Monday, March 29, 2010

Ya Gotta Have a Process

I just finished the second round of edits/rewrites/revisions on my latest novel-length manuscript, THE LONELY MILE. Reaching that milestone (sorry for the pun, I know it's inexcusable, but I just couldn't help myself) made me think about the process of writing a book - not the "artistic muse," or any of that other happy crap, but the actual X's and O's of sitting down and pounding out 85,000 words of fiction.

I can't say for certain, but my guess is that the process differs, at least slightly, for every single author or aspiring author out there. There may be some who are so talented, so adept at forming paragraph after paragraph of tight, coherent, well-constructed prose that they type THE END at the bottom page of a first draft and are ready to fire the whole thing off to their agent/publisher/editor/proofreader/grandmother with nary a second thought.

If there are, I'd like to know where they are hanging out, because I've never met any of them. Every author I know, and I'm meeting more and more as I continue this journey toward publication, would undoubtedly agree with a conclusion I came to a long time ago: It's hard work making it seem effortless. I've had more occasions than I would like to admit where I have spent a good, solid half hour agonizing over the phrasing of a single sentence in a single paragraph of a 300 page manuscript.

Sometimes a single word.

I know that sounds crazy, but isn't the whole idea of writing on spec crazy anyway? Of spending months of your time in the solitary pursuit of finding someone who believes your work is suitable for publication and will champion it as such? Isn't that kind of crazy?

Anyway, that's a question for another blog. I wanted to talk about the process today, so here is mine, developed over the course of four completed manuscripts, all in the range of between 84,000 and 95,000 words, one of which has been accepted for publication (FINAL VECTOR) and two others of which I have very high hopes for. The fourth we don't talk about, at least not sober.

I begin with the kernel of an idea, a "what-if" proposition. What if a group of home-grown terrorists had the means to steal a weapon capable of shooting down Air Force One, and the ability to take over an air traffic control facility in order to force controllers to put the plane where they needed it to be in order to assassinate the President of the United States? (That's a shameless plug for FINAL VECTOR. Please accept my apology, but it is my blog, after all)

Often the kernel of an idea never progresses beyond that stage. I might decide the concept doesn't support a full-length book, for example, or maybe it's been done to death, or the resulting novel would look too much like something else already out there that's been written by an author with a much bigger platform than mine.

Sometimes the idea germinates for months, years even, before I begin writing a book based upon it. But once I decide to start, I commit myself to a strict word count per day that I want to achieve, usually between 1500 and 2000 words. Then, barring some catastrophic event beyond my control, I make myself reach that goal day after day, whether I have the "inspiration" that day or not.

Not all days are great writing days. Sometimes I think to myself that every single word I type is complete and utter crap, but I write them down anyway. Some days the words and sentences flow with little or no effort, and I feel like they might just be the best things I've ever written. Most of the time, when I go back and read them over, days or weeks later, it's usually somewhere in-between. They're never as bad as I fear or as good as I remember.

This writing pace continues until I have finished the first draft. I don't worry too much about phrasing, or pacing, or character development, or any of the other stuff that writing a readable book requires. I simply write, vomiting the words onto the page.

Once the first draft is complete, I then go back to page one and start the revising process. A lot of the conventional wisdom out there says you should put the manuscript away for six weeks or more to get a fresh perspective on it. I don't do that. It probably works well for others but it doesn't for me. I need to get right back into the book while the story is firmly entrenched in my head.

This first revision is the most difficult part of the entire process, at least for me. Writing the first draft is an often enjoyable bit of work: inventing characters, putting them in harm's way, killing some of them off (I'm a genre writer, don't judge me), and in general tossing all of them onto a page and seeing what happens.

But that first revision is where I have to come to grips with all the problems that vomiting a story onto the page has caused: poor character development, holes in the plot line big enough to drive my truck through, awkward phrasing, inconsistent pacing. That first revision is a tedious and often frustrating process. It takes a while, too, as you might imagine.

Once that has been accomplished more or less to my satisfaction, I go right back to page one and start over again. This time it tends to go more smoothly, but there are still issues I discover where I ask myself, "How the hell did THIS slip through?" Example: In my latest manuscript, one of my characters was named Bob Vincent in the first half of the book, and then suddenly became Bob Mitchell in the second half. It's a miracle! Somehow this glaring inconsistency survived the first draft and the first revision. Oops.

After the second round of revisions/edits/rewrites has been completed, I then plug my laptop into my printer - no wireless printer technology for me, no sirree! - and print the whole thing out, page by page, and then run them all through a three-hole punch and stick the entire masterpiece into a three-ring binder. I carry that binder around everywhere I go and read the novel as if I'm reading the actual book for the first time.

For some reason this is extremely helpful to me. You wouldn't think it possible, but I find an inordinate amount of errors, spelling issues, phrasing problems, etc, when I do this. Reading the book on 350 pages of actual paper somehow makes certain issues jump out at me in a way that reading it on a computer screen just doesn't. Tree-huggers everywhere, please accept my sincere apology.

I make pen and ink notations in my notebook for all of the changes I want to make, and sometimes these can be extensive. I've rewritten entire chapters that way, I've added completely new characters to the story that way. It just works for me. Once I have completed the whole book and marked all my changes down in pen and ink, I sit down with my trusty laptop and transcribe those changes into the electronic copy which will form the basis for my submission to agents/publishers, etc.

Finally I then re-read the book one more time on my computer. By now I'm getting a little sick of it, as you might imagine, but usually this step proceeds pretty smoothly, because by this time the thing is about as good as I can make it, at least without professional editorial assistance.

And that's my novel-writing process. Each of my four completed manuscripts has proceeded more or less along the same path, although I continue to tweak the process and I'm sure I always will.

If you're a writer, I'm curious how the process works for you. Does this sound at all familiar, or am I so far off base from how you write that you think I'm crazy? I'd love to hear about it if you have the time and the inclination...

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