My writing process in a picture

Ice sculpture

Image used under creative commons license. Image source:

I recently read a great post on the The Diaries of James Purcell blog, where he’d put up a picture of his bookshelves and mentioned how representative they were of his thinking process, saying “the haphazard way the shelfs are stacked with bits shoved into any odd gap is a perfect example of how I think, plan and access my thoughts when writing.”

This got me thinking, because I often use visual metaphors to explain my writing process. When I first started writing I saw myself as a sculptor, with the block of stone (or ice in the case above) representing the initial blank page. My first draft would be where I’d make the first cuts, to uncover the rough approximation of the shape of the story, but in a way that still needed plenty of work. Then, with ever more intricate tools I’d edit my manuscript down, smoothing the edges, teasing out the details, until I ended up with a polished piece of work.

Clay Sculpture

Image source:

However, my writing process has changed since I first started. Whereas the first draft of Second Chance fitted this analogy well, starting at 120,000 words before being edited down to 84,000, the word count on Absent Souls (and I expect Genesis Redux) started lower, went higher, before being refined back down again.

In this case, while I still see myself as a story sculptor, I now believe my process is more like creating a wire-frame clay sculpture. The frame is my outline – a series of  small paragraphs, or even just a couple of lines of description, to convey what happens in every scene of the book. I then write my first draft, fleshing out this brief description, providing the bulk of the words but still being quite sparse in places (yes, even for me), with minimal description and scene setting. Once complete, I work on my second draft, adding in further detail where required and developing the areas where more detail is needed. This process allows me to play with the pacing of the book and fully explore and accentuate the themes that have arisen in the first draft. Further edits then trim and smooth prose until I reach the finished version.

So, what about you? What’s the image that best represents your writing process? I’m a great believer that we all have our own idiosyncrasies when it comes to how we write, so I’d love to understand what image best sums up yours.


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22 thoughts on “My writing process in a picture

  1. My method is much like yours, only I tend to overload in the first draft and cut later (as you did with your first book). I dump the setting in with as much detail as I can think of, and then I pare it down later. I don’t enjoy fleshing out settings, so I figure if I get this done in the first draft, all I have to do is pretty it up in the second. Or try to, anyway. Sometimes it’s difficult to make the description of a room enticing…

    • That’s really interesting. I often find myself spending so long trying to think of ways to describe a setting (even though I have a clear idea of it in my mind) that my writing stalls on the back of it, and for me the priority of the first draft it to get the story down. When this happens, what I tend to do is include the salient points – things important to the story itself – and then move on, knowing I’ll come back to it later. In the intervening time my subconscious tends to work away at the issue so by the time it comes to edit the passage, I have a much clearer way forward.

    • It’s funny how the writing process changes as you go on. A number of writers I’ve spoken to have all mentioned how their first novel was overwritten and needed heavy editing. When you say you overwrote your first and underwrote your second, do you mean the first draft or the finished book?

  2. I think if I was going to compare my method of writing(such as it is) to anything, I would have to compare it to a climbing rose on a trellis. The plant is planted in front of the trellis (actually it probably sits in a pot on the patio for several weeks until I get around to putting it in the ground). It is little and it seems like it is going to take forever for it to fill the trellis. But one day, after I stop worrying about whether the rose is going to make it, I come out to the garden and find the plant has flourished and become completely out of control. There are runners everywhere. Big runners, little runners all with thorns, and always with a beautiful cluster of blooms right at the very end. So then I sit there, contemplating if I should adhere to the principles of rose pruning, or just say to hell with and leave it there. In the end, I know it is in the best interest of the climber’s health that I prune it. But that doesn’t happen without injury, and pruning can become a painful activity, which I honestly hate doing (especially the ones with the beautiful blooms). After pruning, I take the vines and weave them back into the trellis and hope that it will continue it prosper and other people will appreciate the rose as much as I do.

    • This is such a lovely picture. I love the wild abandon of the first draft and the reluctance to prune, even though you know it’s in the plant’s (or manuscript’s) best interest. Great stuff!

      • Thanks. It only came into my brain because of your thought-provoking post (and also because I sit at the computer with multiple scratches up and down my arms from recent rose-pruning – I’m a little behind the pruning schedule this year).

  3. Most excellent question, Dylan. I think I’ll say that to me, a first draft is like an overfull laundry basket. Stuff bursts out from underneath the lid, and the task is too daunting to even contemplate. Eventually, you decide to tackle it, and about half way down, you find some undergarments which nobody wants to think about. But by this point you’ve committed, and even unthinkable underwear must be dealt with. You take care of that, but something else goes back in on top. And so on until eventually, the basket is empty.

    For about 2 hours. And then it’s bursting again. But let’s not go there.

    • Ah, I understand the perils of the stinky undergarments only too well.* We all have them in our first draft, but they have to be dealt with otherwise they make the whole damn pile stink to high heaven. Great picture!
      *Did I really say that out loud?

  4. I was a teenager when I first had the image of sitting at a potters wheel when I wrote. I had never actually heard of the idea of writing as sculpture elsewhere and I was not very good at sculpture or pottery but somehow the analogy stuck. I have never had trouble getting fist drafts out. They come easily to me, so I always assumed that was my clay, the thing I start working with. Sometimes it is already in pretty good shape. At other times it starts as a goopy mass that has to worked and formed and shaped. As I have gotten better at this doing a first draft has become more like that magic you see where the potter sits at the wheel, places their hands just so and the pot just grows out of the spinning clay. I still edit but it is much more about fine tuning and polishing, sometimes adding, taking out or rearranging scenes but mostly it is more on the level of line edits. This comes of having more shapely first drafts but it has taken a lot of practice and the metaphor still seems to hold true. It is only that the clay I have to work with now is already well worked and it mostly does what I wanted to do the first time around.

    • I love the analogy as the first draft as Rae clay and an experienced writer the potter drawing beauty from the clay. I’d like to get to the point you have where editing is mostly fine tuning. At the moment it’s more like major surgery 🙂

  5. My writing process involves sitting down at my desk, and then staring off into the distance until I decide to get up and do something else 🙂

    I wish I had this overwhelming volume of words to pare down–every single one seems to be a struggle to put down on the page screen.

    I guess if I had to think of an analogy for my writing process it would be an anorexic teenage girl who eventually, through years and years of therapy, develops into an underweight young woman.

  6. My way of writing is like setting of an Atom Bomb. I just dive in, and about twenty or thirty pages in I just see if I can go any further or not. That’s when I start to see if I can sculpt the story, the characters, things like that. If it is there, I set up a rough outline to go off of, but if not I either see if it can be a short story or just trash it – rarely do I trash it though.

    • Ha ha! That’s a great method. I’ve tried to do something similar in the past but really struggled. I do need a framework on which to pin my writing, but it’s great free form chaos works for you.

  7. Pingback: NaNoWriMo – are you in? | Suffolk Scribblings

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