who now have a lot of difficult things to deal with in that character’s absence. You wouldn’t go to a completely different topic. And, if you just closed up an arc (a series of events that is kind of like a mini-plot), you’d want to start an event that will continue to progress your major plot. Like, if you just resolved a character death, you’ll want to start up the aftermath…where do your characters go from there?

(I talk about character death a lot…I have my reasons)

While I typically will take a linear path through my story, there might be times I deviate from that. I might have strong inspiration for a particular scene that happens much later. This can sometimes be the case when I’m thinking of a big argument, a major revelation, or a character death. I usually get excited about writing angst and emotional pain. It’s kind of my thing. If the plot doesn’t get disturbing or upsetting at some point or another, I have no interest in it at all. If I am attempting to write, but I keep getting distracted by something that is meant to happen later, I might take a time out to write that part first just to get my mind to shut up, and then I’ll go back to where I was.

Some days I write more than others. That’s just the way it goes. The important part is that I do write something. Getting in the habit of writing makes it easier to keep writing as time goes on. If I take too long a break between writing sessions, I spend more time trying to remember where my mind was when I wrote a thing rather than thinking up new words. During NaNoWriMo, the daily goal is 1667 words (this post, for reference, is 1047 words at this point now). It really isn’t much. I set my personal daily goal at 2000 words per day, and am happy if I write between 2000-5000. I can write 2000 words in an hour, yet it still might take me all day.


Distractions, mostly. Writing is hard and it takes discipline. If I get stuck, at all, my mind wants to wander away to easier tasks. Social media is a major setback. Most of my time spent ‘writing’ is time I spend beating myself up about needing to write.

Also, a small portion of that time is spent looking at the words I’ve written, trying to figure out why I’m not completely happy with them.

The NaNoWriMo forums will tell you not to edit in November…that you can fix it when NaNo is over. From my own experience, this does not work for me. If the words don’t work now, they’ll derail my story for later. If I have a poorly written plot point, all I derive from it is poorly written plot. I have to sort it out in real time.

The grammar and exact word choice can wait.

Kind of.

But editing is the next post…we’ll get into that.

A lot of people complain about hating what they’ve written. I don’t have that problem, actually. While I’m writing words, I am usually a slave to the story, completely at the mercy of the characters and the plot. I’m in it. I’m not a writer on the outside looking in like some might feel. It feels to me like I’m right there next to them. What I write isn’t necessarily my choice…it’s merely a set of observations given a space on a page.

I like to tell new writers to imagine their story like a movie. Sit there, and watch, and write down what you see. Be descriptive. Like, pretend you’re trying to describe it to someone who can’t see the movie. You can always rewind the scene and look at it again and write down things you missed, but take notes on your movie. That’s your book.

Writer’s Block

If you get stuck, there are things you can do. I will talk about some of that during editing. Other authors have also discussed how they handle it. I’ve talked about Writer’s Block before, too, and so has Frankie. There are also links in our Helpful Links section, like this blog post.

I find quite frequently that if I have Writer’s Block that isn’t the fault of having a short attention span, the problem is that I need to make a change in the story, and perhaps scrap that particular scene in its entirety.

Do something drastic and see what happens.

The Aftermath

As soon as I detach myself from the words – after the story is written – I’ll start to doubt them. I’ll wonder if the plot sucked or if I wrote poorly. This is not the time to go back and read it. Your story is still fresh in your mind. You’ll be more critical than you need to be.

We are our own worst critics. This is true. I talk to good writers all the time that  self-deprecate and insult their own work. Actors often say they hate watching their films. Writer often hate reading their books.

I don’t, though.

I write what I write because I want to read it. One of my favorite hobbies is going back to reread my old work, after I’ve forgotten half of what I have written. It often surprises me how good it can be, although I can obviously see things I could have done better.

The thing to remember is that if you don’t tell this story, no one else ever will.

Watch this video if you are plagued by self-doubt.

If you ever start to doubt yourself, look at your main character as if he or she is a real person. You put a lot of work into that person. They are almost alive now. Can you really tell them you’ve given up on them? That their story is not worth telling? That you’re going to shut the book on them forever, and that they are doomed to be forever silent?

See, I have characters that I think about doing that to, and all I can think about is, “Heike’s going to kill me. I can’t.”

How do you know when you’re done?

It depends. Will there be a sequel or not?

If the answer is no, you need to be 100% resolved in a satisfying manner. Unless you’re evil, like I am, and you want to leave your audience with an open-ended ending or a major question to think about. I like endings that make me think. What you don’t want to do, though, is leave your book feeling unfinished. Were all of your plots resolved? Did all of the events have an ending? You don’t want to stop a book mid-war, for example, without letting everyone know who wins.

Leave it on a line that resounds, like a bell chime in the dark. Don’t leave it on something cheesy and contrived. Leave it on something that might leave someone breathless, like “Wow…” rather than something that leaves them rolling their eyes.

Someone might read this, after all!

If there will be a sequel, you need to have a lot of your story resolved, but have something that leads into the next book. Just enough to leave the audience clamoring for more without making them want to murder you for leaving them there while they have to wait.

I was going to talk about editing next…but I think we should spend more time on how to engage an audience. In other words, how to elevate The Plot into The Story. Let’s do that.

S.K. Balk lives in the frozen wasteland of Northern Michigan. She is the author of the dystopian medical sci-fi THE BLOOD OF NERYS (also available in print).

Check out the #WriteTip category for more writing advice and tools from Frankie and Sam!


About oneofthedragons

Samantha K. Balk and F. R. Donaldson met on An Archive of Our Own, one of the many fanfiction sites online, when Sam asked Frankie to illustrate the fanfiction that would one day lead to Sam's first novel. They've been friends ever since! This blog was created as a way to share the oftentimes difficult journey any new author experiences on the uncomfortable quest of an introvert for attention to his or her most personal work. It is meant to remind you that authors don't just appear fully fledged like a George R. R. Martin, that all of us start out unsure and feeling inadequate. Feel free to ask us anything. Sam: sammykaye9@gmail.com Frankie: reluctant.fraggle@gmail.com

Posted on September 9, 2016, in #WriteTip and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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