This week, a couple of readers asked me about my writing process, and I thought that answering their question would make for a fun post. Fun to write, at least, if maybe not to read. It depends on your definition of “fun”, I suppose, so consider yourselves warned.
[Alternate title: how I book. Hashtag: Lame post titles for the win.]
Before I begin, a disclaimer. I am not — I repeat, NOT — an expert on writing. Please don’t read this post as me giving advice or suggestions or anything of the sort. I’m merely sharing what I went through writing my first novel, what I’m going through writing my second, and the things I’ve learned along the way. A lot of other (wittier) people have written similar (better) posts, but … Wait, why am I writing this again? Oh, yeah: ’cause if there is one thing I love almost as much as writing, it’s writing about writing. Meta!
I started writing Archer & Bell because I was going through a mid-life crisis, and looking for meaning in my life. Ok, I’m being a little facetious. But writing a book has been on the top of my bucket list since I was a kid, and it felt like time to do something about it. I committed. I wrote a post about that before. I think this was key to the whole ending-up-with-a-finished-book thing.
The idea for the book came to me about 10 years ago, and can be best summarized as follows (no real spoilers involved):
What if Pandora’s box was actually a sentient being? And what if someone came along and decided to teach it about free will and self-determination?
I spent a good part of the last decade thinking about the framework within which to develop that idea. The vessel, if you will. For a while, A+B was going to be a kind of (fantasy) detective novel. (And then I realized that I suck at writing hardboiled/noir prose.) Then it was going to be more of a mystery/suspense. Then it just sort of floundered — always at the back of my mind, but going nowhere.
Sometime in 2014, I read Olive Kitteridge. (I liked it, and the miniseries is excellent.) And I must have filed the idea at the back of my mind, because when I decided to re-visit A+B — and there was no other book I wanted to write first — I realized I had my vessel. For those of you who haven’t read Olive Kitteridge, it’s a (literary fiction) novel written in a non-linear narrative, each chapter similar to a standalone short story involving the titular character (sometimes as a protagonist, sometimes as a background character); strung together, the chapters tell her life story. I decided to use a very similar structure for A+B because I felt that it would allow me to tell the main protagonists’ origin story indirectly (thus avoiding mountains of exposition), while distracting the reader with smaller fantastical shenanigans.
I actually had a similar assembly process for my second novel. (I will be working on volume 2 of A+B this year, fingers crossed, but it will be my third book.) The idea came to me a few years ago, although for spoilery purposes I can’t tell you much about it. Again, it sort of foundered because I didn’t know what the structure should look like. Then, last October, I saw Crimson Peak and — voila, I had my vessel. Gothic romance — emphasis on “gothic”, not “romance”.
The Writing Process
One of the biggest lessons I learned last year was that, for me, the most critical part of writing is the story outline. To give you a sense of what I mean by “outline”, my current working outline for A+B #2 is a 25 page document, which is roughly equivalent, word count-wise, to a tenth of the final product. That means it’s detailed — down to snippets of dialogue in some cases. Having this very clear roadmap helps me enormously in banging out a first draft quickly enough not to get completely sidetracked by writer’s block, or discouraged, or whatever.
Going back to my experience with A+B as an example: I didn’t have an outline when I started, only a general sense of what each story/chapter was going to be about (and the details of the origin story itself). It took me over a month and a half to write the first (very terrible) draft of the first chapter. (I’ll come back to this in a minute.) After another couple of chapters, I wised up, and started creating chapter outlines. They were only 2-3 pages long each, but they helped a lot. I wrote the first drafts of chapters 4-9 in about 3 months total. For my current project, I started with a 13 page outline (for a novel I expect to be around 70k words), and I am close to finishing the (rough but not terrible) first draft within a month of starting it.
The second thing I learned is the importance (for me, it goes without saying) of getting a first draft out quickly — no looking back. That means I don’t edit as I go along. Again, I did that when I started A+B, which is one of the reasons the first chapter took me so long. I got so bogged down! And discouraged by how bogged down I was getting. I was on the verge of quitting more times than I can count now. The thing was, once I stopped doing that, and just focused on getting a first draft — no matter how good or bad — on paper, things began to move along. I found a rhythm.
Editing is a bitch. But I found it was a bitch no matter how much time I’d spent fiddling with the first draft. I spent over 2 months editing the complete draft of A+B … and I don’t mean fixing typos and such. I mean polishing the, um, rough nugget into a
diamond less rough one. But having a complete draft in hand, on paper, meant that I didn’t want to give up. Well, I did want to, but I couldn’t let myself throw all that work away — even if, on a 6th read-through, I had more revisions than on the 5th.
This is the same process I’m using with my current book … although I did allow myself a cheat. After finishing Parts 1 and 2, I had a quick read-through before starting the last part. The draft read far from perfect, which was not surprising given the breakneck speed at which I wrote it, but struck me as a promising nugget. I am finishing up Part 3 as we speak, and am actually very excited about editing. Good lord, what am I saying?
The Mechanics of Writing
I’m a self-taught writer. And by that, I mean that I read a lot — a very diverse lot — for 30 years. By reading, I studied writing indirectly, which I think worked out alright for me, given my personal preferences and limitations. I am not able to think in a schematic fashion about writing. A writing workshop would be my worst nightmare (which is not to say that they can’t be precisely what helps other people write.) My plot outlines develop “organically”; I just think about the characters, and let them talk to me. I like doing that on my commutes to and from work, while I listen to music. (Funnily enough, I can’t listen to music while I write. Too distracting.)
If that sounds really airy-fairy, I’m sorry. My attitude has always been: trust your gut. If you love to read, you’ve probably developed an “ear” for narrative without realizing it. Personally, I might not get the flow right on the first draft, but I can usually “hear” the weaknesses on a read-through, and then I can work on fixing them. (Sidenote: I found reading the draft out loud to be super helpful.) I might not always succeed in fixing them as well as I’d like (or even close) … but that’s another story.
One thing I’ll add here (it may deserve its own heading but this is a long enough post already): feedback is awesome. I found I needed different kinds of feedback at different times. I have to give a bit shoutout and thank you to my awesome, ever patient beta readers. (You know who you are.) I could write a whole post about the role of feedback in my writing, but I’ll only add two quick comments:
1) I didn’t hire a professional editor for A+B because I was kinda afraid of the cost. (Paying for the cover art ate up my entire publishing “budget”.) As a result, all typos and grammatical errors are my very own, and I can’t speak to the value of having a professional editor working on your book. With the right person on board, it’s probably amazeballs.
2) I didn’t implement all of the feedback I got, although I appreciated the time and effort people put into providing it. Sometimes, as the writer, I had to make an executive decision. For example, one of my beta readers indicated that they weren’t crazy about the format of A+B (interconnected, non-linear chapters). As I mentioned before, that was a deliberate decision I made very early on in regards to how I wanted to present the story. The feedback made me realize that that stylistic choice would not appeal to everyone; I was disappointed (not gonna lie) but I accepted it and decided to take the risk anyway.
Truth time: next to writer’s block, this is the hardest part of writing. I have a (occasionally very demanding) full time job, two kids, a (very supportive) husband, and as much on my plate as any typical working parent. Like I said above, last year, I made a commitment to write my first novel, which meant that it became my no. 1 priority after work, family time, and sleeping. At the end of that process, and not least because of the stress involved in trying to find time for writing, I basically had a breakdown and vowed never to write again. And then, in typical Adina style, I came to grips with that by doubling down: this year, my only resolution is to write TWO novels. I’ll let you know how that works out *twitch, twitch, cue hysterical laughter*
The real answer is that I write … whenever I can. Usually during my lunch hours at work, and in the evenings after the kids go to bed. Last year, I also wrote on weekends whenever I got some “me time”. This year, I promised myself I would only write M-F, and take weekends off — for my sanity, and everyone else’s. I’ve had … mixed success sticking to that. I am hoping that once I get this bloody (not literally … or is it? dun, dun, dun) story on paper, I will take it easier. The thing is, like, haunting me, you guys. That’s what I get for trying to write a gothic novel.
Alright, I think I’ve blathered enough. In the extremely unlikely event you have any other questions about my writing process and/or Archer & Bell and/or my current project, hit me up in the comments.