Short story and novel writer Rebecca Roland gives us a very detailed overview of her writing process.
Tamago: Do you have a regular drafting process, or does your drafting process vary from book to book. Can you describe it to us generally, or at least for one project?
Rebecca: My process has changed from book to book as I’ve learned what works and what doesn’t work. My first two novels, which are trunk novels, were written completely by the seat of my pants. My third novel, which became my first published novel Shards of History, started as a short story. I wrote the first draft of the novel, then rewrote much of it once I’d gotten to know the main character a little better. Then I went over it a couple more times to add characterization and details, and I also added a new first chapter.
For my latest novel, tentatively titled Death is the New Normal, I decided to try something different and skip the inevitable throw-away first draft. I heard about the book The 90-Day Novel. It has over 200 questions you can answer to get to know your main character and/or antagonist better. I went through a good number of them and came up with 47 pages of notes, including an outline, before writing this novel. Then I churned out a draft and ended up pleased with it, which is a first for me. Usually I hate those first drafts. Now I’ll see if it holds up with my beta readers.
Tamago: Is your writing process the same for short stories as it is for novels?
Rebecca: I actually outline more for short stories than for novels, at least until the most recent novel. I come up with an initial idea, be it a setting or a character or some cool concept, then I keep asking myself questions until I figure out the characters and conflict. I usually have an ending in mind when I begin, but it often changes once I get to that point because I discovered something interesting about the characters or the story along the way.
Tamago: How do you know when a story is working?
Rebecca: When a story is working, I find myself in the zone, corny as that sounds. The writing flows and I’m energized and excited. Also, I know when I’ve taken the story in the right direction because I feel like things are clicking, like a sort of ‘eureka’ moment. It’s an intuitive experience, and I’ve learned to be more receptive to those feelings. Before I went to the Odyssey Writing Workshop, I had no idea when one of my stories wasn’t working. At Odyssey I critiqued a lot and learned quite a bit from the process. It taught me to look for the weaknesses in my own writing, as well as knowing when a story is working.
Tamago: Which part of writing–drafting, revising, critique from others–do you enjoy the most? Why? The least? Why?
Rebecca: I enjoy revising the most. For me, much of the hard part is over. While writing first drafts, I tend to go back and forth between “This is the greatest thing I’ve ever written!” to “This is just awful. I’m such a hack.” When I revise, I get to take people’s suggestions and make the story as strong as possible. I like having written more than actually writing.
Tamago: Do you find your background as a medical professional is useful to you in your writing?
Rebecca: I’ve joked that it’s not such a stretch from putting people through ‘pain and torture’ to putting characters through the wringer. In reality, I think most of the carryover from my ‘day job’ to writing is subconscious and subtle, unless I’m calling on my knowledge to write a character with an injury or disability or certain ailments.
Tamago: Do you write with a writing group, or do you write alone? Why do you make the choice you make?
Rebecca: For the most part, I write alone, but I meet with a group almost weekly. We go out for breakfast, talk about books and movies and various other topics, and then we pull out our laptops and write. It’s nice to “talk shop” with people who get where I’m coming from. But most of the time I write at home while my 2 year old sleeps, often with a dog or two and the cat curled up nearby. So technically, I suppose I never write alone…
Tamago: What is your favorite work that you’ve written to date?
Rebecca: My favorites change constantly. For NaNoWriMo last year I wrote several short stories and a novella rather than a novel. I’ve revised and submitted one, and I’m currently in the process of revising the rest and submitting them. I enjoyed the process, and I like all of the stories, which range from a fantasy short set in the world of my novel Shards of History to horror to straight-up science fiction. I had fun, and I plan on using NaNoWriMo this year to produce short stories again.
Tamago: You are known as a character writer. How do you develop your characters?
Rebecca: I’m glad to be known as a character writer! Characterization was my biggest weakness initially. I’ve made a huge effort to develop that part of my craft.
I ask a lot of questions when developing characters. I want to know a character’s goals and fears, what makes her happy or angry or sad. I want to know her best, worst, and most embarrassing memories. When I referred to 47 pages of notes earlier, that was all character development. I found that knowing my characters really well makes it so much easier to plot. They eventually take on lives of their own and make their own decisions.
Tamago: How many drafts of a project will you write? What do you do in each draft?
Rebecca: If I’ve been mulling over a story for a while, I usually write one draft and just make a few adjustments to it afterwards. If, however, I don’t have the luxury of time to kick an idea around in my head, I end up writing at least two drafts. The first draft is about discovering the characters and the story. The second draft is for making the story closer to what I want it to be and sprinkling in foreshadowing, tying up loose ends, making characters consistent, etc. This is typically the version my critique group sees. I make adjustments as needed to that second draft and then send it out. Sometimes a third draft is necessary, and even a fourth, but I aim for two.
Tamago: After the initial break-in moment (your first book, agent, or assignment), what are the moments/accomplishments that you feel define you as a writer?
Rebecca: I’ve got a list of goals I’m working towards this year and for the next three years. Checking off these goals brings enormous satisfaction, whether it’s writing and submitting a flash story or a novel. I admit, I also really enjoy those moments when somebody tells me that they enjoyed one of my stories or when they ask for an autograph. Writing is fraught with rejection and self-doubt, so I enjoy those little moments of validation.