You want to write a book?
“I just have bits of scribbles on paper. I don’t know what I’m doing,” Adriana said on a call one day. We’d been working together only a short while, and she was frustrated.
“Writing is a process,” I replied. “This is part of your process.”
I say it all the time. All. the. damn. time. But what does it mean for you and your writing?
What is the writing process?
Succinctly described, the writing process is the steps you take to write a book, which, really, as a definition isn’t terribly helpful. Each of us has a different way of writing. The steps you take change as you gain experience and depending on the type of book or article you’re writing.
Still, there are distinct stages of the writing process to follow, and each has its particular challenges. Knowing where you are in the writing process helps you decide what to do next and avoid getting stuck.
In this post, I’ll talk about the stages in relation to a book. You can adapt it for short stories and essays.
Write a book with these eight steps
This is the fun part. You’re full of ideas and fueled by inspiration. You know what you want. You lie in bed imagining intricate worlds and maybe even see your finished book. You know what you want your book to be about and have started writing it down often on little scraps of paper. Character sketches. Ideas for the plot. Scenes come to life in your brain. It’s exhilarating. You are on fire.
You doubt anyone else would understand any of it yet, but you get it. You may even be just a little bit in love with what you wrote.
The challenges with brainstorming
Many people stop writing while they’re still in this part of the process because they lose faith. Your initial inspiration fades, and your final book is too far away. You have no idea how the scraps and bits you’ve collected will fit together. You start to doubt. This is crap. Who would want to read this? Sound familiar?
As I told Adriana: This is part of the writing process. Inspiration arrives occasionally, but finishing a book requires organization and thoughtful work.Pre-writing isn't about perfection. It's about getting your ideas on paper. Click To Tweet
How to combat the deflation after brainstorming?
Writing has ups and downs. Sometimes, it will be pure joy. Other times, you’ll want to give up. Don’t give into the downs. Give your book a real chance to develop and move to the next step.
During Pre-writing, you begin to flesh out the pieces you started during Brainstorming.
Write character sketches. Fill out character questionnaires Try interviewing your characters or have them fill out a personality test. Plop these budding characters into a writing prompt or test them out in your scene ideas to see what they do.
The Challenges of Pre-Writing
You have ideas. Wonderful! But the vision you have in your head won’t translate easily to paper. What you thought would be an intricate and pivotal scene turns to mush. You only manage to squeak out a few sentences. Or maybe you’re writing prolifically, but it’s not at all what you intended. Doubt creeps in again. Your mind wanders to other books or stories you want to write. “Maybe I should write something else,” you wonder.
How to combat the doubt?
Pre-writing isn’t about perfection. It’s about getting your ideas on paper. You’ll fill in blanks and fix sentences later. Remember, all writers experience this, regardless of how many books they’ve written or published.
Ann Patchett describes her self-doubt in The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life.
I soon discovered [writing] is like channel swimming: a slow and steady stroke over a long distance in a cold, dark sea. If I thought too much about how far I’d come or the distance I still had to cover, I’d sink. As it turns out, I have had this same crisis in every novel I have written since: I am sure my idea is horrible and that a new idea is my only hope. But what I’ve realized over the years is that every new idea eventually becomes an old idea.
The first you write of your book will not match the dream book in your head. But don’t you dare give up!
Continue putting on paper all the ideas you have for your book. Write character outlines for every character. Jot down all the plot points you think belong in the book. Write the scenes you know you want to include. Write it all down no matter how ill informed or amateurish it seems (to you). Once you’ve turned initial thoughts into actual written words, you’re ready for the next step.
When outlining your book-in-progress, you begin to form the structure of your book. Take the scene list you’ve written in pre-writing and order them according to your plot. You won’t be 100% sure each scene is in the right place, but that’s ok. You can tweak and test your structure as you’re writing your first draft or before you start your second draft.
The Challenges of Outlining
Not everyone an outline. It’s your choice. You can take your pre-writing and pants your way from beginning to end of your first draft.
When I worked with Corinne, she decided not to pre before NaNoWriMo last year and let her book unfold day by day as she wrote. She was happy with the results. Pantsing allows your writing to go in unexpected directions. This is particularly good when you don’t have an idea of where your book might go, and aren’t too worried if you get lost, and you are more likely to get lost without an outline.
Outlining guides your writing and removes much of the guesswork. You can leave your outline loose, setting down the main plot points but leaving space for improvisation. Or you can write a strict, tight outline. Follow it to the letter.The first you first write of your book will not match the dream book in your head. Click To Tweet
How to decide what kind of outline will work for you?
First, trust your instinct. What feels right to you?
I pantsed my first novel. It didn’t work for me. I wrote hundreds of pages, but they didn’t fit together properly. My story had a beginning and an ending, but the journey between the two didn’t work. It became a collection of short stories.
My second book, The Writer’s Roadmap: How to Organize Your Writing Into A Career — set to publish late 2017 — didn’t need an outline. It’s a non-fiction how-to book based on a four-step process I follow to help writers plan their writing lives. The order was obvious.
I created an outline for my latest book, a YA sci-fi novel. The first draft fell into place surprisingly quickly. I attribute it to the outline. By creating a clear structure and narrative arc for my characters before starting the first draft, I was able to avoid the trap I fell into with my first novel.Your first draft will be deeply flawed. Click To Tweet
Writing that Shitty First Draft
You’ve defined your characters through character sketches. You know what you want them to do, and you know the order in which they’ll do them. Now it’s time for butt in chair + WRITE.
You have to make the time and space to write a book. No excuses.
The Challenges of the Shitty First Draft
Your first draft will be deeply flawed. A sense of dread will fill your soul every time you think of sitting down to it. You’ll worry you can’t. When you finally begin, you’ll peck out some ideas. Many will feel wrong and stupid.
You’ll be tempted to go back to the beginning and edit. I warn you now, don’t do it. No matter how loudly those clunky sentences beg for you to perfect them, don’t go back.
When you go back to edit, you’ll change small details that don’t matter in the big picture. Sentence fragments have no effect on the story you’re telling. No one cares what dress your character wears or if they’ve said something in just the right way. Not in a Shitty First Draft.
Focusing on these details sticks you in the dreaded Trap of Editing. Every change you make means you’ll have to tweak details of parts you haven’t yet written. It’s the Butterfly effect. You literally create chaos in the center of your book.
Overcoming the challenges of the Shitty First Draft
It’s called a shitty first draft for a reason. To give you permission to write ugly sentences, leave glaring holes in your plot and make any other number of mistakes.
Anne Lamott wrote about shitty first drafts in her book Bird by Bird.
All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts. People tend to look at successful writers, writers who are getting their books published and maybe even doing well financially, and they think that they sit down at their desks every morning feeling like a million dollars, feeling great about who they are and how much talent they have and what a great story they have to tell; that they take in a few deep breaths, roll their necks a few times to get all the cricks out, and dive in, typing fully formed passages as fast as a court reporter. But this is just the fantasy of the uninitiated. I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident.
Your Shitty First Draft isn’t meant to be clean and perfect. It has a different role in the writing process. Instead, this first craptastic, holey, unclean version of your book is the first full translation of the ethereal book in your head made real on paper.
Avoid the Trap of Editing by starting at the beginning and writing until you are finished. This is one reason NaNoWriMo is so wonderful. You focus on finishing 50K words, a full book, and in a month, there’s no time to edit along the way.
Now it’s time to take a break!
Once you’re done with your SFD, congratulate yourself. You’ve more than halfway through the seven steps and have written a full draft. This is a huge accomplishment. Take a couple weeks or a month to celebrate! This break also gives you the space you need to see your book with fresh eyes when you return to write your second draft.
The Challenges of Taking A Break
There’s a possibility you’ll pick it up again too soon and worry it from place to place like a cat with kittens. I’ve seen this happen far less often than the books that die and are buried because the break goes on too long.
A short break can easily turn into a couple months, a year, five years or more. The longer you wait, the harder it is to pick up again. Many people never do.
How to decide when it’s time to start work again
Decide you will not be one of those people. Set a finite time for your break. Around a month works. Enough time to forget your book a bit, but not so much you lose momentum. Mark the date you choose to start work again on your calendar. Hold yourself to it.
Keep accountable by finding a writing buddy who will ask ‘Hey, isn’t it time to start writing again?” Or join The First Seventy-Five, my free Facebook group for women and gender non-conforming folks writing books.
You can also find an outside reader, but I say this one ONE HUGE CAVEAT.
Make sure whoever reads your book knows how to read a work in progress. Just because someone is an avid reader, a life long friend or has a wonderfully analytic mind, doesn’t mean they know how to ask the right questions to bring your SFD closer to your final vision. Too often, I’ve seen wonderful books shut down, because of misguided input from well-meaning readers.
I’ve had twenty years experience reading shitty first drafts. I ask questions to gently guide you as you address the parts of your book that aren’t working while preserving the parts that do.
After your break, it’s time for the next step.Details you missed while writing suddenly become clear. Click To Tweet
Revision is the process of going through your Shitty First Draft, analyzing for structure, character, and themes. You want to make sure your story starts and ends somewhere. Each scene must move the story forward. Your characters must be well-fleshed out and speak like real people.
You accomplish this by reading through your full draft. I suggest printing your draft then sitting down to read with a pen in hand. Take notes on what’s working and what’s not working. This allows you to see your book as a reader instead of the writer. You’ll be surprised how details you somehow missed while writing suddenly become clear.
The Challenges of Revision
You’ll be tempted to overlook the big issues affecting your book and instead focus on fixing small details. This will not a finished book make. Revision requires cutting parts you love and tearing apart sections to rewrite and rebuild. You may find you need to entirely rework the book.
Thomas E. Ricks’, who had published five popular books previously completely revised the first draft of his book when his editor read and hated it.
How to effectively revise your draft
As with writing an SFD, the big picture is more important than small details. Do your characters change over the course of the book? Do their actions make sense? Do they have a purpose? Do they realize it or not? Is the pacing smooth, or do you rush through some parts while others move far too slowly? What do you want your readers to understand when they finish reading.
Revision is also a good time to go back to your original outline and tweak it according to your new plan. Or if you pantsed your first draft, now is a good time to write an outline based on the draft.
Use all this information to create a plan for your revision.
Some examples of revision plans:
One woman came to me with a draft of her book about the friendship between two women. When I read her SFD, I realized one woman in the friendship didn’t appear until two-thirds through the book. She restructured the book to introduce her second character much earlier and built out the scenes that showed the development of their friendship.
Another woman wrote a YA novel about witches. She built an incredible witches’ world. The interactions between the witches were fantastic. It was fun and fresh, but there wasn’t any real conflict in the story. The witches lived their lives, played with magic and any minor irritations resolved quickly. She reworked her novel to include a bad guy who threatened the witches’ very existence.
A third book began with the narrator sharing a story about her college boyfriend dating her best friend before he’d broken up with her. In doing so, she introduced a conflict that had no bearing on the rest of the story. Her book is the relationship between her friend and her ex. She removed the beginning scenes and reworked the later scenes to bring out the beauty and sadness of the couple.
Take your revision plan and make your changes. It’s back to butt in chair + WRITE again.
You change your dialogue, move around the structure as needed, fill out the characters and remove any sections you know just don’t belong.
The Challenges of Editing
You may mistakenly think you’ll only need to revise and edit your SFD once. This, I assure you, is incredibly rare. Remember back in the SFD section, Anne Lamott said all writers write bad first drafts in order to “end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts.”
You may move between revision and editing two, three, or more times. I realize how frustrating this can be, and you’ll likely try to find shortcuts to get through the frustration. You’ll consider turning the book into short stories. You’ll want to throw it in the trash and pretend it never happened.
Overcoming the challenges of editing
I wish I could say there’s a magic formula to how many times you’ll need to revise and edit. There’s not. Accept this and keep going until you finish. This is just part of the process.
Take a break (again, not too long) and reread, taking notes again.
If you get stuck, find an outside reader (again, making sure you find a reader who will help you find solutions to the problems and won’t shut you down). You can also hire an editor to work you through the process.
If you want to finish, commit to finishing. Commit to writing and rewriting until you are finished a solid, clean draft.
Imagine yourself a sculptor standing in front of a block of marble. With heavier tools, you whacked away at the stone, removing large chunks. Then you used finer tools to shape it. Finally, you sit with a beautiful statue covered in dust and flecks of marble that obscure the form below.
Now it is time to polish.
All those little edits you were dying to make during your SFD? Now is their time. You choose the word pull instead of hold. You remove unnecessary fragments, edit down sentences, shape your dialogue.
The Challenges with Polishing
You have a book. It’s beautiful. It’s putting the star on the Christmas tree, the icing on the cake. All you need do is rid of those darlings, those pieces you love but simply don’t belong. Another challenge with polishing. It’s easy to nitpick the tiny details to death. You can shift every sentence a million times.
Getting past the polishing to a final draft
Once you have your full book, you see how your darlings block your final vision. You have to admit to yourself they don’t belong and so they must go.
Otherwise, give your sentences one last check. It’s helpful to read your book out loud to see what you want to change. Then grammar check, spell check, and you’re done! Your book is ready for beta readers!
Are you ready to commit to writing a book?
I know it works because I’ve seen people arrive at a retreat with pages of notes and leave with an outlined structure PLUS fifty to one hundred pages written.
Are you ready to write a book?
Join me at my next international writing retreat!