This writing thing. For all the years I’ve been doing this, I’m just now learning what it feels like to have a few decent pages. These are pages I have no doubt about, pages I could show to anyone and be sure they’d think it’s a good story. Pages that don’t waste anyone’s time. Pages that throw readers into a universe of my own creating in an engaging enough way that they ask, “What happens next?”
It was way harder than I initially thought. It took way more work, the butt-in-chair kind, and both a willingness to consider feedback and some discernment on when to disregard it. Then, I had to act on that feedback with all I had, as though the idea had come from me and were a part of the story all along.
What did this look like? Here it is, broken down into steps.
- Start with cool concept, a hook that makes everyone who hears it sit up a little straighter and start asking questions.
- Write some spotty initial chapters, with great characters, dialog, and some sex, getting all the way to the end of the basic plotline involving the two main characters.
- Get a bunch of people to read it as you go. They like what they’re seeing, but they point out something is missing: setting. You’ve got no sense of place.
- Drop everything to figure out how to travel across the globe to your primary setting for an extended stay. (This involves selling your house, putting everything into storage, and taking off with laptop and camera for Rome, Italy. Rough life, eh?)
- Commence setting draft, adding in the sights, sounds, and smells, weather, flora and fauna, distances, buildings, everything you can find, and fill out the storyline, which turns into first draft complete.
- This first draft, clocking in at 160,000 words and including a mystical prologue, took three years.
Are you done? Not hardly.
- Get a bunch of people to read it. Beta readers and writer’s group give great feedback—which sends you back to the drawing board. Primary focus: Flesh out main character, give her more context and backstory, and reduce wordcount.
- Commence second draft, which takes three months. Axe 40,000 words, mostly the literary device of main character journal entries. (Save all these for possible website or expanded volume later.)
- Receive a brainwave from the gods on New Year’s morning, 2011.
- Commence third draft, after brain wave. Lose the prologue, figure out how to incorporate it into the first chapter instead. This draft takes three weeks.
- Give to offspring to read. Daughter gives amazing feedback. Son likens it to Orson Scott Card, a very high compliment. [Note, as much as they love you, neither kid had been able to get through first draft. The fact that they couldn’t put this one down warms your heart.]
- Fourth draft after offspring feedback takes two weeks. Primary focus: punching up supporting characters and subplots, including more of the technology. Add back in some material removed in the second draft, give eternal gratitude for saved revisions.
- Off to writer’s group again and new beta readers. It’s been six months between reads for the writer’s group. Confusing moments and particular spots where more info is needed are revealed.
- Fifth draft now feels like fine tuning rather than anything structural. Clean up confusing moments and dead spaces, add more info. Getting the feedback from everybody takes the most time, then it is a quick edit (once you get over the feedback).
- Sixth draft after intense line edit by editorial friend/former boss.
- Send to one final beta reader who had never read it before, a fan of the genre and a screenwriter/director. Confirms that prior edits have been successful, but brings up many intriguing points about the story itself. You experience a flash of, “Do I rewrite entirely, or is it done?” Beta reader assures that the story is great, so much so that it made him think of all these other things. You already are planning to explore these issues in the next book of the series, so for the first time on this first book, you feel done. You mark the date on your calendar.
- Read entire book out loud. Catch a million little things. Notice though that most of it reads quite smoothly, and begin to get the feeling you’re bathing in chocolate.
- It’s ready for prime time.
After all that grinding and upending and massaging and tweaking and rethinking, it shows. The book exists, its own entity, separate from me but my baby. The question now is, do I self-publish as I’d always intended? Or do I shop for an agent? How do I answer this question? I sign up for a writer’s conference where I can submit pages for critique.
Off go the first 15 pages. I jump into my car to drive from LA to Jackson, Wyoming. And the response at the conference is better than I could have written myself. Those pages are solid. I don’t need to sell them; they speak for themselves.
So, I change my plan. I decide to shop the manuscript for a year, knowing that the book is solid and the only way it won’t get representation or traditional publication is if it doesn’t fit into the industry’s current marketing plan. And I’ll be okay with finding that out—I can market it myself later. In the meantime, I start writing Book Two so I’m ready next year either to be launched by a publisher or to publish on my own.
It feels good. It feels real. I know something now that I didn’t know before—what “done” feels like. Truth be told, that already makes me a success. I think it’s the best feeling a writer can have.