The Stages of Writing

As with any job, sometimes writing has its good days.

Other times, not so good days.

One of the questions I most get from non-writers, and even some writers who have a hard time coming up with ideas they want to write about, is where do you get your ideas?

But a story isn’t JUST an idea.

There’s a lot more to it, and I figured I’d share my process from start to finish of how a story is born.


An idea can come from anywhere. It can be inspired by anything: daydreaming, thinking in the shower or on a walk, a snippet of conversation, a news story, an article, a book, a TV show, a movie, and, as often is the case with me, dreams. Usually it starts with a What If?

What if people woke up one day and the rest of the world’s population was gone? (Yesterday’s Gone)

What if instead of a student shooting up his school, a teacher did it? (WhiteSpace)

What if a man woke up in a grave with no memories, and all he had was a note that said “avoid sunlight and…Don’t Touch Anyone!” (Available Darkness)

I love the idea stage. I’m in love with my Super Cool Idea.

It might be the best idea ever! How did nobody else ever come up with this idea already?

Now to turn this idea into something more.


This is my favorite part of being a writer–coming up with cool shit and talking about it.

Sometimes I’ll brainstorm on my own, but mostly, I do it with my writing partner, Sean Platt. Brainstorming is way more fun when you have someone to bounce ideas back and forth with.

I also think that’s part of the magic recipe of our Collective Inkwell books, that it’s often two minds coming up with these stories. You have a bit of both of us in every story, which gives the books a unique flavor they wouldn’t have without us.

Brainstorming is where we take the What If idea and try to figure out a bit more about the people the What If is happening to.

yg1-600-360x540Tell me more about these people who woke up alone on Earth? What makes them unique enough to be spared (or cursed?) What if one of them was a special government agent who was about to be taken in for betraying his country? What if he wasn’t really a special agent? What if one of them was a serial killer named Boricio Wolfe? What if one of them was a kid named Luca whose dreams lead him to the others?

Why did the teacher shoot his students? How would his wife and son deal with the fallout? What if they lived on an island? An island where something weird was happening? Maybe people were vanishing? What if one of the victims was a mother of a child? What if the father didn’t even know he had a child with her, and he had to come back to the island to pick up the pieces? What if his family was somehow involved in sinister things going on?

Who buried my amnesiac? WHY did they do it? What did he do to deserve this? Who did he piss off? What would happen if he was exposed to sunlight, or if he touched someone? What would happen if the first person he came across was a man beating his girlfriend? What if he intervened and then drained the man’s life (and memories)? What if the man was keeping a little girl in his closet? What if my amnesiac is wanted for a string of murders and now he has to go on the run with the girl he saved? Did he really kill a bunch of people, or is someone setting him up? If so, who? And, more importantly, Why?

These are the questions that flesh out the story, taking it from an embryonic idea and giving it shape, creating characters with lives beyond the story, creating a world that people will want to escape into, or from.

This is when the story is most alive with possibility.

But soon you have to begin making choices, and each choice to do one thing is a choice not to do many others.


This is where I begin to take my ideas and try to organize them into something resembling a story. We also use this time to create character sheets, information about each of our main characters so it’s easier to remember as we’re writing the story.

(Until recently, I didn’t even bother with detailed character sheets. NOT a good idea if you have stories with a LOT of characters or are juggling several series of characters!)

The outline is when the writing feels less fun and more like work.

This is where I’ll run into issues I hadn’t thought up during the brainstorming process. Maybe timelines don’t line up. Maybe characters aren’t working for whatever reason.

And I (or Sean and I) need to fix this before we go further.



Okay, back to the fun part!

Now I’ve got this story burning inside. I NEED to get it out on the page!

I can’t wait until it’s done and people can read it.

I imagine all the responses the story might get.

I’m coming up with some really cool lines of dialogue or a super killer scene that I can’t wait to see how it comes out.

I’m method acting scenes, really imagining how they’d play out, how each character would respond. If my main character is angry, I’m angry. If they’re sad, I’m sad.

I’m REALLY feeling this book!

I’m writing like a madman, thousands of words per day.

Just like in the video game NBA Jams, I’m on fire, baby!


Uh oh.

Something’s wrong.

I’m not sure what.

Is it the characters?

Is it a timeline problem?

Things I thought I worked out in the outlining stage aren’t as worked out as they should be.

And do I really have main characters named Bob and Rob?

That won’t be confusing for anyone!

I’m starting to see issues I couldn’t see until I actually got into the world and really got to know my characters.

Now I’m seeing more problems.

Lots more problems.

Maybe the story just isn’t working.

Maybe the character motivations aren’t working.

Or maybe my SUPER COOL IDEA sucks. Or maybe I realize, holy shit, that’s just like a movie that’s already out!

I don’t know what to do.

This is when I’m most prone to depression, closing myself off from people, and indulging in metric tons of cookies and cream ice cream.

Or just plain cookies.

Pretty much any food that’s not good for me.

I procrastinate with other things, such as writing super long blog posts!

I hate my book.

I hate myself.

I am the worst writer ever!


WhiteSpaceSeasonOneI need to figure things out.

They aren’t going to work themselves out through me playing video games or wallowing in my depression.

I need to WORK through this, just like any job with any bit of difficulty.

I’ll either get with Sean, or shake up my routine by going somewhere, going for walks, anything to give me some time and space to try and figure things out. Sometimes a break from writing will actually get my subconscious mind thinking about the problem.

Sometimes time away from the book, and away from the stress of hating myself and the book, gives my brain some rest to come back refreshed with solutions I didn’t see before.

Soon, we’re back on track!


We’ve got (most of) our problems worked out, and I’m feeling great!

I’m a writer again, and maybe not even the worst one ever.

Time to get back to work!

Time to finish my draft.

One of the cool things about coming back to a stalled story with confidence is that I’m a lot more likely to get in the zone again. Suddenly I’ve found the story’s purpose. I’m eager again for people to read it, to be blown away by some twist, or to feel whatever tragedy we’ve cooked up.


Now is Sean’s stab at the draft.

Sean will go through and pretty up a lot of what I’ve written. He’ll find repetitive words I’ve used. He’ll add his magic to the book.

He’ll spice up the dialogue a bit.


I’ll then go through and subtract about ten percent of the flowery language Sean added to my characters’s dialogue.

And I’ll make sure everything flows and everything works like it should.


We finally give it to the editor.

The editor will then save us from our worst grammatical transgressions. I love commas and sprinkle them generously, like chocolate chips.

Our editor will not only fix our grammar, but will also double check to see if we’ve made any serious screw-ups. Between Sean and I we catch most of them, I think. But it’s always good to have another person you trust.


Sean or Sean and I will then get it back from the editor, make the suggested changes, and then get the book ready for publication.


It’s time to send our baby out into the world, promote it (though I do a crap job of this, usually), and wait to hear from reader reviews or email to see how the story is received.

As much excitement as there is during the creation of the book and the anticipation of people reading it, we don’t really celebrate the publication too much?


Because it’s time to get back to work. Next stop: STAGE ONE for the next book.

Got any questions about our process? Leave a comment below or email me.

Want to read any of the stories I mentioned above to see what we did with these ideas? Click here to check out our library at the Collective Inkwell page at the Sterling and Stone website.

[ Photos used via Creative Commons: Write Your Own Script, typewriter ]


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