My Writing Process

Every writer has their own process.

I’ve been writing for a living for a few decades, and my process has gone through a few iterations, but in the end, I tend to do it the same way I’ve always done it: blood, sweat, and tears. Plus whisky and Oreos.


A deadline is the best inspiration there is.

For pro writers, there’s nothing quite like the prospect of the paycheck
that comes at the end to get The Muse’s flaky little butt in the chair. For
fanfic writers, the prospect of a politely nudging message from a fest mod
often serves the same purpose.

In the absence of a deadline and a brief or prompt, I have to find other
sources of inspiration, and I generally turn to one of these to get the juices

Random phrases

It can be something I’ve read or simply overheard, but sometimes a few words or a phrase will stick in my head, march around, and eventually give me an idea for a moment, a scene, or even an entire story.

An example would be a line I’ve always remembered from the 1968 Katharine Hepburn/Peter O’Toole movie The Lion in Winter: “How, from where we started, did we ever reach this Christmas?” The bleakness of the line, expressing the bewilderment that accompanies the slow crumbling of a marriage, inspired my own short story on the topic, “Betrayal and the Art of Salvation.

That story’s title, as well as a particular moment in the story, was inspired by another line, this one from Barbara Kingsolver’s fantastic 1998 novel, The Poisonwood Bible: “Every betrayal contains a perfect moment, a coin stamped heads or tails
with salvation on the other side.”

For my novel-length fic A Slant-Told Tale, I was inspired by Emily Dickinson’s poem number 1263, often known by its first line: “Tell all the truth but tell it slant,” from which the story takes its title Not only was the poem, with its admonishments about truth, apt to one of the themes of my story, but the idea of telling a tale “slant” gave me the idea for the story’s structure, with its alternating POVs, sometimes from a main character’s perspective, sometimes from a minor character’s. Still not sure whether it really worked or not, but it was a lot of fun to attempt.


Unlike lots of writers, I don’t listen to anything while I write. If I try, I find myself utterly unable to concentrate on anything but the music. (Maybe it’s an ADHD thing?) I do, however, get lots of inspiration from music. Some songs or pieces just scream out for fic.

I’ve written one rather strange songfic (pretentiously titled “Chanson de Severus”) directly based on a song, Elvis Costello’s creepy-stalker piece “I Want You,” in which each of the micro-scenes in the story were inspired by a verse in the song.

I’m currently working on a story that is less directly related to its inspiration but popped into my head when I heard a Suzanne Vega song from the 1990s. (I won’t say which, as the story isn’t yet ready for prime time.)

Writing Tools

I have a page on some of my favorite writing tools, but here’s the basic stack (no affiliate links, just stuff I use):


A few years back, I finally, grudgingly, gave in to writer peer pressure and bought a license for Scrivener. As I suspected, it’s a bit of overkill for me, with all its organizational bells and whistles, but I must admit that I really like the corkboard view, which allows me to move scenes around, for drafting longer fic. I also appreciate the ability to keep all my notes and research related to a project in the Scrivener “binder” rather than strewn across several note-taking and bookmarking apps. It also lets me keep notes on each scene in a side panel, which is quite useful.


I am old enough to have written my undergrad thesis on a typewriter, so transitioning to early word processing programs (WordPerfect, anyone?) was like discovering indoor plumbing for the first time.

Microsoft’s Word is what I used for the second half of my professional life, and it’s still what I like to use for drafting shorter fic that won’t benefit from the organizational gewgaws of Scrivener. I also take the extra step to export all my longer fic from Scrivener to Word for editing because nothing else I’ve used has Word’s editing features (and for pro writing, it’s still the industry standard). I use a combination of some of editor Paul Beverley’s very helpful macros for Word, plus add-ins of ProWriting Aid and PerfectIt 4 (more about them later) to do my various editing passes, and I love them.

Notepad ++

Notepad++ is the text editor I use to do the coding for sites like AO3. It’s free, simple, and has regex find and replace that helps me get the job done quickly.


I have tried using both Vellum and Atticus (paid apps) to create EPUB versions of my stories, but the results didn’t meet my requirements for accessibility, so I hand-code it all in Sigil (free). It’s a bit of a pain, but nothing else works as well. I keep casting around looking for some easier way, but in the end, I always seem to go back to hand-coding.

Affinity Publisher

Although Vellum and Atticus can do an adequate job of formatting PDFs for print, I prefer to use a tool that is more flexible and gives one more control to create a professional-grade product. (I really need my narrow non-breaking spaces.)

Affinity Publisher is a desktop publishing program that’s cheaper (and somewhat less powerful) than Adobe’s InDesign. I’m trying to teach myself interior book design, so, for practice, I use it to create print-ready PDFs of my fic. (To the best of my knowledge, no one has ever actually downloaded a PDF of any of my stories, but, you know, they’re available, and that makes me happy.)

The Process

My name is Squibstress, and I am an unrepentant pantser.

It’s a wildly inefficient way to write, but it’s the only way I can do it.

I have tried to be a plotter, but I simply can’t. The attempts weren’t pretty.

I’d dutifully think a story through, do my outline, then …

I’d start to feel hemmed in. I’d start to sweat a little. My characters, stubborn bastards every last one, would refuse to follow my carefully planned-out arcs and plotlines. By the time I’d have a few thousand words, everything would go to chaos and anarchy, and I’d be tearing my hair out and swearing at my keyboard.

So I have resigned myself to the Way of the Pantser. Every story is different of course, but my process generally looks something like this:

The First Draft

Here’s how it starts:

  1. Rub hands together in gleeful anticipation and sit down at computer. Stare into the abyss at blank page for a few minutes wearing an expression that moves from excited to wistful to scared.
  2. Get up and get another cup of joe. Come back and give the blank page the stink-eye while sipping lukewarm coffee. Dribble some on keyboard and use shirtsleeve to clean it off. Get up to pee.
  3. Repeat Step 2 three, maybe four times.
  4. Sigh loudly. Possibly cry a little. Start typing.
  5. Write a thousand or so words.
  6. Think, “You got this.”
  7. Read over my work and think, “Brilliant. Nothing to this writing business. No idea why Hemmingway drank so much.”

After that, the work usually hums along, until …

At some point, a few hours or days or weeks after I’ve written my (totally genius) first third, I come to the abrupt realization that I have no bloody idea what comes next. I probably have an idea of where I eventually want my story to go, but like a driver whose Google Maps has suddenly lost its connection, I don’t know how I’m going to get there, and I’m in a really sketchy neighborhood and I’m out of snacks and I probably have to pee.

My family can always tell when I reach the middle of a story because this is the time my house tends to get really, really clean. (Horrified Squiblet: “Mom, did you organize my underwear drawer by skid-mark length?”)

When I eventually wend my way back to the keyboard—with much sighing and many wistful glances at the Scrub Daddy sponge Mr Squib has pried from my red, pruney hands—I am reduced to writing without regard for pesky things like character development, narrative voice, pacing, scene-setting, or general coherence. Here I just concentrate on getting from Point A to Point B without doing myself bodily harm.

I type like Stephen King on meth until I have some semblance of plot that can somehow be resolved in some kind of ending.

It is at this juncture that I usually throw everything away and start over.

Just kidding.

Sort of.

Here’s what almost invariably happens:

Once I’ve finished the rough middle of a story, I look the thing over and realize that everything I’ve written is shit and I am the shittiest writer that ever shat out a shit-laden story.

I sit down and have a good cry and generally feel very sorry for myself indeed. I might have some Scotch. Or a lot of Scotch, depending on the story’s level of fucked-up-ness and the proximity of the deadline.

That accomplished, I get back to work.

I have some serious revision to do. Often, I find that I’m actually writing a very different story from the one I began and need to throw out large portions of it.

So I do that, beginning to sweat about my deadline, if I have one.

Because I have now essentially rewritten the first two bits of the story, I now have no frigging idea how to end the thing. Which is why many of my endings are abrupt and deeply unsatisfying. (I’m working on this.)


If I’ve been smart and started early enough (ha, ha), I now have time to put the first draft away for a few weeks to let it steep in the miasma of its own mediocrity. If I’ve procrastinated, I have only a few days for the marinatin’.

To start revision, I’ll hold my nose and read through the whole first draft, noting where the big things like plot and character arc and voice aren’t working and try to fix them. This part sucks lemons and is accompanied by much cursing and the consumption of several pounds of Oreos. (I don’t even like Oreos. It’s a self-loathing thing.)

But once I’ve waded through the morass and come out the other side—covered in muck, but out, goddammit—the fun part starts.

If the first draft is—forgive me—hauling the Christmas tree into the house and getting it stood up, and the first revision is adjusting the branches, trimming the outliers, and making sure the lights all work, the next revision is adding the tinsel and glass balls and the tacky little spangled angel for the top.

I start adding details—strewing in bits of backstory for characters and monkeying with their habits and ways of speech—and refining the language at the sentence level to try to add some interest to the thing.

Editing & Proofreading

When I’m finished the decorating, I do a read-through and tidy up—vacuum up the pine needles and sweep up the broken ornament bits (to scoot the Christmas tree metaphor across the lines of good taste.)

To do this, I export the story from Scrivener to Word, if necessary, so I can use two of my favorite tools for editing.

First, I use ProWritingAid to identify line-editing issues like repeated sentence starts, overuse of words, etc.

For the final approach, I use PerfectIt4 to look for things like unclosed quotation marks, inconsistent spellings and hyphenations, and to make sure the story conforms to my pre-defined stylesheet.

I will then do a proofread, but to be honest, I suck at proofreading. I just don’t have the patience. I do it, but I almost always miss something. It’s a good thing I’m a writer and not a pilot or a surgeon.

If this is something I’m writing for money, it gets sent off to the editor to meet its fate. Generally, it comes back with a bunch of edits and queries, which I respond to in whatever way necessary, and re-send. It may go through several rounds of this or not, but at some point thereafter, the piece is either published or killed, and I receive my paycheck or my kill fee. If it’s the former, I gleefully purchase the latte my customary payment affords me. If the latter, I add it to the spare-change jar in my kitchen.

If the story is fic, I move on to the next steps.


Once I have a (air-quotes) final copy, I format it for whatever site it will be posted on. Generally, this means converting it to HTML.

The first thing I do is a search-and-replace to highlight any formatting like italics, small caps, etc. This copy I use for reference.

On a new copy, I strip out all the formatting and use some basic Word styles I’ve set up that convert well to html—italics, headings, etc.

I use that document to upload to a Word-to-HTML converter, which does the basic conversion. The output gets pasted into Notepad++, which I go through to add in any coding for formatting that hasn’t survived (like small caps or centered text), using my highlighted original Word document for reference.

Cover Creation

I create covers for all my fics. Don’t ask me why, as I’m not very good at it, but a fic doesn’t feel finished to me until it has a proper book cover.

I scour free image sites like Pixabay and Unsplash for images to use, then I design in the open-source photo editor GIMP. I’m an inveterate collector of fonts, so I generally have a bunch at my disposal, but I’m careful to ensure the fonts I’m using are properly licensed for my purposes.

I generally create covers in different sizes for print, web, and eBook, which is a PITA, but necessary.

EBook Creation

I use my HTML-coded document to upload each chapter to the open-source EPUB editor Sigil and hand-edit the code to tweak the format as needed and to add accessibility features to the EPUB. I also upload the book cover and a title page (created in GIMP).

I then run it through Ace, an open-source bit of software by The Daisy Consortium, which checks the EPUB for accessibility problems.

PDF Creation

I import a clean copy of the final version (with basic formatting) to Affinity Publisher. I have a template for fic and use a somewhat complicated (surprise!) process to tweak all the little things for print, like non-breaking narrow spaces between single and double quote marks and drop-caps for chapter openings.

A cover and a title page complete the process, then I export to PDF.

Final Bits

My story is then ready for uploading to various places for the delectation of the four people who will read it. (Thank you!)

And such, Constant Reader, is the life cycle of this writer.

Spoiler Alert!

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