I was recently texting back and forth with a friend of mine who also writes. At the end of the conversation, she said something to the effect that it was time to go review the “crap” she had written the day before.
I laughed when I read the text because it reminded me of the process I go through when I am writing a novel. Every writer is different in how their process moves along but these are typically the stages of my works. Think of it as the seven stages of grief of my writing:
1) The Idea – I have talked a little bit before about where I get my ideas so I will not go too far in depth here. Sometimes a book starts as a question. Sometimes it is a situation or a character that makes me think about their story. At this point, I usually have a guarded optimism about the project.
2) The Planning – At this stage I begin looking at the idea with the thought of how well it holds up to novel length. I have always been a plotter. Not all writers work this way and I have good friends who go into their writing and just let the story and the characters take them wherever they want to go. (Personal pet peeve – Some of these friends claim their characters sometimes “hijack” a story and take it off in different directions. I believe that I am the author and I am in control of the characters, not the other way around.) So I will sit down and loosely plot out the beginning of the book. And when I say “loosely,” I mean loosely. Each chapter of plotting may consist of only three or four bullet points or sentences or it could be much longer and more detailed. This is where I begin to see the structure and chronology of the story. I will often move chapters for better timing or add chapters because one of the storylines has been neglected. I typically plot out the first 15-20 chapters, half the book, or enough to give me a good idea of where it is going. I never plot the entire book at this point for a reason I will give later. This is also the point where I will do any research I need. For instance, when I was plotting out “Dreams of Ivory and Gold,” I realized I had several scenes that were taking place inside of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City so I researched the layout of the church and incorporated some interesting tidbits about its construction. This is also where I decide if I am going forward with the idea in novel form. Sometimes the idea only stands up to short story length. Sometimes a character is only a character or a question/situation is only part of another book. But, if the idea holds up, I am usually very excited about the project by now.
3) The Beginning – Notice what I call this stage: The Beginning. Up until now I may have spent anywhere from several days to a couple of months on the project and I do not have one word down on the page yet. There is no book. This point is where that all starts. With the research and the original plotting still fresh in my mind I am only now beginning to write. I am usually so excited about the project the chapters just leap out and I often catch myself thinking about the book even when I am not writing. THIS is the fun time.
4) The Work – By the time I am halfway through writing a novel, I am hit by how much work it takes to put 70,000-100,000 words down on paper in a coherent manner that makes sense and is entertaining. At this point I have – hopefully – settled into a rhythm with the characters and the plot. The reason I did not plot out the whole book is that I have definitely found holes and I have added or deleted scenes or entire storylines. I usually alternate between writing and plotting, trying to stay several chapters ahead in my planning from the story on paper. The initial excitement has worn off but I love writing so I am happy.
5) The Crap – I suck as a writer. This story sucks. The characters I loved so much a few weeks ago are flat and uninteresting – and they suck, too. Everything about this story is just pure crap that needs to be destroyed before someone happens to read it and it sets back literature thousands of years. I don’t even want to write an email because that will probably suck, too. And all of that is how I feel on the good days when I am writing during this stage.
6) The Close – This stage takes place in the final few chapters of the book. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. The twists and red herrings are settling into place. The final resolution makes sense. My protagonist is showing real development and growth. The book is completed and I am happy and excited – the sort of tired excited you get at the end of a race or a game.
7) The Return – This has always been one of the hardest parts for me to do. Take that book that I have worked on for months and…. do nothing. Put it in a corner. Hide it under the bed. Don’t read it, don’t look at it, don’t even think about it. Put your lovingly crafted masterpiece to the side and do nothing with it for three weeks, a month – however long it takes for me to have some distance between the work and the evaluation. The longest I have ever gone at this stage is almost a year. Then, one day, pull it out and read it. If I have waited long enough, then the book will almost feel like someone else wrote it. If everything has gone well, you will enjoy it. You will love the characters all over again. You will like the plot twists and the ending. Sure, I will be making notes in the margins as I read but these are for major plot points – rewrite this scene, how did I spell that character’s name three different ways?, this reference makes no sense because I pulled an earlier scene out – I am strictly looking for the flow of the story and not a grammatical editing. But that is only if the book works. I still have a Bottom Drawer Novel on my computer. Every writer has at least one of them. These are works that you get to this point and you realize that you were write in Stage 5 – this book really does suck and no amount of reworking is going to make it readable. If there is a writer out there who says they do not have one of these lying around somewhere, gathering dust, then they are not reading their own work with a critical eye. It just happens. But if I make it through this stage and still like it, then I have written a book.
There are plenty of things left to do before the book will see the light of day. Beta readers need to look at it and tell you if they also believe the plot and the characters work. It still needs a professional edit. And I mean professional. Pay someone you trust to do a line-by-line edit because I believe one of the hardest things to do in the world is to edit your own work. You can get it close but it will never be fully polished until someone else grabs the red pen and goes to work. Unfortunately, this is also the part that most writers skip and then they wonder why they are never able to be published.
Then, and only then, is my book ready to start the marketing process to either an agent or indie publishing house. With the rise of self-publishing through Amazon and others, those options are open as well.
But marketing is a story for a different day.