It’s All in My Head

My writing process, should I ever become noteworthy, will be the despair of Literature students everywhere. I know people who live and die by the outline, but outlines are the arch nemesis to my creative process—no good has ever come of my attempting one, either for class or on my own.

And character sketches? My characters and I came to an agreement long ago that I would give them names, and descriptions, and send them out into the worlds I create to make their fortunes. As long as they do roughly what I instruct them to, and stay more-or-less on the side I need them to (the last thing I need is my main protagonist becoming my main antagonist three-quarters of the way through a story with no backup plan in place), I mostly sit on their shoulders and let them run the show. This came about because whenever I try to force my characters too strongly in a particular direction or down a particular plotline, it invariably ends in full-blown disaster and prodigious use of my delete key.

Frankly, the Delete key is too small and out-of-the-way on my laptop to be bothered with.

So, about 85% of my writing process, such as it is, takes place in my head—long before I sit down anywhere near a computer. First, I am struck with a story idea. I’ve had ideas hit me in the form of a single quote, a flash of what the main character looks like, a plotline, an entire scene, even something as nebulous as a theme I’d like to convey. Whatever it is, I grab on to it and mull it over, in my mind, for weeks. I’ll contemplate things while I’m driving to work, eating lunch, falling asleep in bed, brushing my teeth, in line at the grocery store—whatever people normally put down on paper to flesh out a story idea, I lay out in my head. Eventually my seed of an idea stretches out in my brain like a vast landscape, and only when I feel like I have something to work with—enough pages of notes, so to speak—do I finally fire up the computer and get to the business of bringing my creation to life.

My mental organization carries me throughout the entirety of my writing. Plotline stressing me out? I worry it like a dog with a bone, but only in my head. Need to refine a scene? I’ll run dialogue with my characters, but no one will ever find any written evidence of my drafts. The only partial drafts of my work are in the wrinkles of my brain, and the only times I take actual, physical notes are when something comes to me at so inopportune a time that I worry I’ll forget what I’ve come up with.

I wonder, sometimes, if there are other people who have such a heavily mental process to their writing. I suppose I find physical outlining cumbersome; it only slows me down and I was always resentful when a professor insisted upon it in class. At the same time, I’ve never met two people with the same writing process, and I’m always fascinated by what fellow writers need to wrangle their creativity. Maybe one day I’ll regret not having notes to go with my work. Maybe my process will change. Maybe my brain will burst, a shower of characters and plotlines raining down all around me in gleeful freedom. Until such a time, however, I’m perfectly content to let it remain all in my head.


  1. Great blog!! 🙂 Any time I have been poked and prodded to complete an outline, the finished work reads NOTHING like the outline. Sometimes it’s just more fun to travel without a map! Yet, and possibly because the process has been beaten in to my brain by multiple professors, I usually find myself “outlining” by stockpiling scribbles and sketches like a squirrel hoarding acorns in autumn. 😛

    • Thanks, Andrea! 🙂 I will admit that I sometimes wish I could draw–the only thing I’d like to be able to do is have some sort of physical representation of my characters, so I can look at them as I’m writing about them. That’s a kind of “character sketch” I could get behind!

  2. Time is a factor when getting to know people, and in developing friendships or not, fictional character development takes time as a story unfolds. Just as we are all individual and unique people, a fictional character needs to become as flesh and blood as possible, which will allow readers to be able to relate to the character in the context of a story. How a person reacts in any given situation is usually based on an individual’s experience, and the same is true with fictional characters. Every question that a writer asks, and can answer about the characters in their story enables the writer to make a fictional character more real in the minds of readers – a saint or sinner, a victim or criminal, a good guy or a bad guy, a Goliath or a David. We all know that interrogating people when we first meet them is rude, but as writers’ we are obligated to our readers to know as much about our fictional characters as possible, so we can dispense with manners and niceties, and get on with Character Development through the interrogation process. Every question is one more layer of the onion, so to speak.

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