writing & publishing

Personal Writing Checklist

Because I’m a process whore, I present to you – for no particular reason – my personal checklist for writing a book… roughly speaking. Collect them all and you get to be a writer (publication not guaranteed).

1. Have we been here before? I look at the bones of the novel and think – am I repeating myself? No. Is this a blatant rip-off of something else? No. We’re cool. Is this vaguely familiar to something else? Yes. Damn. Then what can I do to make things a little different at least? How can I put my spin on a particular trope? Crave something new, kids. Crave your own spin. Make your own mark on the world. Not radically that people think you should be locked away, but enough to make people stand up and take notice. It’s a fine line – I can’t help you with that bit.

2. Do the main characters have a personality? I don’t care (just yet) whether we’re dealing with a farmboy-comes-good or a dark lord on a throne, or a serial killer or a whatever. For me, it’s all about the imaginary bar-room dialogue I could have with them. Do they bore me to death? Kindly escort them out of this novel.

3. What do characters want? This, for me, is where personality meets story. What do they want out of it? A quiet life or to rise the ranks? Just a little love and a nice bar? This shapes huge amounts. The story can be built around it, or it can shape who characters are as people.

4. Know where you’re going in advance. This doesn’t have to be a huge amount, but at least – before you sit down to type – know what you want to get out of a scene. Sometimes I can do this because I’ve purposely left something mid-scene the day before and can pick it up easily; that’s cool. But if I don’t know what the hell is about to happen in the vaguest possible terms, that’s when The Block might kick in. I don’t want that to happen.

5. Are you about to move the story on? Are the words that you’re about to magically imagine onto the screen going to serve as developing the character or plot? All of them? Okay then. (Note: an editor will always slap more of this particular instinct into you.)

6. If your heart is not in it right now, walk away. Come back later. Do not sit down and write when you’re just feeling a little too tired or jaded. The words you put down will probably get taken out later, so why not just save yourself the time and kick back with a whisky instead. Get enthusiastic. If you’re not enjoying it, then why the hell should your readers?

7. Am I bettering myself? Not necessarily out-performing in the ZOMG plot department, but are the sentences better, are the characters deeper, is the world clearer? It’s important for me not to just bash these words out and take the money.

8. Are all the characters an honest representation of society? Do I have scenes chock full of nothing but white males who are straight and want to protect the wimmen folk? Then start deleting one or two of them: we’re living in an age where this is starting to matter.

9. Who are you writing for? I fell into this trap with my first novel. Started wondering what kind of readers I should aim my novel at, what things to keep in mind, and the end result was a bit – if I’m honest, if I’m truly honest – hodgepodgey. Pick and end goal. Choose a vision. Stick to it until you’re done. Don’t start worrying about what traditional/contemporary readers might want to read.

10. Don’t read bad reviews before you write. They’ll just kill the next hour of your writing session.

So there we have it. Some of the random shit that goes through my brain when I’m baking words in my personal literary oven. What do you kids do – have you got your own crackpot rules?

Share and you’ll receive five years of good luck.

By Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.

24 replies on “Personal Writing Checklist”

I think I share many of the same rules as you.

1 – that’s always on my mind. I have deep, insatiable need to be unique.

4 – uh, yeah. That’s a must, because when you don’t know it later shows. And then you grimace, and sob, and oh, why did I become a writer in the first place? >.<

7 – I sometimes am scared by the ways my perception of writing shifts without me noticing. I don't feel like I'm trying to scrounge for the right words anymore or write something amazing; I feel like I'm simply writing music. There's a certain rhythm and cadence I never really "got" until recently. It’s getting much easier to hear this as I write, easier to point out "wrong notes" as they're played and I can fix them earlier. It's lovely to be able to write with artistic clarity (and a chore when you can't).

8 – hey, I don't mind that white straight male saving the lady's day–so long as she asks for it (or most *obviously* needs saving). And so long as he is either (A) a Byronic hero or (B) a Humphrey Bogart-like character. In either of those cases, it would even be *preferable* for the white straight male to protect the lady, please and thank you–because it is so much more interesting than having the obviously pearly-white straight male do so. (That’s how I feel, anyway.)

10 – well, I don't have to worry about this yet, but I imagine that would be pretty demoralizing! (Or further motivation to playfully piss those people off in the next novel, heh.)

I guess the only other rule I’d consider is if what I'm writing "feels" and "sounds" right, though for me that goes back to #7, in some ways.

I guess the rules depend largely on the style of writing, but I think we overlap in many — except with numbers four and five. I need to give myself permission to write badly when I’m just putting things on paper — it’s only in revision that I get to judge whether the words serve any purpose or not. Otherwise, I get stuck — and also, sometimes, the scenes that I start without a clear idea where they’re going turn out to be the ones changing the whole perspective and leading me somewhere more interesting.

I tend to think on paper, i.e. when I get an idea, I sit down and write it to see what it’s really about. (Comes from reading so much Marion Zimmer Bradley in my formative years, I guess.) OTOH, I also revise constantly, going back and forth, which takes a whole different kind of discipline and rules… So I would add:
* revision does not count as writing (i.e., it’s not in the wordcount/timecount for the day)

And also:
*don’t be afraid to toss hundreds of pages out if suddenly they don’t feel right.

Yeah, it’s not the fastest way to write, but it gets me there.

Some great points Mark – No. 1 especially is a sore point for me personally, as I stumbled across a recently released book that shared huge swathes of plot (and even fantasy terminology) with a project I’m in the middle of… I felt absolutely mortified!

I was sure the inspiration gnome had blessed me with a original idea (hah, I can laugh about the arrogance now!) and I spent a good few sessions moving my plot away from obvious parallels.

Respectfully Mark, I don’t quite agree with No.8 – I do think I understand what you mean, but I don’t feel any story is improved by deliberately replacing a white, straight male with a latino, post-op transsexual on principle alone – unless the story explores this as a central plot point.

As much as liberal society encourages us to include these groups as though they are commonplace in modern society, they are not yet. I cannot read a story featuring a gay or trans protagonist without feeling the story should devote a significant element towards exploring how this shapes the characters motivations and actions.

I’m really pleased that some authors push the boundaries in this way – so please keep doing it! – but as I really do enjoy traditional roles in fantasy writing (or perhaps they’re just easier to write) I think I’ll continue to write them unless the story begs to explore something else.

What do you think?

For us “work for hire” kids, #6 is a luxury we can’t afford. Write anyway. Word count is all. Heart can be added in the second draft.

My version of this list replaces #6 with, Make Sure the Check Has Cleared.

Thanks for sharing, guys!

Nathan – yeah, well I guess there is that!

Charlie – re: number 8, it’s about making sure your cast isn’t utterly, 100% straight white males, nothing more, nothing less. Which a lot of novels are, surprisingly. More on this kind of thing in the links here:

Milena – yeah, I guess that’s also true that it’s important to get things down for some writers. I just don’t like to work in that way – it’s far more efficient for me to make sure that what I put down feels completely right. And sure, not everything makes the cut.

Tiyana – thanks for the comments! That’s an interesting point about the perception of your own writing. Personally, I try not to evaluate too much with what I’ve written until I’ve got more distance. All this stuff above is more before I even think about writing. I’ve got to have certain things in place, that the approach has to – for me – feel right.

Wow, the comments in that second link one were a fantastic read, and it’s obvious this is a discussion/debate that still has so much more life in it – There’s even one writer who throws a dice to determine gender and sexuality!

Btw Mark, I put your recent post about secondary world-building into practice last week – maps, economies, governments etc. – and it’s helped to add so much depth of setting and character… thank you for taking to the time to write that post.

Haven’t commented here in a while, but delurking now. Thanks very much for all these recent posts on your process, super helpful. As for this post:

1. Totally agree in terms of my own writing, and reading. Why do what’s already been done? But… I’ve always found it interesting that so many wildly successful authors get there by writing the same book over and over again. Not sure if I could do this, as it seems like it would eventually become a chore. Though I guess that’s where making sure the check has cleared comes in. 🙂

9. I agree that writing for a “target audience” is a disaster, but writing for a specific individual is a whole other mater. The young adult novel I’m working on is written for my 13-year-old niece (an avid reader) though she has no idea I’m even writing it. Kurt Vonnegut summed this up nicely: “Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.”

10. I don’t have the problem of reading reviews yet, but have been submitting short stories and getting the inevitable rejections. (Some quite lovely, some a bit depressing, and others that just piss me off.) I make it a point of not checking my e-mail before I sit down to write in the morning. Also, lately I write on a computer with no internet connection. The world can wait.

Hi DJM – thanks for unlurking yourself.

Interesting about the target audience. I think I actually meant don’t pick too many audiences, though kind of missed out saying that. Having one person – as you quite rightly say – is a good idea. At least there is focus there.

No internet connection? I both love and fear that idea.

I wasn’t going to say anything, but how could I pass up 5 years of good luck? 🙂

1-4 I also do.

8 I’m conscious of while I’m writing. I would include sexual politics with number 8. I check if the woman/man is always helpless, or does she/he also has moments of triumph? Do I fall into gender stereotypes, or what would be appropriate and expected in this particular world?

A few extras on my checklist:
a) What do I know? What can I bring to this story, emotionally or setting wise, from my experience of life?
b) What’s the worst thing that can happen to my characters? How can I destroy them utterly & completely, body & soul?
c) Have I built in sufficient base for a relationship if romance or friendship is included? Is the progression natural and believable? Trust needs to be earned.

Enjoying the process pron.

Hi Mark,

thanks for the list 🙂 You’ve distilled a lot of ideas and checks that roam in my head.

Also: yay for #8. My personal check in that area is an imaginary conversation with real and colourful friends (colourful with regards to ethnicity, gender, lifestyle or personal preferences). I imagine them reading my manuscript as it stands then, and if I feel in any way apologetic, I know I need to go back and fix something.

Interesting process… I’d have to adapt them quite a lot, but then I pretty much exclusively write short stories (for my sins) so that changes things.

1. Yeah, still need to do that.

2. & 3. For main character yes; for others maybe always the opposite. Is one of the side characters getting too big for this short story?

4. Yeees-ish. Can fly by the seat of your pants for *first-draft* of short story, as long as you are methodical enough for drafts #2, #3 etc.

5. Almost certainly the most important of these for short stories. You need each sentence to be doing at least two things at once.

6. Ditto. Especially the whisky. (Although I often write first thing, so maybe not)

7. Yep

8. Interesting; hard to do for a short story for reasons above. Maybe I need to be thinking about my work as a whole.

9. NA – hardly anyone seems to want to read short stories any more, so I just get on with it!

10. Definitely the same.

Great post, by the way.

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