If you’re a writer, you’ll know that the worst thing someone can say is, ‘So when is it going to be published?’
If you’re not a writer, don’t ever ask that. Ever. Your writer friend might be too polite to actually do it, but they will be mentally strangling you.
So what does the well-informed, but concerned non-writer friend ask? ‘How’s the writing going?’ can be a spiky question. Hemingway once said,
There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed
and many of us feel that way.
But it still leaves the door open to an actual conversation, rather than your poor friend fantasising about stabbing you with whatever’s nearest.
You see, a lot of people ask that sort of question, because they think it’s funny. Like asking your single friend, ‘when are you getting married?’ The thing is, to us, writing is an intensely stressful thing, it’s very personal because it comes from us alone. So we don’t think it’s funny. It’s reducing something that takes a lot of mental work and anxiety (book reviewers are brutal) that we’re passionate about, down to a simple commodity that someone may or may not even be interested in. To you, it’s a throw-away line, a gentle tease, but to us, it’s a reminder that we still haven’t finished.
Now, if you’re genuinely interested in the progress of your friend’s story, or if you’re an aspiring writer who’s not sure how to go about making your idea into a book, here’s what my 16-step process looks like.
The Idea–That sounds simple enough, but sometimes it isn’t. Hey, I use prompt generators too, sometimes.
The Stream of Consciousness Notes to Self— Once that spark lands, it takes off. My notes are a mess. Half-sentences, trains of though that get lost in the middle of a word, and take a whole different direction. Lists of words that I don’t even know what they refer to months down the road. Get it all out. All the ideas, get them down on metaphorical paper. Don’t expect the details to stick because too much is going on. Even if it seems obvious, WRITE IT DOWN. Scrap the crap later.
Serious outlining— You’ll hear in some circles about Pantsers and Plotters (and sometimes Percolators). Pantsers write ‘by the seat of their pants’–no outlines, no notes, just GO. Plotters work out every minute details and get it all in line before they can get down to it. (Much rarer Percolators stew and stew and stew, and then write in a great burst of energy) No one way is ‘right’, it’s just what’s right for that kind of person. I’ve been all three. I find plotting to works best for me most often. I actually like the outline. I like seeing the arc, the journey. I use Story Structure Architect, some people use beat sheets. It helps to keep you on track so you don’t go wandering off. Keep it focused. Makes for less cutting in future, I find. And there will be places where I don’t know what happens next, and in outlining, I get my answers.
Random Scenes— If you’re a Plotter, this comes after the outline. If you’re a Pantser, there is no outline, this is all there is. This is where you write down every scene that comes to you. For me, it mostly comes to me as dialogue. One character will say something snotty, the other will retaliate, they bicker back and forth, and plot happens. I do this over and over, and then string them all together. Sometimes I have to fill in the gaps with less fun (sarcastic) bits of action or dialogue, but mostly my stories tend to be long chunks of snark held together by historical accuracy and psychological intrigue.
Character development— Now for me, my characters come to me pretty well-formed, on the whole. Sometimes they’re a little gooey on the inside, and I have to work with them a bit. But mostly, they come through in the Random Scenes stage. For the more enigmatic ones, I write what I call Original Character Fan Fiction, which is little vignettes of them doing their thing, just to see what happens. It really is true when writers say their characters have a mind of their own. You’ll be going along, having a perfectly normal conversation, and all of a sudden one of your characters comes out as bisexual. That’s not in the notes. I didn’t put that down on her character profile, but there it is, all the same. And it’s totally right. I wouldn’t have her any other way. It’s how she is, move on. Some characters are more stubborn, and for them, I turn to 16personalities.com. MBTI that shit, I don’t have time for your nonsense.
The Grindstone–This is the ‘hard part’ of ‘the easy part’. Writing the first draft feels like torture because the blank page is like a pitch black room and you’re stumbling about with your eyes closed, feeling for a wall. And this stage is why. It’s the nasty in-between bit, when the inspiration is gone and you need to get from Random Scene 1 to Random Scene 2 because they didn’t meet up naturally. This is the actual ‘work’ of writing. This is the kneading of the dough, the nailing of the beams to make the wall. It’s not pretty, it’s not fun, but it’s necessary, and it’ll make the final product hold together. All I can say is, just get on with it, don’t let it drag on any longer than it needs to. (If your friend is suffering with ‘writing’, this is probably the stage they’re in. Remind them that they are a good writer and the inspiration will come back once they punch through this bit)
Tweaking–This is where we look back over that long hard road of Random Scenes and Grindstone chapters. Are your characters consistent, or have they changed drastically since you started writing? Do you have any major plot holes? Did you run a spell check? This can be as quick or in-depth as you want. Now, for me, I can get away with being a little sloppier because I use…
Scribophile–Scribophile is an online community of writers, all helping each other get ahead. It’s a karma-based critique site–you gotta crit to get a crit, and longer critiques earn more karms. (To the best of my knowledge, I’ve never heard of anyone being plagiarised on Scrib. The great thing about us all being writers is that we all think we’re the shit. We want YOU to help US make OUR book the best. We have no interest in stealing your book.) I am in a group, and within my group, there are teams. I have been with the same team since November of 2014 and they know me very well. I can get away with sloppy editing because they’re invested. The average drive-by critiquer might just be using a badly-edited chapter to farm karma. It’s frowned upon, but technically legal according to the Code of Conduct. So spend the extra time to polish and make sure you get someone who actually cares about the story, and not just someone sniffing out easy karma.
Reduction–This is my problem. I am a wordy girl. This, THIS, is the ‘hard part’ of the ‘hard part’. Editing is the hard part. Writing is free and easy compared to editing. You have to go line-by-line taking out repetitive phrases, filtering, distancing, sometimes hundreds of adverbs depending on the fad these days. I got my manuscript down 10,000 words and I’m not even done yet.
Macroedits–This is the phase where you take all of those lovely critiques that you got and decide whether or not to take the advice. If you do, you might be in for some pretty heavy rewrites. Now, for me, I look at each piece of advice separately. If something bothered the reader and was not important to character development or plot (usually word choice), sure, I’ll make the switch. If it is important, well, I have to make that executive decision. If multiple people comment on the same thing, I have to look at it a bit harder. (These two places might also be where your writer friend is struggling)
Line Edits–Here again are line-by-line, checking for everything you checked for before (but remember now you’ve moved things around, maybe added or subtracted all together). In other words, ‘Rinse, repeat’. Check those commas.
Betas–These people are not Scribos. These people are your friends and family (and strangers, if you’re brave. Though I count Scribos as enough strangers for me, thankyouverymuch), writers and non-writers. This is a quick cross-section of your readership. Most people who pick a book up off the shelf are not writers. They’re not looking to make sure your narrative distance is ok, they’re not scouring the page for misplaced commas or a better word choice, or whether your character sighs too much. They’re just reading the story, getting sucked into the world, trying to figure out who the murderer is. This is where you test how the book will play in the real world.
Macroedits–And sometimes they have opinions. In some ways, I feel like their opinions are worth more than writers’ opinion because there are more of them. But sometimes they don’t know what they’re talking about. It’s still your final decision what stays and what goes.
Line Edits/Polish–One more round of tightening, scrubbing and polishing after your macroedits. Make sure it’s as clean and punchy as you can possibly get it.
Professional editing. I’m sure you’re great with a semi-colon, but nothing beats a fresh pair of professional eyes. They’re coming in cold, not with the loving eyes of the creator who slaved over every inch for years. Be honest, you sometimes read aloud because you know what’s coming, right? That’s the problem, you know what’s coming, so you’re not looking at what’s right in front of you. The brain is known to fill in the gaps, sometimes missing glaring mistakes, and trust me, your readers will notice, and the unkind ones will rake you through the coals for it. These amateurish editing mistakes are where self-published books get their bad reputations. Join the Good Self Pub Revolution, hire an editor. Mine cost me $300, which, yes, is a lot, but I’ve seen them go for upwards of $200/50 pages, which, for me, would be $1600. So shop around, by all means. Also, remember that you’re paying them for an awful lot of time and energy and expertise. It’s also an investment in your own work. A clean, polished book will sell better and get better recommendations than a slapdash, typo-riddled manuscript. You put your blood, sweat, tears, and years of your life into this–don’t fail it at the end. Give it the best chance you can and the really good scrub it deserves.
Read Through–Read it once all the way through, cover to cover. Admire yourself.
Publish–Now start looking for publishers.
This is just the WRITING process. I’ll leave the self-promotion and publications process for another day.
So there you have it. When someone asks, ‘what have you been up to?’ and we sigh heavily and eventually respond with, ‘Oh you know…writing’, we mean THIS ^ All of this.
And when someone asks, ‘so when is it getting published?’ now you know why you get the stink eye.
I hope my little road map helped clear us some issues. Drop me a line if you have any questions!