A couple weeks ago I wrote about the first step in my writing process–if the wild haphazard whirlwind of creation can be called a “process.” Now that I’ve survived into step three – writing, I figured I’d expound on step two.
Step two is what I (and a lot of other people) call “simmering.”
This step could also potentially be called “hunting and gathering” or “collecting specimens” or “research” or “meditation” or “contemplation” or any number of things. “Simmering” covers all the bases.
Letting an idea simmer is vital. My simmering process for the current WIP was short and rushed due to signing up for Camp NaNoWriMo and things happening at work, and it was incredibly difficult to get going on the writing when that time finally came. The idea was a little bit stunted and I couldn’t get into the POV character’s head for days (which, being as he is the POV character, made things difficult).
The simmering phase is exactly what it sounds like. You put the idea on a back burner and go on about your life–you’re aware of it, you check on it, sometimes you throw things in and come back later for a taste, to see if they made the idea better or worse (fortunately, with this kind of simmering, you can take ideas back out very easily—unlike when you accidentally add one head of garlic to your sauce, instead of one clove), but you’re not actively writing it. You’re letting things mix and seeing what new ideas bubble to the surface.
For me, the simmering phase starts with things like brainstorming, rambling to friends about the idea, doing research for character careers and histories, family life, possible conflicts, names, ages… When I’m letting an idea simmer, I listen to music for that WIP (I’ve written previously about the relationship between my writing and music). For my current WIP, the music is dark cabaret–things like Katzenjammer, Dresden Dolls, Birdeatsbaby, and The Romanovs – I’m not sure if, in this case, the music helped midwife the idea into the world, or if the idea drove me to seek out dark music. Dark cabaret music is very sexy and aggressive. BDSM is very sexy and aggressive. (There are a lot of dark cabaret songs about BDSM in some form or another.)
The music is the burner over which I heat the ideas, the notion of plot and characters. When I was writing my first novel, I listened to Maroon 5 and nothing but Maroon 5, ad nauseum for months (at least Maroon 5 has multiple albums – when I wrote the first draft of my second novel, I listened to Bastille’s Bad Blood album so many times I burnt out on it and haven’t listened to a single Bastille song in like 3 years). Anyway… I just let them hang out in the back of my mind for a while–a few days, a week, a month, who knows. I have ideas in the back of my head that have been there for ten years. Every once in a while I go back to them, adjust some things, write down new ideas, and then let them go again. Sometimes you’re just not ready to write the idea for whatever reason.
During the simmering stage, you may do things like fill out character profiles, start an outline (if that is your inclination), or write what I call “character exploration” scenes, which are vital for developing voice and personality. Character exploration scenes may never show up in the novel, but they help you work out hitches in back story and give characters an opportunity to tell you things. This can save time in revision. If you’re anything like me, when you don’t let things simmer enough, the first couple chapters of your novel will be shitty and stunted while you struggle to find your groove.
When you are simmering, a notebook will be your best friend. You never know when your characters will jump up and say “HEY GUESS WHAT!” (that applies throughout the whole writing process, really)
I carry a little memo book everywhere I go. Some people use their phones. I used to use my phone, but to me it seems faster to flip open a notebook and write something down, than it does to get my phone, open an app, get to the right place, etc. (If you have any app recs for easy note-taking, drop me a comment!) If I can’t get to my notebook for whatever reason, I text the ideas to myself. Here are a couple examples of the notes I’ve taken for myself during the simmering stage for my current WIP (pardon the chicken scratch):
Although I get ideas during the simmering stage (I get a LOT of ideas during the simmering stage), it’s different from the actual “birth” of the overall idea because things are starting to become clear. It is largely an inactive, quiet process. When I first get an idea, it’s an amorphous blob. Simmering helps me chip away the excess useless crap to find the true shape hidden inside.
It is important to note that the Simmering step gets repeated after the Writing step, and has much the same function and procedure there as it does in this pre-Writing step. As you write, your idea will shape more and more. New thoughts will bubble up, characters will reveal more truths, and you’ll realize by the end of the writing process that hot damn, the first half of your book needs some serious revision. But you don’t write “The end” and then immediately start revising. It’s important to give the idea space, look at it with fresh eyes. So you let it simmer again. But this simmering isn’t the “throw random shit in and see what happens” kind of simmering. The post-writing simmering is more like “I have the ingredients here and they taste all right together, but I think I need to adjust their quantities, or the order I put them into the pot, to make this story taste even better.”
I think I’m mixing metaphors, but you get the idea. So far in my writing process we have:
Step One – GOD THIS IS EXCITING LET ME VOMIT THIS BRILLIANCE INTO A WORD DOCUMENT AND GRAB PEOPLE AND SHAKE THEM WHILE RAMBLING BECAUSE I AM JUST SO EXCITED ABOUT THIS IDEA I JUST HAD
Step Two – Okay… so that wasn’t as brilliant as I thought, but I can work with it. Let me think about this for a while.We’ll get to step three in an upcoming post! Maybe next week, maybe the week after. Sometimes I have to let my blog posts simmer, too.What do you guys do during the “simmering” stage before you start writing? Anything cool or fun that I should try?