I’ve been asked, more than once, how I go about writing a book. Certain factors don’t change from project to project. Some writers do extensive outlining before they start writing. I read. For instance, before I wrote Endgame, the last Jax novel, I read a couple of nonfiction titles about guerrilla warfare. So that’s the first step–my research reading. Once that’s done, I decide how long I want it to take to write a book, and then I calculate how many words a day I must put down in order to stay on schedule. For instance, if I want a draft of 90K in six weeks, I must write 3K, five days a week, in order to make that happen. If I want to finish the draft faster, I must write more words in a day. That’s simple math.
I used to fall passionately in love with a new idea. I’d brush the new idea’s hair and make it breakfast. We’d take long walks together. I tinkered with the new idea for eight months, stroking it lovingly, rewriting obsessively, until a year passed, and I had only 40,000 words. Not a book. By then, the new idea wasn’t pretty anymore. It was misshapen, awful, monstrous, stupid, dreadful. I had no choice but to kill the thing and hide it beneath my bed. And then I’d start the vicious cycle over.
Clearly that wasn’t working.
So the one thing I don’t do anymore is tinker. I never edit my WIPs as I go. That permits me to shut off my internal editor until I need the bitch. I press on to the finish, even when I pass through the Swampy Middle of Doom, where I am always convinced the book I’m writing is the worst thing that anyone has ever conceived. My brain still tries to seduce me sometimes with a sexy new idea, but I don’t abandon the WIP. Instead, I write the concept in my idea notebook along with whatever brilliant specifics my mind is teasing me with and promise myself I’ll get to it in due time. Since I instituted this policy, my “finish the book” ratio has skyrocketed.
Since I work a lot, people imagine that I’ve perfected a cookie cutter process and that each one is produced exactly the same. In fact, that’s not true. Each book is different. Some books I write, chapter by chapter, until the end. With others, I jump around because the scenes come to me out of order. I’ll write the beginning, then the end, and then the middle parts. I’ve found it keeps me moving if I write whatever I can that day. Some books can only be written in daylight; with others, the words only come in the dark. I’ve been asked how I can keep writing; don’t I ever get writer’s block? Well, no. Because if I can’t figure out how to do a scene, then I picture the book as a whole until a scene comes to me that I can write right then.
My first drafts are mostly dialogue and simple blocking with sporadic narrative. I’m laying the foundation of the story at this point. When I make my first pass, I add more explanation of motivations, descriptions, internal narrative. I don’t try to make the first draft perfect. I just try to get the general shape of the book in place. It’s not unusual for me to revise a book four times before I’m satisfied with it. Generally, there’s not a lot of cutting, however, because my drafts start lean. Instead, I’m layering the necessary bits throughout, improving, refining, tinkering with language and word choice. I don’t even think about making my writing pretty when I’m drafting. I am going for serviceable, so I may well use the same word twenty-four times. I sort that out in revisions and edits. And while I do sometimes stumble upon poetic or memorable turns of phrase, I am never striving for the sort of ornate language that prevents one from getting lost in the story. I want my words to feel seamless, so that people fall into my world; I don’t want them pausing to marvel at the fact that I can use ‘panomphean’ in a sentence.
I look on it as decorating for a party. You don’t have people over when your house is a mess, but it is, sometimes. But by the time you’ve got the place all tidied up, it doesn’t matter what it looked like when you started the process. Only the final result signifies.
My way isn’t the only way, of course. You should write however feels best to you. Either way, there’s nothing quite so satisfying as reaching THE END. What was the name of your first completed manuscript? Tell us about it in comments; I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.
Photo courtesy Flickr’s gilles chiroleu