This summer I took some time off from blogging to finish writing my novel Stolen Waters. In this post I would like to share the 7 stages of my creative process and some personal insights from the time I had the idea for the story all the way to the end. I hope this post will help and inspire other writers.
Step 1: The Idea
It was 2001, the year I got married and moved from Israel to the States. I was going through a tough time of adjusting to a new country and culture while grieving the loss of my old life. To process my feelings I started to write a story about three Israeli women in the US and their national, religious, and personal conflicts. The initial name of the novel was Foreign Country. I started writing the story in Hebrew, my mother tongue in which, at the time, I felt more comfortable expressing myself.
Writing is a great way to capture thoughts, emotions, and experiences and to turn them from something abstract into something tangible in the shape of the written word. The writing process forces you to organize your thoughts and feelings and while doing so you may gain a better understanding of what you are going through.
And then… I got stuck
Looking back, I recognize that I started writing my story prematurely. I was still in a process of a new experience and unveiling my new life and the new me – the American version of myself. At the time I had no clue where my journey would take me.
When you have an idea for a story - write it down! You might forget it if you don’t do it immediately. Next try to evaluate if you are ready to write it at the moment or if you should leave it to the future. It’s ok to acknowledge not having the emotional or intellectual capability to deal with some stories and leave them until you are ready. The right time will come and you will know it. In the meantime you can do research. Journaling your thoughts, emotions, and experiences in the subject can also be a great way to record material that might come in handy when you are ready to write your story.
Step 2: Outlining
Fall 2013 was the moment when I could look back at my life since 2001 and see clearly all the changes in me (my American Bat Mitzvah). I was ready to write my story. I ignored all my old drafts and started from scratch. This time I was a lot wiser than to jump right in to writing. I went back to ‘the drawing board’ and began to work on my story outline. In the new version of my story I chose to focus only on one character instead of three. I picked the heroine and the conflict that interested me the most.
I felt more comfortable writing my outline with pen and paper. For some reason, sitting in front of the computer at this creative stage felt very paralyzing to me. I started writing in Hebrew and somehow, unconsciously, I switched to English. When I noticed that I knew that I was going to write my story in English. It was about an experience I had in English and I didn’t have the vocabulary in Hebrew to tell it.
I used Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey to develop my plot. I highly recommend this book to anyone who writes novels. To read more about outlining read my post Writing Lesson #1.
Step 3: The First Draft
Even Hemingway knew that “the first draft of everything is shit,” so don’t expect to create a masterpiece in this stage. Don’t worry about language, style, or word count. Just write your story. In this stage I had to deal with some flows in my story-outline and create/eliminate characters and scenes. I did a lot of research to learn more about places, weather, professions, and other pieces of information that I needed to know in order to create my story. It was an exciting phase of coating the skeleton of my story outline with flesh and blood.
I am not a fast writer. On a good day I average about three pages (double space) and on a bad day - just a paragraph. I think a lot while writing. I also do all kinds of things to avoid writing, like checking the weather, the news, and playing spider solitaire (a stupid addiction of mine). There are many activities in life that take us away from ourselves. Writing is one of those activities that pull us back inside. Writing can be very scary. You might touch painful spots inside of you, you deal with many technical challenges that are related to the story telling craft, you come up writing insights that scare the heck out of you – it’s natural. It’s part of your personal growth. It’s the creative-person’s Journey. Just keep on writing and eventually you will complete your story. Remember the story of the turtle and rabbit race.
Step 4: The Second Draft
I wrote my first draft using a third person point of view. In the second draft I changed it to first person POV, since I felt the story needed the insights of the heroine.
When I started working on the story the conflict and the story archetype were very clear to me (forbidden love, Romeo and Juliet). When I worked on my second draft more subjects that were related to the story started to come up to the surface. It was an interesting surprise. I intended to write a love story and ended up also writing about women, religion, nationality, sexuality, and grief.
In this stage I decided that the beginning of chapter Seven should be my story-opening chapter if I wanted to have a strong and dramatic beginning. (Don McNair’s Edit-Proof Your Writing, chapter 2: Why you should be a hooker). I love stories and music with a grand dramatic opening, like Beethoven’s symphony no. 5, or Bon Jovi’s song You Give Love A Bad Name, which immediately grab the attention of reader/listener.
Step 5: The Third Draft
This was a tough one. Reaching this stage I became very familiar with my protagonists: their character, history, and psychology. Going through what I wrote previously, many times I told myself “she (the heroine) would never talk like that” or “he (the hero) would never do such a thing”. I erased and rewrote complete chapters, dialogues, and scenes. I also chose to change the personality of some of the characters to create a stronger conflict.
Being in love with your words is the worst that can happen to a writer. Think about the readers and focus on creating a really good story for them. Having ego is crucial to start writing, otherwise you would discard your ideas by saying, “who am I to write a book?!” But ego has no place in the writing process.
As I wrote my third draft there were places in the story that reminded me of different biblical verses, so I added biblical allusions to my story. They fit well with my heroine who is an orthodox Jew. Personally, I was very surprised that I remembered so much. I haven’t opened a bible for many years. But I guess my religious upbringing is ingrained in me more than I realized. This was the stage when I renamed my story Stolen Waters, from Proverbs 9:17 “Stolen waters is sweet”. It resonated with the forbidden love theme. Since my biblical training was in Hebrew, I used Bible Hub to find the English translations that I needed. Google Translate doesn’t know how to translate the bible.
Third draft was also when I needed to address the sex scenes; after all this is a love story between two adults. Until this stage, I just marked in the story the places where I thought I needed the protagonists to have sex. I didn’t develop the scenes previously, because I couldn’t be sure of the right locations before the flow of the story was very clear to me. I have to say that writing sex is really hard. To begin with, you need to describe the choreography of two bodies that move together, which is very technical. Then you need to dress it up with the right quantity of word-exchange and thoughts in a way that will show the passion between two people and be meaningful to the story and advance your plot to the next level. Stacia Kane’s Be A Sex-Writing Strumpet is a great book if you want to learn more about writing sex. You can also read on the subject on her website.
Step 6: The Forth Draft
This was an exciting one. Until now I wrote each chapter in a different word document. In this draft I gathered all the chapters from my third draft into one document so I could finally see the flow of the story, my word count, and where I needed to strengthen my plot. Two things happened in this draft:
1. I created a new character. I needed the archetype of the “gate keeper” (see Vogler’s book). I needed someone to show up at the beginning of the story and try to stop my heroine from crossing the threshold.
2. I added chapters from the hero’s point of view. I tell most of the story from the heroine’s POV, but at this stage I felt like the readers needed to hear the hero’s motives as well.
Step 7: The Fifth and Last Draft
Here I had some help. I had my husband go through my forth draft and add his notes and comments, and…fix my English. As I mentioned before, English is not my mother tongue. My biggest challenge is using the right English preposition (on, in, at, of, with, etc.). I don’t know if I will ever master this. In this stage, I made changes based on his feedback.
During the writing process I didn’t share my drafts with anyone. I told people what I was writing about, but did not let them read anything. I wanted to keep my “advisors” curious, fresh, and alert for when I needed them the most – the final draft. A good critiquing reader should be a person who has an understanding and interest in both the subject that you are writing about and in the craft of story telling. It should be a person that you respect, who is not afraid to give you their honest opinion, and who can work fast. You don’t want to wait a year to receive feedback.
In this draft I also re-edited all the chapters from my hero’s POV. I wasn’t very happy with the flow of them, and since they were scattered around the novel I didn’t have a clear idea of how they relate to each other. I created a new document in which I pasted together all the chapters of the hero’s POV so I could see them next to each other. This way it was a lot easier for me to edit them, before I pasted them back into the story.
More insights about the novel writing process
I had a real deadline; I wanted to complete the novel before the fall - when I start teaching again. I broke the project into small stages/assignments with a clear time frame and I stuck with it. Each time when I was close to giving up on meeting my goals, because of being tired or frustrated, I reminded myself that if I don’t write my novel, no one will write it for me. To learn more about how to deal with procrastination I recommend Neil Fiore’s book The Now Habit.
There was a personal sacrifice. From the third draft, when my writing intensified, I stayed at home and wrote seven days a week for three months (NASA, I can do it). I didn’t go anywhere; thankfully this summer was too hot for me to be outside (I know, I’m from the Middle East, I should be used to the heat, but I’m not). I told my friends that I’m not going to see them until the novel is completed. There are so many small details that you need to remember when you write a novel, down to words and metaphors that you don’t want to repeat. That was the reason why I felt the need to isolate myself from the world and just stay in the world of my story.
I found that the best time for me to write and concentrate was late at night to the early hours of the morning (10PM to 5AM). I made sure that I slept enough, since I can’t concentrate when I’m tired. When I work on building a scene I need complete silence, I can’t listen to music. As you can see, I’m not the kind of a writer who writes in cafés.
The Writer’s Role
The role of a writer in a story is equivalent to a full movie cast. When you are a writer you are the screenwriter, the actors, the stylist, the stage designer, the cameraperson, the director, and more. In your first and second draft you still work on the basic plot (the screenwriter). From the second draft it’s time to describe how the characters (actors) look and what they wear (the stylist), the places where your scenes take place (stage designer), and you need to decide where you want the attention of your readers to go (cameraperson and director). When you write, your story becomes a camera of words.
Working on the different drafts of your story is important to the polishing process. I love to compare this process to dating: You go on a first date with someone that you think you might like, but you still need to get to know better. When you go home, you cannot even remember how this person looks, but you remember how he/she made you feel. On the second date you learn more things about this person. You continue to know this person better and better with each date until you move in together and by then you become intimately familiar with them.
At the beginning I told you not to worry about word count when you begin writing your story. I had 46,000 words in my third draft and when I completed my fifth draft I had 80,000 words. Your story will get thicker and thicker with each draft. Don’t worry about the numbers just focus on creating a good story.
On Labor Day, Monday, September 7th (how symbolic), I wrote the words “THE END” on my story. Thirty minutes later my sister Liora called. She had a dream, she said, that I was pregnant and I didn’t tell them and just showed up with a nine–month-belly.
I was sure that I would be elated when I completed writing my story. After all it was the closure of a 14-year journey (not bad for a person whose people needed 40 years to cross the desert;). Instead I suffered from postpartum depression. I felt empty inside. To fill the void I started to work on my next novel, beginning with the outline.