“There is no real ending. It’s just the place where you stop the story.”Frank Herbert
A Beer-Napkin Primer on Country Mardi Gras + A Complicated Story on Blackface – New Bayou Books
So, this morning I sent the manuscript of my second book, a tale I’m calling All Saints Day of the Dead, to my editor for a final pass. And it feels great, of course. But more than the general sense of relief to finally be—well, not finally, but almost finally—done with my second book, some procedural insights have crystallized for me, and so I thought I’d share them.
Before I get to it, let me just say that all of what I’m about to say is, really, for me. This whole process of learning to write books is really a process of self-discovery, adapting, and of finding my strongest voice, so it’s less about sharing with the world than it is about putting this shit down on paper for my own sake, before I start writing my third book in November. Just so I don’t forget it all.
So here goes. A few thoughts based on each stage of the writing process.
Research and/or Notes and Outlining. I’ll offer a couple things here for myself and any other writers who are listening:
- Use Scrivener for your notes. Up until now I’ve just been doing everything in Google Docs, even though about a year ago I bought myself a copy of the writing software platform Scrivener. I won’t belabor the point here (because I already know Scrivener works well for this purpose, and you will have to judge for yourself), except to point out two key features that Scrivener has over Google Docs for this stage of the writing process. The first is the fact that it’s got character sketch templates and virtual note cards, which you can shuffle around as you see fit, embedded in the package. It’s basically the virtual equivalent of littering your dining table with index cards. Combine that with the prompts for various traits in the character sketch template and you’ve got something that beats the blank page of a Google Doc (or Word) any day. The other thing I really like about the program is it isn’t in a web browser. For me this means less temptation for distraction. I’ve started writing notes for my next book in Scrivener, and I can already tell I’m in better shape than I was for book two.
- Remember that, when it comes to research, you’re a fiction writer. For me this is an important point, because it would be very easy to get wrapped up in more technical details associated with events and obstacles my characters will have to face in the books. In All Saints Day of the Dead, it was how DNA evidence works. In Tattoos and Tans, the subject I needed to research was tattooing. Some might view this as a cop out, but for me the key with research is reminding myself that I’m writing stories about people, about how they feel, what motivates them, what they do under stress. I’m not doing procedural books. I’m not Michel Crighton. I’m trying to write literature, about the human stuff . . . so when it comes to research, I want to understand the subject only to the extent that I need to understand how that subject affects people.
First Draft. At one point I think I believed the first draft was the hardest one, but I’m not so sure at this point. In a lot of ways, the pressure is really off for the first draft. Consider these notes.
- Write it fast. I don’t know how most other writers do it, but for me, I start with a blank page for the second draft . . . which means, there’s really no reason to stress about the first draft. The key is to blaze through it without “saving” any hard parts for later. I know some seasoned writers even suggest skipping over parts of the first draft where you get stuck. My feeling is you can’t avoid the requirement to write crappy words before the better ones come. So, write the whole novel, to the best of your ability while keeping up a fast pace. Previously I’ve allotted three months for the first draft, but my feeling now is that’s too long. I’m going to try to write the first draft of book three in one month.
- Start with a plan and a schedule. I’ve learned that I tend to start fucking around when I don’t have specific weekly targets. I also get bored easy. The best way to manage those tendencies is, I think, to establish a clear plan before each draft and, come hell or high water, stick to it. I know I said above that I’m going to try to write my next first draft in a month, but really I think six weeks is, for me, probably the sweet spot. I can stay focused for that long. Ten weeks is harder. Twelve weeks is near impossible. And when I say plan, I mean a specific schedule, on paper. I’ll post the example I end up using for book three.
- Don’t let anyone read it while it’s in progress. This is a pretty obvious one that most other writers recommend, so I won’t spend a lot of time on it. I’ll just add that on my first book, I broke this rule (because I didn’t know it was a rule) and it kind of messed me up. The thing is, any feedback you get while you’re writing the first draft will mess with your head. Praise isn’t any worse than negative feedback. It’s all bad at this stage. Even having someone read and withhold their feedback until you’re finished is bad, I’m thinking . . . because you’ll still be wondering what they think. I honestly believe that the ambiguity and uncertainty of writing the first draft behind closed doors is maybe the most crucial step in the process, and the muse will know if you’re phoning it in. You have to bring it for real on the first draft. Don’t even think about cutting corners.
- Outline the stuff you care about, and leave the rest blank. Most writers are familiar with the term “pantsing”, I think. This is when you fly by the seat of your pants, with no outline, no nothing. You just start writing and see where the characters take you. I’m still working this out for myself, but basically if “pantsing” means streaking naked across the football field, running along the sidelines with just my shirt off is probably more my speed. I’ve found that, so far, I have some concrete ideas on how the story will go. And I like having that sense of purpose for the story. So what I’m gonna try for in book three is to outline—no, outline’s a strong word—to sketch those elements of the story that I’m more or less certain of. Maybe it’s the beginning, the end, or just some events along the way. If you’re already thinking of it, better to get it down on paper. Just don’t be a slave to it if the characters decide to take the story someplace else.
- Get feedback. I may do another blog on lessons learned from feedback. This one’s trickier than it might seem. One mistake I’ve made is asking for too much feedback. Feedback from too many people, that is. Really, you have to be very careful with every aspect of feedback. For now I’ll just say, be selective in who you ask and how you go about digesting and applying constructive criticism.
- Meditate on the feedback you received. This is a crucial thing. You can’t just consume the feedback and get right to work. You have to digest. You have to take your own sweet time with it. Ask the person giving the feedback to explain it in a different way. Follow up with them days later to ask questions, to make sure you got it. Then sit down, breathe deep, and let it bounce around in your mind for a while. And in the end, you have to decide for yourself how you move forward.
Second Draft. In some ways the second draft is the first “real draft”, because the words you write here will carry forward.
- Stretch out the schedule. Here’s the point where I think it makes sense to take a little more time. I’ve been writing my books in “episodes” of about 20 pages per, and so one thing that’s worked for me is taking one week for each episode. I especially like having a weekly target instead of a daily one because it gives me some latitude day to day. If you fall short of your target on one day, you can press a little the next day to make up for it. Of course, there’s a down side too. For me, one episode per week works out to ten weeks (for a ten episode story) . . . which stretches the process out to pretty much the extent of my attention span.
- Sit your ass down. This is self explanatory, I think, but it’s the most important thing. For the second draft especially, the routine is absolutely critical. You must write at your scheduled time every fucking day. Unless you’re one of those chumps who takes weekends off. And if that’s the case, at least write something. One thing I’ve tried is every Sunday I write a blog that something like five people read [laughs awkwardly, aware of the psychic pain his lack of readership causes].
Third Draft. This is a place where the pace can speed up again, I think. Here’s a few notes on the third draft. Some obvious, others . . . perhaps not.
- Take some time to think about the cover art. If you’re “self published” (don’t get me started on that term), this is probably a really good time to design the book jacket. The main reason is because it can give you some much needed motivation at this stage in the process. I’m lucky enough to have a great visual artist as a very close friend, and so one thing I’ve done is actually asking him to read the manuscript (the second draft) so the characters and the story can inspire the art he does for the cover.
- Re-type the manuscript. I confess I haven’t done this—not totally—but I do think it’s ideal if you have the time. What I’m recommending is, actually open a blank document and, working from your second draft, start re-typing the entire manuscript. As you type, you will naturally change things. This is a good thing. The other thing about re-typing is it gives you a good sense of the rhythm of the language. By the time you’re done typing, you know the book intimately and the words will be pretty much as you want them to be.
- Read the manuscript out loud. This is kind of the analog to the re-typing thing. If you can’t do that, try reading the whole thing into a microphone. All is revealed when you do this. Flawed sentences will be impossible not to notice. And the great shit you write will flow like milk, and you will feel good when you hear it.
- Let your wife/husband/friend read it. If there’s someone outside your circle of people you get constructive criticism from earlier in the process, now might be a good time to let them read the manuscript. As an example, there’s a priest I know that I’m going to send a polished copy of All Saints Day of the Dead to. There’s a lot of religious elements in the book, and so I’ll be curious to hear any reaction he wishes to share . . . but I’m not really looking for feedback in the technical sense.
Copy Edit. It’s entirely possible that three rounds might not be enough, though my sense is there should perhaps be no more than four drafts. For me, I think it’s bad to sit on anything for too long. Better to just keep moving through the process. Which is to say . . . well, let me make a couple points on this.
- Don’t worry if the story didn’t turn out like you expected. This kind of goes back to the “pantsing” idea. One thing I’ve learned is the stories don’t really go like you expect them. It’s not something to worry about it. Life is like that too, so if your piece of fiction went sideways on you (or maybe it was just a minor deviation), that’s probably a good sign.
- Be prepared to release the book. One thing I learned with my first book is, don’t send your manuscript to the copy editor until you’re happy with it. The reason for that is you really shouldn’t be fucking around with it after the copy editor does her thing. So if you’re thinking I’ll just fix that later, force yourself to hang back. Don’t pass on your warts to the copy editor. In fact, this is one of the beautiful elements of quote unquote self publishing. Just adjust the schedule. Take the time you need before it goes to your copy editor.
Okay. That about wraps it up. Remember, once you get the book back from the copy editor, you’ll still have one more chance to read the book because you’ll have to go through and reconcile every change she offered. Maybe a good rule of thumb for this “final” reading is just that . . . make sure that by the time you get the manuscript back from the copy editor, that you can only stand to read the thing one more time. If you’re at that state of story-fatigue, perhaps that’s a good sign that you’ve put everything you’re prepared to put into the book.
And if that doesn’t work for you, perhaps it’s worth considering the quote that opened this blog. Realize that there will always be some little thing you can change. But the thing is, if you succumb to that temptation, you will never write your next book. So move through the process with alacrity, trust your imagination, and trust your writing.