I have 6 published novels and one short story collection, along with two first drafts sitting at home and am nearly halfway through writing the first draft of a new novel that my wife and I are working on. So, where do all these ideas come from? What’s my creative process and how does an idea become a published book?
Depending on the series, I often stumble upon the idea for a book in an organic way. For my Cinderella’s Secret Witch Diaries series, I remember reading fairy tales to my daughter when she was about two and wondered: If Cinderella had a secret journal, what would she write in it? How would she really feel?
The ideas started coming from there, and before I knew it, I wrote books 1, 2 and then 3. But that’s what the outside world knows and hears about my creative process. I wanted to be a bit more transparent here and share with you some of the tools and processes that I put into place to take an idea from concept to a published work.
1. Where Do Ideas Come from?
When I look back at my college experience, I learned a lot by reading other works of literature. I studied the style of those authors, how they handled dialogue and descriptions and tried my hand at writing at a young age.
But now that I’m older, I’ve learned a thing or two and have discovered that film, art and music have been great inspirations to me.
There have been times in which I’m listening to a song and an idea will pop into my head and I just need to write it down. And the funny thing is that what the song is about will usually not be linked to the idea. It’s more about the emotional appeal of the song that grabs me.
Over the years, I’ve learned that my best ideas are generated when I’m relaxed and not working on actual brainstorming.
I might be in the shower, in the car, running or cleaning a bathroom--I’d say that 99% of my ideas come to me when I’m not writing but am doing something else. I take those ideas and jot them down or use an app like Pocket so that I can pick up the threads when I do actually have time to sit down and write.
Other times my ideas come from dreams that I have. I never quite know what my subconscious will serve up to me in my sleep. I still remember several extremely vivid dreams from when I was a teenager (and that was a lifetime ago!). These dreams became so real to me that I sometimes think that they actually happened. I was able to see colors in these dreams and still hold on to the sense of dread from what I experienced in those nightmares.
When I was younger, I didn’t know how to generate ideas and often just went about my business, waiting for a magical muse to bestow upon me an idea that I could write. I used to think that I needed to wait to be inspired to write and that only then could I produce a good story. I look back at that time and smile at how I really didn’t understand my creative process, but I guess we all have to start somewhere.
Now I’m in the opposite situation: I have too many ideas and not enough time to write them all down. But I’d rather have too many ideas then not enough. There’s a clear way for me to generate ideas: Relax, be open and think. When I daydream and allow my mind to roam, that’s when I find that an idea will pop into my head. My best ideas comes to me when I take one idea and mash it with another.
There’s an interesting twist in Lost: Cinderella’s Secret Witch Diaries (that I won’t spoil here), but I will share this: I wrote the first draft of the book and just felt that the plot wasn’t coming together right.
One day on a car ride to the train station to get to work, an idea just popped into my head. The thought process was: “What if…?” and I just remember smiling because I knew that I had solved my plot problem. I pulled into the parking lot and jotted down all my ideas, knowing I couldn’t be late for a meeting. Thankfully, all turned out well and I started listening to my playlist on the way to work.
I find that I gravitate toward certain songs while writing a book and use Spotify or YouTube to create playlists so that I can get back into the frame of mind I need at a later date. I pick certain songs typically because they represent the emotional state of one of my characters in my book.
When I listen to those songs, I allow my mind to roam and think about how the singer chooses certain words to express what’s on their mind. During the writing of Lost, I’d sometimes listen to Annie Lennox’s “A Thousand Beautiful Things” again and again. In Lennox’s song, we’re brought into an intimate look at a couple’s relationship and how she feels soars up and explodes into song.
I wondered what Cinderella felt when she was going through her hard times and started asking myself: “What is going through her mind? How does she feel? How did I feel when I was in spots like that during my past relationships?” After I ask myself these questions, in time, the ideas start flowing.
2. How Do You Make Time to Write?
Now I have a pretty standard process for writing. I write on a schedule. There are specific days of the week meant for writing and other days are marked for exercising. When I was younger, I wrote when I felt like it and that’s the main reason why I didn’t do a lot of work in my 20s. From the time I was 16 up through 37, I only wrote two books and about a dozen short stories. Yet from the age of 38 until 45, I’ve written six books and am working on a seventh.
What changed? I did. When I believed that I needed to be inspired to write, I didn’t practice my skill and wanted to quit. I didn’t know how to write dialogue, or add dialogue tags and found it extremely difficult to piece together scenes. I just didn’t know how to take the ideas I had and to actually get them written down. I wasn’t disciplined enough to understand my own creative process.
But now I’ve learned a thing or two since I have a few books under my belt. I've also learned how to overcome my fears. What helped me the most was sitting down and writing on a regular basis. The practice helped me to come up with my ideas and to flesh them out in a way that was productive. I’ve now reached a point with my writing that I can sit cross-legged on my sofa with my laptop and let my fingers just do the typing.
I know that all cylinders are firing when I can “see” the scene in my head. When people have asked me about my writing process, I’ve described it to them that it’s like watching a movie. I can see the characters, the scene unfolds and I’m desperately trying to use my fingers as fast as I can to type out what I’m seeing in my head.
Now don’t get me wrong: It’s rare that I’m able to fly through so quickly with a scene. Normally, I’ll sit there, imagine a scene and I’m making decisions on the fly. During this morning’s writing session, one of the characters became sick at what he was seeing so I imagined how he felt, why he felt that way and started using my senses to describe what was happening to the character. I imagined what I could hear, see, smell and taste, writing that into the scene.
With being out of the house for 11 hours Monday through Friday for my full-time job, and after I factor in sleep and time with my family, that doesn’t leave me much time to write (since I also work in exercising). Instead of becoming all frustrated at myself because I don’t have enough time, I make my writing goals attainable and stick to my writing schedule.
A Typical Writer's Day
Last Sunday night I stayed up late watching the Oscars but still sat my butt on the sofa at 5:30 a.m. to write. Some days the writing is good, some not so good. With being consistent on writing (Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday), I am clocking in a solid amount of words each week that, over time, builds up nicely to be the first draft.
3. Editing the book: Now the Hard Work Begins
Once I get to around 70,000-85,000 words written, I finish off the first draft and send it out to my beta readers. Depending on the project, I’ll reach out to several diehard fans and share the book with them along with a close friend and my wife. I ask for feedback to be sent back to me over the next 3-4 weeks and then give a serious look at that feedback.
Having time away from the book during those weeks, is key for me. I need to make certain that I have emotional distance from my work. Why? It’s highly possible that I might need to rip apart my book during a re-write (which is famously described by many authors as “kill your darlings”).
I had to rip out around 25% of my book Found: Cinderella’s Secret Witch Diaries (Book 3) and it was hard to do, but something that needed to be done. Without having that distance from the book, I don’t know if I would have been able to delete all that work so easily. I did think about all those early morning work sessions and how pages upon pages of work were deleted only to be re-written again from scratch. Yes, it was hard to do, but needed to be done to make the book better.
The editing and rewriting portions of the creative process take a lot of effort and time. For me, this portion of the book writing project is the hardest. When I’m writing the first draft, I can write whatever I want. I allow myself that freedom and don’t worry about anything--I just want to get the basics of the story down. When I rewrite the book, I hunker down and start thinking about continuity, whether dialogue makes sense and incorporate reader feedback.
I need to make certain that if a character picks up a rock in one scene that she still has that magical rock later on in the book. When I wrote Lost: Cinderella’s Secret Witch Diaries (Book 1), keeping track of all the various plot lines for all the characters became extremely challenging.
Writing a book while working full-time and raising two kids, was not easy. I did my best to take notes, but I slowly learned that using Microsoft Word wasn’t the best way to organize a book. I struggled through my first three books, but then learned about Scrivener and now am a convert. With Scrivener, I can easily break chapters down by scenes and then drag and drop then anywhere throughout the manuscript. I cannot tell you how much time this saves me.
I’m also able to easily organize a chapter synopsis and all the characters simply through Scrivener. Add in the automatic saving and it’s a great investment for any writer. But I didn’t know anything about all of this for my first three books. I was still learning my way.
4. Formatting and Publishing
When I think of writing a book, I now know that the entire process can be compared to an iceberg. Readers see the finished product, pick it up, and if it’s good, devour it quickly. But for me, I see years of my life tied into the creation of a book. There’s the top portion of the iceberg, but also a whole mountain of work under the water.
After I write, re-write (and sometimes do a third re-write), I then do all my own ebook formatting.
I basically take the words, throw them all into HTML with chapter headings, front and back matter (dedication, copyright page, About the Author page, etc.) and style the entire book so that I can upload it to Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other stores.
This is the dry part of the process. It’s not fun. If I miss an accent, a left quote or em-dash, a reader is going to see a question mark in the final text. I test, fix, test again, rinse and repeat until the book is clean. Now that I have a half dozen books under my belt, I’ve created templates and checklists to help me go through the process.
But every now and again, I stumble upon a simple mistake I’ve made and need to go back and fix the coding by adding the correct HTML entity and re-running the Calibre conversion tool. I’ll test on phones, Kindles, iPads and my wife’s Nexus 7 just to make certain that the finished product can be as professional looking as possible.
I enjoy doing the conversion work, but it does take time away from writing. With limited hours in the day, I can’t write and do the conversion work at the same time. Thankfully, I’ve streamlined the process so that it now only takes me about an hour to do a quick conversion. The challenge is testing and I normally give myself one or two days to be away from the work.
When I come back fresh, I often find mistakes that are hard to find (maybe I forgot to add a link to a webpage or the copyright year is incorrect--it’s always something).
Once the book is ready, then I go through the final stage and load the book up to the various stores.
5. Marketing Happens All Along the Way
When I begin writing a book, I’m already starting to think about how to market it. I take my template for my marketing plan that I created when I first started, review it and then adapt it to my current project. But before I spend a dollar toward advertising, I start much more organically.
At the beginning of the process, I tell myself that I’m going to work on my next book. That might sound strange, but for me, the creative process is about having an idea, agreeing to work on it and then telling someone next. In my immediate family, I’ll let my wife and kids know that I’m working on a book and slowly broaden that circle out. I do this for a particular reason: Accountability.
I’ll share out on Facebook glimpses into my writing process and as well as my friends and family. My closest friends will congratulate me on the work I’m doing and I take that as a message: The dream is becoming reality. I committed to the work and now I need to write the book.
By saying to people “I am writing a book,” I then want to finish it and know that I can start with an idea, do the hard work to create the book and then see it published. Without that support, I might be tempted to hide my work and trick myself out of completing it because “I don’t have time” or “work is too busy right now.”
There will always be an excuse not to write. I spent all of my 20s working on just one novel that I shopped around. I did write short stories for graduate school, but I never challenged myself to go beyond that one book. In my inexperience, I thought that my first book would be “the one” and how could I write another if I wanted to only write a sequel to that?
I’ve learned a lot since then and the first seeds of marketing happen within myself (I need to sell the book to myself as well!). If I can’t think warm and fuzzy thoughts about completing the book, then how am I going to get up at 5:30 a.m. to write? How would I be able to make the sacrifices to complete the damn thing?
Then I get my network on board the process by letting them know through casual conversation. Along the way, I’ll write blog posts, tweets and newsletter emails to let readers know that I’m working on a new book. At first, I won’t go into the specifics, but I talk about it gradually because I am sharing a secret and want to make certain that the project will be completed before I give the details.
Typically, after the first draft is done, I’ll start working on the cover. I’ve worked directly with graphic designers and go back and forth on what the cover should look like, giving feedback as needed and sharing the cover with a close circle of friends and family.
The cover is the window to the book’s soul and I need to make certain that I get it right.
I’ve learned a lot about covers over the past six years and want to make certain that the cover aligns with what my readers like. Once the cover is finished, I tease it out as part of my marketing strategy to let my street team see it first and then those signed up on my mailing list. Sometimes I'll even get my kids involved in creating artwork and then share that with my readers.
While this work is going on, I start researching marketing opportunities to advertise my book for when it launches (places like Bookbub, Kindle Daily Nation, etc.). I know that it’ll take time to re-write a book and need to factor in several weeks for a proofreader to review the manuscript. All of these things are happening while I’m working on re-writing the book. I need to make certain that I get the process going to line up with advertising promotions while ensuring that the book finishes according to schedule.
The creative process of writing and editing is one section of the iceberg, but the research, marketing, networking, blog sharing, asking for reviews (just to name a few of the high level areas of work that I undertake) takes lots of work. With limited time, I typically have to take breaks on finishing the actual editing of the book so that I can start some of this work.
The outside world might only see the final results of the marketing (a Facebook ad, receive an email blast, tweet, etc.), but the planning was started months before. And that’s a good thing because marketing your book falls into the business of writing and that’s a whole other topic for a different day.
6. Rinse and Repeat
After a book launch, I use my time to only focus on the marketing aspect. I shut down the creative writing process for a bit and put on my marketing hat. I like to engage with readers via email or Twitter and that also takes time. I answer all my emails personally and I like to thank people for reaching out to me. Over the years, I’ve been so impressed with how great my readers are. I’m honored and so thankful for them.
After some time has passed, I realize that I’ve exhausted my advertising funds and know that the best way I can market my work is write another book. With search engines serving up results to readers, it’s always nice for people to see that I have 6 novels published. These books will come up in search results on Amazon and other online stores so the more that I write, the more options readers have to find my works.
Now that I have been working on this for the last six years, I see the cycle and understand where I need to work harder. Marketing is the hardest part because it takes solid planning and crosses many different areas of expertise: Financial, social, technological, execution and imaginative. Writing the actual book requires me to connect with my creativity and then bring that elusive idea into the real world.
“Everyone has ideas, but it’s the perseverant person who can bring those ideas to fruition.”
Over the years, I’ve married my imagination with a tactical process for getting the work done. When I was young, I didn’t understand my creative process or how to train myself to be better at it. I had no sense of how to take an idea and make a book out of it and then to market that book. What I’ve learned the most over the years is to have an open mind, not just for the creative ideas, but also in learning the business of writing. Being a writer is a hard job. It’s not my hobby.
If you look, at the high level for all that a writer does, essentially she’s creating her own business and needs to devise and executive a marketing strategy to sell the book. That might not be a sexy way of saying that the “writer listens to her muse,” but it’s the reality I’ve found. Limiting myself and saying that I’m “a writer” isn’t telling the whole story.
I’m an entrepreneur who is building imaginary worlds that are then shared with the world. Writers not only need to strengthen their storytelling skills, but also need to become better marketers. On one hand, that’s a lot of hard work, but on the other, I’m essentially creating a whole business that’s tied into an industry that’s been majorly affected by disruption and that's exciting.
Publishing has changed dramatically in the last decade and I’m riding that wave of change. To me, understanding and strengthening my creative process isn’t simply about coming up with the idea of writing a book, but of learning the full scope of what it means to be a writer in the 21st century. I love this because I’m learning something new every day, but also have an amazing opportunity to now directly communicate with readers. And, for me, that’s why it’s worth it. To have an idea, write the book, market it and then receive an email from a reader letting me know how she enjoyed it is one of the reasons why I get up at 5:30 a.m. to work.
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