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. Please note that this is how I write, and as far as I can tell, every writer has a different process. Mine is no better or worse; it's simply mine.

Stage 1: Conception

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...?) New book ideas are escapes from the real world and real work.

PROS: You're not committed yet. 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.

CONS: It's basically a dreamworld. You can't stay there forever.

Stage 2: Research

After a few weeks of thinking about a new idea, my thoughts get so complex that I have to start putting them onto 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. Research can mean all of these things, but for me it also means drawing maps of towns and blueprints of buildings, writing profiles of my characters, and looking for photographs to inspire me.

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

CONS: 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 and earned the right to move on. Research can also be overwhelming, especially to one prone to jumping down Wikipedia rabbit holes, like myself. While researching, I often end the day feeling painfully aware of how little I actually know about anything.

Stage 3: Outlining

On the Plotter vs. Pantster spectrum, I'm a Strong Plotter. I've tried free-writing in the hope that something concrete will come out, but I end up writing little summary paragraphs of plot points, i.e., I write in a structured way even when I'm trying not to. 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 knew 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.

PROS: You get to take all of your research and put it together into a cohesive story.

CONS: Given the inevitability of deviation, outlining can feel a little futile.

Stage 4: Drafting

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.

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 reduces the pressure. 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.

PROS: It's alive!

CONS: Drafting is exhausting. It's also the phase 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. Another disadvantage is that at this stage, 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. Unfortunately, those "brilliant" passages often got edited out later and I regretted my impatience.

Stage 5: Revising

The great thing about revising is that 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 darn good.

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 to make it shine, it's a bit easier to sleep at night. There are no worries about the book falling apart because it's already standing.

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 20 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, and in that sense, revision can be as tiresome as drafting.

Stage 6: Critique

Here's something I didn't realize before I started writing: Positive feedback is about 10% as useful as negative. Of course it's nice to get a confidence boost, and praise can be helpful when someone is pointing out a specific strength, but positive feedback can also be wasted time. At worst, it's a sign of a low quality beta reader.

Constructive criticism, on the other hand, 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 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.

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 book I've written, my feedback from beta readers has gotten better and 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.

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. I'd recoemmend 2-4 weeks.