I was whining the other day to a non-writer friend about my work-in-progress, and how I wished (for the umpteenth time) that I could outline a novel. As a “pantster,” it feels like I spend so much time getting lost in my own story. After five minutes of venting, when my friend didn’t say anything back, I asked her what she thought. And her response was, “What do I think about what? Your process? Because you do this with every book.”
Dammit. She’s right, of course. I do whine a lot when I start a new book, and I do go crazy writing pages of stuff I end up deleting, in search of the story. But in the end, every time, the book gets written. Since I started writing seriously nine years ago, I’ve never started a novel I didn’t finish.
So what is my process, then? I’ve had a lot of people ask me this question, and I know I’ve asked it of other writers. But I’ve never dissected it until now. It goes something like this:
By Golly, I Have an Idea, But It’s a Secret and I Can’t Tell You
It starts when something random sparks in my brain. It’s tiny at first, pea-sized (the idea, not my brain), and it might be something awesome, or it might not be anything at all. But because I don’t get ideas often, there’s no way in hell I’m letting it go. In fact, I’m so goddamned excited to have an idea that all I want to do is love it and squeeze it and hug it and call it George. And the more I love it, the more it grows (okay, that sounds dirty). But it’s a secret. If I talk about it, it will die. So all I can do is . . .
Cut It Open and See What Comes Out
This is when I play around with what I have. Okay, that sounds dirty again. This is when I start writing. I’ll start with the scene I can see most clearly in my head. It’s not always the beginning of the book. Sometimes it’s the middle. And then I’ll write another scene, experimenting with one of the major characters (usually the villain, but sometimes the protagonist), and on it goes, with me writing organically until I start getting lost and confused. This tends to happen around sixty to eighty pages in, leaving me no choice but to . . .
Stop, Collaborate, and Listen
Vanilla Ice was on to something. Everything I need to know about my story is somewhere in this pile of word vomit I’m now drowning in. This is where I put the novel on pause and summarize what I think I have, in dramatic book jacket-style copy, to see if the idea sounds as good from a distance as it does in my head. This little trick – no more than a paragraph in length – allows me to zero in on the heart of the story. This is where it all clicks.
Now that I know what I’m writing, I can cut out all the stuff I don’t need. This can be as much as fifty pages, leaving me with maybe thirty clean pages of novel. Ouch. But it’s not really as wasteful as it sounds. Most of what gets cut is backstory, which I needed to know, but the reader didn’t. And now I can continue writing in a more linear fashion, because the story finally has . . .
The book is alive and squirming, and becoming a thing independent of me. All I have to do is feed it and let it go where it needs to. While I still don’t have an official roadmap for where I’m headed, I can now imagine the ending, and I have faith that the next hundred feet of road will appear, as long as I keep my headlights bright. At this point, I start keeping what I call a “running chapter summary,” a separate file where I sum up every scene in a sentence or two. (This will be helpful later when I’m tying up loose plot points.)
And now that I’m deep into the book, please . . .
Don’t Speak To Me, You Don’t Exist
This part typically lasts two months, sometimes less. During this phase, I can’t get to my computer soon enough in the mornings. I’m Energizer-Bunny-excited, which is super annoying to anyone who lives with me. I become single-minded. I forget things at the grocery store. I don’t always hear my husband when he’s speaking to me. I’m feeding my baby and one half of my brain is thinking how cute he is, and the other half is plotting my next murder. Texts from friends go unanswered, sometimes for weeks. I may or may not need professional help. “Hello, my name is Jenny and I ignore the people who care about me.”
Goddammit, I love this stage. Because it means I’ll soon be . . .
Finished! Beast Mode!
I did it. The book is done, and it turned out exactly as I wanted it to, and I’m so happy and fulfilled and proud of myself that I could cry. Sometimes I do cry, a little. I got teary writing the last chapter of THE BUTCHER, because I knew in that moment there wasn’t a damn thing about the story I would change. Beast Mode is an incredible feeling. It’s scoring the winning touchdown at the Super Bowl. It’s the hot guy at the club asking for your number.
Except it doesn’t last. Ten minutes, maybe less, which leaves me feeling like I spent a lot of time on foreplay for the world’s shortest . . . ahem. This brings us to the final stage of my process, also known as . . .
Oh God, I Suck
This is where the doubts creep in. Maybe chapter four was weak after all, and I need to change That Major Thing because it’s not right. But if I change That Major Thing, then it affects the Game Changer in chapter seventeen, which ruins my Surprise Twist in chapter twenty-four, which makes my Big Reveal at the end predictable. And while we’re at it, the writing is clunky, the characters have no complexity, and this story is completely stupid. Oh God, I Suck.
As horrible as this stage is, it’s nevertheless an extremely necessary part of my process. My fear of Major Suckage forces me to take a hard look at all the decisions I’ve made. The mean little voice inside my head that’s gleefully telling me how awful the book is? It’s what drives revisions, as many as it takes until it’s right. I never truly exit this stage until the book is published, and only because I’m forced to let it go.
And finally, we enter the downshift, also known as . . .
Wallowing in Misery
I’m now in between books, and I’ll do anything to keep myself from going nuts. I’ll buy – and return – more things online in this three month-ish period than I will at any other time of the year, including Christmas. I’ll ponder, at great length, whether to cut my hair. I’ll catch up on all my TV shows. I’ll smother the friends I neglected with emoji-filled texts. I’ll be on Facebook and Instagram A LOT. I’ll buy an adult coloring book AND ACTUALLY FUCKING COLOR. Basically, I flounder, until the next By Golly, I Have an Idea comes along, and the process starts all over again.
JENNIFER HILLIER writes about dark, twisted people who do dark, twisted things. She’s the author of the thrillers Creep (2011), Freak (2012), The Butcher (2014), and Wonderland (2015). She loves her husband, her son, her cat Kobe, Stephen King, and the Seahawks. Not equally, but close. Born and raised in Toronto, she currently lives in the Seattle area with her family. Find her on the web at jenniferhillier.ca.
To learn more about Hillier’s books, click on the covers below: