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Knowing Your Process: What

June 21, 2010

Last week I looked at the “who” of the writing process in the first of a five part series of getting to know your individual writing process. This week I look at “what”… focusing on ‘what should I write?’, genre, strengths and weaknesses, goal setting and inspiration.

What Should I Write?

Should schmould… Seriously – take any advice which includes “should” and discard post haste. If you insist in asking yourself this question – reframe it and ask “What will I write?” This opens up a multitude of possibilities and frees your Muse to dance across the page.

  • Write what you love.
  • Write what interests you.
  • Write what you know.

And if you don’t know what you love or what interests you, and think you don’t know anything worth sharing… write about yourself (as a starting point!) My first forays into writing in 2007 were weird, quirky autobiographical essays posted to my MySpace blog. It will never be the highpoint of my writing career but I enjoyed doing it, and it got me interested in writing again.

While away in Melbourne in the space of a few days two people told me every writer (of any form) should spend time writing their own life story – though not necessarily as a memoir for publication – but as an exercise in writing. My highschool friend Marion, who is now a newspaper editor, said to write your story down and then burn it. Once written it doesn’t have to be re-written over and over in every other piece of work you produce. The infamous Catherine Deveny, at the ‘In the Pub’ session of the EWF, encouraged everyone present to write their story and to pull yourself up everything you’re not writing the truth, as unpalatable as it may be. By doing this you attune yourself to writing the truth always… then you can learn how to tweak it to make the truth palatable for the masses.This is as pertinent to writing non-fiction as it is to fiction.

If you think you should write a particular way or a particular style of story or in a particular genre because your audience expects it of you – forget it! As Tony Noland said to me last week:

Make it so the only thing people expect of you is quality. Not within-a-certain-genre, or strong-woman-as-lead, or at-least-a-bit-of-sex, but simply high quality writing.

Does genre matter?

A couple of years ago I heard Australian writer Max Barry talk about genre. In a nutshell Barry said he had no idea what genre he wrote in when he started out- he just wrote. He thought genre only counted when it came to working out where in the book shop to place your book. While it is more complicated than where to shelve a book, for those people starting out don’t worry about genre, do what Max did and just write. It will become clear which genre is the best fit for your ideas and stories.

When genre trends become apparent welcome your genre into the fold – regardless of what it is. Too often we get precious about the genre we’re supposed to be writing in (or not writing in a genre at all, in terms of literary fiction). I spent close to a year denying I was writing sci-fi, because there were no space ships or aliens in my story. Plus I didn’t read sci-fi and it wasn’t my favoured genre of film so why would I write it? I’d tell people, “Oh, I don’t write sci-fi.” It took attending a world building master class with Sonny Whitelaw, and her telling me point blank I wrote really good sci-fi to get over my own genre hang ups.

But don’t let genre hem you in. Don’t think you have to stick to just one genre. Experiment and explore. Several of my writing friends have embarked on journeys to write in different genres as part of their regular writing process. I can never stick to just one.

Having said genre doesn’t matter at the start – if you are going to hand your work to beta readers, it does. Don’t hand your sci-fi/romance/horror story or first few book chapters to a beta reader if they are not interested in that area of literature (either as a writer or a reader). It took three trips to my writing group, and three ego crashing thumbs down for my ‘confusing’ stories to realise my writing group couldn’t critique or help me develop my sci-fi stories because it wasn’t their area of interest. Knowing this allowed me to find the right people to assist me.

And one last tip… be prepared to tell people what you write if you are going to mention you are a writer. Write it down, practise it infront of the mirror! I still get tripped up by this because there is never a simple answer. I write across genres and I write predominantly short stories. Last year at my partner’s work Christmas party, when I stumbled to answer the “what do you write?” question, my partner stepped in and simply said: “Dark, weird shit.” And my own little niche was created.

Strengths or Weaknesses?

We all know the saying to play to your strengths and mitigate your weaknesses. The problem is, every beginning writer thinks every area of their writing is a weakness. That’s not true!

It is worthwhile getting to know where your strengths lie. If you don’t feel confidant to ask yourself what area of writing you excel or struggle with, ask yourself what parts of writing do you enjoy most. Or what do you enjoy/dislike about reading. You will find it mirrored in your writing.

For me, I love dialogue and not surprisingly I don’t have issue with producing believable, naturalistic dialogue. But then again, I think I’m lucky because lots of my stories ‘download’ either as snippets of dialogue or entire conversations. Narrative description on the other hand – bah humbug! Knowing this… whenever I come across a piece of evocative  descriptive prose which doesn’t have me skipping over it, I stop and try and pick it apart, so I can absorb some of it into my battles with writing descriptive narrative.

Knowing your weaknesses also enables you to invest some professional development into strengthening them. It might be buying a book or taking a half day/one day course. You can’t help yourself if you don’t know what you need help with.

Goal Setting

Knowing what you are working towards and how to get there is the road map from idea to reality.

Goal setting has become the cornerstone of my writing practise. When I started writing my goals were much simpler – I aimed to write a story for [Fiction] Friday every week. That was it. Now I set yearly goals as well as monthly goals. My monthly goals include a weekly word target, story targets, earmarking stories in the back catalogue for editing and submission. On any given day I can look at my list and find something to work on. If I’m not in the mood to write then there is plenty of editing or research to be done. Or I can write a blog post. It is all forward momentum.

Writing a list isn’t enough though. You have to understand the process and the steps required to make your goal a reality. If your goal is to have something published – break it down into achievable steps. It sounds like a simple goal but it isn’t. It looks something like this:

  • A story needs an idea.
  • You need to decide if the idea will be a short story or a novel.
  • Once decided that idea needs to be written, not once but rewritten several times (my average is around six drafts per story)
  • Every story requires editing, critiquing and proof reading.
  • To be published a story needs to find a home – so you need to research and find the best publishing location for your story.
  • Before sending your story, you need to ensure you have read and followed submission guidelines. For a novel this might mean you need to first find a literary agent to work on your behalf.
  • Then you get to send your story and wait. Sometimes it can be months before you hear anything.
  • If you are lucky your story will be published (or accepted by an agent and then the waiting begins again as the agent works to find a publisher). Ocne accepted for publication there may be more editing required, the signing of contracts and possibly a requirement to do PR (even short story anthologies are asking writers to participate in the promotion.)
  • Or you get a rejection slip and you start the submission process all over again.

Knowing what you need to do next will provide you with momentum to keep moving forward. It will also ensure whatever time you have for writing is used for writing.


The turning point in my writing career was knowing what inspired my stories. I did two writing courses to try and get myself writing again in 2000 and came out having learnt a lot about the craft of writing. However I learnt nothing about my process, so I fell on my face afterwards still bereft of ideas and stories to write. It took me seven more years to learn I’m  not a well of stories just waiting for the bucket to be dropped down into.

In 2007 I discovered to write I need some type of external prompt. How did I learn this… participating in [Fiction] Friday. After years of not having a single idea for a story, I was able to write consistently every week.

A prompt works like a key to me – unlocking a door to a world beyond my own where characters are waiting for their stories to be told… only they’re not superstars of pop culture or sport who proliferate the biography shelves (or bargain bins?) of any bookstore in my world. They are every day people with extraordinary tales. Or to use another metaphoric cliché, prompts are like bees to honey for me.  If I have the snap shot of an idea or a theme the character will come to me if I am patient.

Music has the same inspiring effect and I try and surround myself with as much of it as my family is willing to give. I was looking forward to a long distance drive over Easter and all the story ideas which would bubble to the top, but not one single idea came.Why? I hadn’t chosen the music! It isn’t always a lyric, or a story told but a feeling the music stirs within me. And dreams (though one might argue they’re not technically an external prompt) reliably deliver interesting story lines and characters. Strangely real life rarely inspires a story in me, though I continue to indulge in leaving my desk to venture out into the world beyond and I still people watch.

If you’re not sure about your locus of inspiration, look for a time/s in your life when you were prolific and see what it was about that time/s which marks it differently from others?

Stand Alone versus Serials

There are pros and cons of writing stand alone narratives, or serial narrative, and the different styles appeal to different writers.

Writing stand alone stories (or books) enables you to explore fresh, new worlds through the eyes and ears of new characters. Writing a serial is like easing into your favourite pair of comfy slippers at the end of a hard day.

If I am in a good head space I can deal with writing something new every week. If I’m not then I need a safe fall back which a serial is.

I find I go through phases also, where I feel as though writing  shorts every week is bleeding me dry and I can feel the beginnings of a creative burn out coming on. But I know momentum begets momentum… and that’s why I love writing The Astonishing Adventures of Captain Juan – the characters and scenarios are established… all I need to do is go in and write. Give them some sort of dilemma and watch them get out of it. Having the safety net of a serial remains my best cure of writers block or apathy or ensures you produce something that week.

If you feel you are heading for creative burn out or worse, apathy, give youself permission to revisit an old character – one you liked or your readers enjoyed. And… if a character or a storyline demands more attention – don’t hold back – explore them in greater depth. Don’t fence yourself into being a stand alone or serial writer. You can write both! In fact – I would recommend writing both.

For those writers who write serials you can now belong to a  community by tweeting your story URL with the hashtag #TuesdaySerial. You can also post a link at PJ Kaiser’s website.

In a nutshell

  • What do you love about writing?
  • Is there a specific part of writing you really enjoy? Really dislike?
  • What are your weaknesses? What can you do to help strengthen them?
  • What are your writing goals? (The simpler the better) List them, break them down into steps and work with them on a monthly/weekly/daily basis.
  • What genre/s does your work tend to fall into? Do you call yourself a writer in any of those genres?
  • What genre are you interested in writing in?
  • What do you tell people when they are ask you, “What do you write?”
  • What inspires your stories? If you don’t know, go searching for your holy grail.
  • What do you think people expect of your writing? Write it down and… burn it. Now focus only on providing high quality writing to your audience.
  • Are you a stand alone writer? Or do you prefer serials? Do you write both?
  • What do you do when you feel creative burn out soming on?

Next week, in part three I look at the “how” of getting to know your writing process.

Image via Mash Podge

Jodi Cleghorn wishes everyone a happy solstice, wherever in the world you are. While writing this column she had mulled wine brewing on the stove, dishes soaking in the sink and thoughts skipping to the promise of slow braised lamb and apple crumble for dinner. You can find more of Jodi’s musings at Writing in Black and White.
  1. June 21, 2010 5:34 am

    Jodi, I started off assuming that I’d be doing sci-fi & fantasy, without any thought that I might ever try to write anything else. It took the process of exploring my talent and inclinations to realize that I needed to be heading in another direction.

    When it comes to the “what do you write” question, I eventually settled on “literary” and “cross-genre” as the best descriptors. Unfortunately, it’s not especially clear what literary fiction is, so that explanation is necessarily that helpful.

    I’ve been having a discussion about this on Twitter. One shorthand definition is that literary fiction focuses on the people of the story, while genre focuses on the events. That means that sometimes my characters sit around talking a lot.

  2. June 21, 2010 6:05 am

    Your characters and my characters would get along find should they ever cross paths – they’d just be able to sit and chin wag!

  3. June 21, 2010 7:11 am

    As always, brilliant. I think I’m doing a pretty good job at figuring out what I want to, what genre I’m writing. Although, what I’m good at is still a struggle. I just don’t have that confidence yet. But blogging helps and having others read y work. Getting feedback good and critical is helping me become a better writer, I think. And reading fantastic Jodi Cleghorn posts. 🙂

  4. June 21, 2010 7:51 am

    Great post, Jodi! There is a wealth of information here. I am trying to absorb it all.

  5. adampb permalink
    June 21, 2010 8:43 am

    In the few months that I have been writing Fiction Friday, I have found that I like to explore the dynamics between people; examining the lighter and darker sides to an experience. A lot of it is from the “write what you know” file, while at times, other stuff is setting up a scenario to see how the characters will handle it.
    Like Tony, I am not sure which genre I would put myself under, but I’ll go with “literary realism.” There we are, a new genre.
    Right now, I’m also liking the momentum of actually putting words on the page each week for Fiction Friday, and that’s the short term goal – each week, put it out there and have some fun.
    The idea of writing an autobiography makes me cringe – do I have to remember the mullet hair cut from the 80’s?

  6. laurarachelfox permalink
    June 22, 2010 6:18 am

    Thanks for exploring the subject of what to write. I’m comforted by your suggestions that one doesn’t have to be hemmed in by a single genre, style, or even a strength in one aspect of writing.

    I’m also encouraged by what you say about inspiration. When I began writing again a few months ago, I found that I also needed a prompt, that’s why I modeled my blog after “The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon.” Instead of scrambling for an idea, I simply pull out one of Shonagon’s quirky lists and begin freewriting. It often leads to real story ideas and sometimes it’s a healthy exercise in one of my weak spots.

    When I found [fiction friday] I reveled in another opportunity for prompts. As you said, it keeps me writing on a regular basis.

  7. laurarachelfox permalink
    June 22, 2010 6:23 am

    Speaking of [fiction friday]. I just read the prompt for this week. Is anyone else intimidated by the telepathic parrot? Sci-fi will surely be a challenge. I think I’m up to it . . . maybe.

  8. June 22, 2010 12:37 pm

    I know I’ve told you this before, but you and I are so much alike in our writing process, it’s almost as if I wrote this article. That’s probably why we click so well.
    I started out wanting to write more “dark weird shit”, but usually fall into something light-hearted as the story evolves. And Westerns, I love writing cross-genre Westerns. I think the technical term is “Weird-Western”, but whatever. I’m really liking this topic and can’t wait for next week’s.

    @laurarachelfox, you don’t necessarily have to make it Sci-fi. Perhaps your MC is delirious, psychotic, delusional, institutionalized etc. I think that’s the crux of what Jodi was trying to get across. Pick the genre you want to write and allow yourself to write it. No questions asked. It’s your story, don’t get pigeon-holed into writing what you aren’t comfortable with.

  9. June 22, 2010 9:04 pm

    Laura – Annie and I have a throw away “get out of boring story prompt free” line, which goes like this: “If in doubt – sci-fi it.” But the reverse works as well -if it looks like sci-fi, “normalise it”. Take what seems obvious and twist it back on itself.

    And I have to apologise for the prompt. It came from an intense, drunken writing episode at Annie’s mother’s kitchen table a few years ago. My partner who had put his back out and was dozing on the floor near the fire, suggested that the parrot we’d just inserted into the story line be made telepathic. And for years we’ve joked about it being a [Fiction] Friday prompt. Voila!

    It would be written from the perspective of a child – in addition to Chris’s suggestions.

    Chris: If I’m channeling your words… would you like to write next week for me instead?…. Didn’t think so!

    And thank you to everyone who is getting so much out of these articles. As always I’m learning more as I go along (sort of writer teach thyself!) And loving hearing everyone’s stories (which is my favourite part of being a writer – hearing other writers share their own personal journeys!)

  10. laurarachelfox permalink
    June 23, 2010 12:59 pm

    Thanks for the tips Chris. I’m having quite a lot of fun writing outside of my “box.” I’m considering it an exercise.

    And Jodi, after some internet searching on parrots (kinda wanted my description to be close to the real thing), it turns out your alcohol-inspired idea is not so insane. Checkout this link to learn about a real life telepathic parrot:

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