Organised Chaos: My Approach to Writing

In last week’s article, I wrote about the fact that when I first had ideas I wanted to turn into books back in 2002, I couldn’t work out how to do it. And the fact that I was a ‘plotter’ trying to ‘pants’ it (i.e. write on the fly with minimal or without any planning) meant I was doomed to fail because my brain just doesn’t work that way (not that I knew this). This article is a continuation of last week’s article because it was going to be too long for many people to want to read if I didn’t split it up.

Let’s talk about my background for a moment before I go into detail on how I work.



I’ve always had an over-active imagination, ever since childhood. I would create stories all the time, usually in my head, but sometimes I would try to write them down. Never actually finished them, though, and with the benefit of hindsight I know why: I’d start writing an interesting premise, but not know where it was meant to go next and stall.

My favourite subject at school was physics. However, I had a knack for composing music and decided to pursue those studies at university. I began my music degree with an eye to becoming a film composer like John Williams or James Horner, but by the end of my degree wanted to become a video game composer like Jason Hayes or Jeremy Soule.

Unfortunately, after finishing my studies I couldn’t find any studio willing to actually pay me to work for them. Although, this may have been a blessing in disguise, as the Global Financial Crisis not long afterward wiped out a number of local game studios, so I could have ended up on the unemployment line not long after getting my dream job, anyway.

I worked for many years as an admin officer in various companies until undertaking postgraduate studies and becoming a specialist English teacher (of adult English Second Language learners). This is without doubt the best job I’ve ever had.


Idea Generation

But all through that, from my uni days, to my admin days and now my teaching days, I’ve always had story ideas churning in my head. And since I “couldn’t write” (i.e. didn’t realise plotters were a type of writer and that I was one of those), what I did instead of writing these stories was collected the ideas I had in idea journals (on the computer, of course; I’m hopeless at handwriting).

My idea generation process feels less like I’m creating ideas myself and instead feels more like I’m merely collecting them from antennae stuck on my head, like messages from the aether. Or it’s more like ‘uncovering’ information about the story, instead of deliberately crafting it … like an archaeologist uncovering details from ancient ruins. I guess that means my subconscious is the true creative talent here. But my consciousness is the one that gets to take the credit.


Idea Journals

I have idea journals on my computer which number into the thousands of A4 pages — literally half a million words of ideas for the stories I’m working on now and into the next few years. I have so many story concepts and outlines backlogged, that I could write a book a year for the rest of my life and never get through them all, even without thinking of new book ideas. This motivates me to write and get the books out very quickly, but I’ll talk more about my writing/publication pace in the future.


Detailed Outline

So, what do I do with all these ideas I’ve written down? Well, once I think a story has enough material that I can actually think about starting to write them, I create a detailed outline of every scene mentioned in the idea journal, starting at Page 1 and working my way through, adding, deleting and modifying as indicated by what I’d previously written. This detailed outcome becomes a snapshot of only the most ‘current’ or ‘up to date’ version of the story based on the idea journal.


General Outline

Once that’s done, I create a generalised version of that outline with labels only for each scene (instead of all the gory details of what happens). Then I look at what plot structure already exists vs. what ought to be there in order to make a cohesive narrative plot. Then, as necessary, I go back to the detailed outline and move things around or add in sections that need more information or find a home for unattached scenes that I’ve conceptualised but didn’t know when they should take place.


First Draft

Once everything’s planned out, it’s time for the first draft. For a short story this can take about one to four hours, and for my debut novella Ethereal Malignance it took ten days. And unlike most authors I know, I don’t hate my first drafts. Oh, I’d never let another living human look at them (god no!) but I actually think they’re not too terrible, just in dire need of revision.



Once the first draft is finished, I typically leave it sit for a few weeks or a month. In that time, I usually have other ideas that crop up, of things I could have done differently, etc. and I dutifully write them down but don’t act on them or even look at the draft at this point. Once I think I’ve left it enough time to come back with fresh and more objective eyes, I go through the self-edit.

Now, ideally this is really looking at things like character arcs, characterisation and overarching story and plot elements, but I also do some basic line editing at this stage. I know that’s typically discouraged because it’s a waste of time and effort if you end up having to retool (or remove) entire scenes later down the line. But I work so quickly that it doesn’t really bother me. And I’ve had a lot of feedback that my copy is very clean, so I keep going with this (I’ll do a proper line edit later on, as well, but I just like having a fairly ‘clean’ version to give to editors, etc.; I feel like it’s the least I can do to make their jobs easier).


Sensitivity Readers

Now, if I’m writing about characters with backgrounds that match mine, I skip this next step. If not, then I definitely do not skip this step. I could write a whole article about the controversy surrounding sensitivity readers (and maybe I will at some point), but here’s my take on it: they’re just as useful as editors, critiquing partners and beta readers for ensuring you create the highest quality product you can.

Why do I think that? Simply put: you don’t know what you don’t know. If I’m writing characters with a different sexuality or ethnicity than mine (for example), I can’t possibly know all the harmful stereotypes that exist and know to look out for them in my writing. Having someone who knows what to look out for check over my work to make sure I’m not putting out hateful and inaccurate stereotypes into the world is something I think is an important step. Better this than to barge on ahead and blindly put out something ignorant.

There is a lot of misinformation out there about what sensitivity readers are, what they do, and it results in a lot of uninformed hate. At any rate, I take this step before even thinking of taking my work to an editor or critiquing partners.


Critiquing Partners / Group

This step is easier to do if it’s a shorter work like a short story, but is trickier when it’s a book-length piece due to the time investment it demands of anyone working with me, so I normally do this step around now for short stories but to date haven’t done this with my novella (it’s difficult to find someone with enough time to read through an entire book and give detailed feedback since everyone is busy with their own things going on).

This can be really useful because it can catch things before taking the manuscript to editors, which can save not only money but also can allow the editors to catch more issues by eliminating the low-hanging fruit before they begin.


Developmental Edit

Of the professional editing stage, this is the one that by far takes me the longest to work through (I’ll explain my thoughts on the other professional editing stages below). Very useful to have someone read through the manuscript in its entirety and identify any plot-related, character-related or large-scale issues. My developmental editor is also kind enough to go through and give me a basic line edit as well, which I appreciate.

This stage takes me the longest because it involves the most effort on my behalf compared to other types of edits since a developmental editor identifies issues and it’s up to the author to devise solutions. In fact, once the developmental editing process is completed, I consider the book creation efforts to be on the downhill path, with the single most time-consuming and brain-taxing part of the process done.


Copy Edit

The finish line is within sight by the time I get to this stage. Copy editing is when the editor takes a look at all your prose and tells you why it’s all rubbish. I’m joking. It’s really useful for identifying and removing cliches and for improving the quality of sentences. Makes a really big difference in readability of the manuscript.

Unlike the previous stages of the process, I find the copy editing stage easier because in many cases the editor provides a solution and I can either go with it or come up with my own version. The amount of feedback identifying a problem but leaving you to find the solution is much less than in the developmental edit stage because of the different nature of the edit. Once the copy edit is done, I’m finally confident enough to share my manuscript with a general public audience, which I do in the next step.


Beta Readers

Beta readers are lay people or normal readers (as opposed to necessarily writers/authors or professional editors) who read a manuscript and give impressions and specific feedback that you ask for. I normally don’t take my work to beta readers until this late stage in the game, but it’s typically recommended to do so at earlier stages because it can make the professional edit go more smoothly by identifying more obvious issues first. And having multiple rounds of beta readers at various points is also a good practice.

But I don’t do that: I do it once, and I do it before the proofread. If I find any trends in the feedback I’m getting, I pay attention to it and see what might need to be addressed. Then it’s on to the final stretch!



In my opinion as a writer, this is the easiest part of the editing process for me, because the proofreader does all the work: they identify anything that’s wrong, which can include but isn’t limited to spelling, grammar, punctuation, and logic and fact checking. I almost always accept all feedback from a proofreader because it’s very often a case of ‘is this right or wrong?’, whereas the previous stages can involve much more nuance, personal taste and opinion.


ARC Reviews

This step only applies if it’s a book that I’m going to be selling. For short stories, I skip this step. I haven’t actually done this yet because my debut novella is with my copy editor at the moment. But it’s basically giving out free copies to reviewers to read and (hopefully) post reviews of. That’s all I have to say for now because I haven’t actually done it yet.


Mailing List

This step only applies to short stories or things I’m not selling. But before any public release of short stories I write, I send them to my mailing list first. This gives those people who care enough about my writing to sign up to my list a chance to get early access to my latest works before general distribution.


Public Release

The last stage of my writing process (I’m not even going to talk about marketing here because it’s a whole other beast). If it’s a short story, I just post it publicly on my website and on whatever subreddits on Reddit will accept it. If it’s a book I’m selling, then it’s available for anyone to purchase at this point.



At this point it should be obvious why I decided to split last week’s article from this one instead of posting one mega-colossal article: I doubt many people would make it to the end of that behemoth. As it is, this is probably too long, but oh well! Hopefully if you’ve made it this far, you’ve found the snapshot into my creative process and writing process interesting.

Thanks for reading!

Please feel free to send me your thoughts or questions on the community page.


Photo by Jr Korpa on Unsplash.