Monday, January 3, 2011

The Process

One of the most frequent comments I get is "I don't know how you do it."  Meaning, the asker doesn't understand the process of cranking out 400-plus pages of a manuscript, how much time it takes, etc.  There actually is a method to writing a book, and it's grueling.  So the purpose of this entry is to offer some insight to the whole process of writing a book.

First, find a premise.  It's harder than you think.  Consider that there are only two real plot-lines in the entirety of the world, and many combinations thereof, and you'll realize that almost everything you can think of has been thought of before.  Those plot-lines, incidentally, is "person goes on a journey (be it spiritual, physical, etc.)" and "stranger comes to town."  Think about that and everything you've ever read. Chances are, everything fits into one of those two categories, or some combination.  Once you wrap your brain around that demeaning piece of information, you come up with plot-bunnies, elusive little scat-like creatures that hop up and down and squeak "pick me! pick me!" like a hyper-active third-grader, then disappear.  You'll probably turn up with about a dozen premises, and all seem viable on first scan.  But wait...You have to figure out what you're going to do AFTER your clever premise.  If the story can be solved in two paragraphs, you don't have much of a story.  So then you have to go through the arduous and soul-crushing task of weeding through them like you were selecting which of your children to send off for medical experiments.

The next step is to figure out where your story is going.  Some people use outlines, others fly by the seat of their pants.  I'm a longtime true member of the "Pantser's Club."  I can't seem to stick to an outline.  I've tried.  It just doesn't work for me.  So I have an idea of a beginning and a vague idea of where to end.  It's getting from point "A" to point "Z" that makes the whole thing difficult, and therein lies your story.

Step number three is to try to anticipate what you're going to need to research in order to pull off your story.  Take Thomas Harris, for example.  When writing "Silence of the Lambs," he actually hung out at Quantico, with actual FBI agents, and went through their training to see what it was like, to provide his book with the most authenticity possible.  Whatever your subject, you're going to have to do some research on finer points so you don't come off as, at best, uninformed or, at worst, a blithering boob.

Step number four - realize through all of your meticulous research that your premise has a major flaw and could never work or happen in this or any parallel universe.  Grumble, curse, pour another cup of coffee, and proceed back to step one.  The good news, however, is that your research has given you an even better idea.  Or not.

Once you get past step number four, it's time to actually sit down and start writing.  Here's the really tricky part.  You can come up with ideas all day long, but without this step, you're daydreaming, not writing.  You sit down and...wait...You need coffee/tea/burbon.  A quick dash to the kitchen later and you settle into your seat.  You place your hands on the keyboard and...damn...The phone rang.  One unbelievably long conversation with your mother/best-friend/telemarketer/someone-you-haven't-seen-since-kindergarten later, you're back at your desk.  But now your coffee's cold.  Time to run back to the kitchen.  Now that everything's together, you're prepared to...what's that in the corner?  An e-mail!  Might be from your agent.  Time to check the mail.  And while you're at it, you also should check your social networking pages to make sure no one's trying to get ahold of you.  And the snail-mail just got here too, so you should get that because it looks like rain and you don't want to get your parcels wet.  So you come back in, sit down in your comfy chair, and...Damn...A knock at the door.  Who the hell..?  Oh.  Hi Mom.  Yes, I know I sounded stressed out, but I'm working.  No, you're not interrupting.  Come in.  I just brewed a fresh pot of coffee.

You get the point.  One of the hardest things for a writer to do is actually SIT DOWN AND WRITE.  There are so many distractions, from the spousal and offspring-units to the annoying neighbors, the dog across the ditch, to every car that drives by and the television that is six room-lengths away that you can still hear.  For me, I need peace.  I need quiet.  I need the world to just bugger off for a while and fend for itself and leave me alone.  Focus is a hard thing to come by, and it's even more elusive when it's lost.

Somewhere along the way,  after weeks and months (sometimes years) of performing the same ritual, you manage to get your first draft written.  Eighty-thousand words (minimum for my genre) of pure perfection, right?  Not so fast, Sparky. There's more to come.  Now comes the well-deserved ice-cream break, followed by your first read through.  That's right, just because you made your word count doesn't mean you're done with this beast yet.

The next step is the "Dreaded ReWrite" (cue ominous music), which will be covered in more detail in a later post.  Suffice to say, if you have any doubts about your talent, sanity, ability, or just whether or not people like you, this is the step that will bring all those doubts into the forefront and shake your little writerly soul into a corner.  Once you've passed this, and assuming you haven't become a binge-drinking narcoleptic or a raving lunatic, it's time to move on to the "First Reader."  This is a person whom you trust to not sugar-coat, not butt-kiss, and who will honestly tell you "this sucks and here's why."  This person must also have a thick skin because he or she knows the kind of ire that will come of an honest critique.  But once you've stopped sobbing, put down the cyanide-laced cookies, you realize that this person is trying to help and you get back to your computer.

Remember the step where the interruptions seemed endless?  Add onto every comment "But I thought you were done..." and repeat while increasing the hard feelings and the overwhelming desire of your friends and family to "make sure you're okay" and repeat.

Now that you've gone through your manuscript at least twice, made changes, resubmitted to your first-reader, and made more changes, you're finally ready to send it off.  If you have an agent, get ready for the whole "first-reader" thing part two.  If not, get ready to wait.  And wait.  And wait.

All told, the process, from concept to completion can last anywhere between three months (the fastest I've EVER written a book) to years.   So when you hear someone say "I'm a writer," remember what they go through.  If you're reading this and are a family member or well-meaning friend, know that your pet writer loves you.  However, unlike many pets, they flourish when left alone.  When the time is write, they'll emerge from their little cave, a little scruffy-looking perhaps, but grateful for the time you've allowed.

Until next time, WRITE ON!

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