Every writer with a blog is always giving out advice about writing. It’s just what we do (I think it has to do with our innate narcissistic bent – see Part II). Most of it is excellent advice, but often pertains to marketing, not writing, and some of the stuff on writing itself is unhelpful and misleading; to wit, I saw a post recently where the person was saying you don’t really need editors, self-editing is enough, etc. That’s just plain wrong. And this whole NaNoWriMo thing where everyone’s going nuts about word counts – that’s unnecessary too and can be harmful to a writer’s psyche.
So here I come, narcissism in tow, to give you some advice on the writing process itself. But you know what? I’m actually sort of ‘officially qualified’ in this area – it’s what I was trained to do. I have an Honour’s Bachelor of Arts in Creative Writing, I taught English in Taiwan, with a focus on writing, for over three years while I was composing Typhoon Season, and I worked in Dubai for a year as a writer and editor at a large, multinational PR firm. So hopefully you’ll concur that I’m satisfactorily credentialed (the occasional typo notwithstanding). Here we go (for savvy vets this all might seem horribly basic, but for up-and-comers I hope it’s helpful).
The Importance of Editing
First, ‘writing’, as we call it, is not just writing. ‘Writing’ is actually 50% writing and 50% editing/revising. That’s the first thing you have to realize: editing is equally as important as writing. None but the most highly skilled writers could hope to churn out taut, elegant prose on their first, or even second try. It’s almost always the editing/revision process where the language gets tweaked and fine-tuned into its final form. But guess what? It’s a lot of work.
A lot, a lot, a lot of work. Most published books will have gone through at least five, six, seven drafts. That’s five, six, seven times that the author has read over the entire book, tweaking things, sometimes just cosmetically, but sometimes making huge changes to the structure of the book itself, or to the characters. Sometimes the book has to be altered completely to make it work better. If you’re not willing to do that potential amount of work, you shouldn’t be writing.
You also shouldn’t be writing if you’re not willing to accept that your book may need deep and structural changes to make it better. I understand this part can be very difficult for people, especially when they first start out; you spend so much time getting a first draft done, only for someone to tell you the basic story is flawed and it needs a complete re-think. It can be very demoralizing. But all you can do is suck it up and get over it. I was lucky in that I got all this out of the way early on; for three years at university this is all I did – write short stories and have them workshopped by twenty people while editing theirs in turn. It became routine to have my work dissected and debated; I learned what worked and what didn’t, I learned from others’ strengths and weaknesses, and mostly, I learned I simply can’t write something that I want to publish without having a multitude of people look at it first.
If you’re too scared to show your work to other people, or too blinded by pride or ego that you aren’t able to accept valid constructive criticism, then again, don’t become a writer.
So, how should you actually go about creating your masterpiece? I realize everyone’s different, and some things work better for certain people than for others, but here’s what works for me:
– Set a specific time every day and write at that time every day, no matter what (maybe take the weekend off, if you want). It doesn’t matter when it is, as long as it’s the same time every day so you have a routine. For me, it was the morning; I got up at 7:00 a.m., Monday to Friday, took my laptop to a nearby café, had breakfast, and wrote for a few hours. Even if I wasn’t writing, I was at least sitting there thinking about my book, working on characterization or plotting or something; the important thing was that I was immersed in my book at that time every day, and that time was inviolate.
Which is why your daily word count is ENTIRELY UNIMPORTANT. I see many writers saying things on Twitter like “I only wrote 1000 words today, I failed :(” How is that a failure? Maybe they’re 1000 damn good words. You should be proud of that. I once got stuck on a single paragraph for a week; just couldn’t write the damn thing for some reason. Am I a failure as a writer? Of course not.
– Make a plan. You absolutely need to have the basic plot and character arcs mapped out before you start. Don’t just waltz into it blindly thinking it’ll all work itself out in the end. That rarely happens. Doing some planning beforehand will save you time later on during the revision process.
– Write your first draft. Have a celebratory beer. Put it away for a week or two (the draft, not the beer).
– Go back over it and do your second draft (look for things like typos and awkward language, but also think about the plotting and character arcs and make notes about what you think is working and what could be problematic).
– At this point I think you’ve usually done all you can do yourself and other eyes need to see it. Give it to at least FIVE different people, and try to find those who can give you different perspectives. So give it to your writer friend whom you trust implicitly, give it to your other friend who reads voraciously, give it to your mom, etc. Wait agonizingly for them to get back to you. It could take a month, if you’re lucky. Drink more beer.
– Take all the feedback and do a third draft. This part can be tricky; not everything they say is going to be useful or a good idea, while other things they say may be painful but true. You have to sift through it all, picking out what works and what doesn’t, and you have to be willing to make structural changes to the story if required. This draft could take a while.
– Once this is done, a skilled editor needs to see it. If you happen to be friends with one, fantastic. If not, you might need to pay for editing services. If you choose to go with a professional editor, make sure you find one who works specifically in your genre, and research them a bit before pulling the trigger. Wait agonizingly again for him/her to get back to you. Drink scotch.
– Once the editor is finished, you’re going to have to do a fourth draft. This also might involve structural changes. You may have to completely change certain aspects of the story or characters (within reason; if you truly feel that either your friends or editor are not at all respecting what you’re trying to do and want changes made simply for the sake of making changes, that’s one thing; but any proper editor should be able to work with you to create what you want to achieve). Take your fourth draft and put it away for a while. Drink a lot (don’t drink and drive).
– Take it out and do a polishing fifth draft. By this point, if all goes well, it should be more or less publishable.
You see how long that process takes? Months and months and months. If this seems too scary, get out now. The first time is always the hardest, obviously; the more you write and get edited, and the more you publish, the more normal it becomes.
But it’s a difficult, challenging world – don’t jump in unless you know you’re pretty sure you’ll be able to swim.