Multi-Award Winning Author Shares Her Writing Process and Tips
By Cheryl Campbell
I’ve written a few lines of poems (none are complete), several short stories (none are complete), one novelette (complete but not released), and eight novels spread among two series (seven are released and one is pending release in November). I’ve never tried writing songs or other varieties of the written word, so I can’t make blanket statements about all creative writing avenues.
But here’s the one thing I know: For me, writing pretty much anything is no easy task.
I don’t know that this applies to all writers, but from what I’ve read in books, blogs, social media posts, etc., from other writers, is that writing is laborious for many of us.
Ideas used to come to me one at a time. Then they started coming in multiples. I am not one to ignore the muse’s gifts, so I scribble down what bits of ideas I receive and try not to be overwhelmed by so many at once. Thus far, I’ve been able to tell which one has the best legs to move forward with it sooner rather than later. The rest are moved to a back burner.
When that new writing idea surfaces that I decide to pursue, I let it sit in my head for a while to work out the high-level specifications. Will it be a short story? Will it be a novel? Will it be part of a series or stand-alone? I jot down a few words of the basics to describe what I think will happen.
For the Echoes Trilogy, when the initial idea arrived, I knew it would be a novel because the depth of the story required long-form fiction. The more I thought about it; I knew it would be a trilogy.
My super high-level specs on paper and in pencil were:
Book 1: Dani (protagonist) low civilian social status. Rowan (antagonist) high military status.
Book 2: Dani’s military, albeit civilian, status begins to rise. Rowan’s continues to slide—something he blames on Dani.
Book 3: Dani desperate to get back to low status/normal life. Rowan’s continued demotions make him reckless and desperate to return to his high status.
When I first started writing anything, I wrote by the seat of my pants (pantsing). I learned that with this method, I tended to write myself into corners and create plot issues. This led to numerous rewrites, sometimes to the point of starting over on a blank page. As I studied more about my craft, I realized that I might improve my process by planning. That’s when I started scribbling outlines on paper.
I usually have a little bit of the beginning sorted out in my head, and I always have the ending figured out before I start the act of writing the story. This is just how stories come to me, and I write the ending first. Once I have the destination, everything else develops much easier.
With time and some online courses from writing coaches I follow, my process began to evolve more rapidly. I still have my paper and pencil high-level outline of chapter numbers with one-liners to sum up, the chapter/scene contents. I also use Microsoft Excel for scene-by-scene breakdowns (if you’ve ever heard of Story Grid, this is what I’m doing in Excel) and note cards in pencil of additional scene breakdowns. Sometimes I’ll use a wall and sticky notes to track characters and timelines. I used to only use Word to write. Now I use Scrivener software.
The key for me is flexibility. I don’t allow myself to get too rigid with the outlines, which is why they are in pencil. Sometimes another idea comes up for a scene, and that changes things downstream in the story. Sometimes I get stuck in my outline and have gaps. I’ve learned to work on other chapters that I do have worked out in my head. Typically, that causes the gaps to fill in. If not, then I change tactics.
I’ll take a walk, paint, or do something that lets my mind wander. If I’m still stuck after these activities, I’ll pants an entire scene knowing that it will likely get edited out. But that’s okay because the pantsing activity is all about shaking the creative flow like a snow globe. It always dislodges other ideas. Some will be used in other stories, some will be filed away to resurrect later maybe, some will be discarded, but the pantsing exercise always gets me unstuck if nothing else will.
I’ve learned not to panic when I’m stuck. Just as I have evolved as a writer, my process has also evolved and continues to do so. I find new ways to spark new ideas, with music becoming more influential over time. I continue to learn which techniques work for me and which ones don’t.
If you find a method that works, run with it. If your current method isn’t working well or as well as it could, shake it up. Try a class. Read a book about your craft. Try different processes. There are so many to choose from, or you can mix and match. Once I hybridized writing methods I liked, I found my sweet spot for what works for me. Play with them all. Experiment. Evolve. Do what works for you.
Cheryl Campbell is a multi-award-winning science fiction and fantasy author. The Burnt Mountain Series consists of five YA fantasy novels published between 2013 to 2016. The Echoes Trilogy has had the first two novels released, with the third to release in late 2021. She was born in Louisiana and lived there and in Mississippi before moving to Maine. Her varied background includes art, herpetology, emergency department and critical care nursing, and computer systems. She is a Maine resident that lives a wandering lifestyle with her laptop and dog.