Phases of a Book

I’d say I’m just about done with the brainstorming phase of my new book. To give you some perspective, when I write a novel, it usually goes down something like this.

Brainstorming Phase: This is usually about a month. Sometimes longer. I’m always jotting random ideas down and doing the occasional research about something, but this phase is the hardcore focus of all my mental energy on something new. This is also where I do my more targeted researching.

Structure Phase: Once I’ve got a pretty good idea of the world and what I want to say, I make a one page document for pacing. This is really the narrative framework in which the entire thing hangs. I identify the plot points, the hook, changes in narrative phases, etc. It’s not super robust, but I need to know how the story unfolds and where I need to fill getting from A to B. This takes maybe a week or a week and a half. Often times, I go back and do some final fiddling with brainstorming and concurrent research as I build it out.

Outlining Phase: I then turn that one page document into a 16-20 page outline depending on the scope of the novel. I try and break it down into what I think will be the chapters with bullet points telling me what’s going to happen in each one. I also include notes to myself, lines of dialog I’ve already written, and all the must haves and put them where they need to go. It’ll take me maybe two to three weeks to get this whole thing together.

I try not to leave anything blank. I’ll be vague at times in a bullet like “hero gets in a fight and the villain gets away” and when I get there in the manuscript, I’ll have a better idea of what that fight will be, but I don’t like to have an entire protochapter look like:

  • They storm the base
  • big fight ensues
  • they’re about to catch the bad guy, but the tables are turned.

And that’s it. No further details. No reminder of what’s at stake or notes about development. I’ve found that I ALWAYS run into trouble when it’s that vague. Looking at you cough Partners in Crime cough. So I need to iron that out which is why it takes me extra time to get all of that in order.

Writing Phase: The meat and potatoes. It takes me anywhere from 4-5 months to write a first draft. I go through the ole outline and get my words in for the day. Rinse and Repeat. You know how this part works.

Waiting Phase: Another couple months where I distract myself with something else to let the dust settle and the ideas gel from the first draft.

Editing Phase: Another 4+ months of grueling fine tuning and rewriting to make that pile of words into something that someone would actually want to read.

So there you have it. I’m just about finished brainstorming so it’ll be soon onto the structure phase. I’ve written eight novels by now and this is the process I’ve developed for myself. I would like to do more works concurrently: edit one work while brainstorming another, etc. and I’ve done that to some extent, but seeing as I’m not a full time writer, I only have so much time to devote to a project so I’m going laser focused again. Onward to novel number nine!

What I’m Reading: (see, told you I’d bring these back …) Just finished Martha Wells’ novella All Systems Red about a, I suppose its technically a cyborg, who calls itself Murderbot and loves serialized media. It was just the right length for the writing style. A strong voice but also sparse on the details which makes sense since its in first person or first bot or whatever … which I imagine would get old for an entire novel. That said, I’m definitely going to read a followup in the near future.

As that was so short, I started John Connolly’s The White Road. For those of you who’ve been reading my blog, I’ve really come around on Connolly. I didn’t care for his first novel, but that last two were pretty great. And you want to talk about voice? They tell you as writer that you should read wide and look for lessons about craft in other peoples’ work. Whether its a duck flying over a salt marsh or the description of a crime scene, imagery in Connolly’s books is just awesome. I don’t mean super cool, I mean awe-inspiring. I’m definitely taking notes.

What I’m Watching: The Imagineering Story on Disney +. Love or loathe Disney, this documentary series is still incredible. To see how they pulled off some engineering marvels is just fascinating. It also serves as a great lesson for anyone interested in customer service and really the value of a product. You can see where they’ve designed a complete user experience and where they were just phoning it in. Each episode is only an hour, but my wife and I keep pausing it to comment and marvel so it takes us twice as long to get through them.

Draft 2

This might be a strictly me thing, but there is no aspect I fear so much in all of writing – not even the blank page of a new book – then the beginning of revisions.

Once I finish any manuscript and get to the satisfactory “The End”, I let out an enormous sigh of accomplishment and relief. I did it. The marathon is over. I let myself rest on my laurels for a bit, give myself plenty of pats on the backs, couple more sighs, and allow myself the victory because I know the real work is only just getting started.

As I’m writing, I keep a running list of items that need to be updated, fixed, or changed for the next draft. I so cleverly call this my “THINGS TO FIX” list. It’s in caps so you know it’s important. This list is my new outline of what needs my immediate attention in the early revision stages. Thing is, I can’t even get to that list until I complete what I call Draft 2.

Now all writers have a second draft. Nobody gets it right the first time around. But I’m talking about Draft 2. Capital D. Plenty of writers can just dive back into the guts of his or her story and incorporate the changes outlined in their own THINGS TO FIX list, but not me. I need to go through the whole thing one time, tightening it up along the way, to give the whole book shape in my head. Only then can I go back and put the big changes into Draft 3.

Draft 2 is where all brackets get filled in, word choice is cleaned up, prose isn’t scrubbed so much as shaped. It’s what turns this giant pile of words into a story and it is exhausting. That’s where I confront my failures head on and try and turn them into something worth reading. Let me tell you, it’s a slog. It’s slow going doing all of that fine tuning, but for me it is completely necessary. I need to make the machine before I can go about fixing it.

I always go through the same stages too. The beginning of the manuscript is often the roughest which makes sense since it was the first part of the story written down. I was still finding character and voice and yet to hit my grove. So, naturally, I think my writing is garbage. Cleaning up all the clunky prose doesn’t help my self-esteem. Somewhere in the process, it gets better. Usually, this is when the story is starting to kick into gear. By the end, I’ve settled with the idea that it’s not all that bad. Not great. Maybe not even good. But not as scum-bucket terrible as I thought it was.

But now I have a story and that’s something I can fix. The next pass puts in the big elements. The pass after that cleans it up yet again. Each time I go through the manuscript, I polish it further and further until at some point I’m legitimately happy with it in its entirety. It transforms from a complete mess to something worth reading.

I’m not even close to that stage yet with my current manuscript. I’m maybe three fifths into it. A little slower than expected. I had other projects vying for my attention. But already, judging by what I’m generating day to day and looking at my THINGS TO FIX list, I know this one is going to be a doozy.

At some point I’m going to come out of the fog, blinking like I haven’t see the light of day in years, and be astonished there’s something good – or at least to me it is – in front of me. It takes a while to get there though, and often involves a lot of self-degradation. So celebrate those victories when you have them. But keep going. The light at the end of the tunnel is a finished book to be proud of.

I just have to get through Draft 2 first.

First Draft Blues

Maybe the single greatest piece of writing advice I ever received was from an AI I had back in college in a short fiction writing course. Her words have stuck with me all these years even though, for the life of me, I can’t remember her name.

“Just finish it.”

Whatever the problem. Whatever the hold up. Keep writing and don’t look back. As she explained at the time, you need to get it out because once you do, the story’s told. That’s the hard part. After that, you can edit and polish to your heart’s content.

While she may have glossed over the editing part – as many of you know, editing is MUCH harder than writing – but she had a point. Those were the words I needed to hear. Push through for the sense of completion and getting out of your own way, and after that, you’re left with an actual artifact of your progress. You’ve made something. Past tense. Instead of present tense: making/working on …

I bring all of this up because I already know that Altered Egos is going to need some work. Everything from the macro to the micro levels. From the story beats and structure to the language and the voice of the main character. I mean, I’m pretty sure I wrote the whole first chapter in the present tense, but the rest of the book is in the past. I honestly don’t remember. I haven’t looked back yet.

What I do instead is to create a generic document alongside my manuscript that’s oh so cleverly titled something like “THINGS TO FIX” and put it all in there. I make a big list of anything and everything I can think of. Once I’m done with the manuscript and I’m familiar with how its laid out, I reorganize that list chronologically with the book so I can hit it on a later draft.

I typically save that stuff for draft 2.5. I guess you could call it 3. Even things that I know are broken, I can’t fix until I’ve read through the book in its entirety first. So after I finish the manuscript, I take some time off to clear my head and then read through and do some general cleanup with draft 2. That’s usually when it goes from “this is the worst thing I’ve ever written” to “it’s bad but it’s not that bad” in my head.

After the cleanup phase, that’s when I go back and and check everything off the THINGS TO FIX list. Then I comb through it again a third time for further polishing. So theoretically at this point, the book is structurally sound (or sounder) and I’m just cleaning up the prose. After this read through is when I’ve started handing the work off to beta readers. The way I see it, it’s not getting any overhaul without their help and this is usually when I’m comfortable enough with that I’ve written to let others read it.

Then its rinse and repeat. Get feedback, make lists, polish.

The other quote that keeps me sane is from somebody’s name I do remember. Some dude you may have heard of named Michael Crichton. “Books aren’t written — they’re rewritten.”

I figure the guy knows what he’s talking about.