Monday, August 20, 2012

My Writing Process (long)

I'm not sure how many people care about this, and maybe I'm in the minority, but I love reading about a writer's process. Their method from starting with a blank piece of paper or a blank word processing document until they have their finished manuscript, fascinates me. I think part of my fascination, as a writer, is wondering how similar or dissimilar I am to other people. I'm not someone who has ever "fit in" easily...anywhere. I've always been a loner and very shy and a bit unusual to many people. When I started writing when I was thirteen, I didn't really know anyone else who wrote creatively. My sister used to keep lots of journals; she was always scribbling down her thoughts and feelings. But her writing and my writing were very different. I could never keep a journal, because I felt like my imagination was far more interesting than my regular old daily thoughts.

It's funny talking about writing a novel, because it can sound very easy, and it's really not. It comes naturally to me, but I wouldn't say it comes easily, and I think there's a big difference. Some people might have a natural talent towards music for example (unfortunately, I'm not one of them), but that doesn't mean they never have to practice or that they can play any song without effort. The same goes for writing, and I wish someone would've told me years ago that writing is a skill that can and should be honed. I've come a long, long way from where I was eight years ago, but eight years ago, I thought I had come a long, long way from eight years before that. In another eight years, I think my writing will be even more improved. Writing is a skill like any other, in that you have to practice at it and continually learn all the little technical things that are easy to ignore or overlook.

I'm someone who second guesses everything I do. In fact, I fell into a very sad trap for years with my writing, where I doubted myself so much that I could hardly write a page, let alone a whole novel. This stemmed from a previous publishing experience I'm not going to go into right now, but my point is this. A single quote I read one day at the Absolute Write forums made a world of difference for me: "You can't edit a blank page." (Btw - a quick Google search tells me this quote belongs to Nora Roberts, though I heard it second hand.)

The quote altered my entire view. Not overnight obviously, but it's become my mantra any time I start to feel stuck. You see, in all my second guessing, I realized my problem was that I was trying to write perfectly right out of the gate. When I was a teenager, I never worried about such things. Writing was a hobby, I scribbled out novels long-hand in composition notebooks, and never gave a second thought about going back and editing them. The story was told (sloppily), and that was good enough for me. When my writing career took a wrong turn, I lost all confidence in my writing and felt like if I couldn't produce perfection in the first draft, then it wasn't worth writing. Here's the kicker: no one's first draft is perfection, even bestsellers. Every writer has to go through a process, and there aren't shortcuts. The only truly important thing that needs to get done in the first draft (the rough draft) is getting the story out and bringing the characters to life. Because, guess what? Characters don't mind if you misplace a comma or misspell a word or give a weak description. They just want their story told. "You can't edit a blank page." Indeed. You can always read through and fix mistakes. You can't fix a manuscript that hasn't been written.

So! Here's my process. I sit at my laptop with a fresh blank Word document open and type "Chapter One" or "Part One" or however my story starts. I never start with a title page in my first draft. To me, title pages are added to a polished work, when I'm ready to see my name on it. I stake my claim when I deem it time, and not a moment sooner. I write long hours--I love when I can finish a chapter in a day. When I finish writing for the day, I can't rely on my memory to know where I was going with a particular scene, so I usually end with a quick note to myself in parentheses wherever I left off, telling me what comes next. That's usually enough to get the flow going the next day without taking too much time trying to re-enter the world of my creation. When I can't think of a word, or I know I'm using the wrong word or a weak word, I very seldom take the time to look up what word I want to use. I usually use the "filler" word and then put question marks around it like so: ?word? Yes, Word yells at me with its judgmental red squiggly line for doing so, but I ignore it and move on. I trust myself to know during the first round of edits that that wasn't the word I wanted to use, and that I have research to do. Sometimes (and I'm always a little amazed by this) the proper word will come to me as soon as read the sentence again and no research has to be done.

What is the first round of edits, you may be asking? For me, once the first draft is done, I set aside the manuscript for a day or two. Sometimes I write something else, or read a book, or just take the time off. Then it's time for the rounds of edits. The first round isn't too bad. The story is fresh in my mind, I look forward to revisiting the characters, etc. This is where major edits come in to play usually. I add descriptions (I tend to be very flimsy with descriptions in my rough draft), I clean up dialogue, look out for grammar, typos, punctuation, etc. This could also be called "teacher mode". Basically, this is when the book gets a thorough checking for major mistakes, poor sentence structure, poor flow, continuity errors, etc. I also jot down quick notes on anything I need to fact check (sometimes I do this during the rough draft too, just so I don't forget later on). When round one edits are done, I take the time to research anything I need to fact check. This can range from all sorts of things. For example, in Dog Days of Summer a good portion of the book takes place in 1983, so I had to make sure that everything lined up correctly for that year, that items used by the characters actually existed then, etc. In modern books, sometimes it's just a matter of looking up topics I don't know much about, such as medical references or gun makes and things like that. So, once I finish research, I implement any necessary changes to keep the book as accurate as possible, and then comes the third round of edits.

The third round of edits is the round where I read the book out loud and really focus on reading each word carefully to ensure I haven't left any words out and to ensure the sentences aren't confusing and read okay without stumbles. Internal reading is much more forgiving then aloud reading, so usually if the work sounds good when read out loud, it will sound good in the reader's head as well. During this round, I try not to make major edits. I mostly just try to read through aloud with as few distractions and interruptions as possible.

The fourth round of edits consists of making cuts. This is one of the toughest parts for me, because I get very attached to scenes I write but keeping a critical eye, this is the round where I cut any bits that really aren't necessary and that I believe don't add much to the story. I always compare this to how movies have Director's Cuts, where you get to see a lot of scenes that the director liked and filmed, but didn't make it to the final film. I like to think of the third round editing stage as my Author Cut, and then the fourth round is getting the book closer to being a finished product.

There was a time when I would know when a book was finished based on the number pages (usually when I wrote long-hand). Now, because margins in Word can make page numbers fluctuate, I go by word count. Though it's not set in stone, I've read that 80,000-100,000 words is about the average novel length. A lot of my early drafts ranged from around 55k-65k, give or take. So when I go back and rewrite these, the word count increases, because a lot of my old drafts are sort of the bare bones of the story and really need some bulking up (don't mistake this for "padding". One strengthens the story, the other is just fluff and doesn't really belong). Nowadays when I write a draft, I keep the word count in mind of about 75k-80k words. This isn't set in stone of course, and genre makes a difference (fantasy tends to run longer; one of my first draft fantasy books is 110k words for example), but it's a good guideline for me to follow sort of subconsciously as I'm writing. I never ever rush an ending for fear of word count or cut my books off abruptly. The word count is just a guideline...a book is finished when it's finished.

After the fourth round of edits where things get cut, it's time for another re-read. I call this the fifth round, but very little editing takes place at this point. I usually still find some minor mistakes, or even non-mistakes that just don't "feel right", which I change (this could be replacing one perfectly fine word with another perfectly fine word. Sometimes I'm just picky). By this point, the manuscript should be well-polished. If I catch a typo or something glaring that escaped my eye the first four rounds of edits, I usually start to distrust myself and plan for another read-through (a 6th round). Only once I read-through without spotting any technical mistakes is my manuscript finished. Sometimes I set the manuscript aside for a week and re-read it again, and other times I don't. It depends on my confidence level, and that's like a roller coaster ride through the entire process. I have to be careful not to give into doubt, because it's so easy to do.

This blog post is very long, but it's impossible to illustrate just how much goes into writing a novel without getting a bit wordy about it. My final tip is basically if you want to write professionally, get out your first draft no matter what, no matter how bad you think it is. Get the story on paper (or on screen, as the case may be). Then, edit edit edit! Find a process that works for you and stick to it. Write down your steps if you have to and follow them. Routine can really help ease the pain and difficulty of the editing process.

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