The Creative Process

By Allison Brennan


Tess’s blog on Tuesday reminded me of a blog I posted last year on Murder She Writes about how manuscripts change. I had blogged about one scene from rough draft to final draft. I’d picked a scene that had stayed in the book, not one I had cut. Most of the scenes I cut either on my own or during the revision process I wouldn’t want to share because they lead the reader down the wrong story path. The exercised showed that the first, lean draft (for me) can have the same rhythm and content and voice . . . but be so much stronger with layers and depth and editing.

Revisions usually make an “okay” scene stronger. I love revisions—not just my own edits before I turn the manuscript into my editor, but editorial revisions and even line edits which, for me, tighten and strengthen the story.

Every writer has a different process, and most of us are stifled when our process is forced to change. Our process is as much part of writing as the writing itself. Meaning, some of us plot extensively, some of us plot loosely, and some of us don’t plot at all. When I say don’t plot I mean it literally—I start with a premise or situation, a “What If” scenario, and at least one character I kind of know (or think I do) and start from there. This is why my beginnings (the first act) take me twice as long to write as the second and third acts combined. I write and rewrite until something clicks, then I finish the rough draft, usually with only light editing until my editor sees it. I usually revise once with her notes (sometimes extensively, and sometimes not), then another clean-up edit to tighten, fix errors, add more layers to a scene if necessary, ultimately making sure each scene is as strong as it can be.

Some writers—published and unpublished—love to tell people that their process is the best way, or the “right” way, or some other such nonsense. I’m telling you right now: my process is mine. It’s not better or worse than anyone else’s (though I sometimes wish it were easier . . .) The process works if you put words on paper (or screen) and write the best story you can. Process isn’t talent, it’s not voice, it’s not anything except how you create.

When I get the page proofs back, I don’t make major changes (though I have been known to add or cut a scene or three and I probably make a mark on nearly every page.) I read the proofs out loud because it helps me make sure the rhythm of the book works. (See Alex’s fabulous post yesterday on voice—the rhythm of the book is part of the author’s voice.)

I’m not looking for how the book sounds as much as how it feels when I read it. I’ll catch the obvious typos and repetition, but more important, I’m making sure the dialogue is natural, that the characters aren’t just talking heads but there is action even in the most sedate scenes. That when I’m in deep POV, I feel like I am that character. If I need to add an internal thought here or there to deepen the POV and make it more immediate, I will.

Another thing I do is take a visual assessment. This isn’t conscious on my part, but when I see a lot of text on a page, I’m looking for obvious breaks that I have missed. This is where I’ll break apart paragraphs—sometimes I’ll add a single sentence paragraph between two larger graphs if I missed it before. This might be weird, I don’t know, but see my comments regarding process. It’s mine, it doesn’t have to be yours. I don’t like big blocks of text.

My “clean” rough draft, which is usually what I send to my editor knowing I’ll be working on revisions, is usually short. It’s mostly the meat of the story with no dressing. My descriptions are vague, if there at all, and my ending is usually rushed (because I’m excited to figure out crime!) Case in point: my first draft of LOVE ME TO DEATH was 78K words. My revised draft was 117K, and the final draft 120K. My first draft of KISS ME, KILL ME was 86K, my final draft 96K.

And what is my point? That writing is rewriting. That very few writers, if any, write a perfect first draft. Writing is practice. I believe in writing every day, because for me if I don’t write for a day or two, it always takes me a day or two to get back into my rhythm. If I write every day, I can keep up the momentum for a longer time, and my final product is always better.

As I was writing LOVE ME TO DEATH, I knew it was about a vigilante group killing sex offenders. Originally, I had the group using Lucy to draw them into a trap ala Dateline’s TO CATCH A PREDATOR, but instead of exposing them on film, the suspected sex offenders were killed. But I had a bit of a moral dilemma with the set up (innocent until proven guilty.) Lucy was having some issues with it as well, and no matter how I wrote it, she was either too cold and criminal, or stupid because she didn’t catch on.

I was wrestling with that problem when I toured Folsom State Prison with my FBI Citizens Academy group (fellow thriller writer James Rollins was also there.) During the tour, the warden told us that with the tight budget cuts, parolees were rarely, if ever, sent back to prison because of parole violations. They usually had to be convicted for a new crime before they went back (while waiting trial, most accused are in jail—funded by counties—rather than prison, which is funded by states. Though I’m sure all states have different processes, I only know mine.)

That tidbit of information solved my problems. Lucy would have no problem targeting paroled sex offenders. Sex offenders, particularly those who prey on children, have a high recidivism rate. She happily set them up to go back to prison . . . and when she found out some of them were being killed, she could have a moment’s pause. That maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing.

Of course, vigilantism breeds anarchy and it’s a slippery slope to complete lawlessness.

My story took off, and also gave me a strong sub-plot that had theretofore been weakly connected to the main story.

What did that revelation ultimately mean? You got it—a near complete rewrite of the first 100 pages of LOVE ME TO DEATH, before it ever went to my editor. But the story ended up so much stronger, it was worth it.

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Practice is part of everything we do. Musicians practice daily. Artists draw daily. Athletes exercise daily. And often, what they all do when they’re not practicing or playing, contributes in some way to their talents. I wasn’t writing when I took the Folsom Prison tour, but it was instrumental to my creative process.

Next month, I’m going on another fun FBI excursion, this time back to the former McClellan AFB to participate in SWAT training exercises. I was a “victim” last time . . . I might ask to be a bad guy this time. It might just fuel my muse.

15 thoughts on “The Creative Process

  1. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Allison

    Great post. It's amazing how these little plot resolvers pop up, sometimes seemingly out of nowhere, isn't it? I think they slosh around in the subconscious part of our brain and make us more receptive to the answers when they present themselves.

    The SWAT team exercise sounds wonderful. I've only done simulated casualty exercises – dealing with the situation after a bomb blast, but that was … a blast ;-]

    Can't wait to see you at M is For Mystery next month!

  2. Alafair Burke

    What Zoe and Cornelia said. Great post. I love those stories of our brains breaking through the mush.

  3. Kathy Bennett

    Wonderful post, Allison.

    I've had a different writing process with each of my manuscripts. I am always amazed at how seemingly random thoughts mesh together to bolster a plot point. Most of the time it just 'happens'. I haven't learned yet how to direct my muse.

  4. JT Ellison

    Allison, I think you've said something vital today – not that you don't always, but this is esecially important. Don't be afraid to make mistakes. I think a lot of new writers get hung up because they're trying to make things perfect from the get go. It's a rarity that books don't need improving upon.

  5. Dolly

    Thank you for sharing your process, Allison. Up until now I have been daunted by re-writes and editing, but I am getting over that now. James Scott Bell said that rewriting is like getting to take a final exam over and over again, and each time you get to improve your score. That stuck with me. That works for me. I am beginning to find satisfaction in seeing the scene get better and stronger, though sometimes, it does get frustrating when you know something needs to change but don't know what exactly.

  6. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Hmm. I'm reading this and wondering if 150 pages is about when the book starts to kick in, no matter what your process. You know I'm a huge outliner, but it seems to me that my books don't start to come alive until I've gotten about 150 pages (grueling) in. That certainly is the case with my new one.

    I don't have to throw out the first 150, but I do a lot of rewriting and cutting on that first part.

  7. KDJames

    I love these posts about process, even though I hesitate to talk about it because I don't really have one. Or maybe I have too many. I've tried damn near everything, trying to figure out what works for me. But I strongly suspect that part of my process is a need to write my way into the story with those first couple chapters. It's not where the story starts and I know that. The reader doesn't need to know all that beginning stuff, but I do. I've come to think of it as a discovery process, something essential for me as a means of grounding myself in the story and the characters. I have no problem cutting it (or incorporating some of it elsewhere in a different way), once I figure out where the reader comes in.

    Off-topic: Allison, do you remember a post you wrote a couple years ago about one of your early stories (can't remember whether you cleaned it up and got it published) and you were poking fun at your own inexperience, saying you'd thrown a little bit of everything into the plot, including the kitchen sink? That post had a big impact on me because I realized I was doing a bit of the same thing, trying to make the story too complicated. Not sure why I thought of that post today, but I was too shy/intimidated back then to talk to you (really, I'm serious) (I still have a hard time commenting on Tess' posts) and I've since wanted to thank you for that eye-opening example. So, thanks!

  8. KDJames

    Heh. I went back and found the post, April 09. The book was HOT LATTE. Have to disagree with your recent comment about not being funny — that post was hysterical. And as instructive today as it was back then.

  9. Allison Brennan

    I've been out all day — beautiful here in Northern California though it's supposed to rain tomorrow!!

    I'm very much looking forward to M is for Mystery, too Zoe!

    Cornelia, Folsom was a bit scary . . . but totally interesting. I think kids on the edge should go through there in a "scared straight" kind of thing.

    Alafair, my brain IS mush.

    Kathy, you and me both. When I was writing LOVE ME TO DEATH, I thought I knew one of the conspirators . . . until he ended up dead!

    JT, if I was afraid of making mistakes, I'd be cowering in a dark corner of my closet, drooling!

    Thanks Dolly! I love that analogy by James Scott Bell!!! I'm going to have to remember it, and credit him of course 🙂

    Alex, with LMTD I didn't have to throw out 150 pages, though I extensively rewrote them (though kept most of the same scenes.) With KMKM, the first chapter didn't change at all (except editing/clean-up kinds of things) but pages 20-200 are almost all completely different. Same story, but a different direction. Lucy got some bad news on page 177 of my first draft and I had an epiphany–I realized that the bad news needed to come much, much earlier. It's chapter three now, and worked SOOO much better, more organic to the whole story.

    KD, thank you so much! I remember that post. It was about my first completed manuscript. HOT LATTE. It was a stalker book. An espionage book. The was a serial rapist, the hero also had a stalker (lunatic ex-girlfriend), the heroine was a virgin, the hero a jaded cop, a priest who was an ex-Marine (not too fictional–my priest was in the Air Force!) and much, much more! LOL. Five books in one. I learned a lot after writing it, and I'm my inexperience helped you too! And thanks for looking it up — I might have to repost it again sometime when I'm on a really tight deadline.

    Reine: I'm going to ask to be the bad guy, though I'm a little scared because those paint pellets can hurt!

  10. Sandy

    Your post is so welcome, especially this day, which is the second of consecutive days when I've been saying concerning my WIP, "How could I have missed that inconsistency/impossibility?"

  11. Reine

    Yes, those paintballs do hurt. Who would think the life of a mystery writer would be so damn dangerous!

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