How I Write

Once, many years ago, I took a “How to Write a Novel” course by mail through a major writing publication (the fact it was not available on the internet should suggest a number of years have passed since). The course material was good, but I had some issue with the instructor. One of the features of the course was the ability to send questions along to the instructor (a published author in your genre) when you mailed your assignments. I was curious about the rewriting and editing process and so asked my instructor what his looked like. His answer? For him and most of other published authors, their work was published the way it came out in the first draft.

I was devastated. I felt I possessed some talent for writing but also knew my first draft wasn’t up to the calibre of published works. I had some serious learning and hard work ahead.

A while later, I found a book on writing by James Michener in which he went into minute detail about his writing and editing process going so far as to publish copies of his first draft in the book (sorry, the name of the book eludes me, but it had a section about writing fiction and another about writing non-fiction, if that helps). It was crap, it turned out, just like mine.

Maybe my instructor was wrong. Maybe there was something to this editing thing.

Given my last name isn’t King or Patterson, I’m not sure anyone cares how I write. But still, there may be someone out there who stumbles on this blog wondering to themselves about the inner workings of a non-bestselling, barely published writer’s process. It could happen. Or maybe it will help some other poor author who unfortunately ended up with the same instructor as me. So here it is, in all its glory… How I Write:

1. The idea. I can’t say where they come from anymore than most writers, artists or musicians can. It’s different almost every time, from reading a newspaper article to seeing a picture to just putting words down on paper to see what comes out. Probably most often I see something or read something that sparks a ‘what if’ moment.

2. The development. Trial and error is the best way to put it. This step is all about the what-if’s, using the imagination and experimenting with ideas. A little writing might happen here, but not much. Anything beyond point-form notes most likely gets thrown out in disgust.

3. The outline. Yes, I outline, but it is not a rigid, unmovable thing. My outlines go through multiple drafts themselves, sometimes starting out only as a partial story path to be filled in and fleshed out as I write. A general idea becomes a timeline and then gets broken down into chapters and scenes, all of which are subject to change as the writing begins and progresses. On occasion, I may even know how I want things to end. Sometimes.

4. The writing. I am a linear writer. I begin at the beginning and continue straight on until I reach the end. It’s very rare I stray to a future chapter or go back to one already written. I also hate skipping a chapter with the intention of going back… I never find my way around to it.

5. The sigh of relief. The completed first draft sits in the drawer (the hard drive) for at least two weeks before I look at it again. These things need time to breathe and I also want the writing elves to have the opportunity to make my writing better than it was when it first came out of my fingers. Don’t laugh, more than once I’ve been editing and come across a passage I don’t remember writing.

6. The first edit. This edit consists of hunting down the words on my list of Bruce’s bad and over-used words. The list includes words indicative of passive construction (e.g.-was, were, had), wishy-washy lazy words (e.g.-barely, nearly, almost), and habitual usage words (e.g.-moment, that, still, turn). I also watch for poor-keyboarding errors that spell-check doesn’t catch (form instead of from, my instead of me). This may not sound like much of an edit, but it usually isn’t merely a matter of deleting the offensive words. Rewriting of sentences, sometimes entire paragraphs, is often necessary and this edit of my latest work-in-process cut over 3000 words from the manuscript.

7. The second edit. This is the full read through, the first time I’ve read the work as a whole. The first pass is from a high altitude, watching for continuity, character arcs, tone, etc. It’s about watching for all the elements of writing which are difficult to watch for. Large scale cutting can happen in this edit.

8. Take a breath. The manuscript is put aside for a couple of weeks again to gain some distance from the read-through.

9. The third edit. This time is the close-up view of the read through. I pull out my comb (which is always difficult to find given my haircut) and start pulling every sentence, every word between its teeth. I’m editing for sentence structure and length, word choices, punctuation, the whole works. Cutting happens on a small-scale during this edit, often one word at a time, but can add up to as much as 10% of the manuscript disappearing.

10. If you love something, set it free… The novel gets released into the hands of a few trusted readers — people who know how to tell me I suck if I do but can also tell me why a passage or character works for them when it does. This group consists of 3 or 4 people but I’m always looking for more if anyone thinks they have the ability and wants to volunteer.

11. Touch up edit. I take the input from my readers, evaluate it and make changes as I see necessary. (If one reader makes a suggestion or criticism, it’s up to me if I make the change or not. If two people or more make the same comments, the change is pretty much a done deal.

12 The novel goes out for a professional manuscript evaluation. I am planning on self-publishing all my work and refuse to fall into the “anyone can self-publish their crap” category. If it’s going up, it’s going to be the best I can offer.

13. ???  Not sure yet what happens when the manuscript comes back from evaluation, I’m currently waiting for the return of the first one I’ve sent off. I guess what happens next will be the subject of a future post.

By the way, I eventually found a book at the library by the fellow who was my course instructor all those years ago. It only took reading the first chapter to realize he was serious when he said his books were published they way he wrote them. Too bad for all those people who purchased his books.

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5 thoughts on “How I Write

  1. The need for editing varies from writer to writer and with experience. My first book needed an immense amount of rewriting and editing. But I think I’ve refined my processes overtime. A lot of the editing process happens in the outline phase, before I even start writing. Now, once I begin a book, I know where I’m going with the story right from the start, and if something I had planned needs to be changed, it gets revised as I’m writing the first draft. All writers need to edit to some degree, but I find my manuscripts at this point are usually fine with two rounds of edits, mostly minor things and copy edit items – a big change from my first book (my beta reader is astonished at how polished things are from the first draft). I still have writer friends who insist on editing things 20 times before they are satisfied. It depends on the person and the personality.

    1. Agreed. I find my recent work needs less and less adjustment. Too much editing can be detrimental — making changes and tweaking things can be endless if you want it to. But I don’t think there are many that just reel off a completely publishable manuscript without making some changes.

  2. Very much of what you say here is the writing path I take. I took a course from Humber College, by mail, and didn’t really get a lot out of it. (Years ago) I am a perfectionist, usually. There are times I would love to release something from the second or third draft, but when I read the story, the question, why always comes up. And that sets me onto another path.

    I’m not one of those that likes to read my own work. So, that makes the process a little harder. However, I’ve come across a few of my stories in magazines years later, and completely surprised on how well they read. Even to me!

    I too write from beginning to finish. There are a couple of stories that I have that were a combination of two stories merged into one.

    1. I have grown to enjoy the editing process and no longer look at it as a chore. It’s the time I really see the story taking the shape I may have intended from the beginning but got distracted from along the way or changing to something more exciting and unexpected than I thought it would.

  3. That’s really strange for me to hear. I’ve been taking creative writing courses at Camosun for a year, and I have an idea of what to expect at UVic now that I’m taking their WRIT100 course, and the most valuable part is the workshopping. It even says that on the UVic website. This is where you share copies of your work for others to edit. Big groups are better so you can get more perspectives and a larger range of experience (really important considering some people are serious about writing and some think the courses are easy credits). They’re supposed to go through it with a relatively fine-toothed comb, then you go home with the edits and change what you need to. Then you revise it again. And again. Maybe even again.

    Every prof I’ve ever had has consistently told his/her students to revise, revise, revise – as many times as possible. I love the workshop experience. I think it’s extremely valuable. And to know that some people don’t edit their work is appalling. If I had no one to read my work, I would revise it every week for six months straight.

    Editing is like make a good bread. You knead the shit out of it, you let it rest, you knead the shit out of it, you let it rest. And this goes on and on until you’re comfortable with throwing it into the oven (the hands of an editor/publisher/whatever), and BAM. The best goddamn sourdough you’ve ever had in your life.

    (Reading your work out loud is surprisingly helpful, too.)

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