How I Write Books
I’m writing this post because I get a lot of questions from both writers and readers wondering about my writing process and where my inspiration comes from. Before I begin, I want to point out two things – the first is that is how I write books. That doesn’t mean it’s the correct way, and it definitely isn’t the only way. It’s just how I do it.
The second is that while many people enjoy my books, they aren’t exactly critically acclaimed, so take any advice I have to give with a grain of salt. I enjoy my books, and I write them to be a fun escape, and I hope that readers find them to be a fun escape. But they are by no means flawless literature, and I am in no way an expert on the art of writing. I am only an expert on writing my books.
How I Started
I touched on this a bit in my previous post How I Became a Published Author, but I’m going to to into it a bit more today and give a bit of background on me.
I was born in 1984 in a small town in Minnesota, and I grew up an only child on a farm. (My brother is fifteen years younger than me, so by the time he was born, I was almost out of the house). We didn’t have a lot of money, so we didn’t have cable TV, and we finally got a hand-me-down Nintendo when I was about nine. So the way I entertained myself was by reading and making up stories.
As a kid, the things I wrote were basically fan fiction, although I didn’t realize that’s what it was called at the time. I was very into stories like The Three Musketeers, Robin Hood, and Peter Pan. Some of my favorite movies included Labyrinth, Legend, Dark Crystal, Disney’s musical Fantasia, a pirate move called Shipwrecked, Anne of Green Gables, Jurassic Park, and Star Wars. I also had mad crushes on Macaulay Culkin and Jonathan Taylor Thomas, so my original stories involved a lot of me and Macauley Culkin and/or Jonathan Taylor Thomas battling pirates, monsters, and the Dark Side. (But never dinosaurs. They were always on their side. Chris Pratt’s character in Jurassic World is essentially my Gary Stu).
As I grew older, I started writing my own original fiction, and it became more grounded in reality. It usually involved unrequited love, but then it had a dark edges involved murder and abuse. I struggled a lot with depression and anxiety since I was about eight or nine, and things like suicide and mental illness became woven into my stories. They were dark and angsty and angry because that’s who I was and writing was my way of dealing with it.
I always knew I wanted to be a professional author, and in high school I became more focused on writing with the intent of publication. But I still wrote stories when they occurred to me. I wrote as when the urge struck me, so I was consonantly starting things and never finishing them. I also started things because I had an emotion that I wanted to deal with. I didn’t realize that’s what I was doing at the time, but in retrospect, I can see it.
If I felt rejected and heartbroken, I might start a story about a girl being heartbroken and rejected, or I might start one about a girl being loved and accepted, but the story didn’t really going anywhere. There wasn’t a ton of a plot – it was more about capturing the emotion of the moment and either dealing with it or correcting the wrongs I felt. Either way, without a plot, the story didn’t have anywhere to go. It was basically just a scene.
I finished my first novel when I was 17, but I didn’t actually start outlining until a couple years later. I was working on a novel called Lost Without You (which has not and will not be published because it’s not very good). And my ideas were coming to me faster than I could write them. I knew the scenes that were coming next and what I wanted to happen and I was afraid that I would lose it all, that I’d forget what I wanted to happen, and so I began outlining in a frenzy.
I wrote this post back in 2011 – The Mighty Outline – where I show actual examples of my outlines, and if you’re interested in that, I suggest checking it out. I have since changed my process a bit, and I’m sure I’ll change it more in the future. An outline is meant to be a guide through the dark times when I don’t know where the story is going – it’s not meant to restrict or hinder.
My outlines always start out with pen to paper, brainstorming and scribbling out ideas. Sometimes it’s lyrics, sometimes it character descriptions, sometimes it’s setting. It’s whatever is initially drawing me to write, and the story expands out of that. Then I began sketching out the story on paper. I begin with the major plot events, and then I start writing more detailed descriptions and writing the scenes/events that need to happen to connect the major plot events. Things get moved around until and added to until I feel like the story is complete.
The outlining and initial notes phase can take anywhere from a week to a year to complete. It depends on how long I’ve been thinking of the story and how excited I am to write it, as well as what other projects I have to do. On average, though, I would say when I start outlining, it usually takes about a month before I’m ready to start to writing.
It should also be noted that not all my outlines turn into books. In fact, most of them don’t. I try ideas, then decide they don’t work. Sometimes I cannibalize outlines and use them for other outlines that do become books, but sometimes outlines just die.
Initially, each chapter was only about a sentence long in the outline. Now they’re about a paragraph each. Here’s a screenshot of what my outline looks like for the first few chapters of Frostfire:
I have the chapter name, the date the chapter takes place, and a general description of the action that takes place in the chapter.
Along with the outline, I do Character descriptions, which look similar to the outline, except with characters in place of chapters and long descriptions about each of the characters. Before I start writing, I figure out all the important info there is to know about a character – eye color, height, birth date, middle name, family members, jobs, any distinguishing marks, etc. This is helpful, because if it comes up while I’m writing, I don’t have to stop what I’m doing to try to figure it out.
I also do a Places & Things description. This includes descriptions of any places mentioned in the books, including places that aren’t necessarily mentioned by name. For example, if my characters are staying in a hotel that I based on a real place, I’ll have the hotel in my notes, even if I don’t say it. I also include any place with a proper name that’s mentioned in the books, even if it’s not seen. In Frostfire, the Hudson Bay is mentioned, since Doldastam is near it, and Bryn also mentions stopping in Winnipeg, even though no action actually takes place there. Both the Hudson Bay and Winnipeg have a brief description in my notes.
One thing that I did with the Kanin Chronicles that I hadn’t done in the past was that I created a Character Cheat Sheet, because the cast became so large, and I needed a quick easy reference for basic info. Here’s what it looks for the Avens and Berlings.
The B. stands for Born, the M for Married, and the R in Linus’s is for the date he Returned. The “cham” is an abbreviate I used for chameleon skin, meaning they could change color. But that’s specific to this story. Obviously, most other stories I write don’t have that. The age I have is the age at the time the story takes place – in this case, April 2014. I do think I ended up changing Linus’s birthday, but it’s not reflected in these notes for some reason.
With the character descriptions, I include animals, like Bloom the horse and Vita, the Queen’s rabbit.
I also create weather/sun/moon notes for my books. With Frostfire, I looked at the weather almanac to see what the average weather is like, and what the actual weather was like, since the book takes place in early 2014. (Although I do still tweak the weather to fit the needs of the story – I just want to make sure what I’m writing isn’t completely unheard of, like a snowstorm in Texas in July).
I see when the sun sets and rises for that day, which mattered a lot with the Kanin Chronicles because the nights are very short in the spring/summer in the subarctic. I also make note of what phase the moon is, because sometimes my characters do things at night, and I need to know if they have the full moon to help light things or if they have a new moon and total darkness, and everything in between.
Finally, I create a general Notes page, and that’s any other information I’ve researched that seems relevant that doesn’t have a place. Like what kind of car the main character drives or what cell phone they use. For Frostfire, I included Krumholtz effect because it’s mentioned in the books. I had the train schedules and how long it took travel from each place Bryn went to. For the Kanin Chronicles and the Trylle Trilogy, I also created a glossary because I either created new words or incorporated Swedish words, and I needed them spelled and defined.
I also do Soundtracks, where I write down the playlist that I listen to while I’m writing the book.
With a series, I outline all the books together. For example, with the Kanin Chronicles, I wrote a rough outline that covered the trilogy, with the major plot points for each book. Then I wrote a detailed outline Frostfire. Then I wrote one for Ice Kissed, but it was less detailed, and finally, the one for the last book was the least detailed. All of these were written before I started writing the first book.
After I finished Frostfire and got all the edits/revisions done on it, I expanded on the outline for Ice Kissed, adding more detail until it was a full fleshed out outline, and I also added more detail to the outline for Crystal Kingdom. Once Ice Kissed was finished, I expanded on the outlline for Crystal Kingdom.
And I think that’s everything I do before I start writing.
My work day looks like this: I get up around nine and eat breakfast. I try to start work around 10:00 am, but some days, I lack motivation and get going a bit later. I go down to my office, check my email, and do various non-writing tasks. Then when I decided that’s enough, I put on my playlist, and I turn off the internet. I use a program called Freedom, and I set the amount of time I want the internet blocked. I usually only do 45 minutes, because by the time the 45 mins is gone, I’ve gotten into the groove and I don’t need it anymore.
I do all my writing in Microsoft Word. I print all my notes out and have them sitting on my desk when I’m writing. I also have a notebook open and stacks of Post It notes all over, in case I need to jot something down. Usually it’s something like, “Go back to Chapter 6 and add a character doing this thing.” Well, more descriptive than that, but it’s that kind of note.
I take a break in the afternoon, but it varies on when depending on how well writing is going. The better it’s going, the later is it that I finally pull myself away from the computer. Eventually, though, and hunger and needing to use the restroom always win. I eat lunch and watch Judge Judy, then I head back down to my office, and the same process as the morning repeats itself.
I usually end my work day around 6:00, sometimes later, sometimes earlier, but that’s my average. On an average good day, I write about 3,000-5,000 words a day, which is roughly 12-20 pages a day. I work Monday through Friday, unless I’m behind on a deadline, and then I’ll work weekends as well. And I keep doing that until the First Draft is finished. For the past few years, it’s taken me roughly two-three months to finish a first draft of a book.
As for how I actually write, I feel like people think there is some secret or trick to it. But there really isn’t. As far as I know there’s only one real way to write a book: Write one word after another, after another, until you get to the end.
The outline helps me know where I’m going, which helps keep from getting stuck, and turning off the internet and secluding myself in my office removes distractions, so I can stay focused on the task at hand.
After the First Draft
When I finish a first draft, I read it over once right away to see if there’s anything obvious or big I want to change. Then I hand it off to Eric (my former assistant/current freelance editor) who reads it over and gives me his opinions on the story. Then I read the book over again, making more revisions. It’s at this point I send the book to my editor Rose at St. Martin’s Press, and then I take a break.
After I finish a book, I usually spend a couple weeks not writing. I catch up on my reading, house cleaning, and various other things in my life I’ve most likely been ignoring while I’m writing.
If the book is in a series, I’ll start working on a more extensive outline for the next book and start getting more detailed notes. Just generally getting ready to start the next book, but I don’t actually start until I get the edits back from Rose, in case there are major plot changes. There usually aren’t, but many times, there are changes that do effect the outlines and later book in the series.
If this the final book in the series or a stand alone, I spend sometime thinking about what I want to work on next. The process of edits depends on how busy Rose is and how far/near my book is to the due date. If it’s close, the process goes quickly, but if it’s far away, there’s usually other projects that need to be done before Rose can get to mine, so then it takes a bit longer.
My inspiration comes from everywhere. That sounds glib, but it’s true. Some of my series have literal inspirations – like the Watersong series is based on Greek mythology, and the Trylle/Kanin series are based on Scandinavian folklore.
I do love mythology and folklore, so I tend to incorporate aspects of it my books. I also love fantasy and 80s films, so there tends to be aspects of that as well.
I think of my books like a collage, with pieces coming from everywhere and everything until I make a picture that I like. My mind is like a Pinterest board, and I just keep pinning things until the board comes together.
So with the Kanin Chronicles, it was my love of Canada and a trip to Alaska; Julia Garner (who is my inspiration for Linnea); Sweden; Minnesota; the music of Lorde and Meg Myers; falling in love; The Three Musketeers; winter; couture gowns, specifically ones designed by Abed Mahfouz and Zuhair Murad; folklore I loved as a child, like tales about Rumpelstiltskin and Grim; the movie Haywire – Gina Carano’s character inspired the kernel that grew into Bryn; and of course, the Trylle series itself.
Basically, everywhere and everything.
Getting a Book Ready for Publication
Once Rose sends me back her suggestions for edits, I begin another round of revisions. Since I’ve been with St. Martin’s Press, my books generally go through one to two rounds of revisions with Rose before going onto the copy editor.
As an editor, Rose does catch grammar and spelling errors, but her main focus is on the overall story and sentence structure – making sure things make sense and are entertaining.
I finish my revisions, send them Rose. Sometimes she sends them back for more edits, but other times the book just moves onto the copy edits. The copy editor focuses on punctuation, spelling, grammar, and continuity.
Copy edits come back to me, and I read through them – so this is now my fourth or fifth time reading my book in a matter of a few months. If I don’t agree with the changes, I can STET them, and I do sometimes. Usually it’s because stylistically I think it works better as is. But mostly, I accept the changes, and I occasionally find more things that I want to change.
I send back the copy edits. At the point, I’ve usually started working on my next novel. I know all the major changes that have gone through, and I’m ready to move on to a new story.
I’ll still get one more pass on the book. It’s sent to me formatted for print, and I read through it again to make sure there’s no changes that need to be made.
I would say on average it takes three to six months to go from finished first draft (before I begin my first solo round of edits and even before Eric goes over it) to completed final version ready for print. This time also varies with amount of edits/revisions that need to be done.
With St. Martin’s Press, I discuss ideas for the cover with Rose. Sometimes I know exactly what I want out of the cover (like with the cover for Tidal), and other times, I don’t really have any idea. I’m involved in the process of picking the cover models. I send specific descriptions of characters to Rose, and we discuss it, then she sends me a few head shots to pick from.
Since I’ve been with St. Martin’s, Lisa Marie Pompilio has done all covers, and I think she does really amazing work. Rose sends me rough drafts of the covers to ask for my input, but I usually only have minimal suggestions for tweaks, if any at all. I think the only comment I had with the covers for the Kanin Chronicles was for Crystal Kingdom because I initially felt the gold was too yellow, and they made it brassier and darker. But that’s it.
Then, finally, after all that, the finished book is my hands. The whole process – from initial concept scribbled into notebook paper to finished final draft of the book – can take anywhere from six months to a year-and-a-half.
That’s why it takes so long for books to come out. While my books can be read in a matter of days, they take much longer to create.
When I was self-publishing, there was an illusion that things were happening much more quickly because I had written over a dozen books before I began publishing, so I had a backlog. I was also writing in insanely fast binges that I couldn’t maintain because the burn out was already setting in. Now I pace myself so I don’t go crazy, and it seems to be working.