December 3, 2014

The Writing Process-You Can't Do It All At Once

By Meg Gardiner

Writing is a process, we hear. But what does that mean? That writing is like assembling cars on a factory line? Like baking a cake, or giving birth?

For me, process means I spend months brainstorming ideas for a novel, and sketching character biographies, coming up with plot twists, and researching topics that range from cryptology to cat burglary. It means I outline the story: the beginning, the middle’s big turning points, and the ending. It means I pound out a rough draft. (So rough, I could glue it to a belt sander and use it to grind down metal filings.) It means I revise that draft once, twice, maybe three or four times, adding more plot twists, pruning dead ends, and turning cardboard characters into living, breathing, bleeding people who launch themselves at the world and at each other.  

Process means that writing a novel is a multi-faceted, multi-layered endeavor. Which means you can’t do it all at once.

So, if you’re gazing into the abyss that is your writing project, feeling overwhelmed, lean back. Repeat after me: One-step at a time.

It took me years to figure this out. When I first attempted to write a novel, I had no idea what I was doing. I just hammered out a story featuring an embryonic version of my series heroine, Evan Delaney.

In the first version, Evan’s entire family disappeared. Ooh… it was a mystery. The problem: Evan spent 20 pages sitting in her brother’s empty living room, having flashbacks about her childhood, before noticing that nobody was home. It was lumpen. In the second version, a bunch of amateurs pulled off a sting. That version had witty dialogue, a cast of hundreds, and a major issue: I called the novel a murder mystery, but nobody in the book actually died.

In still another version, I spiced up a slow scene by introducing a revving engine and a blinding set of headlights. The characters dashed to safety, and then the would-be thriller screeched to a halt, because I had no idea who was at the wheel or why they were after anybody. I was a deer in those headlights, broadsided by the realization that I had no plot.

That’s when I taught myself to plan novels so they have a beginning, a middle, and an end. And as few blinding headlights—and other clich├ęs—as possible.

I learned how to construct a plot: a big, strong story that builds to a conclusion that’s surprising yet inevitable, with strong, sympathetic characters in action under pressure, facing the hardest choices of their lives. Now, with twelve novels published, I know that this is the work I’ll tackle whenever I start a new book.

Process means that your writing has to develop, evolve, and grow. All that takes time. One step after another. Embrace the journey. You’ll get there.

Meg Gardiner is the author of twelve acclaimed thrillers. Her novels have been bestsellers in the U.S. and internationally, and have been translated into more than 20 languages. CHINA LAKE won the 2009 Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original. THE NIGHTMARE THIEF won the 2012 Audie Award for Thriller/Suspense audiobook of the year. Her current title, PHANTOM INSTINCT, was chosen one of O, the Oprah magazine’s “Best Books of Summer.” She lives in Austin, Texas. You can connect with her on  and Twitter: @MegGardiner1 and

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