13 Steps to Publishing a Novel (That I’m Glad I Didn’t Know Before I Started)

I began writing my work-in-progress (WIP, in the industry slang) in May 2013 because Annie Lamott said if I didn’t get started then, I never would. I promised myself one hour a day, and I stuck with that.

The first few weeks were delightful (I’m pretty sure my memory is foggy on this–it may have been delightful in the same way that the first few weeks of motherhood are delightful–painful, wet, stinky, sleepless, horrible, and now-I’ve-forgotten-all-that-and-only-remember-the-first-smile). I found I could write a little more than 1,000 words a day on average. Based on Google research, I only needed about 50,000 or so to make a complete young-people’s novel.

Math isn’t exactly my thing, but based on my sketchy understanding of how many hours there are in an hour, and how many days there are in a 30-day month, and how many 1,000s there are in 50 thousand, I guessed it would take me about two months or a little less to complete my novel.

Wow, whizz-bang, pow! as Stephen King would annoyingly say.

I’m pretty sure that’s what he would say because it’s the sort of thing a juvenile* says right before dropping a bomb.

The bomb: Writing a novel is way more than getting words down on the page. Writing a novel takes years. If I had known that this fact would apply to me before I got started, I would have begun with more humility. It’s also possible I wouldn’t have begun at all.

Note: October includes several weeks of planned downtime. Most months demonstrate the indicated one hour a day.

Note: October includes several weeks of planned downtime. Most months demonstrate the indicated one hour a day.

So read on with caution. If you’re contemplating becoming a novelist, this may dissuade you (don’t let it). Here are the approximate steps it takes to get from idea to finished, published novel. Time estimates are based on roughly one hour a day (your mileage may vary).

1. Vomit it up, aka first draft. It’s hard, and fun, and fast, and heartbreaking, and grueling. (Time: 2 months)

2. Tear it to pieces, aka first revisions/second draft. “Write drunk; edit sober”–gotta love Hemingway. I have nothing else to say about this except It’s Hard. (Time: 3 months)

3. Put it back together, aka second revisions/third draft. This is where I am now. It’s not as hard as step 2, just time-consuming. No adrenalin rush, all slog. (Time: At current pace, roughly 2 months)

4. Offer up your sacrifice on the altar of pain, aka beta release. This is where you send your baby to a few trusted readers and find out whether everything you’ve devoted the past seven months to is worth a sh*t. (Time: Depends on how fast your betas read/comment and what else is on their plates. Maybe 2 months?)

5. Go to hell, aka review feedback & revise again, aka completely rewrite the whole dang thing, probably. Or toss it. Whatever. (Time: I’m guessing about 2-3 months)

6. Seek a champion, aka research agents. Assuming you even get this far, most major publishing houses will not even glance at your book without an agent. Plus, the agent negotiates contract terms and other unsavory activities with which you wish not to sully yourself. Of course, as in any field that professes to help people, there are more shady agents than good ones. All you gotta do is sort out which are which, and who actually wants to see your book. Check the acknowledgements in similar types of books, read Writer’s Market, Google, check #pitmad and #mswl on Twitter. Go to conferences. (Time: Maybe a few weeks? Days? I dunno.)

7. Prostrate thyself, aka write a query letter & send it to agents. This one is no big deal–all you gotta do is take the 85,000 words you’ve slaved over for 12 months and condense them into 200 words that will jump off the page in such a manner that a good agent, whose inbox is packed with ten thousand story ideas they’ve received just this month, will decide she absolutely must read the rest of this particular book. No problem. (Time: Maybe a few weeks… months? I have no clue. I’ve been gradually honing my query letter as I go, since it also helps to refine my thinking about the book itself, so I guess maybe this could feasibly be complete while the book is out in beta and therefore not add anything to the total timeline)

8. Receive rejections aka receive dozens of rejections. Become depressed, but keep sending the query out anyway until someone bites. If you’re lucky. (Time: Weeks, months, years. Who knows)

8. Tear your hair out, aka revisions based on agent feedback. (Time: No clue. None. Just be glad you found an agent to take your work)

9. Wait. Once you have an agent, and you’ve done what they asked for to your manuscript, you wait for them to find the right publisher. (Time: Who knows. JK Rowling’s agent took a year to find her a publisher for The Philosopher’s Stone. Isn’t that encouraging?)

10. Celebrate. Briefly. Aka, you’ve got a publisher, and maybe an advance, and THIS IS WHAT YOU’VE BEEN WAITING FOR. Except:

11. Revise and edit. Again. No kidding. The publisher will have his or her own ideas about the book, and now you get to make even more changes. (Time: I wish I knew)

12. Wait. Again. It takes time to get cover art, typesetting, edits, and on and on and on… (Time: I’ll let you know someday)

13. Repeat.

*All evidence to the contrary, I actually really like Stephen King, especially his book “On Writing.” I think he’s a pretty amazing human being and if I didn’t actually like my dad even better, I’d want him for a dad. He can be pretty silly sometimes too. Pow!

P.S. My book has a title. Yes, I have a habit of burying big reveals at the bottom of long posts about other things. Maybe I’m shy. Maybe I just want you to get in the habit of reading the whole thing. Probably the former.

P.P.S. My book’s title is: COME BACK AS RAIN.

Timelines and Climaxes

Yesterday I took the keys to Mom’s Cruiser, a box of snack bars, two kids–Eli, age 9; Everett, age 5–and headed down the rutted, twisting road to the bottom of the 9500-foot-elevation “hill” atop which my parents live. We drove into Florissant with $40 in cash and a thirst for adventure.

We came back with one (1) smoky quartz piece, and twenty-seven (27) or so flakes of paper shale bearing the impressions of insects, flower buds, seeds, and leaves that lived and died 35 million years ago.

Fossil Hunting

None of this has anything to do with my novel or progress thereon right now, and neither do any of the six other entries I’ve started and abandoned in the past day here. It’s just too hard. The work is hard, writing about the work is hard. But here we go. Here is what I’m doing:

  • Working on a detailed timeline. In Excel. So help me.
  • Trying to get two characters to reunite with each other in the same place at the same time, instead of three months apart as their current timelines show them doing.
  • Trying to get seven (7) POV characters to meet at the same time in the same place for the climax without ruining any of their individual timelines.
  • Trying to figure out why each of those seven (7) POV characters even wants to be there for goodness sake.
  • And what each of them is doing during the climax.
  • And what each of them is thinking during the climax.
  • And then, finally, from whose point of view the climax will actually be told.
  • And also exactly how I feel about the fact that today, one of the search engine phrases that led to my blog was “sobbing after climax.”
  • And wondering whether I really want to keep writing about climaxes or not.
  • And definitely wondering whether I really want to keep writing climaxes or not.

But of course I have to. Writing them because I have to finish my book. Writing about them because reaching climax is hard for me. (I’ll let you know when Google searches for “Why is reaching climax hard for me” start leading to my blog. It will be a proud moment, surely. (I apologize to anyone who has arrived via that search. This is not the place to get that kind of help. But if you’re writing a book, now, come on in. We can help with that. Or at least empathize with how hard it is.))

So I just keep getting up an hour early and plugging. I thought I’d be done with my second draft next week, but now it looks more like next month or next year or maybe next decade.

Possibly by the time I’m done, the mosquito that ended up smashed between two pages of my first draft will be as old as the fossils in our paper shale fragments.

If anyone has tips, ideas, or inspiration for getting through this last part of the second draft… please. Share. I’d like to finish sometime this millennium.

Leaf fossil

Breaking

Cutting. Fighting. Breaking. That’s how I’m starting to title all my blog entries.

It’s possible I’m a little stressed.

The doctor has prescribed two weeks in Hawaii. Ha. Ha.

I am prescribing one week break from my book.

I wouldn’t have the strength to do it were I not also convinced that it will make it a better book. I know that there is a time for distance, and now is that time.

My main character needs work. My subconscious needs time. My body needs sleep.

I’ve been working on my novel every single morning (minus two) for at least one hour (often more) since May 1. That’s very nearly 90 days straight. Taking a break.

I’m skipping out on the blog, too, unless I see something I just can’t not post. This is perhaps the hardest bit, because the blog provides instant gratification. Stats! Comments! People paying attention to me!

I need a break from that too.

A part of me, the manic part, is terrified that if I take this time off, I won’t go back. That this is the beginning of the end. Telling you this publicly, announcing my intent, is my way of soothing Manic Me. No, no, dear. I will be back. I will. This is all part of the plan.

One week from today. I will be here, on this blog, announcing my return. And my book will be one hour closer to completion.

In the meantime, I’m going to be spending more time like my son here:

Monty asleep

I’m going to take care of myself.

Maybe I’ll get a manicure. (I couldn’t say that with a straight face to my husband but I can pull it off here. Probably still won’t happen. Not really my bag. Maybe a massage though. Yeah. Maybe a massage).

Ciao for now. See ya on the other side.

Like a Fighter

I totally ripped this photo off. Click to see original source.

This is me. But only metaphorically. I totally ripped it off. Click to see original source.

I feel like a fighter. Scratched and bloodied with a smashed-in nose and mangled fingers. This morning I got up not wanting to write. The thought that kept me going was this: Mornings when I don’t want to write usually end up being the most productive of all. This was not one of those mornings.

It was brutal.

I completely rewrote the last half of a chapter that I’m sure is worse now than before. Nothing happens, no change from start to finish. Well, there’s change, but it comes from outside instead of integrally from the events of the scene.

An entire hour of struggle, and I’m going to end up cutting the whole chapter, the work of several days.

But it’s not about the chapter. It’s about the whole book. My protag is boring. I love him, but he’s not interesting. He’s… lethargic. And slow. Not dumb, he just moves slow. And nothing interesting ever happens to him. Which makes no sense, because EVERYTHING happens to him, so why isn’t it interesting?

Is my book hopeless if the main character is boring even to me, his creator? If all I want to do is get through his chapters to the next, where there are vibrant characters and interesting things happening?

And is it actually boring? At one point, I cut a bunch of “boring” exposition from another chapter. Carey read the revised version and without ever having seen the removed portions, told me to put a bunch of stuff in the chapter that happened to match up with the stuff I had taken out.

Impossibly frustrating and lonely this writing thing.

Ugh.

Why is this so hard?

Just Write the Damned Book Already

Read that. There, above. Click through and come back. That was helpful, wasn’t it? Apparently, it’s hard for everyone. And the fact that I’m doing this comes with a reward: The right to be inwardly snide when someone says to me, “Oh, you’re writing a novel? I have a great idea for a book too.” Yeah, I’m sure you do, but I’m actually writing one.

Only, I will not be snide with you if you tell me you have a great idea for a book. No. I am not in the mood to be nice. I intend to leave you writhing on the ground in a bloody, bruised, shivering lump. So I’m going to tell you to write the book. And I’m going to mean it.

Go ahead. Try me.

(P.S. Don’t watch that video if you’re easily offended. Or ever offended. It’s pretty offensive. I put it there so you will be very clear just exactly how bad*ss I am. I will tell you to write that book.)

Cutting

Me and my beat-up manuscript resized

 

This is where I am. I printed the whole thing out this morning (my printer is demanding a new toner cartridge), and started cutting, quite literally, and rearranging. I think all the existing scenes are in the right order now. I’ve got blank sheets with a few hand-written notes for scenes to be added. And several sections with a big note at the top that says: Probably CUT. Everything is clipped according to which section of the outline it goes with.

Here’s what it looks like put back together.

rough rough manuscript resized

Satisfying, somehow, to have it all printed out, even if it is still crap. Feels more real. I wrote that. I can’t tell if it’s actually longer than my college honors thesis, which seemed so immense at the time, but I think the thesis was probably a fourth this long. Who knows. Memory is a funny thing.

I worry, in fact, about it being too long. Where can I cut? Where can I cut? Which scenes don’t I need? What can it live and breathe without?

I feel this way about my life too.

I’m tired. I’ve been getting up at 5am for months now to work on this book. It’s taking its toll. I slept all afternoon Saturday and Sunday. I’m still tired. Our naturopath told us recently that unless we can find a way to get a break, like maybe two weeks in Hawaii once a year (originally, I typed “once a month” here, and caught it on a re-read. Ha. My subconscious is maybe sending me a message?), our bodies are just going to keep breaking down and keep having to be fixed. We’ve been slogging for a long time.

But what can I cut? What can I live and breathe without?

My extended family? I make the effort to go see them… an expensive and time-intensive prospect that leaves little time nor money for weeks in Hawaii. I do this because I love them and I know I won’t always have them.

My pets? They rely on me. The streets or euthanasia without us. Not a viable option.

My kids? They’re my kids. Don’t be daft.

My clients? They take care of me. I don’t see the poorhouse as a viable option.

Business development? An option. But without biz dev, I have no long-term plan that will get us off the treadmill.

My husband? Ha. Not even close. He feeds me, emotionally and spiritually. AND literally–he does this magical and wonderful thing called cooking. Besides: Life without him would be a barren wasteland by comparison. What would be the point?

Self care? Hm. I take care of myself when I remember so I don’t get sick and lose the ability to do all of the above. Seems important.

I’ve already cut these scenes: Television, video games, house cleaning, laundry (though I am rather tired of pulling dirty dress pants out and putting them through the dryer with Febreze twenty minutes before a client session always only having one clean pair of pants ready), hanging with the kids, hanging with friends (mostly), hostessing, and pretty much anything having to do with food except whatever bare minimum I can get away with and not have DSS showing up at the door.

I don’t see what else I can cut. Not really, not viably and responsibly and in any way that will ultimately be more fulfilling. So I suppose I’ve gotta just keep cutting the sleep scenes. Those are always boring anyway.

What are you cutting from your life so you can write? What are you cutting from your book?

P.S. Look closely at the picture at the top. That is indeed a spare tire fat around my midriff. I asked Carey to airbrush it out. He said okay. I said, no, don’t. I want him to do it. And I won’t let him do it. I believe in the truth, even when it’s uncomfortable. This is what sitting at a computer and eating chocolate to stay awake looks like. I won’t airbrush the ugly details out of my life. I am chubby. I’m gradually writing that scene out of my life. Unfortunately, it requires adding these scenes: Weight Watchers and running. The latter takes no extra time–already walking the dog. Now I run the dog. The former adds a couple extra hours to my life: Weekly meetings and tracking every bite I eat. Cutting sometimes requires adding. Just like when revising a novel.

 

 

First to Last in A Single Cycle?

Here is the best thing I’ve seen recently, in terms of solid practical advice for revising a novel. And also the worst:

From First Draft to Last in One Cycle

Some of the techniques in the “Part One-Discovery” section seem particularly useful: Writing a one-line story arc, finding and listing the themes. Her systematic approach, from major changes to minor, is good sense. And she doesn’t really leave anything out. Very handy guide.

But really. All in one pass? Insanity.

I get the point of limiting it, not getting bogged down. And to me, trying to do ALL THAT in a single pass would totally bog me down.

What about you? How many revision cycles do you go through? Anything in that article you are already doing? Anything new you plan to implement?

From Narky's very funny blog. Click to check Narky out.

Writing Later

Still Life With Manuscript

Here’s roughly what one hour of revision looks like for me:

  • 20 minutes getting back up to speed on where I left off. Gathering the threads, reminding myself where I was and what I was planning, re-reading my notes.
  • 20 minutes staring into space and/or jotting more notes, rearranging the outline, filling in details on scene order, typing notes into character sheets.
  • 10 minutes rearranging things inside the main document.
  • 10 minutes cutting scenes and writing or rewriting others, and generally being productive.
  • Done. Time to close it down and move on with my day. I’ll have to start over again tomorrow.

This does not feel productive to me. It is too big to do this in only an hour a day. Too much ramp-up time for each session.

I told Carey this and he said why not consolidate, and write for more hours on fewer days. Maybe. How about just plain more hours?

Today I wrote for two. Perfect. Enough time to prep my brain, gather the threads, be productive for a long stretch, then plan tomorrow’s work, which will reduce tomorrow’s ramp-up time. Sadly, the day has not obliged me by adding an extra hour to my tally for other things I must do. How can I sustain this?

It’s weird how my perception of myself has shifted while writing this book. Revising is hard but there is this one thing I like: As I finish a round of revisions on each chapter, I print it out and add it to the growing manuscript beside my keyboard. It’s bound with a clip at the top, and several sheets of notes attached at the front. And it sits there all the time and this is the thing:

It feels like it’s my work.

That didn’t come out right. What am I trying to say? I once thought my children were my work. They are not. I love them, I have a role to play with them, but they are their own people, they don’t belong to me, they’re a very special play I am privileged to watch from the front row, and sometimes join in.

In a sense, my business is my work, it’s consuming and I love it, and I believe in it. Same with my blogs–not as consuming, but I do love them, believe in them.

But this, this is my Work. It is what I am here for. Not this book in particular, necessarily, but all the fiction I will write. The growing stack of paper, my manuscript, is simply the physical manifestation of my purpose in life. I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to realize this.

Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Thursday. Those are days I can sleep later. Monday because Carey is home with the kids and he walks the dog and there’s no rush to get everyone ready for the day. Thursday because I’m home with the kids and, although I usually work, I don’t generally have client meetings. I sleep till 6 or 7 on those four days. A year ago I would have laughed at the notion that “6 or 7″ is “sleeping later.”

Ha. Sleep? Who needs it. Not me any more.

From now on, Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Thursday, are the days I get to write later.

Is This Normal?

I feel stagnant. This whole revision thing. Geez. Is it normal to feel like it’s not going anywhere? Like I’ve rewritten some parts so many times I don’t think I will ever ever finish?

What about the fear that the book is going to be twice as LONG when you’re done, even though you set out to cut copious quantities and make it SHORTER?

What about the fear that you will cut so much away you will have only a thin, anemic volume left at the end?

What about the fear that this will take ten years and maybe never ever be done?

Should I feel like I’m making progress? How do you measure progress during revisions anyway?

I can’t seem to find any good writing on this topic. Everything seems geared to the author who doesn’t know their book needs revising.

I know. Oh, I know. Believe me I KNOW. I can see that it needs revising.

What I don’t know is which bit to do next. Whether to plow forward and get deeper into the plot, or to go backward and rewrite earlier chapters so that the later chapters will make sense, or whether to go ahead and write the later chapters knowing that I will go back and change the earlier chapters later. When to go forward, when to step back. How to avoid getting so bogged down that the novel never gets done.

Whether to continue soliciting feedback from my family or to stop letting them read. This is a toughie. The feedback from Carey has undeniably made my early chapters much much tighter and better, and set them up for better flow later. The plot is better, the characters are better. But after every round of feedback, it’s hard to get started again. There is so much to do. Am I better off blarfing out a full set of revisions and then reincorporating feedback all at once later? Or incorporating it a section at a time, crafting it as I go?

Who knows. Nobody. This goes back to how lonely this whole writing this is. Nobody can tell me what to do next. I mean, guidelines, and rules of thumb, and basic principles, and all that. Yeah, I get that. But nobody can tell me: Work on this chapter now. Fix these problems next. Write that new scene right now.

K, novelist  friends. Is this normal? Or a sign that I may as well throw up my hands and quit. ;) (Just kidding. I’m not quitting. Not even if you say so.)

From Project Mayhem: Great little blog on writing middle grade fiction, check it out by clicking on the image.

A Book Review And One Easy Tip That Will Save You $1,138.

Twenty-three percent of the way through the first round of revisions. Not that I’m counting. I’m always counting.

Time for a book review!

(Also, I’m not really even close to 23%. I mean, I’ve revised that many pages out of the total. But the bits I’ve already done were the easy bits. There are entire new chapters that have to be written, and entire chapters to be demolished–or moved forward into the next book–and the holes between them patched up. I have to stop thinking about it now. It’s overwhelming.)

Time for a book review!

Farnam Street Blog is brain food for business leaders–it’s quite good, one of my regular reads. Recently, they talked about the value to one’s business career of writing a novel. Huzzah, I’m on a good track. They recommended several books on novel-writing, so of course I bought them all.

Whoops.

I’m currently reading The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile.

Spoiler alert: It sucks.

Maybe not exactly “sucks,” but I almost didn’t get past the seven-page introduction, in which the author discusses the importance of keeping one’s prose tight, by repeating over the course of seven pages how important it is to keep one’s prose tight by removing extraneous words because nobody is going to read seven pages of rambling so keep your prose tight.

I am not kidding.

I kept going though. The promise was strong: Agents speak out on the deadly errors that will cause an instant rejection in the first five pages. Must. avoid. deadly. errors.

Unfortunately, that compelling concept is a salesy mask for offering up a thin volume of tried (and tired) writing advice:

  • Limit your adjectives
  • Limit your adverbs
  • Make it sound nice (really? Oh, hm, that’s helpful)
  • Get your grammar right (so glad they warned me)
  • Show don’t tell (yawn)
  • Eschew obfuscation via erudite verbosity (I made that one up. It’s better than the other items in this list, see, and that’s how you can tell I made it up)

True, the advice is good, and it is shared in a (mostly) useful and (somewhat) engaging manner. For a beginning writer, it’s probably a great handbook to keep by your side. The exercises at the end of each chapter are good ones.

I would hope, however, that by the time an author is ready to submit her work, she would have already studied these things into the ground, so perhaps it would be better billed as a book for new writers.

The book does have one saving grace, however, which is Chapter One. This chapter contains a handy list of the do’s and don’t's for manuscript presentation: How wide to make your margins, how large the font, how broad the line spacing. Much of it can be found elsewhere, and considering the poor quality of the rest of the book, I will certainly be checking my facts before following his instructions, but (assuming it’s correct), it is handy to have it all in one place.

On page 27, almost as an aside, the author mentions that a manuscript showing very slight signs of wear, may be a subtle turn-off to a potential agent. This one little nugget, it seems to me, bears expanding. A slightly worn manuscript, even if not obvious consciously, indicates a previous rejection, and may prejudice the agent against it. This seems to me to bear the stamp of truth. We humans are so readily influenced by details slightly below our awareness, and we are inclined to be influenced by the behaviors of others. This is something I might not have thought of, nor found via a Google search on my own. I will certainly be submitting only fresh manuscripts when it is time.

More of Page 27′s insights would make this book a worthy buy. There are no more of Page 27-style insights anywhere else in this book.

Conclusion: Save your money and maybe go to a convention. Not that you can go to a convention for $11.38. But you could for a hundred times that. So, just avoid buying it 100 times, and you’re in. Easy.

So. What are you reading to improve your craft? How is it?

P.S. Chapter seven. I’ve done initial revisions through chapter seven. The snow has already piled up behind me so deep I can’t see chapter one any more for the snow. Heaven help me.

Huh. My first seven chapters are almost as thick as this crappy book I bought. Now, that's encouraging.

Hemorrhaging

In 1999 I was a proofreader at one of the big five accounting firms (hello, Ernst & Young). It was a lowly job, but life among the big five in those days was pretty cushy. I had a desk in the creative services department, smack at the center of the city, with a tenth-floor picture-glass-window view of downtown, a computer and internet access, free rein in the supplies closet and no-questions-asked use of the copy and binding center. It was practically heaven for a young writer.

My office was on the tenth floor of the building in the foreground on the right.

Unfortunately, to pay my ticket into this heaven, I spent most of my time reading financial documents, checking the math and the grammar, and marking documents up as I went. It was dull work, but there was another perk that was worth it all: Budget for career and skills training. When I wanted to take a class or go to a conference, all I had to do was make a business case for how it was relevant to my role, and as long as the total cost was under my yearly allowance for development, I could go, all expenses paid.

So of course, when the company offered a business writing course at the NYC headquarters, I signed right up. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was one of the best things I ever did for my career as a writer.

Somehow, in 12 years of public school, 4 years of private college, and 3 years of graduate school, and all the associated thousands of pages of required writing, nobody had ever taught me the simple and incredibly powerful principles I learned in that class–principles that apply as thoroughly to novel writing as they did to the business correspondence and deliverables we were practicing with at the time.

But wait, there’s more!

Sure, I’d had some good writing teachers. The one who encouraged me to keep working on that novel I started in 2nd year of middle school (sixth grade) in England, long after the rest of the class had finished that assignment and moved on to something else (Mrs. MacDougal. And YES she was just like McGonagall except half as tall and twice as strict).

That's me on the left. Just kidding. But I did wear a red sweater just like that, and I loved that school so very much.

The high school English teacher who taught me how to write in paragraphs (it’s true, I didn’t know what a paragraph was until that year–the glories of a nomad lifestyle–you miss some of the stuff everyone else takes for granted).

This was a terrible school even then, and the biggest regret of my childhood is that I had to graduate here, out of the three high schools I attended. There was that one good English teacher, though. Thanks, Mrs. Dodd.

The college professor who taught me how to think, really think and pull a hundred threads together to a tight and meaningful conclusion.

Top floor, third from the left, tiny little window poking out from rooftop: That was his office.

My mom (hi mom), who always believed in me and read everything I ever wrote (I don’t think she can keep up any more–sorry,mom). She still reads everything I ask her to read.

[No pics of mom on my computer at present. Hm. Where are they all?]

But somehow in all that, nor in 3 years of grad school at U of Iowa (to be fair, I studied classics there, you know, Greek and Latin, so maybe they weren’t all that concerned about my writing process) no one ever taught me a process for getting from idea to finished product. Every teacher I’d ever had taught me what to do, what the finished product should look like, but I had to figure out how to get it there myself.

It turns out I’m not alone in that. I’ve begun giving writing lessons to a young friend (in exchange for childcare: win-win), a high schooler who has had many writing teachers previously. After our first lesson, in which I showed him some of the secrets I learned from that business writing teacher (plus 12 years of self-study), and guided him through a practice session, he sat back with a look of relief and said, “This makes so much sense. I don’t feel so overwhelmed. Now when I sit down to write, I know what to do.”

And it’s clear to me from many, many conversations with adult writers that they feel the same way. Even those who are successful often can’t explain their process, because they’re winging it. Nobody ever taught them how to do it, they just figured out enough to work and they run with it. It’s pretty amazing, if you think about it–writers are brilliant folk. Still, wouldn’t it be nice to wing it just a little less?

So what is this amazing thing I learned, that frees young writers and old alike to really soar? What would you pay to know? Would you pay fifteen hundred dollars? What if I told you it was only $19.99 for three months?

Just kidding.

I’ll tell you.

It’s quite simple, actually. Well, okay, no it’s not. Because there are lots of pieces to it. But I will tell you the skeleton. And you’re going to roll your eyes because you’ve seen this skeleton before and you think it’s kind of trite. But I tell you, from the way they talk, very very few writers are actually working this system. And the thing about the system is, it works.

Here’s the system:

Step One: Prewrite. This includes activities such as outlining, sketching, mind mapping, brainstorming, and drinking yourself into a stupor in front of a computer to see what comes out of your fingertips. In the work with my young friend this week, we practiced brainstorming and then narrowing his ideas to three main points, with specific strategies for doing that. We did not practice with alcohol. Stop calling the police on me.

Step Two: Draft. This is the shitty first draft stage, to use Anne Lamott’s terminology, or SFD. Don’t think too hard. Just get it down. This is where my young student took each of the three main ideas and wrote them out into paragraph form with supporting ideas. For homework, he’s finishing those paragraphs and adding an intro and conclusion.

Stop the presses. You’ve never heard any of this before! It’s like a bold new horizon!

Right.

You’ve heard all of this before. Ad nauseam. And maybe–probably–you even do this pretty much ALL. THE. TIME. So shut up, Heather, and get on with it. Here’s the bit that most writers, as far as I can tell, are not doing. They’re not differentiating between the next two steps: Revising and editing in that order.

In our business class, there was a little chart with arrows pointing from one step to the next and these words: “The writing process is recursive: You can always go back, but never skip forward.”

And therein lies the crux. It’s easy to waste time worrying about grammar and style and minor inconsistencies, and miss the big picture. That’s what happens when you leap ahead to editing before you’re done revising.

What? Editing and revising? Isn’t that the same thing?

NO. Step 3: Revising. Step 4: Editing. Do not skip Step 3. Do not move on to Step 4 before Step 3 is done (or as done as you can get it).

Step back. I’m not going to tell anyone what they should do. If you’ve got a system that works for you ROCK ON and hit the fast-forward button. We’re almost done here. Maybe for other writers, stories leap fully-formed from their heads, like Athena, armed and ready to go, just maybe needing a little polish on the shield, a little edge on the sword. For these writers, revising is unnecessary and whether they use the word “revising” or “editing” to describe their post-first-draft-writing is completely irrelevant. It’s just tweaks, anyway.

But for me–and, I suspect, most writers–a first draft is an ugly, half-formed thing, closer to Hephaestus than Athena, and in desperate need of nurture before it is ready to face the world. And by “nurture” I mean, “ripping, tearing, and complete, painful re-organization.”

And that, my friends, is revision. It is not worrying over whether the tenses are correct or even whether the POV is accurate in every paragraph. When we skip ahead to editing (tenses, flow, POV concerns, sentence- and paragraph-level changes) before we’ve got the revisions done, we cheat ourselves of valuable time and energy, or worse–jeopardize the health of our creation, by becoming attached to words and phrases and paragraphs that maybe we don’t even need but how can we let them go once we’ve invested part of our soul in them?

Editing before revising is like trying desperately to save the damaged foot of a patient, working meticulously to reduce scarring and ensure optimal functioning once healing is complete, when the patient has just had her internal organs rearranged by gunfire and is busy hemorrhaging all over the operating table.

So, yeah. That’s one of my big secrets. And I didn’t even charge you for it. You’re welcome.

And, yeah. It’s heavy on my mind because guess what: My novel is hemorrhaging all over the floor and I’m worried about that right now, and not so much whether the grammar is right. Or whether individual chapters are perfectly polished gems. Or, really, anything except getting her guts patched up, rearranged, and functioning appropriately.

Where are you? Are you guilty of conflating editing and revising? What are your favorite tips on how to write? What helps you most in getting revisions done?

P.S. Proofreading is step 5. Last step. Last last last. Don’t you dare put that damn document on the lowly proofreader’s desk until you’ve done your revising and editing. She may be a future professional writer and novelist, but your name is on the by-line, so earn it, okay?