An American expat newlywed in Hong Kong, Shannon Young took the momentous decision last summer to quit her day job and launch out as a full-time writer. She’d given herself until Chinese New Year to see if she could make a living but has now postponed the decision—something we’re actually rather glad about as her expat writer’s diary can continue!
Dear Displaced Diary,
It’s a hazy, jet-lagged time for me right now. Ever since I returned to Hong Kong from London last week, I’ve been awake through the night and struggling out of bed at noon or later. One advantage of setting my own schedule is that I can afford these late starts and still get plenty of work done during the afternoons and evenings (and in the hours past 3:00 a.m., it turns out). On the other hand, I don’t have a boss and a required start time to get me back on track—so could be on London time for a while yet.
But the work goes on no matter what time it is or where in the world I happen to find myself. I’m currently waiting for Seaswept, the second book in the Seabound Chronicles, to come back from my editor.
The cover for Jordan Rivet’s latest book
As soon as it arrives I’ll jump into the final stages of proofreading and publication.
In the meantime, I’m working on my next book series.
That next book will be the first installment, which I’m aiming to release upon completion of the Seabound Chronicles.
It has been a while since I began an all-new project with all-new characters set in an all-new world. I’m trying to apply the same writing process I’ve been using for the Seabound books to the new idea.
So far it’s going well!
Since you, Dear Diary, are the vessel for my intimate thoughts about the writing process, today I want to share with you how I approach a new book. I developed this method while working on the four books in the Seabound Chronicles. As you know, all four are now completed—but in vastly different stages. Book 1 is published. Book 2 is finished and with the editor. Book 3 (the prequel) is in the third draft. Book 4 is a rough draft.
You may think I have too many projects on the go at once, but this in fact is the key to my writing process, as you’ll soon see.
STEP ONE: The Idea
You can’t force yourself to come up with an amazing concept for a new book, but you can help the inspiration process along. Before producing Seabound, I knew I wanted to write a fast-paced story with high stakes and cool world-building, probably science fiction or fantasy, but I needed an idea. Then one day I hopped on a boat and spotted the cruise ship that inspired my post-apocalyptic Seabound series. It took more than just seeing a cruise ship, of course, for the concept to take hold. It took leaving my mind open and not forcing things, so that my subconscious could oblige.
With the Seabound Chronicles under way, the hope entered my mind of coming up with another fantasy project to work on; but this time I wanted an original take or some kind of cool mash-up. I held that thought for months and cycled through various ideas (a secret agent in a fantasy world? a fantasy apocalypse?); but none of them felt quite right. Then, suddenly, the idea was there when I arrived at my usual Starbucks. I could see it plain as day. I was actually supposed to be working on Seaswept edits, but instead I opened up a new Word doc and hammered out notes for several hours.
STEP TWO: Characters and Worlds
Once I had the concept of the world, the characters followed quickly on its heels. For some of these characters, I used a method similar to the one described above, where I had a general sense of what the person should be like, and then when I saw someone who matched the idea in my head, fleshed out my portrayal. (I spotted “Esther” walking down the Mid-Levels escalator with a camera around her neck that became a pair of storm goggles; “David Hawthorne” walked into one of my regular coffee shops dressed like an investment banker and wearing memorable black-framed glasses.)
For other characters, I started with people I’ve encountered as a jumping off point to develop key aspects of their personalities, appearances, and roles they would play in the story. I spent several writing sessions scribbling notes on the characters and describing the basic structure of the world they inhabit. I held off on writing the first chapter for as long as possible because I wanted to give the ideas time to mature. I also worked out the world’s magic system, which I’m treating differently than in a typical fantasy novel.
STEP THREE: The Rough Outline
As my ideas for the story became more concrete, I wrote a rough outline of the plot. This is a back and forth process. As I developed more ideas for the story I’d go back and flesh out the existing characters or create new ones. My outlines typically follow a three-act structure and they absolutely must include the main conflict and climactic scene. Outlines are essential for my process, but I don’t do a strict chapter-by-chapter plan at this stage.
For the new fantasy project, I’ve now written a very rough outline for a five-book series. Even so, I’ll have to get further into the first book before I know whether the story will support all five books in the plan.
STEP FOUR: The Rough Draft
I am now 16,000 words into the rough draft for my newest book. I’m a huge believer in writing fast, messy first drafts.
I wrote three of the four rough drafts for the books in the Seabound Chronicles during three consecutive National Novel Writing Months. I didn’t worry about whether they would be any good at this stage. I told myself I can always take things out and rewrite as needed. This method really helped me keep up the story’s pace.
Seaswept is the only one of the Seabound books for which I wrote the first draft over a longer period (about six months, during which I took a break to rewrite my memoir, Year of Fire Dragons). The edits for this volume were actually more difficult than for the other titles.
Writing the first draft is a bit like watching a movie play out—it’s best if you can do it without too many gaps.
STEP FIVE: Rest and Repeat
As soon as I finish a draft I put it away, something Stephen King recommends in his book On Writing. The work needs to sit for a bit and I need to get some distance from it before I can rewrite effectively. But I don’t stop writing. At this stage, I’ll start the next book.
Go back to Step One and repeat!
STEP SIX: Read and Rewrite
With another rough draft under my belt, I’ll go back to the first one, print it out, and read the whole thing. I’ll make tons of notes as I go, but I won’t rewrite until I’ve completed a full read-through.
At this stage, I also create a more detailed outline. My rough drafts follow a basic plot structure, but sometimes they take unexpected twists, and I like to leave room for those in the new outline. Other times, I find gaps or pacing issues that I’m not aware of until I step back and look at the book as a whole.
When I do my first read-through, I plug the events of the rough draft into a storyboard. I use this one, which covers a classic plot progression over twenty chapters. I write the basic plot points in where they occur, paying attention to gaps in the storyboard. Then I may plan additional chapters for my next draft.
Stories are actually quite similar in structure, so the books often fit quite neatly into the storyboard with only a bit of tweaking. I don’t like doing this at the outset because I want to leave room for those unexpected twists—let the ideas come out once I’m really living in the draft.
After I’ve worked out what changes need to be made based on my read-through and storyboard, I rewrite the book from the beginning. I do all this in the same document and keep a lot of the first draft, but I also add thousands of words, fleshing out scenes and filling in chapters. At this stage, I’m still not worried about how neat the actual writing is.
STEP SEVEN: Rest and Repeat
I put that new draft away and then go back to do the second draft of the second book. Or the first draft of the third book. Or the third draft of the last book in the last series. You get the picture. It gets complicated from here, and this is why I have so many books on the go at once. Each time a draft needs to rest, I’ll have something else to work on.
And so on!
My process continues like this, and the books get better with each draft. I also become a better writer with each draft. By the time I wrote the final draft of Seaswept last month, I was far better writer than when I wrote the first draft in early 2013.
After I’ve done at least two, usually three, drafts, I ask other people to read the book and give me feedback. Then there will be more notes, more drafts, more hours spent sitting in the chair and refining the story and the prose.
Some problems are just easier to solve on the second (or third or fourth) rewrites.
I estimate that each book goes through five or six drafts before I send it off for editing. I’m hoping that as I become a better writer it’ll take fewer drafts to get the book where I want it, but the important thing is that I try not to get bogged down by worrying whether any one draft is good enough. Taking this approach is liberating, and it allows me to get a lot of work done.
So, Dear Diary, this is my writing process as it exists so far. I’m having fun applying it to my shiny new project.
Seaswept will be out soon and then I’ll be doing another draft of Burnt Sea, the prequel, but in the meantime it’s exciting to have another series on the go!
Thanks for following along on my writing journey. I hope this glimpse at my process might be helpful for another budding writer or two. It is certainly helping me get my brain back in order so I can get back to work
I remain yours,
Shannon Young/Jordan Rivet
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Readers, Shannon has graciously shared her writing process with us this month. By breaking it all down, she almost makes it seem easy! (You can tell that she’s been a teacher.) So, what do you think—any responses to her methods, questions, words of encouragement for her next endeavor? Do let her know in the comments!
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