Finding the story in the mess that is my head

Warning: This blog post contains rambling, navel gazing and mixed metaphors.

Like many writers, I enjoy pondering over my writing process. I find it endlessly fascinating. Since I started writing regularly/seriously/professionally, it’s been an enormous learning curve as I’ve discovered what works for me, and what doesn’t.


The biggest surprise for me was to find that I’m a pantser, not a plotter. Winging it is how I roll, but I fought this really hard at first. Because in most areas of my life, I’m a planner. I live by lists. I don’t leave things to chance. I like to know exactly what’s happening and when it’s going to happen. I’m a control freak, damn it.

So when I started writing professionally I was all: I’m a serious writer now. I need to outline and plan and stuff.

I tried to outline. I outlined my arse off and it looked good. I started writing. But then the story veered off course. So, I changed the outline. Okay, I thought. I’ve got it now. This is how the story’s going to go.

But nope.

So I changed the outline again, then veered off the new outline. This happened a few times till I was about halfway through the book. Finally I gave up trying to plan and just wrote the damn story. I was a million miles outside my comfort zone, because OMG NO PLAN! But I finished the story, and I was pretty pleased with it.

However, because I was resistant to the idea of NOT having a plan, I went through a similar process with the next story, and the next… until eventually I came to reluctantly accept that outlining is never going to work for me. That’s not how my brain works, and that’s okay.

This is how I imagine my brain when I’m starting a new story:


It’s bascially a clusterfuck of too many barely formed ideas. All the different threads are possible storylines/scenes but most of them will never make it into the actual story. Some of them will end up in future stories, and others will end up on the scrapheap.

My writing process goes something like this:

I sort out the setting and the characters. The only really detailed planning I do is for their backstories. Once I know the characters and where they’re coming from, I feel able to handle them in the current narrative.

I work out the ending. As a romance writer, that’s the easy part for me. Happy and together is the end point. I always trust that I’ll get there eventually.

I usually have the starting scene in my head, that’s often what triggers the idea for the whole book. Then I also have a few other scenes that I’m pretty sure will feature. I think of them as route markers, or checkpoints. I try and get to them if I can, but once I start writing, all bets are off.

I start writing and I trust the process.

At the start of the book, I feel like I’m lost. Stuck in the woods with no map and no compass, I just pick a path and hope. But gradually things start to make sense. Certain threads become clearer and others get dropped, the tangled mess of story begins to weave itself into something coherent. Every now and then I get a magical moment when I pick up a new thread and realise it fits perfectly with something that’s already in the mix. So I keep going. When I (inevitably) get stuck, I try not to freak out. I take a break and wait. My favourite fix for this stage is to go for a walk or a run. When my body is moving, my mind gets freed up and wanders too. That usually results in a eureka moment, and when I get home, I know how to fix whatever hole I’d written myself into.

Finally, miraculously, it comes together into something coherent and all is right in my world.

And then I have to start all over again with a new tangle and no knitting pattern….



About Jay Northcote

Author of LGBT romance. Trans (he/him), Parent, cat herder, professional procrastinator.
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3 Responses to Finding the story in the mess that is my head

  1. lennanadams says:

    I love that. Thank you for writing it! I love getting a peek inside your head. <3 In my little non-professional writing "career", haha, I have found that after a lot of fumbling and fear, what works for me is to sort of tell myself the story in my head (usually before falling asleep and when I wake up) for days and days and days till it unravels itself and then I do like to see how it relates to how a story "should" be plotted (whether in three acts, or whatever), so I do stick it in an outline – it is more of a checking the pace thing than anything. Actually that isn't true – I just like the way it looks all pretty in outline form, haha, and it does something to quell my fear (writing terrifies me, for some reason – COURAGE is my word for 2016, however). I have read SOOOOOOO much in my life (I read for a few hours every day and have since forever) that I guess that the pace of how a story should go comes somewhat naturally to me. Although the phrasing doesn't seem to, so who knows, lol.
    People always tell me how jealous they are that I can draw "well" and I always tell them back that yes, I have been blessed with some natural artistic talent, but more importantly I have been blessed with a desire to draw/make art and I have spent 46 years doing it A LOT. Not to mention that I went to art school for college and have spent my whole professional career doing artsy things (I used to be a fashion designer, now I am a graphic designer of sorts). If anyone sat down and drew as much as I have, they would probably be pretty good at it, too, regardless of natural talent. I am hoping that writing is the same way because I really like it. We shall see, lol.
    Anyway, thanks Jay – you are the best. You always inspire me and make me think! AND show me pics of hot guys. Best friend ever! :~)

    • I love that you ask me questions that makes me think about stuff like this. I do find the creative process endlessly fascinating though. I had a good writing session today – it flowed, that’s the best feeling. I hate the blood out of a stone days.
      Writing is hard, and scary – my best advice to you is JUST DO IT. Write the words, you don’t have to show them to anyone if you don’t like them – does that help with the fear?
      Good luck! x

      • lennanadams says:

        I think my fear is more about I know when I have done my best and also know when my best isn’t good enough. I don’t like when that happens, lol, it is an awful feeling. Perfection is much more fun, haha. I have always wanted to write, always messed with it, but I’m the artsy sister – I have two others who are the super smart literary sisters (and one more who is the science sister – I’m not going there, lol). I know they feel the same way about artsy stuff – one started painting recently and feels so embarassed to put herself out there in that way just because that isn’t her assigned role in the family, lol. Aside from that it is mentally tough to be a creative person, as you know – the back and forth between narcissism and self-doubt (in 12 Step programs they talk about being the piece of sh*t at the center of the universe, lol. I can relate!) Even with design stuff, about which I feel pretty confident about at this point, I still feel pretty much skinless when it comes to how I feel I did. I think that is where it gets braided with shame (a la Chuck Wendig) – it is rough to rip out your heart and lay it on the table, hoping no one notices it isn’t good ENOUGH when it’s all you have. Maybe lawyers feel just as exposed, I don’t know.
        Anyway, I am so glad you had a good writing day – I can’t wait to read MORE Jay Northcote. You are my fave. 😘
        So do you really usually solve plot problems pretty immediately (with a run or whatever?) With all my artsy endeavors I feel like I am sooo at the mercy of my muse when it comes to solving problems (I mean even when an invitation I’m designing just isn’t right – not only more lofty artsy stuff). It’s like I can’t look at the problem directly, I just have to let it “proof” in my brain and then eventually it solves itself. It is usually a few days process though. Sometimes I have to force it, of course, but that is usually the “blood from a stone” thing and goes so much better when I can just put it away and let it solve itself.
        I like thinking about the creative process, too – especially other people’s since I don’t really think I have one. I just do stuff, lol.

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