Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Stages of Writing a Book: Pros & Cons

Lately I've felt torn between writing Vix, revising Safira and writing an outline for another book that's so new it doesn't even have a code name yet. This dilemma has forced me to think about the various stages of book-writing, and I've decided to put down my thoughts here. Disclaimer: This is how I write, and as far as I can tell, every writer has a different process. Mine is no better or worse than anyone else's. It's simply mine, and here it is:

Stage 1: Conception

PROS: Conception is an exciting stage because you're dealing with something brand new. It's like getting a new haircut and being surprised and fascinated every time you spot yourself in the mirror. (Or is that just me...?) This stage is also fun because you're not committed yet. Aside from my husband, I don't talk to anybody about books that are still in this stage. And that's nice, because you get to keep the idea all to yourself. You're not under pressure to explain it to people, you don't have to worry about their judgement and you certainly don't have to deal with their input. New book ideas are escapes and welcome distractions.

CONS: It can't last forever.

Stage 2: Research
A blueprint from my first novel.
After a few weeks of thinking about a new idea, my thoughts get too complex and I have to start putting thoughts to paper - or screen - in order to sort things out and get into more detailed brainstorming. The word "research" may be misleading here because it doesn't always mean losing hours on Wikipedia, reading similar published books, or checking out big stacks of non-fiction from the library (because yes, I still use the library). Research can mean all of these things, but for me it also means drawing maps of towns and blueprints of homes, profiling my characters and looking for pictures of people to inspire their looks.

PROS: You're building a new world that nobody gets to live in but you, at least for now.

CONS: It can be overwhelming. This stage can become a trap for me. I'm a completionist, and research is a nebulous thing, so it's hard for me to know when I've done enough.

Stage 3: Outlining

PROS: You get to take all of your research and put it together into plot lines.

CONS: I know I'm going to deviate from the outline eventually, so it feels a little futile.

On the Plotter vs. Pantser (or is it Plottster vs. Pantster?) line, I'm a Plotter. I've tried free-writing in the hope that something concrete will come out, but I end up writing little summary paragraphs and fleshing them out once I get the main plot points arranged. That's just my nature.

Unfortunately, I don't write perfect outlines. Does anyone? By the time I began my third novel, I had learned enough to avoid outlining the whole book before I began writing. I figured out where I wanted the story to go in a vague sense, i.e., I know what my MC was going to accomplish, where she was going to go, and where she was going to end up. Before I began drafting this book, I wrote a pretty solid outline for the first third it. (I thought I'd try it Suzanne Collins' style and write this book in three "acts".) My first third turned into my first half, but otherwise, this method worked out well. As I drafted, the second half of the book became clearer and I outlined that little by little.

Stage 4: Drafting

PROS: Ah, now we're back to the good stuff. Drafting! That delightful phase of book-writing in which you take all your brilliant ideas, fictional conversations, and contentious relationships and bring them into being.

My custom outline labels in Scrivner
CONS: One of the trickiest parts of drafting for me is figuring out where to put everything. From the very beginning, the plot has to get moving, but I also have a big bag overflowing with exposition. Exposition has to be placed meticulously so that it won't slow down the story or make the reader feel like I'm going to give them a pop quiz at the beginning of the next chapter. I like to break down my exposition into tiny pieces, sometimes as small as the color of a character's hair or the rotational direction of Venus. (That last one will probably apply only to my current book and maybe five others, ever.) Doing it this way takes the pressure off. I don't have to worry about the reader learning everything because I've distributed the exposition and I know I'll get to it eventually. This is also a helpful method because some kinds of exposition have to build, e.g., you have the know that my characters are on Venus - and preferably know why they're on Venus - before the reader will even care that Venus rotates backwards.

More CONS: Drafting is exhausting. When Derek gets home at the end of a day in which I've written 4,000 words, I am spent. I've used the excuse, "I made up 16 pages of stuff today!" to get out of making dinner more than once. (Not that Derek has ever complained about ordering pizza for dinner.) Drafting is also the phase of book-writing in which I'm the most insecure. Until I have a solid draft in hand, I don't know for sure if the story is going to work. I could get all the way to the end only to find out that there's no possible way for my plot to coalesce. That insecurity can lead to some trouble starting. The final disadvantage of drafting is that it's too early to share your work with anyone, and the temptation can be high. I used to get so excited about certain passages I wrote and I would ask to read them to Derek out loud. Unfortunately, those "brilliant" passages often got edited out later and I regretted my impatience.

Stage 5: Revising

PROS: Revising is great because you've had some time away from the earliest stuff you wrote and you get to re-approach it with fresh eyes. It's easier to see what's good and what's bad, and you get to polish the words until you can say with a degree of objectivity that they're pretty good.

Stats of my WIP in Scrivner
CONS: This is a tedious stage. I have no rules for how many times I revise a single chapter because that depends wholly on the chapter. Revising for me often means re-writing. I've re-written every single word of chapters that were perfectly decent because who wants perfectly decent? I don't. I bet agents and editors want it even less, and readers want it least of all. Revision can mean tweaking a few words to re-writing a chapter several times. Because of this, it's hard to estimate how much time I need to revise. (I can usually draft a chapter in 1-2 days, so if I'm working off an outline, it's simple math to figure out how long it'll be until I'm done.) Unlike the drafting stage, in which everything is fresh, revision can require re-reading the same passage a dozen times, which gets boring. Plus when you're re-writing, you're basically making stuff up all over again, in that sense, revision can be as tiresome as drafting.

More PROS: The big benefit of revising is that you get the thing you long for during the previous stage: security. Once a scene or a chapter or a whole book has been through the revision wringer and you know that you've done everything you can for that book, it's a bit easier to sleep at night. There are no worries about the booking falling apart because it's already standing. Now all you need to do is make sure you're looking at it through appropriately critical eyes. That's where beta readers come in.

Stage 6: Critique

PROS: The critique stage is awesome because for the first time, people are reading your words. You get to see if your intentions for your characters are clear. Is the hero likeable? Does the villain make people's skin crawl? Is the setting as beautiful or as tragic to readers as it is in your head? For each of my consecutive books, my feedback from beta readers has gotten better. It's incredibly fulfilling to hear that someone likes your book, and it's even more exciting when they give you suggestions for how to make it better.

My feeling on positive vs. negative criticism may sound a bit acerbic, but here it is: Positive feedback is worthless. It's nice to get a confidence boost, and praise can be helpful when someone is pointing out a strength, i.e., something you should do more, but otherwise, positive feedback is a waste of my time and my reader's. If I'm asking betas to read my book, it's because I already know it's good, because I love it and I trust my judgement. As much as it may seem like writers are the last people who should be judging their own work, writers are actually very harsh critics. I write because I love to read, and because I've read so much, I know what's good and what's not. I'm not going to let anybody read something if I know it's crap, so giving me comments like, "This is SO not crap! Good job :-)" are worthless.

On the other hand, constructive criticism is gold. Here's a tip for people trying to find good beta readers: Pick people who are good readers, the kind of people who read all the time and have lots to say about what they read. My sister, despite the fact that she has nothing to do with literature professionally, is my best reader because she loves to read and she thinks hard about what she reads. She applies the same level of thinking to my WIPs, so when she gives me comments about characters feeling flat or plotlines feeling heavy, I run with it. That's my favorite part of this stage: getting the feedback and applying it to the work.

CONS: While the book is out with beta readers, you have to leave it alone, and if you've written good characters and you're like me, you'll probably start to miss them. For this reason, it can be helpful to give beta readers a deadline: certainly long enough for them to read comfortably, but short enough that you're not twiddling your thumbs, mourning your characters, and considering querying the thing before you actually get feedback.

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