word craft


What is my writing process?

One of the com­mon ques­tion writ­ers are asked—at least I am—is, “What is your process when you write one of your novels?” 

It seems like a sim­ple ques­tion, with a straight­for­ward answer. It is not. Or, as is often the case, my wife will ask, “How’s the new book going?” I’ll say, “It’s hard.” And she will say, “you always say that.” 

Maybe that’s my process, along the lines that George Bernard Shaw once sug­gest­ed: “Hard writ­ing makes easy reading.” 


To begin, over my years of writ­ing, my method—if you wish to grace it with that name—has evolved. 

When I wrote my first nov­el (No More Mag­ic) I care­ful­ly out­lined the plot. Knew the end­ing. I had notes about the char­ac­ters. My goal—aside from fin­ish­ing the story—was to reach one hun­dred man­u­script pages. My most recent­ly fin­ished nov­el was 475 pages. 

More­over, oth­er than the few series I have com­posed (The Pop­py books, the Crispin books) the nov­els dif­fer one from the oth­er, so each book has its own way of com­ing into being. 

My process, if you will, these days is not to out­line the plot. More often than not I have no par­tic­u­lar end­ing in mind. As I have sug­gest­ed else­where, I like to dis­cov­er an end­ing. Indeed, I like to dis­cov­er the whole plot as I go along. Over the years struc­ture is built into my thinking. 

Over the course of my years the major dif­fer­ence in my writ­ing method is that I use a com­put­er, and that in turn means I rewrite a book many more times. One of the results: The books are also longer, more complex. 

I also do much more research (for my his­tor­i­cal nov­els) than I did pre­vi­ous­ly. A cur­rent project, a sto­ry set in the Nine­teen-twen­ties, had me seek out and find a 1924 edi­tion of the pop­u­lar Boston Cook­ing School Cook Book. I might as well set out the prop­er food. Indeed, small details are much more impor­tant to me. In the sto­ry men­tioned above, which takes place in a real rur­al town, if you want­ed to con­tact Frank E. Daugh­er­ty, the local plumber, his phone num­ber was—59.

I sus­pect that every writer has her/his own method of writ­ing. Time, place, writ­ing loca­tion, hours of work, and so forth are all indi­vid­u­al­ized. The true method you need is to find what works for you. If ever there was a cir­cum­stance when the ends jus­ti­fy the means, writ­ing is it. Just keep in mind what the British nov­el­ist, Som­er­set Maugh­am once said: “There are three rules for writ­ing a nov­el. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, no one knows what they are.” 

2 thoughts on “What is my writing process?”

  1. Always a plea­sure and the end­ing here? Bril­liant. Thank you for shar­ing how you do what you do. When I wrote a lot of cre­ative pieces as a teacher mod­el­ing for my stu­dents, I nev­er knew where I was going, always dis­cov­ered along the way. I read Gabrielle Lusser Rico’s book Writ­ing the Nat­ur­al Way in the 1990s and I liked her idea of clus­ter­ing and web­bing to get the ideas from my brain down in some sort of way. (Obvi­ous­ly there are so many ways, but this one spoke to me when I had thoughts in mind.) I love the details in your work and find that I feel I am learn­ing some­thing that i did­n’t know. They feel so true. Think­ing here of Sophi­a’s War at this moment.

  2. What a won­der­ful com­men­tary on your writ­ing process! It is per­fect to show how it changes with the author’s growth as a writer, the type of sto­ry in mind, and so forth. The 3 rules are sim­ply per­fect in their mes­sage to any writer and espe­cial­ly to bud­ding writ­ers and those who find writ­ing to be a dif­fi­cult ven­ture. The idea of just see­ing where the writ­ing leads the author as a sense of dis­cov­ery is a great mes­sage that takes away some of that pres­sure often felt in schools where “you must do XYZ” men­tal­i­ty exists. Writ­ing is a craft, and art and a sci­ence. most of all it should be a jour­ney to cre­ate (to para­phrase Avi) good read­ing and self dis­cov­ery. Thank you!


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