“Here comes the dirt bike
Beware of the dirt bike
Because I hear they’re coming to our town
They’ve got plans for everyone
And now I hear they’re over their sophomore jinx, so you had better check it out”
– They Might Be Giants, “Dirt Bike”
Since today was to be the day I turned in the final draft of my second book, All Saints Day of the Dead, I thought I’d talk about the lessons I may or may not have learned from the process. But before I get into it, let me clarify two things. First, the quote above from those modern day philosophers, John and John from They Might Be Giants, doesn’t have a whole lot to do with anything. I was just thinking about the second book, my sophomore effort, and that line was the thing that came to mind. Second, I didn’t actually turn in the final draft of my book today because it’s not ready and, lucky for me, the magnificent editor I’ve been working with was kind enough to make some adjustments in her schedule to allow me an extra six weeks, which is enough time for me to take a break for a couple weeks before making a final push.
So the first lesson to pass along here might be “find an editor you can work with”. Okay, let’s go with that. Let me tell you how I came to work with Marie Jeannine Coreil. Since my stories are set in South Louisiana, which has a very specific culture and dialect, I knew from the beginning I wanted to work with someone from the state. So I started by looking up the local writer’s guild for Acadiana (the handful of parishes in the south that make up Cajun country). I sent an email to the president of the guild explaining my project, specifically the kind of editor I was looking for, and he passed me Marie’s name. And then I turned around and send a similar, very detailed note to Marie explaining myself. Once we connected, even before we decided to work together, I arranged to give Marie a full on presentation on New Bayou Books and my overall vision for the company, the books, and the revolution I hope to engineer. The main point here being that I took a lot of time to explain myself. I think that kind of thing is very important. Ultimately, you want to work with people who “get” you . . . and they only way to do that is to really open yourself up.
Meanwhile, I had also gone to Reedsy.com to solicit quotes from industry editors. Each of them came back very, very expensive, and the editors who provided them just felt like strangers, even though they did their best to be personable.
Just Because It Worked Last Time, Don’t Assume It Will Again. Another thing I did differently for the second book was to expand the feedback on the 2nd draft I solicited. For the first book, Marie had provided what I think of as “copy edit plus”. She did all the things a traditional copy editor would do, plus offered some useful, broader insights on tone and character. For the second book, I bought her “manuscript evaluation” service. This is basically like a light version of a developmental edit. For a very fair price, Marie read the manuscript and provided me with something like a ten page analysis. This was super helpful. Invaluable, actually.
This service I got from Marie was actually the new thing I introduced into the process, and it worked beautifully. What didn’t work was the second flavor of editing I contracted for. While Marie was doing her thing, I also bought a developmental edit from an amature I had worked with for book one. This person has a graduate degree in English lit but no practical experience in the industry. What’s interesting here is that her work on the first book was actually very helpful. But the product she turned in for book two was largely useless. I’ve examined the issue closely and there’s two main things to take away from the experience (there’s more, but lets stick with the two).
The first is, if you already know you’re going to part company with a collaborator, don’t be tempted to do “one last” project. I knew beforehand that I was going to need to split with this person–the maturity gap was just too great. But I was reluctant to sever the connection because we already had a tentative agreement. And now, instead of having a positive experience to remember, we both (I assume) came away from the collaboration with a bad taste in our mouth (though only one of us is fifteen hundred dollars poorer).
The second lesson is, you are not the same writer who wrote your last book. Just like they say every new kid is born into a different family, it is equally true that you are a different writer for every subsequent project you take on. At least that’s true in my case. I think one reason why the developmental editor was so helpful in the first book was because the mistakes I made, the gaps in my ability, were basically similar to the kinds of things she encountered as a grad student, grading the papers of undergraduates. I actually have a degree in English myself, so this doesn’t say much for my own abilities, but hey, sometimes the truth hurts. But by the time I wrote the second book I’d already internalized most of those kind of rookie mistakes from the first book, and so the developmental editor just didn’t have much to offer the second go-round. The overall point being, recognize that your needs may have changed since the last book.
Understand What a Productive Day Looks Like (for you). This is a big one for me. Frustrating too because, despite the fact that I know pretty specifically what I need to do to have a productive day, I consistently ignored my own best practices, and as a result I’m not finished with my book, even though I should be. Now, this will look different for every writer out there, but I’ll list the habits that, for me, I ignore at my own risk, and I think there’s a good chance you’ll find that much of this stuff is universal. Or not. What do I know? I’m only on my second book.
- Have a specific schedule all the way through the completion of your manuscript. For me, a week by week series of deadlines works best. When I don’t know where I need to be by the end of the week, I flounder. I need a schedule. Otherwise, the project just seems too big. I wrote a lot about scheduling in a previous blog.
- Write in the morning. This one’s pretty universal. Marcus Arealius was especially big on this. Basically, the idea is to knock out the hardest work of the day first thing. The long you delay, the less energy you have for the task, and the more anxiety that builds up.
- Set a timer. I use the shit out of the little timer app on my laptop. I have timers for everything: ten minute meditation, two minute affirmations, five minute morning journal, and various “writing chunks”, the most used of which is the 45 minute chunk. When I set my 45 minute writing chunk timer, I get my best work done, and I almost always write for more like an hour, turning off the timer to finish whatever section I’m working on. If I get three writing chunks done in a morning, I call that an ideal day. I’m not entirely sure why this works. I just know it does. If you search for “timeboxing”, you’ll find all sorts of productivity hacks that might be useful for you.
- Avoid distractions. I’ve talked about this one quite a bit in other blogs, so I’ll keep this one short. Mastering the distraction thing is, I suspect, a combination of discipline and technical (or anti-technical) solutions. For my next book, I’m going to try writing the first draft, at least, in Scrivener. A lot of people swear by this program, including my favorite authors who wrote Write. Publish. Repeat. I’ve had the program for a while, but I never really got into it. With the default Times New Roman font and the sort of corkboard looking background, the program just looks dated to me. I actually quite like using Google Docs to write. I like it way better than Word, and Google Docs doesn’t have all the weird embedded formatting stuff that gives a lot of authors fits when they go to upload to Amazon. But Google Docs is in a web browser, and when you’re in a web browser, it’s real easy to browse the web. So net go-round I’m gonna try Scrivner, to keep me offline. I’m also seriously considering purchasing a web-blocker program, to lock my ass out of YouTube before noon. I might even buy a typewriter. We’ll see.
The last thing I’ll say on the subject of lessons learned from the second book is perhaps the most important. For me, at least. And it is this: make a plan before you start.
For my next book, I will literally draft a plan of action before I begin the writing. The plan’s going to cover the overall schedule, the beta-readers and editors I plan to use, the breaks in between drafts that I plan to take . . . even the tools I’m going to use to do the work. I’m not talking about content here. I’m talking process. [The 29 Sep. version of my plan for the next book, which will be called The Asian Cajun, is posted here.]
The more I get into this, the more I realize that writing a book is all about process. You break the project down into chunks, you think about it ahead of time, you formulate a plan, write it down . . . and go for it.
Sounds so boring, I know! Also kind of hard and time consuming. Which, if you think about it, probably is a good indication it’s the right thing to do. But shit, what do I know? I’ve not yet even broke triple digits in book sales.