Friday, December 17, 2010


By Isabo Kelly

Why is this question dreaded? Well, if you’re asked this from a non-writer, they either won’t really care or they won’t understand. A writer’s process, the way they come up with stories, how they plot (or don’t plot), the way they create out of thin air, can be a difficult thing to explain. If you’ve never had any experience with attempting to write something creative, it can be pretty tough to imagine how that nebulous process works.

I actually did try to explain to my mother-in-law once. She didn’t ask my process directly, she asked, “So you just sit down and start writing and a story comes out?” But my explanation—“Sort of, sometimes, but I usually know some of what’s going on before I start typing.”—didn’t really clarify things for her. She shrugged and went back to watching TV. There was no point trying to explain further.

If the question comes from a writer—especially an inexperienced one—they’re often looking for a “magic bullet”, the secret technique that will make them good, consistent and published writers. When you tell them there is no magic answer, that the only way to reach their goals is to write all the time and practice until they get better…well, that’s not the answer they’re looking for.

The truth is, there is no secret trick to getting a book written. And every writer has a different process. In fact, for a lot of us, the process can change from book to book, with no two experiences the same. So why even bother with “process” at all?

It might be a tough question to answer, but for any writer’s sake, it’s incredibly useful to have at least some idea of what your own personal process is. Even if you can’t quite explain it to anyone else. Understanding what you do when you think up a new story line, when you sit down to write and plot and develop your characters, will help you when you get stuck. Going back to what usually works for you may well help you out of a hole. Also, knowing your process can help you come up with stories on request, rather than having to wait for inspiration.

Say a contest comes up, or an editor requests a story for a particular project. You can take advantage of these opportunities if you know where and how you start a new idea and what you absolutely need to bring that idea to the page.

Personally, I have to start with characters. How they come to me—whether it’s in a scene, a setting, a bit of dialogue, or just a sense of them—doesn’t much matter. Without at least one character, though, I can’t move forward. If I hadn’t discovered that I needed characters to start my imagination going, I would never have been able to take advantage of many of the opportunities that have come my way.

While trying to answer the question, “What’s your process?” may strike horror into the author’s heart, knowing your process is an important part of growing as a writer. Don’t assume this process will be set in stone—it rarely is—but give yourself a chance to figure out some of the basics. From there, give yourself some wiggle room to adjust the process for each new book.

And when someone asks you this dreaded author question, feel free to tell the non-writer, “It’s a little hard to explain.” Or give them a bit of where you start if you think it will help move them on to a different topic. For other writers, tell them, “The important question isn’t what I do, it’s what you do when you’re writing. This is what works for me, so what works for you?” If the questioner is looking for a secret, they’ll quickly realize you don’t have it. Then they’ll either move on or figure out what they do themselves when they write. If they’re going to succeed in this business, they’ll do the latter.

So for a little homework—and please don’t feel like you have to answer me directly (unless of course you really want to)—sit down and start to answer the following question: What’s your process? ♥

Isabo Kelly (aka Katrina Tipton) is the author of multiple science fiction, fantasy and paranormal romances. Her Prism Award Winning novel, SIREN SINGING, was released in paperback from Ellora’s Cave ( For more on Isabo’s books, visit her at

In this series, Isabo talks about the often uncomfortable questions every author gets asked, and how to handle those dreaded inquiries. If you have gotten any of these “dreaded” questions, please share them with us here. If you have an answer, all the better.


  1. I love asking other authors about their process. Hope I'm not stepping on any toes but I really enjoy listening to how a story is built by that individual. Sometimes I combine their thoughts into my process sometimes I don't. But for me -- it's a fun way to get to know another writer! Thanks for the post.

  2. I agree with BOTH Katrina (on the difficulty of explaining) and Jeanine (on how interesting and often enlightening it is to hear what others' processes are). My process is still an evolving thing (probably always will be) but I start with a kernal of creative goodness, almost always. Sometimes it is a character - even starting with just a name. Sometimes it is a first line. Sometimes it is the "what if?" that gets me started. And sometimes I'm a pantser, and sometimes I do more plotting and outlining (esp. if there's a mystery element or plot involved). But my process always includes: tons of research, extremely comprehensive character biographies, and world-building (whether it is an alternate-reality NYC, or a small suburban town or a bondage sex club!)

  3. Jeanie, I actually love talking about process with writers who are really interested and working at developing their own. It's still a hard question to answer! I'm not sure understanding other writer's processes every really helps you develop your own, but it's fun to see who does what. So long as no one's looking for instant answers, the discussion is good.

    It's those non-writerly types asking this question that really make it a dreaded question for me :)

  4. I am a panster as everyone knows, and a notorious "idea" thief. NO, I never pilfer, abscond steal from anyone per se.
    But I will filch and idea from a movie, commercial, magazine and newspaper article, even reality shows (as much as I hate them).
    I have even seen something or SOMEONE on the subway (when I get to ride them) that will give me idea for a story.
    Sometimes an idea will just pop in my old head and my fingers begin to fly.
    Of course I've read YOUR books and lamented "why didn't I think of that?"
    Writing is a good thing.