September 9, 2014

A Peek Into My Writing Process

Metalheads Who Read, Rage against the manuscript, Steff, Writing Runes

The Sunken comes out on FRIDAY! Order your copy (paperback and ebook) of The Sunken (Engine Ward Book 1) from Amazon.

When people hear that I’m writing and publishing novels (two so far this year), on top of running this blog, working a full-time job (also as a writer), co-managing The Asockalypse, running a lifestyle block, and all the other things I do, I get a lot of weird glances and strange questions. Mainly, this question: “How do you do it?”

I am not some mystical being or some crazy productivity machine. I just enjoy writing. And I tend to do things I enjoy a lot.

However, enough people have inquired that I thought I’d write a little blog post on my writing process. It’s a bit different to other authors (a lot less planning and a LOT less coffee), so if you’re into writing or thinking of writing a novel or longer work, it might be of interest:

Making Time to Write

I try not to do anything half-arsed. Which means, when I am relaxing, I am really relaxing. When I set aside some time for writing, no matter how little time, then I’m really writing.

If you’ve ever been at a party or social gathering with me, you will notice that I will very rarely check my cellphone. Most of the time, I leave it at home. When I’m with friends or watching a band or doing something fun, I want to be in the moment. I always think it’s weird to see people at social events on their phones.

I apply this same philosophy for writing.

If you have fifteen minutes of spare time, you can write. On most of my days when I’m at home, I do my novel writing early in the morning, before I sit down to do my actual work. If I don’t finish, I do a bit over my lunch hour. I try to leave my evenings free (or at least for editing, because editing takes less brain-juice). When I was at work, I’d write on my lunch break and email it home to myself – now I do it on the bus on the way to the office.

When I was first trying to teach myself to be disciplined with writing, I would write with a timer. I’d set the timer for 15 minutes and write as much as I could before it went off. It would create a little competition with myself, force me to focus, and at the end of that 15 minutes, I’d always have something to show for my efforts. This is a really useful technique if you find yourself getting distracted.

My Office

Socrates sitting on top of the bookshelf, looking innocent after spilling hundreds of papers across the room.

Socrates sitting on top of the bookshelf, looking innocent after spilling hundreds of papers across the room.

For the last five years I’ve had a dedicated room in the house for my office, which is pretty cool :) For four of those years it was the third bedroom in our flat. And since Christmas 2014 it’s been the middle room in the attic of our little cottage. I have an old-fashioned lawyer’s desk, with a million drawers I have already filled with crap. Two cat igloos sit on top of the desk, because if the cats have nowhere to sit, they sit on the keyboard, or on my hand when it’s on the mouse, or balanced precariously on my head.

Behind my desk I have a bookshelf, which contains a curated selection of our books, chosen because they are books I refer to a lot while writing, or books I like to look at when I’m having a hard time concentrating. “Just think about what Ray Bradbury would do right now? Would he be staring off into space? No! He’d be writing! Get back to it, Steff.”

Oh, and I got a new cat. His name is Socrates – he’s about 4.5 months old and he’s a rascal. He’s a Tonkinese cat, which means he’s a cross between a Burmese and a Siamese. He loves to hide socks around the house, play fetch and hang out with his chicken friends.


My kitten, Socrates, bringing me a toy mouse to play with while I work. (not the reverse white-on-black screen and the computer held up by French and Ancient Greek dictionaries).

Writing a Novel: My Method

There are generally two types of writers – planners, and pantsers. Planners need to create a detailed map of the story before they begin. They need every major plot point worked out, and all the details of each character, too. They may come up with new ideas along the way, and amend as required, but generally, they know how everything is going to go down before they even write “It was a dark and stormy night …”

I am a pantser. That means I write “on the seat of my pants.” I believe that the plot arises naturally from the actions of the characters, and the act of writing is the act of discovering the characters. I don’t really plan beyond a basic concept of a setting and a character – I just start writing and see where I end up.

I usually begin with the setting, asking myself, “where is the story in time and space? What about that place is unique? What is the structure of the world?” When writing fantasy, the fantastical setting is vital to the story, so that’s where I begin.

So, for the Engine Ward series, I began with the idea of a world where dinosaurs had never become extinct. I thought about what that would mean to the people living in that world. I realized many of the myths and legends that form part of our collective history might have new meaning if dinosaurs still existed, which is why in the books they aren’t called dinosaurs. The scary ones are dragons, and others have their own names.

I read about the industrial revolution and how new ideas at the time would clash with the religious dogma that had ruled society for many centuries. I thought about what would happen if science and religion were linked at their core, and that’s how the engineering sects came to be. I realized these religions would be intrinsically linked to the political happenings at the times, and that they would form elites and inequalities within the society.

So I had the setting. Next, I insert some characters into the setting, and see how they react. With this particular setting, I decided to base several characters on real, historical figures. Isambard Kingdom Brunel was an obvious choice, as his work with steam was pivotal in the industrial revolution. I wondered, “who would Isambard be if he’d grown up in this world?” And I wrote what I wondered.

Then I insert another character – how do these two characters know each other? How do they react together? Are they friends, or enemies?

The more I write, the more I discover about the world. It’s a bit like starting a computer game; you begin somewhere safe, and need to branch out to explore new paths, filling in a bit more of the map as you go.

I jump around a lot, writing scenes out of order, because I can fix it all in editing later. For me, the magic comes not in the writing itself, but in the editing. My first drafts are full of half-finished sentences and “INSERT PASSAGE HERE” and “GO BACK AND MAKE THIS CHARACTER A MORMON” notes to myself.

The “comment” section of MS Word is my friend. I have lots of notes to myself by the end of a book.

My Wordcount Goals

I try to write 1000 words of a first draft every single day. Sometimes that happens, sometimes it doesn’t. I used to do 2500 words a day, but I find that’s too much at the moment. I will usually also have editing, promo stuff, or blog posts to work on as well.

1000 words a day isn’t much to me these days. I can do that while I’m eating my lunch. At that pace, in about three months I have the draft of a full novel completed. Because life happens, It’s more like 4+ months these days, and I’m often writing more than one thing at once, making the time for a completed book even longer, but that’s still not too shabby.

If anyone asks me for advice on finishing a work of fiction, I tell them to write 250 words a day. That’s about three paragraphs. It’s nothing. It might take you 20 minutes. But if you got into the habit of doing it every single day, every week you’d be adding 1750 words to your story. In 30 weeks you’d have over 50,000 words, which is a decent first draft of a novel. Give yourself a few months to edit it, and in a year, you’ve got a book.

My Schedule

In my head, I keep a schedule of when I want things to be finished and released. It doesn’t always go according to plan, because I am relying on outside people – my amazing editors, proofreaders, cover designers, etc – to do their bit, and I can’t always hold them to my ambitious schedule. To give you an idea of what I’m thinking about, here’s a peek at my schedule:

  • Sept: I am writing another 10k at least on The Gauge War. I am finishing off a short story under another (secret) pen name, and I’m also doing all the promo for the release of The Sunken.
  • Oct: I am hoping to finish the draft of The Gauge War, polish it, and get it off to my first editor.
  • Nov: NaN0 (see below). I will be finishing off The Gauge War (if it’s not already done) and trying to write 50k on a new novel manuscript, temporarily called Equine City (until I can think of something better).
  • Dec: Hopefully polishing The Gauge War for printing, working on another short story, and working on Equine City a bit more, too.

That’s a very ambitious schedule. Let’s see how it goes!


NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month, although it’s actually an international thing, and you don’t have to write a novel, you can write whatever you want. During NaNo, you challenge yourself to write 50,000 words in a month. It works out to a little over 1600 words a day.

They don’t have to be good words, and usually they aren’t. But they have to be on paper (or in a .docx file), not in your head.

I have done NaNoWriMo off and on for about four years, never “won” it (meaning you managed to hit the 50k words), but I usually get more words completed in a month than.

I’ll be doing NaNoWriMo again this year, and I aim to finish it. Equine City, the first book in a new dystopian series, is begging to be written. So I’m going to try to bash out a draft of that. I thought I might update my progress on the blog here, alongside my usual posts. If any of you out there are writers, I’d love for you to join me in November!

So there you go, a little peek behind the scenes of my writing method. If you have any questions, please shout out in the comments!

And don’t forget to order your copy (paperback and ebook) of The Sunken (Engine Ward Book 1) from Amazon.

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