How I (actually) write a book

So, I guess when I wrote this post about the little, everyday rewards I’d give myself after accomplishing a day’s word count, I promised that after finishing the initial draft of OTHER THING, I’d write a post about how I actually go about the work of drafting a novel.

And, well, as you can see on the progress bar to the right, there, the initial draft is, in fact, finished.

At this point, having had a bit more than a week’s separation  – thank you, Disney World – from the OTHER THING manuscript (aka, “the cooling off period”) it’s time now to make with the editing.

So, late last night I waded into the swampy, fetid waters of revision.  That’s when I reach into the greasy vat of pungent, steaming, acrid word gruel I power-slammed into a document last month in a 34 day-long frenzied sprint to finish the draft before I ran out of time ahead of vacation (or worse, lost either my mind or my willpower) to make things right.  Then, with nose clips, ear muffs, rubber gloves, a biohazard suit, and a little luck, I’ll work and hack and chop and reshape the bloated chunks and musky odors of the draft into something someone might want to read.

But I guess that kind of leaves a few steps out, especially when it comes to getting the first draft down.  Sure, it’s easy to say, “you’ve got 34 days, go pound out a draft.” It’s also easy to say, “wrestle that dozen Dunken blueberry cake donuts away from that starving, Crisco-covered alligator.”  Without a plan, I wouldn’t want to attempt that even with Uncle Earl, let alone the ‘gator. The same goes for writing a novel.

If you’ll recall, this is the second time I’ve hammered out a 50k-ish word draft in roughly a month.  I did the same thing back in November. Having repeated the process and survived, I feel pretty good about having a kind of a system to Gettin’ ‘Er Done, so to speak.  And that system consists of:

  1. Weep openly at the prospect of having to develop an entire, compelling story with characters readers might actually care about from nothing more than a few hangover-fogged ideas, some pretzel dust, and a cocktail napkin covered in doodles that are either cuneiform or flawless Klingon, even though you know zero Klingon, flawless or otherwise.
  2. Wipe tears, schedule some uninterrupted contemplation time, preferably during a mindless task.  Because, let’s be honest, if you say, “I’ll just sit at my computer and think about this story,” in 4.3 minutes you’ll be bored and checking out twitter, theChive, or, um, something you feel you should turn “private browsing” on for.
  3. Contemplate story. Come up with a rough idea. Pray it makes sense to normal humans.
  4. Optional: Sacrifice a three year-old rooster to Xickinisis, the lesser Mesopotamian god of plotting.
  5. Write yourself an outline. Now, look, I know this part is where every romantic artist type shoves a nose into the air so high that Lebron James is can checking for allergies. And, fine, if you can manage to hammer out a manuscript in 30 days that represent a generally reasonable pathway from Scene A to Conclusion Z and doesn’t meander, I kneel before your power as a word-slinger.  I can’t do it.  I don’t outline much, just a single sentence bullet for every chapter or scene necessary to get from the opening to The End. But if I don’t do it, well, then my plot threads start to wander about the 15% mark. After that, it’s anyone guess whether I’ll be able to pilot the ship into the port.  But I’ll tell you this: I started Famine without any type outline or even an idea where things would end up.  That puppy took me 18 months to write and only got finished when I sat down at the 30% mark and made a bulleted list of “Things That Have to Happen.”  If you’re a pantser or a discovery writer, know that I am awed and amazed by your mad skills.
  6. Figure out how many words per day you need to accomplish to finish the story.  For me, with middle grade books, I usually shoot for 50k.  Longshots was just over that.  OTHER THING came in just under.  When you set your daily target, be reasonable.  If you know that Saturdays are booked solid with soccer games and secret pagan rituals, take them off the writing schedule. You’re better off knowing you need 150 extra word every other day that needing 1500 every Saturday and falling behind.
  7. Start writing. Pound those keys. Hammer the words out like old Screech himself is going to saute your earlobes in clarified butter if you don’t get the story out.  Don’t think, period. Not about the words or the characters or the dialog or who is going to feed the fish, or hell, even about the punctuation if it’s too much trouble to give thought to.  Just write.  Quit worrying about if they’re pretty words or special or enough to get you 3 minutes in “the closet” with Janie Wilson.  They won’t be.  Any of those things.  At least not a first.
  8. When you get your words done, if you have some more fuel in the tank, keep going.  See how far you can ramble.  If not, call it a day and relax.  If you don’t get your words out, don’t panic, there’s time to catch up. Sure, it might cost you some sleep, some snuggle time with your significant other in your Chip and Dale furry outfits, or an hour without this week’s Myrtle Beach Manor, but so what? Priorities, dammit. If it was easy, everyone would do it.
  9. When the words are in, it’s reward time! Don’t get crazy, of course.  If you give yourself a full manicure and shiatsu massage every day you get your count done, odds are good this whole word-making thing isn’t going to be a profitable enterprise for you.  Then again, if you’re already independently wealthy, or you’re Snoopy or Snooki or whatever, or maybe one of those “Real Housewives”, go for it. I mean, with all that time in salons, you’re going to end up getting  a ghost writer anyway, which is probably for the best.  For me, of course, the daily reward of choice is a scant handful of dark chocolate M&Ms. It used to be beer, but well, that ended poorly.
  10. Lather, weep, rinse, weep, flail, collapse exhausted, repeat. Sure, at this point you’re probably building a novel that sounds like a cross between a Dick and Jane Adventure and the repeated “all work and no play” scrawlings of Jack from “The Shining”, but that’s okay.  The first draft is supposed to be craptastic.  All you need are to get the basic plot points on the page.  Everything else, characterization, language, dialog, voice, presentation, can all be fixed later.
  11. Work.  Think. Work. Think some more.  When I’m knee-deep in drafting, nearly every waking moment I’m not doing or thinking about something else, I’m musing on the next scene or the next big arc in the book. The drive to/from work is fantastic time for that, as is time at the kids’ sports practices or games.  And don’t be afraid to rework the outline if, in the course of fleshing out your bullet, you step in something marvelous and have to fit it in.  Happens to me all the time. I swear to you, stories will often help you tell them if you listen.  When that does happen – and it’s happytimes when it does – remember to rework the outline to make sure you still have the right steps to get to Conclusion Z.
  12. Keep at it, keep at it, keep at it.  Put your butt in your seat and slapped those words out, no matter how awful they seem to be.  Because if you don’t stop, if you persevere every day, eventually you’ll reach…
  13. The. Frackin. End. Huzzah! You reached the end of your story, congratulations.  It sure ain’t gonna be pretty and probably smells like Zuckerman’s Famous Pig three days after the County Fair, but the End is the End.  Your story is done and out on paper (well, electronically).  A little celebratin’ is in order. Now, drink.

That’s it.  At least, for me, that’s how a book goes from a few insubstantial, unrelated thoughts including the words ‘shelldrake’ and ‘bamboozle’ to an entire middle grade novel in 30 days or so. Does every book need to be written this quickly? Oh, hellz no.  But, look, I’m not Stephen King, Dan Brown, or George R. R. Martin. I can’t afford to take my sweet time writing new books. Until I have a dedicated audience of reasonable size (read: legions of mouth-foaming fans), I’ve got to get my most marketable ideas out and available to the market before they become, well, not marketable. So, the time? She is of the essence.

And of course, this is the process that works for me.  After all, it’s my process, designed to correspond to the way my brain is wired. It may not work for you. So if your blue wires cross the greens instead of the oranges like mine, you might need to tweak this a bit, or come up with something altogether different.

Even so, I’ll promise you this: if you work hard at it, Every. Single. Day. I swear that you, too, can get that first draft out of your dusty brain locker and into the shiny, colorful world.

At which point you have to take your screaming, mewling new novel thing and fix it up with a few revisions.  But that’s another post.

Good luck, and may your M&M jar be always full!


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