My Writing Process: Questions & Answers

 (Quick reminder: I’ll be on the Fierce Reads tour that kicks off this Wednesday! See the tour dates and locations here:



I’m thrilled that so many of you found this series of blog posts to be helpful and inspiring!



I’ve updated the links on the introductory post, so you can now read the series from the beginning here:


My Writing Process: 9 Steps from Idea to Finished


And now… Q&A!



Brainstorming & Research


Aimee asks: Do you start creating Pinterest inspiration boards and writing playlists during this phase or after you have a clear idea of the plot?

Yes, I start compiling inspiration photos and music from day one! Usually I’ll start a Pinterest board but keep it “private” until it’s substantial enough to be shared with readers. I also start seriously finding inspiration photos during the outline stage, as I find they really help me to start connecting with the characters and seeing them as real people. Same with music—whenever I hear a song that puts me in the mood of a story, I take note of it and when I have a handful, I’ll put them together in a playlist.



Alexa Lee asks: How long did it take you to research/brainstorm? Did you stop searching when you felt like it’s time?

For me, this varies by project. Sometimes I might be brainstorming and researching a story for years before I feel like I have enough inspiration to move forward with outlining. Other times the story will fill up my head really fast and I might only have a couple of months. It’s also dependent on my publication schedule and deadlines—I might have to “rush” the brainstorming stage so I can get on to outlining and drafting to make sure I have plenty of time for revisions later. I don’t like to rush the brainstorming part, because good brainstorming and research will save time later, but sometimes it can’t be helped.



Lucy (from GoodReads) asks:  How do you come up with names?

I love, and I also have a Baby Names app on my phone that I’ve been using lately. You can search for words that have a certain meaning (many characters in the Lunar Chronicles have “moon-themed” names), or come from a specific country or culture, or start with a specific letter… you can get really detailed. Then I just start skimming through the names until I find one that clicks!


Sometimes I’ll also skim through my Twitter followers or Facebook friends and pick something that jumps out at me.




The Outline


Natalie (from GoodReads) asks: Is it necessary to outline? Some authors said they don’t even bother and just plunge right in.

Nope! Though I can’t imagine writing without an outline, every writer will have a different process, and I know plenty of talented authors who don’t outline at all. I think it’s good to try different things and figure out what works best for you.



Aimee asks: At what point do you consider yourself to “know your characters”? When you’ve figured out what their motivations, backstories, and character arcs are? When their voice comes to life? Or something abstract like when they “come alive” on the page? And how many drafts does it usually take to get there?

For me, it’s the abstract answer—when they come alive. I feel like I know my characters when I can hear them in my head, speaking in their own voice, their own vocabulary, their own inflections. When they start making choices that I didn’t foresee or saying things that I didn’t expect. As far as when that happens, it varies by character. Cinder and Iko both came to me really easily, as early as the first or second drafts of the book. Other characters, like Kai, Scarlet, and Jacin, I didn’t feel like I had a strong grasp on until the fourth or fifth drafts of the book.


I also find that, no matter how well I feel like I know a character, they all still have a tendency to surprise me.




Rachel asks: My outlines are very specific, they contain fragments of dialogue, and things that will go directly into the first draft, written exactly the way they were in the outline. Should I make it more vague? 

I think that’s fantastic, and I would never tell someone to change their process if it’s working for them! Everyone has their own process, so if your super detailed outlines are working for you, then go forth and godspeed!



The First Draft


Emily asks: How long have you been doing Nano? Also, what is the highest number of words you have done in Nano?

I’m starting to lose count, but I think this year will be my… 6th time doing NaNo? The most words I wrote was during NaNo 2008, when I drafted Cinder, Scarlet, and Cress back-to-back. That year I clocked in at 150,011 words. Most of my Nano wordcounts have been closer to the 70,000-word range.


Nikki asks: I was wondering, how do you break up your chapters? Is it scene by scene? Do they each feel a little bit like their own short stories? Also, do you write in chapters in the first draft and save them individually or is it one loooooong document?

I write in one long document, so that I can keep track of my mounting word count. (It can be super motivating when you start hitting the Big numbers – 10K, 25K, etc.)


As far as whether or not I’ll break it into chapters during the first draft varies by what feels right. A lot of times I’ll just insert a page break or a series of asterisks to denote the change to a new scene, and then divide them into chapters when I transfer the manuscript from Microsoft Word into Scrivener, or I might start off numbering chapters, but then at some point realize that things are going to be moving around, so then I’ll just put “Chapter 000” and fill in the numbers later. My chapters are always moving around, so I’ve found it doesn’t matter too much whether or not I number them at the beginning.


Most chapters will be a single scene, but not always. I try to keep my chapters somewhere between 1,800 and 3,000 words, for consistency and a fast reading pace, so sometimes a long scene might have to be broken up into multiple chapters, or two short scenes might be grouped together into one chapter. It varies.



The Second Draft


Adele asks: What exactly is Scrivener?

Scrivener is a writing software program. Learn all about it here:


Eddie asks: Do you have to buy to use Scrivener? Is it better than Word Document?

Yes, Scrivener is a program that you purchase (right now it looks like it costs $40.00), although you can get a free trial. I like the flexibility it offers as compared to Microsoft Word, however, I did write Cinder and Scarlet in Word and it worked just fine. You don’t need a fancy program (for hundreds of years people wrote with parchment and ink quills!), but a program like Scrivener can be really helpful for organization.


Commenter Anid also recommended yWriter, which is free. I don’t have any experience with yWriter myself, but that might be a great, budget-friendly option!



Aimee asks: Would you recommend working on the preliminary stages–taking notes of changes to make, etc.–for multiple projects at once? Or would it be better to completely tackle one 2nd draft at a time?

It’s totally up to you! I usually have multiple projects in my head at once, so while I might be focusing most of my efforts on one project, I might be starting to brainstorm or outline another project while researching a third, and sometimes you just get an idea for something else and need to jot it down.


So for example, right now I’m focusing most of my efforts on Heartless—I’m currently working on revision draft #4 and planning to send it to my beta readers this month. However, I’m simultaneously outlining my Heroes series, researching my new Secret Project, and preparing to complete the final revisions of Winter. Yesterday I received brand new ideas for all four of these projects, because they’re all kind of jumbled up in my head at once, but that doesn’t happen every day.


On the other hand, I know writers who like to write one thing at a time before moving on to the next thing. We’re all a little different.




Christine asks: I had a question regarding how you get the colors for subplots to show up on the side of your synopsis cards in the cardboard view. I can only get one color, which corresponds to the label in the Inspector panel. Can you give a quick explanation of how/where you added the keywords and where to find the preference to have their colors show up on the side of the index cards?  



At the bottom of the inspector panel, click the Key symbol to open the Keywords window. Then click the plus sign next to “Keywords.” Type the name of the character you want to follow, or some useful keyword to correspond to the subplot. (Important: you must spell it exactly the same in every instance, otherwise the program will think you’re creating a new keyword!)


To change the color, click the wheel/washer looking symbol above the Keywords window and select “Show Project Keywords.” You can then double-click on the color box of any keyword to change it.


To add more colors/characters/subplots to that card, hit the plus sign again.




Once you’ve added the keywords to each chapter, go back to your corkboard view. On the menus at the top, select View > Corkboard Options > Show Keyword Colors.



keywords corkboard 2


Ta-da! Colors!



Another cool trick is that you can create a new “Collection” (see the binder listings on the left) of chapters that contain only specific keywords.



Let’s say I wanted an at-a-glance view of the romantic arc between Wolf and Scarlet. I could click on the key icon at the top of Scrivener and select the keywords “Wolf” and “Scarlet,” then hit Search. Now the search results on the left show me all of the chapters that have both Wolf and Scarlet in them. Highlight all of those chapters >  right-click > Add to Collection > New Collection.



Now I have all of the Wolf/Scarlet centric chapters gathered into one place where I can specifically focus on how their subplot is progressing.



I certainly don’t do this for every subplot (or even every book!), but for super complex stories like those in Cress and Winter, it was really helpful to have these options.




Katherine asks: How do you keep organized with all of these different tools [Word, Scrivener]? Will you have your outline open in Word and Scrivener next to it?

Pretty much. You can outline in Scrivener, but for some reason I still prefer to outline and do my first draft in Word. (I don’t really know why… comfort? Habit?) So I’ll create my outline in Word, then I usually print it out so I can cross chapters off while I write. I do my first draft in a new, clean document to keep it separate from the original outline.


Once my first draft is finished and I’m ready to start revising, I input the manuscript into Scrivener and divide the draft into chapters or scenes. (See the Second Draft blog post for a more detailed breakdown of that process.) From that point through my final revisions, I’m working entirely in Scrivener, and then I compile the finished manuscript back into Word for my final tweaking rounds.


Of course, you may find that you prefer to work only in Word or only in Scrivener, or to alter your process in a different way. There’s no right or wrong way to do it!



Beta Readers & Final Revisions


Whitney asks: At what point in the TLC did you start sending out queries to agents? I’m writing a three book series now, have the first draft of book one written and am working on second edits. I also want to start writing the second book during NaNoWriMo….but I don’t know when is the best time to start querying. When I feel the first book is done? When I have all three written?

Well, what I did is a little unusual, given that I drafted the first three books back-to-back. So when I started querying the series, I was already on the second round of revisions with Scarlet, plus I had a first draft written of Cress and an outline for Winter.


The common advice is to focus on the first book—revise, revise, revise!—then query it before you get too caught up in the rest of the series, given that you can’t be certain whether or not that first book will sell or if your publisher will even want a series from you. I think that’s good advice, but I also knew that for the Lunar Chronicles to work, I was going to have to hint at and foreshadow a lot of things in the coming books. So it was important for me to have a clear idea of where the series was heading before I queried it, and it was really important to me to sell it as a four-book series.


It had the potential to backfire. I could have spent years and years working on these books only to have them never sell, which is why they generally say not to do this. But it worked out for me, so…. yeah.


I don’t know if that’s a helpful answer. I suppose a more useful answer would be: Query the first book when it’s as good as you can possibly make it. If you can make it phenomenal without delving into the rest of the series, then that’s probably your safest bet. But if you need to see a bigger picture to perfect that first book, then do what you need to do to get that big picture.




Tweaking & Polishing


Alice asks: How many drafts into Cinder did you wait before trying to get publishers to look at it?

I had completed approximately six revision rounds plus three editing and polishing rounds, just as described in this series of blog posts. Again, it’s very possible I could have been wasting my time going the extra mile to “perfect” the book before approaching agents and publishers, but in the end I think this is also what contributed to the series selling so quickly. Also, after Cinder sold, my editor had very, very few revision notes for me, so all that time spent on the book before looking for a publisher paid off in the long run.



The Publisher’s Editorial Process


Emily asks: How many words usually make up a standard page?

It depends on the font, font size, and margins, but most YA books have about 250 words per page. I think mine are closer to 225 words per page.



Emilia asks: What is the font used in the Lunar Chronicles?

The cover font is Aeronaut and the interior text is in Cicero.



Juno asks: I am so excited that Winter is black! As an African-American, it feels great to see a black character who gets to take center stage. I was wondering if the cover would illustrate that at all (i.e. an ebony hand holding an apple, etc.?) Two other questions: one, when did you and what made you conceive Winter as black? And two I was wondering if you could tell any little thing about your next series, anything at all? I’ll even take knowing what a character ate for breakfast!

Thank you, I hope you’ll love her!


I haven’t yet seen any cover compositions, so I don’t know what the designer is planning, but I think it’s a safe bet that it will include a red apple. If we do see any of Winter on the cover, I trust my publisher to do her justice.


As far as conceiving her as black, it was one of those things that just sort of happened. In my early, early planning stages of the series, I’d expected her to be your typical Snow White – skin as white as snow, hair as black as ebony, lips as red as blood. But then one day I was reading a diet & nutrition blog and stumbled onto a picture of this beautiful African-American model with thick, curly hair biting into a red apple, and I instantly thought—OH, that’s my princess!


So that’s how it happened. Not very scientific, lol!


The next series is still in so much flux that I don’t have much to tell, but I hope to make my inspiration board on Pinterest public by the end of this month, and start introducing everyone to some of the characters. I am planning on writing the first book during November. Eep! New stories are so exciting!


Ruchika asks: What if you want illustrations in your book? When does that come in?

That is a really excellent question, and I’m afraid I don’t have a good answer for it, given that none of my books have had illustrations before! I know that some books are sold to the publisher with the illustrator already attached, such as Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan trilogy, and I believe that he and the illustrator worked on the text and illustrations simultaneously. In other instances, I would imagine the text gets sent to a freelance illustrator around the same time as the copyeditor, for them to begin drafting images… but I’m honestly not sure what’s “normal.”


If any readers have inside info on this part of the process, please let us know in the comments.



Thanks to everyone for your questions. I sincerely hope that my answers were helpful!


Good luck to you all with your writing projects, and for everyone who’s doing NaNoWriMo this year… happy writing!!