Way back in 2019, I was traveling a fair bit by plane and train. People-watching on the train especially got me inspired to write because some of my favorite stories are set on trains.
I came up with a challenge that every time I got onto a plane or train, I was going to write a short story.
I’d spent the previous year or so writing a near-future dystopian political technothriller thing that I had started in early 2016.
That got less and less fun to write – as real-life turned into a dystopian political technothriller.
I reluctantly shelved that project as my motivation flagged, and began casting around for new story ideas.
The ‘travel short stories’ were an easy and low-pressure way to experiment with fiction. Soon, I had a stack of stories collected as stapled-together ruled pages in a small cardboard box.
November 2019: I was flying back to California from India. I boarded around midnight, well-caffeinated and determined to stay awake if I could to preempt jetlag when I got home.
I noodled around with pen and paper on the flight, and arrived at the beginnings of a story. I’d been watching Avatar the Last Airbender and Frozen 2 on repeat for a while, and I was drawn to the idea of a magical wilderness setting for my story.
Very quickly after that, I arrived at my main character, magic system, and a few scenes close to the climax of the story. I scribbled down a couple of pages before finally going to sleep on the plane.
When I got home, I took a few days to settle back in after my trip. I remember being up at around dawn because of jetlag and sitting at my kitchen island reading the half-finished scenes. Over the next few days, I wrote down everything I knew about the story.
That excitement about the idea didn’t go away. And there was something about this fictional world that felt like a breath of fresh air, and I wanted to keep exploring.
I let it sit and keep simmering in my head for a while. I kept having ideas for it and jotting down notes.
January 2020: I started writing a ‘discovery draft’ by hand in a dedicated notebook.
I put in bookmarks I made out of construction paper to mark the quarter, half, and three-quarter waypoints in the notebook, to signal where the three-act structure milestones needed to be.
Aside from that, and taking some brainstorming breaks when needed, I completely winged it, starting from where I thought the beginning of the story should be.
I wrote about 25,000 words in 6 months and got to the end of the story.
I now had more of a sense of the story arc, more of the forces working against my main character within the story, and more of the theme.
I also got my first glimpses at the side characters, maybe their names, and just a few key moments for each of them.
I was ready to start typing and make my first ‘official’ draft. Though draft numbers don’t really mean anything to me.
June 2020: I signed up for a writing class where we all made book plans and set word count targets for each week. Then we tracked our word counts together for three months, shared statuses, and cheered each other on. This class turned out to be pretty helpful (though unfortunately, the second time I signed up, it didn’t work as well with my process).
I made a word count tracker in Excel and intended to write about 70,000 words over three months. The plan here was to weave together the various plot threads, arcs, and random elements I had collected into a coherent narrative.
I think I wrote 50,000 words and reached the end of the story, which continued to take shape and yet kept raising more questions.
That’s when I started to arrive at my writing process (which I now use in all forms of writing): to go through multiple passes of the story, and keep adding material until it’s finally time to start cutting or rewriting.
To be continued.