Lian Tanner on her writing process

Each and every writer approaches their writing in a different way, and it’s always fascinating to discover how they work, so we asked award winning children’s author Lian Tanner to share her writing process.

I have the occasional fantasy where I know exactly what my writing process is. Where I sit down with a list of directions – Step 1, Step 2, etc – and all I have to do is follow that list and I’ll end up with a book.


Writing a novel is a curious mixture of art and craft. They’re both essential – take out the art and you end up with something that’s meticulously structured but boring. Take out the craft, and what’s left is interesting but chaotic.

It’s the art side that makes it impossible to follow a list of directions. It’s the art side that gives a story its heart.

It’s the craft which makes that heart accessible to the reader.

So every book has its own process. But there are certain stages that seem to remain constant. The first is a period of daydreaming, when I’m wandering vaguely through the world waiting for an idea to strike me. Or maybe waiting for another idea to strike me – because I find that the most interesting books happen when two conflicting ideas bump up against each other and create sparks.

A city full of overprotected children/a dangerous museum.

A ship that carries the hope of the world/a cult of rabid anti-machinists.

A town suffused with magic/a population that refuses to believe in it.

The second stage is the accumulation stage. I’m still daydreaming, but now I’ve got a central idea for other ideas to flock to, like stray cats sniffing their way towards a bowl of bacon. This is one of my favourite parts. There are lots of ‘aha’ moments, lots of butchers paper, lots of waking up in the middle of the night and fumbling for the notebook beside my bed.

I usually plot a bit. It gives me a sense of security to know how the story is going to begin and end, and what the major turning points are. But there always comes a point with plotting where I grow impatient and want to start writing. And however detailed my plot, it never survives the first draft …

… which I no longer call the first draft. These days, it’s the play draft or prenatal draft. Something that encourages me to muck around and not pin things down too quickly. It’s the finding-out-the-story draft, discovering the layers and the depth and the relationships between people, and the quirks and contradictions that make those people who they are.

Cold mornings at the keyboard. #tasmania #winter #authoratwork #mittens #merinoandpossum

A post shared by Lian Tanner (@liantannerbooks) on

But I grow impatient with that too. Once I’ve got a sense of the whole story, I want to start shaping it. I want to strengthen some bits and get rid of others, so that the story shines through. That’s when I start using more serious names like Second Draft and Third Draft.

Sometimes I write these drafts fast, sometimes I write them slowly, depending on the book. Sometimes I spend half an hour daydreaming between each paragraph, and sometimes I go off on completely the wrong track for a week or so before I realise it’s a dead end. But I try to keep a light hold on the story so that I’m still discovering things right up to the end.

And then, when it’s all done, and the book handed in and edited and proofread, I start again, looking for ideas that strike sparks. And indulging myself in the fantasy that I’ll be able to write this new book the same way I wrote the last one.

Lian Tanner’s most recent book is the first in The Rogues series, Accidental Heroes, with the second Secret Guardians coming later this year. The Hidden series was recently republished, and you can learn about the process for redesigning these covers here. Learn more about Lian’s writing over on her blog, and learn more about the craft of writing with Faber Writing Academy.

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