It's the beginning of April, and if I didn't live in the Adirondacks, Spring would be in the air ... we may still be in for another big snowstorm.
My latest novel, Thunderstruck, has been out for a few months, and I've sold hundreds of copies here and there (mostly here, with a couple of exceptions in Australia and Canada and the UK).
I'm happy with the book, happy with the sales, happy with being able to share my stories ... and ready to hop back on the merry-go-round ... this seems like a good time to talk about how I do what I do to write a novel every year.
I will attempt in this blog to outline, maybe even detail, how and when and why I do what I do in my writing. Many of you have asked me questions about my process ... here it is.
If I leave out something critical to your explorations, or spark some new question in your mind, please either leave a comment or send me an email.
The annual writing pattern I've been following has worked for me for the last four years, and will (I assume) keep working for me this/next year ... with a few modifications made to accommodate my sabbatical and my next major writing project.
I'll describe the process as it progresses from the end of one year through the end of the next, looked at through the lens of my writing process.
Once the book is ready with CreateSpace and KDP, I hit the button, tell friends & family & FB, and take a nap.
Sometime after the book goes live, I begin to think about writing again, but long before that, I pick up a book (someone else's writing, not my own, I'm sick of reading my own words at this time of year), and start reading again.
I generally slow down my reading when I'm writing and editing, and this is the time of the year when I start finding new stuff to read, or circle back for books I've already enjoyed, and want another crack at ... I think SK is 100% right when it comes to the link between reading and writing.
The other thing that happens once the book is published and I start to read and breathe and sleep (and drink reasonable amounts of coffee) again, is that I get out to enjoy the outdoors, and explore my world.
Just like with reading, spending time exploring the natural world gives me the tools I need to write. The same is true of my time in the classroom, but that's an inevitable outgrowth of my job (except for next year, but I have plans in place to deal with that, as well as two decades of stories/experiences crammed up inside my skull to keep me going during sabbatical).
I like to go camping, canoeing, and hiking, with family and friends ... it stretches me physically and mentally and is a needed change from my indoor life.
At some point, between napping and reading and teaching and camping and exploring, the next book starts writing itself.
I generally start getting ideas in February and March, and making plans in April and May.
If you subscribe to the Gardener/Architect theory of writers, I'm probably an architect who incorporates some green-spaces into his buildings. I like to plan my books out to a certain degree, having some idea of setting and characters and conflict and plot, but aim for more of a rough map than a detailed blueprint for my writing, as I like to wander where the words take me once the coffee and my fingers get rolling.
Google Keep, if you're interested) for thoughts that come to me in the months after I published the last book ... I also use a workbook that I developed a few years ago to help me force my squishy thoughts into a (slightly) more rigid framework.
For Between the Carries, I experimented with mapping a classic hero's journey, and covering the poster I'd made with sticky-notes in the story-appropriate spots ... I really liked it for BTC, but didn't use it (in this fully implemented format) for Thunderstruck. I'm still up in the air about whether or not to make use of this method for Oasis, my next novel project (a high fantasy).
Once the school-year comes to an end, and the warm months (weeks, days?) come to the Adirondacks, I start working to balance my time between reading and exploring and planning, and then select a month to add a writing-sprint to the mix.
NaNoWriMo made my novel writing possible, and I owe the completion of all of my novels to the concept put forward by this fantastic organization.
The basic idea of the program is simple: take 30 (or 31, depending on the month) days to write the first (and very rough) draft of your novel. They suggest 50,000 words as the baseline length for a novel, which works out to roughly 1600 words per day.
I've been successful writing my first drafts in my month-long writing sprints four out of four years (so far). They have been roughly 75k, 105k, 85k, and 95k, with significant pruning and grafting and moving of parts around between the end of the NaNoWriMos and the final drafts and publication of my novels:
- Here Be Monsters (written summer 2012, published early 2013)
- Caretakers (written summer 2013, published early 2014)
- Between the Carries (written summer 2014, published early 2015)
- Thunderstruck (written summer 2015, published early 2016)
My best writing hours are in the mornings of my summers, and I tend to be able to write between 2,000 and 5,000 words each day, with a few skipped days (for fun with family and friends) and the occasional day when I'm able to get as much as 7,000 to 9,000 words (with lots of coffee, and generally feeling pretty spent the following day).
The key, for me, is the feeling of pressure to write quick and rough, not worrying about getting it perfect, but just getting the basic framework of the story out of my brain, through my fingers and the Chromebook's keyboard. There's no way to write a finished novel in a sprint, and with that concern gone, I find myself able to write my books ... knowing that I'll fix the story later on, with the help of beta-readers and story/copy/line editors (and as many as a half-dozen, or more, rewrites).
To write thousands of words each day, I need a comfortable space to write, brain and finger fuel (in the form of food and water and coffee), my notes and maps and workbook, and adequate wifi and power to keep my Chromebook running for the four to six hours of writing that I do each day during my writing sprints ... it's got a ten hour battery life when fully charged, so this isn't a problem unless I forget to plug it in overnight.
The sprints are mentally exhausting, physically uncomfortable, and spiritually draining. I spend a lot fo the month with red/gritty eyes, sore muscles, eating too much easy comfort-food, and drinking gallons of strong coffee to keep the word-valanche rolling downhill towards the end of the final chapter.
Once the first draft of the novel is done, I save it in a couple of places (almost certainly wasted effort, since writing it in GoogleDocs means that it's saved everywhere ... still, I save it with Dropbox and send copies to myself via Gmail).
I put the project away for a few weeks, and try to forget the horror ... the horror.
In a couple of weeks, I print up a few copies of the book (as seen above, I clump them into 150-ish page chunks to avoid their being too big), and Gail and I go though them.
My first read of the novel is done without a pen ... I'm looking for readability and big-picture issues. I assume it's pretty much the same thing with Gail. After we've both taken our time getting through it, we get together for a SmartPig meeting, hopefully over drinks, to talk about what I wanted to say, what I actually said, and what we need to do to get from the latter to the former.
I initially dreaded this meeting, taking it somewhat (possibly unavoidably) personally, but over the years I've come to realize that nobody writes a great first draft (I wrote good, then went back and changed it ... apparently my ego is not fully hardened).
I chip away at the proposed fixes/problems/issues over the next month or so, always keeping in mind Neil Gaiman's thoughts on the subject (above). After I feel as though I've worked through my punchlist sufficiently that the story says what I wanted it to say in the way that I wanted it to be said, we take another look at it (this can sometimes take months, and multiple rounds of reading, rewriting, and reevaluating). This is the part of the process that I absolutely, positively HATE. I've told my story, and just want to move on to telling the next one, and Gail has to work hard at holding my attention through all of the various levels/flavors of edits (sorry and thank you honey!).
At this point we ship the book to the far coast to get my copy and line editor into the mix. This results in another few rounds of back and forthing and polishing, at which point we're likely into late November or December ... once we've hammered things out with my editor, and the book is in what we consider a final and finished form, we order proof-copies from CreateSpace.
I'm always giddy and giggly when I get to hold the first copies of a new book in my hands, after all the time and work and planning and writing and rewriting that has gone into it. Gail and I take our time reading through it, and despite multiple reads by all of the members of Team SmartPig, we'll always find things to fix (and there are always going to be one or two that make it through even that final check ... go figure, it's an imperfect world).
Once we've fixed what errors we find, we re-upload the files and hit the button.
I hope that this blog entry was of some use to you ... it was to me. I find value in contemplating process, and am grateful for the opportunity and audience (even if I created/took the opportunity and possibly imagine the audience).
There is no "Right Way" to write a novel; this is the way that works for me, and since that's what I've got, I'm happy to share it with you.
Please take what works, leave the rest, and feel free to get in touch with me if you have questions about writing, my writing, or me.