(Quick reminder: I’ll be on the Fierce Reads tour that kicks off this Wednesday! See the tour dates and locations here: https://www.facebook.com/FierceReads/events)
I’m thrilled that so many of you found this series of blog posts to be helpful and inspiring!
I’ve updated the links on the introductory post, so you can now read the series from the beginning here:
And now… Q&A!
Aimee asks: Do you start creating Pinterest inspiration boards and writing playlists during this phase or after you have a clear idea of the plot?
Yes, I start compiling inspiration photos and music from day one! Usually I’ll start a Pinterest board but keep it “private” until it’s substantial enough to be shared with readers. I also start seriously finding inspiration photos during the outline stage, as I find they really help me to start connecting with the characters and seeing them as real people. Same with music—whenever I hear a song that puts me in the mood of a story, I take note of it and when I have a handful, I’ll put them together in a playlist.
Alexa Lee asks: How long did it take you to research/brainstorm? Did you stop searching when you felt like it’s time?
For me, this varies by project. Sometimes I might be brainstorming and researching a story for years before I feel like I have enough inspiration to move forward with outlining. Other times the story will fill up my head really fast and I might only have a couple of months. It’s also dependent on my publication schedule and deadlines—I might have to “rush” the brainstorming stage so I can get on to outlining and drafting to make sure I have plenty of time for revisions later. I don’t like to rush the brainstorming part, because good brainstorming and research will save time later, but sometimes it can’t be helped.
Lucy (from GoodReads) asks: How do you come up with names?
I love babynamesworld.com, and I also have a Baby Names app on my phone that I’ve been using lately. You can search for words that have a certain meaning (many characters in the Lunar Chronicles have “moon-themed” names), or come from a specific country or culture, or start with a specific letter… you can get really detailed. Then I just start skimming through the names until I find one that clicks!
Sometimes I’ll also skim through my Twitter followers or Facebook friends and pick something that jumps out at me.
Natalie (from GoodReads) asks: Is it necessary to outline? Some authors said they don’t even bother and just plunge right in.
Nope! Though I can’t imagine writing without an outline, every writer will have a different process, and I know plenty of talented authors who don’t outline at all. I think it’s good to try different things and figure out what works best for you.
Aimee asks: At what point do you consider yourself to “know your characters”? When you’ve figured out what their motivations, backstories, and character arcs are? When their voice comes to life? Or something abstract like when they “come alive” on the page? And how many drafts does it usually take to get there?
For me, it’s the abstract answer—when they come alive. I feel like I know my characters when I can hear them in my head, speaking in their own voice, their own vocabulary, their own inflections. When they start making choices that I didn’t foresee or saying things that I didn’t expect. As far as when that happens, it varies by character. Cinder and Iko both came to me really easily, as early as the first or second drafts of the book. Other characters, like Kai, Scarlet, and Jacin, I didn’t feel like I had a strong grasp on until the fourth or fifth drafts of the book.
I also find that, no matter how well I feel like I know a character, they all still have a tendency to surprise me.
Rachel asks: My outlines are very specific, they contain fragments of dialogue, and things that will go directly into the first draft, written exactly the way they were in the outline. Should I make it more vague?
I think that’s fantastic, and I would never tell someone to change their process if it’s working for them! Everyone has their own process, so if your super detailed outlines are working for you, then go forth and godspeed!
Emily asks: How long have you been doing Nano? Also, what is the highest number of words you have done in Nano?
I’m starting to lose count, but I think this year will be my… 6th time doing NaNo? The most words I wrote was during NaNo 2008, when I drafted Cinder, Scarlet, and Cress back-to-back. That year I clocked in at 150,011 words. Most of my Nano wordcounts have been closer to the 70,000-word range.
Nikki asks: I was wondering, how do you break up your chapters? Is it scene by scene? Do they each feel a little bit like their own short stories? Also, do you write in chapters in the first draft and save them individually or is it one loooooong document?
I write in one long document, so that I can keep track of my mounting word count. (It can be super motivating when you start hitting the Big numbers – 10K, 25K, etc.)
As far as whether or not I’ll break it into chapters during the first draft varies by what feels right. A lot of times I’ll just insert a page break or a series of asterisks to denote the change to a new scene, and then divide them into chapters when I transfer the manuscript from Microsoft Word into Scrivener, or I might start off numbering chapters, but then at some point realize that things are going to be moving around, so then I’ll just put “Chapter 000” and fill in the numbers later. My chapters are always moving around, so I’ve found it doesn’t matter too much whether or not I number them at the beginning.
Most chapters will be a single scene, but not always. I try to keep my chapters somewhere between 1,800 and 3,000 words, for consistency and a fast reading pace, so sometimes a long scene might have to be broken up into multiple chapters, or two short scenes might be grouped together into one chapter. It varies.
Adele asks: What exactly is Scrivener?
Scrivener is a writing software program. Learn all about it here: http://www.literatureandlatte.com/scrivener.php
Eddie asks: Do you have to buy to use Scrivener? Is it better than Word Document?
Yes, Scrivener is a program that you purchase (right now it looks like it costs $40.00), although you can get a free trial. I like the flexibility it offers as compared to Microsoft Word, however, I did write Cinder and Scarlet in Word and it worked just fine. You don’t need a fancy program (for hundreds of years people wrote with parchment and ink quills!), but a program like Scrivener can be really helpful for organization.
Commenter Anid also recommended yWriter, which is free. I don’t have any experience with yWriter myself, but that might be a great, budget-friendly option!
Aimee asks: Would you recommend working on the preliminary stages–taking notes of changes to make, etc.–for multiple projects at once? Or would it be better to completely tackle one 2nd draft at a time?
It’s totally up to you! I usually have multiple projects in my head at once, so while I might be focusing most of my efforts on one project, I might be starting to brainstorm or outline another project while researching a third, and sometimes you just get an idea for something else and need to jot it down.
So for example, right now I’m focusing most of my efforts on Heartless—I’m currently working on revision draft #4 and planning to send it to my beta readers this month. However, I’m simultaneously outlining my Heroes series, researching my new Secret Project, and preparing to complete the final revisions of Winter. Yesterday I received brand new ideas for all four of these projects, because they’re all kind of jumbled up in my head at once, but that doesn’t happen every day.
On the other hand, I know writers who like to write one thing at a time before moving on to the next thing. We’re all a little different.
Christine asks: I had a question regarding how you get the colors for subplots to show up on the side of your synopsis cards in the cardboard view. I can only get one color, which corresponds to the label in the Inspector panel. Can you give a quick explanation of how/where you added the keywords and where to find the preference to have their colors show up on the side of the index cards?
At the bottom of the inspector panel, click the Key symbol to open the Keywords window. Then click the plus sign next to “Keywords.” Type the name of the character you want to follow, or some useful keyword to correspond to the subplot. (Important: you must spell it exactly the same in every instance, otherwise the program will think you’re creating a new keyword!)
To change the color, click the wheel/washer looking symbol above the Keywords window and select “Show Project Keywords.” You can then double-click on the color box of any keyword to change it.
To add more colors/characters/subplots to that card, hit the plus sign again.
Once you’ve added the keywords to each chapter, go back to your corkboard view. On the menus at the top, select View > Corkboard Options > Show Keyword Colors.
Another cool trick is that you can create a new “Collection” (see the binder listings on the left) of chapters that contain only specific keywords.
Let’s say I wanted an at-a-glance view of the romantic arc between Wolf and Scarlet. I could click on the key icon at the top of Scrivener and select the keywords “Wolf” and “Scarlet,” then hit Search. Now the search results on the left show me all of the chapters that have both Wolf and Scarlet in them. Highlight all of those chapters > right-click > Add to Collection > New Collection.
Now I have all of the Wolf/Scarlet centric chapters gathered into one place where I can specifically focus on how their subplot is progressing.
I certainly don’t do this for every subplot (or even every book!), but for super complex stories like those in Cress and Winter, it was really helpful to have these options.
Katherine asks: How do you keep organized with all of these different tools [Word, Scrivener]? Will you have your outline open in Word and Scrivener next to it?
Pretty much. You can outline in Scrivener, but for some reason I still prefer to outline and do my first draft in Word. (I don’t really know why… comfort? Habit?) So I’ll create my outline in Word, then I usually print it out so I can cross chapters off while I write. I do my first draft in a new, clean document to keep it separate from the original outline.
Once my first draft is finished and I’m ready to start revising, I input the manuscript into Scrivener and divide the draft into chapters or scenes. (See the Second Draft blog post for a more detailed breakdown of that process.) From that point through my final revisions, I’m working entirely in Scrivener, and then I compile the finished manuscript back into Word for my final tweaking rounds.
Of course, you may find that you prefer to work only in Word or only in Scrivener, or to alter your process in a different way. There’s no right or wrong way to do it!
Whitney asks: At what point in the TLC did you start sending out queries to agents? I’m writing a three book series now, have the first draft of book one written and am working on second edits. I also want to start writing the second book during NaNoWriMo….but I don’t know when is the best time to start querying. When I feel the first book is done? When I have all three written?
Well, what I did is a little unusual, given that I drafted the first three books back-to-back. So when I started querying the series, I was already on the second round of revisions with Scarlet, plus I had a first draft written of Cress and an outline for Winter.
The common advice is to focus on the first book—revise, revise, revise!—then query it before you get too caught up in the rest of the series, given that you can’t be certain whether or not that first book will sell or if your publisher will even want a series from you. I think that’s good advice, but I also knew that for the Lunar Chronicles to work, I was going to have to hint at and foreshadow a lot of things in the coming books. So it was important for me to have a clear idea of where the series was heading before I queried it, and it was really important to me to sell it as a four-book series.
It had the potential to backfire. I could have spent years and years working on these books only to have them never sell, which is why they generally say not to do this. But it worked out for me, so…. yeah.
I don’t know if that’s a helpful answer. I suppose a more useful answer would be: Query the first book when it’s as good as you can possibly make it. If you can make it phenomenal without delving into the rest of the series, then that’s probably your safest bet. But if you need to see a bigger picture to perfect that first book, then do what you need to do to get that big picture.
Alice asks: How many drafts into Cinder did you wait before trying to get publishers to look at it?
I had completed approximately six revision rounds plus three editing and polishing rounds, just as described in this series of blog posts. Again, it’s very possible I could have been wasting my time going the extra mile to “perfect” the book before approaching agents and publishers, but in the end I think this is also what contributed to the series selling so quickly. Also, after Cinder sold, my editor had very, very few revision notes for me, so all that time spent on the book before looking for a publisher paid off in the long run.
Emily asks: How many words usually make up a standard page?
It depends on the font, font size, and margins, but most YA books have about 250 words per page. I think mine are closer to 225 words per page.
Emilia asks: What is the font used in the Lunar Chronicles?
The cover font is Aeronaut and the interior text is in Cicero.
Juno asks: I am so excited that Winter is black! As an African-American, it feels great to see a black character who gets to take center stage. I was wondering if the cover would illustrate that at all (i.e. an ebony hand holding an apple, etc.?) Two other questions: one, when did you and what made you conceive Winter as black? And two I was wondering if you could tell any little thing about your next series, anything at all? I’ll even take knowing what a character ate for breakfast!
Thank you, I hope you’ll love her!
I haven’t yet seen any cover compositions, so I don’t know what the designer is planning, but I think it’s a safe bet that it will include a red apple. If we do see any of Winter on the cover, I trust my publisher to do her justice.
As far as conceiving her as black, it was one of those things that just sort of happened. In my early, early planning stages of the series, I’d expected her to be your typical Snow White – skin as white as snow, hair as black as ebony, lips as red as blood. But then one day I was reading a diet & nutrition blog and stumbled onto a picture of this beautiful African-American model with thick, curly hair biting into a red apple, and I instantly thought—OH, that’s my princess!
So that’s how it happened. Not very scientific, lol!
The next series is still in so much flux that I don’t have much to tell, but I hope to make my inspiration board on Pinterest public by the end of this month, and start introducing everyone to some of the characters. I am planning on writing the first book during November. Eep! New stories are so exciting!
Ruchika asks: What if you want illustrations in your book? When does that come in?
That is a really excellent question, and I’m afraid I don’t have a good answer for it, given that none of my books have had illustrations before! I know that some books are sold to the publisher with the illustrator already attached, such as Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan trilogy, and I believe that he and the illustrator worked on the text and illustrations simultaneously. In other instances, I would imagine the text gets sent to a freelance illustrator around the same time as the copyeditor, for them to begin drafting images… but I’m honestly not sure what’s “normal.”
If any readers have inside info on this part of the process, please let us know in the comments.
Thanks to everyone for your questions. I sincerely hope that my answers were helpful!
Good luck to you all with your writing projects, and for everyone who’s doing NaNoWriMo this year… happy writing!!
The book is in the hands of the publisher and for once, you can take a breather! Hooray!
Depending on the publication schedule, this breather might be for a couple of weeks or it could potentially be months. I always feel like it takes forever to get my copyedits, but then, I also usually turn things in ahead of deadline. *knocks on wood*
First, the manuscript is sent off to a copyeditor. The copyeditor’s job is to check for grammar, spelling, proper sentence structure, consistency, and the like. Copyeditors are worth their weight in gold, because no matter how good you are at grammar and no matter how many times you’ve been over your book, your eyes will skip over even the most basic of errors. It’s human nature that we see what we think is there, not what is actually there. Plus, copyeditors know all sorts of things about tenses and participles that make most of our eyes go crosswise.
Will they catch everything? Probably not. They’re still human, after all. But they do find a lot of things that keep us from looking like idiots, and we’re all sorts of grateful.
The Magical Stet
All that said, sometimes there is a conflict between “correct grammar” and “the writer’s voice.” It’s the copyeditor’s job to make sure things are “correct,” but it’s within the author’s rights to stet any changes they don’t like. (Stet means: Ignore this edit, leave it as it is.) Sometimes we writers like to make up words or do weird things for stylistic purposes, and it’s okay to ask that something be left alone if it feels right for the story. In the end, these are your words on the page.
You can also continue to make changes at this stage as well, though your publisher will appreciate if you don’t decide to rewrite the whole thing.
After we’ve reviewed the copyedits, the manuscript goes to the typesetter. (This was my job before I became a full-time writer!)
The typesetter enters all of the corrections that the author and the copyeditor marked (hopefully without introducing any new errors, but again, we’re only human).
The typesetter also inputs the manuscript into the design file.
“Design file?” you ask.
So, at some point, the designer has created a design for the interior of the book. They choose the fonts and decide how big the type will be and how big the margins will be and if each chapter will start with a fancy drop-cap or lead-in or whatever. The typesetter takes the manuscript from the Word file and puts it into the design file and styles everything according to the designer’s instructions.
And when it gets printed out… voila! It’s starting to look like a real book.
Page proofs are the printed pages that show the book in its typeset form. They’re sent to the proofreader, who will compare these pages to the copyeditor’s marks and make sure all those edits were entered correctly. The proofreader is also checking for any errors that cropped up during typesetting, such as awkward word breaks at the end of a line, or weird characters that appeared when you changed the font. (Computers are weird and sometimes weird things happen.)
The page proofs also get sent to the author, and we squeal and dance around because LOOK HOW PRETTY IT IS and OMG I CAN’T BELIEVE I WROTE ALL THESE WORDS.
This is the part of the process when I think: Okay. I have been over this book a gajillion times. My editor has been over it. My beta readers have been over it. The copyeditor has been over it. The proofreader is clearly going to do an amazing job going over it. I am done! There is no earthly reason that I should have to read this blasted thing one more time!
Don’t listen to that voice.
Read it one more time.
The very experience of reading the book in a new font with pretty chapter headers will have you seeing the words on the page differently. You will catch mistakes. You will pick up on a bunch of awkward wording that you never noticed before.
While this is not the time to start rewriting entire chapters (which can cost the publisher a lot of money and make people annoyed with you), this is also not the time to get lazy. This is in many ways your last chance to make sure you’re putting forward your best work.
One more read-through. You can do it.
(On a side note… I’ve received the Fairest page proofs!! So that’s what I’ll be doing as soon as I finish this blog post. Reading it, one. more. time.)
Sales, Marketing, Design, Publicity, Production… all the non-writing-process related stuff
Unless you’re self-publishing and overseeing all of this yourself, there will be a lot of things happening behind the scenes that you’re only vaguely aware of, until you get an exciting email or your publicist requests some extra content from you or someone on Twitter tells you that your book is available for pre-order and you’re like, oh, hey, that’s cool.
In the months leading up to the book release, you get to see cover art for the first time. Advanced reader copies go out to reviewers and you freak out because OMG PEOPLE ARE READING IT. You write posts for blog tours and respond to interviews. You try to ramp up your own social media engagement without being totally obnoxious. You plan a launch party. You design and order swag. You run giveaway contests on your blog. You are a bundle of enthusiasm and excitement and panic and stress.
But mostly you kind of wish that everyone would leave you alone because you’re also on deadline for the next book, which is always somehow due at the same time that this book is releasing. You amaze yourself at how much you can get done when you really put your mind to it. You enjoy every moment of the book launch, while simultaneously dreaming about the quiet times when you’ll be back to just writing, revising, and daydreaming.
BAM—you wrote a book!
One day, you receive a box in the mail. You open it up and see the most beautiful thing in the world.
A real book, with your name on the cover.
You dance around for a while, post pictures on Facebook, maybe put some more champagne in the fridge. Then you get back to work.
Write a book, publish a book. Wash, rinse, repeat.
Next week I’ll comment on some of the great questions that have come up during this series. If you have questions that I haven’t addressed yet, now is the time to ask them.
Finally, after months of research, brainstorming, outlining, and drafting, followed by multiple rounds of revision, getting feedback from my beta readers and editor, followed by yet more revision…
The Book. Is. Done.
Well, sort of.
The major elements of the book are done. The plot is stable, I’m happy with my characters and their arcs, I feel like there’s good pacing and suspense and I’m happy with the climax and resolution, etc.
But the last steps before I can consider a manuscript “finished” and ready to send off to my publisher are my tweaking and polishing rounds.
Usually I’ll do three rounds of tweaking and polishing, but I’m looking for different things in each round, and they tend to go pretty fast. Depending on the length of the novel, a polishing round will take me anywhere from a couple days to a week.
Round One: Crutch Phrases
The first thing I do to polish the manuscript is hunt down as many crutch phrases as I can. “Crutch phrases” are the default words and descriptions that we writers fall back on when we’re not sure what else to say.
The annoying thing about crutch phrases is that they change. You figure out what your default phrases are, and then for the next book you’re aware of them so you don’t use those phrases as much. Unfortunately, your writer brain will just replace them with something else. So it goes.
When I wrote Cinder, my biggest offenders were “smiled” and “nodded.” My character were very cheerful bobble heads in those first drafts!
The crutch phrase I discovered recently in Fairest was “gaze.” My characters wouldn’t stop gazing at each other! Argh!
Crutch phrases can also be the way you describe a particular action. Do your protagonist’s eyes “fill up with tears” every time she starts to cry? Is heat forever “rushing into her cheeks”?
With Scarlet I developed a weird obsession with “lungs.” “She filled up her lungs.” “Her lungs contracted.” Thanks to my Dad for pointing that one out before it was too late!
You don’t have to delete every single instance, but if you notice yourself using the same description over and over, try to vary it. How else can you describe a blush? Or, better yet, how else can you show the reader that she’s embarrassed without mentioning her blush at all?
My method for hunting down crutch phrases.
First, I make a list of my worst offenders. Usually I’ll have started looking out for these in my final revision rounds and sometimes my betas point them out, so I’ll already have a list started. I add those “smiles” and “nods” and “gazes” too—words that I know have plagued me in the past.
I group like words together. Smile, grin, smirk. Gaze, stare, look, glare, glower, eyes (because eyes are constantly darting, slipping, squinting, etc.). Inhale, exhale, breathe, breath, lungs. Grimace, flinch, recoil.
Then, working through one group at a time, I’ll do a search in the manuscript and highlight each offending word in a different color. You can do this in Scrivener, but I usually compile the book back into a Word doc at this stage, so I’m going to break down the steps in that program.
A Quick Tutorial on How to Search & Highlight Crutch Phrases in Microsoft Word
In the Home tab, check that your highlight button is set to a color. (Any color you like!) The highlight button is found next to the Bold, Italic, and Underline buttons.
Hit Ctrl+F. This will bring up the Find and Replace box.
Click the Replace tab at the top.
Type the crutch word into the “Find what” box. (Note—if I’m looking for “glare,” I will actually type “_glar” ßwith a space in place of the underscore. This will pull up all instances of glare, glared, and glaring. Otherwise, you’ll have to do each related verb separately and it can be easy to miss some.)
Click the “More >>” button. This will give you more search options.
Put the mouse cursor into the “Replace with” box.
Click the Format button at the bottom. Click “Highlight.”
Hit “Replace All.”
(When you’re done reviewing and replacing that crutch word, you can hit Ctrl+A to highlight all of the text in the manuscript. Then, on the toolbar in the Home tab, click the little arrow next to the highlight button and select “no color.” It will remove all of the highlights in the document and give you a new blank canvas to hunt down your next crutch word!)
Now I have a handy visual of how often each word is used, and I start scrolling through the manuscript hunting down those highlighted words. Depending on what the word is, I might want, say, no more than one occurrence every two pages, or every fifty pages. If I see that Cinder glared three times on this page, I might delete one instance and change the other instance to a glower—and as I also highlighted each use of “glower,” I can be sure that I’m not repeating THAT word too many times, either.
My default when I’m doing this is delete, delete, delete. You would be surprised what readers can pick up from context. If Cinder is angry, then yeah, she’s probably glaring—you don’t need to spell out every instance. Ask yourself if this phrase really adds to the reader’s understanding of this scene. If not, get rid it.
When I really do want to keep this action, my second consideration is whether I can think of an interesting way to convey it that takes out the crutch word and enhances the prose.
Rather than “he glared,” maybe “fury sparked in his eyes.” Or whatever. Be creative. Really consider what it feels like and looks like when you’re angry.
On the other hand, be careful that you don’t overdo this. Sparking fury is going to be more noteworthy than a glare, and this technique will start to feel overdone and melodramatic if used constantly. Often times, simple is better.
A quick plug: A friend of mine gave me a copy of The Emotion Thesaurus a while back and it’s a great resource for this!
Round Two: Tightening the Language
I’ve already started to tighten the language by deleting as many crutch phrases as I could, but I also like to do one read-through of the story where I’m focused on deleting as many extraneous words as possible.
Yes, there might be a whole sentence or paragraphs I can get rid of here or there—when I realize that I’m going overboard on description or I’m beating the reader over the head with a particular explanation, but for the most part this round is all about getting rid of the little words and phrases that are unnecessary.
Or even better: this round is all about cutting out unnecessary words and phrases.
A few small tweaks saved me five words there. See?
Things to look out for:
He gripped the steering wheel in his hands. (What else is he going to grip with?)
She thought he looked angry. (She’s our POV character, of course this is her thinking.)
She ran swiftly. (Well, you don’t say?)
Adverbs, like swiftly, tend to be the worst offenders, although I’ve gotten better at not including them in the fist place. Nevertheless, they still creep up. Unlike some writers, I don’t think all adverbs are bad, I just think they’re guilty until proven innocent. Every one of them comes under the magnifying glass. If the sentence works just as well without the adverb (i.e., she screamed loudly), delete it.
And if you can think of one verb to replace the phrase—even better. Why have your characters walk sleepily when they can trudge or stumble?
Or to go back to my previous example, why have her run swiftly when you can have her sprint?
Another common offender: “that.”
I delete a lot of thats in this round. For example, the sentence in the paragraph above originally read “…I don’t think that all adverbs are bad, I just think that they’re guilty until proven innocent.” It still works, but those thats aren’t necessary. Leave that alone if it offers a melodic cadence to the sentence. Otherwise, delete!
You might be surprised how much a word here and there will add up. I routinely cut between 5,000 – 10,000 words from my drafts at this stage, without altering the story at all, and it will make for a cleaner, faster reading experience.
Round Three: The Final Read-Through
Chill the champagne! We’re almost done!
I always make time for one last read-through of the book, to make sure nothing weird slipped through the cracks. I’m checking for consistency, so any last-minute changes don’t conflict with each other, and looking for places where I may have introduced awkward phrasing in my attempts to get rid of my crutch phrases or tighten the language.
I aim to do two things with this read-through:
1. I try to read it as fast as possible, so I can get a “big picture” look at the story as a whole and, in the case of a series, how it works in the overall scheme of things. Unfortunately, I’m not a fast reader, so even a “short” book will usually take me a couple days.
2. I try to enjoy it. I don’t do this read-through at my desk. Instead, I make myself a cup of coffee, grab a blanket, and snuggle up in my comfiest reading chair.
While I’ll still be tweaking the text, I’m really trying to see the book as a reader might see it. Is it fun? Is it suspenseful? Is it romantic? This is often the first time where I think—you know what? This book isn’t half bad. Go me!
It’s a good feeling… and a huge relief!!
Then (FINALLY YAY OMG) I send it off to my editor, usually with a hysterical email because I’m always feeling a little loopy by this point in the process.
Then I pop the champagne.
I also clean my house because it’s inevitably a mess.
Later this week we’ll talk all about what happens to the book once it’s in the publisher’s hands!
Beta readers (also called critique partners) are, for most writers, an absolutely critical part of the writing process. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve told my beta readers that I don’t know what I would do without them, and I’m sure I’ll say it another gajillion times during my career. They are integral to me both on a craft level (they point out plot holes, false characterization, boring scenes, shoddy world-building, and all sorts of things that I never would have noticed myself) and also on a confidence level. Once my betas have looked at a book and pointed out its strengths and weaknesses, I am 1000 times more confident that I can send the book into the world and know that it’s not a complete and utter embarrassment.
What does a beta reader do?
Beta means second, so technically these are your second readers (the author being the first reader). Betas read through the manuscript with an unbiased eye—something that we, as the author, are incapable of. They point out places where the suspense fell flat, they tell you when your protagonist is being annoying, they pinpoint spots where it was difficult for them to suspend their disbelief, they ask for clarification on different plot twists or information reveals, etc. Some betas might focus on elements of craft (such as plot and character), some might focus on grammar and punctuation and really help you tighten up your language, and others only care about whether or not they’re entertained while reading your story. These can all be incredibly valuable elements for the author to get feedback on.
How many betas should you use?
I know authors who only use their agent or editor as their beta reader. Alternatively, I know authors who meet with a regular critique group of six or eight people. Like every stage of the writing process, it’s important to find what works best for you.
When I was revising Cinder, I had seven or eight beta readers, and while they all offered great feedback, it became obvious pretty quickly that this made for too many voices in my head. Plus, some of the feedback I was getting was contradictory, which made things confusing.
Now I work with three beta readers plus my editor, and they all tend to focus on different elements of the book, so I feel like I get a really well-rounded look at the story from them.
When is the book ready to be beta’d?
This also varies by author—some authors like to start receiving feedback during the first draft, whereas I fall on the opposite end of the spectrum. I like to get the book as “finished” as I can before I send it to anyone else, so that I know they won’t be pointing out flaws that I would have picked up on myself.
I find that with every book, I eventually reach a point where I’m just tweaking sentence structure and revising descriptions. This is when I know it’s ready to go to my betas. I don’t want to bother editing the book too much yet, because I’ll still be making big(ish) revisions once I hear my betas’ feedback.
Which means it’s time to let the book go for a while, and let someone else take a crack at it.
When you send your manuscript to your beta readers, it’s okay to ask about specific elements that you’re concerned about. I don’t do this for every book, but sometimes I might be concerned about, say, whether or not the protagonist is likeable. Feel free to let them know your major concerns upfront so they can tailor their response to your specific needs. That said, don’t overdo it! I try not to bog my betas down with tons of questions, as I don’t want to influence their reading. Step back and let them form their own opinions.
Taking Criticism with Grace
This is going to surprise approximately no one:
Taking criticism is hard.
It’s never going to be fun. You’re never going to like hearing that this manuscript you’ve been working on for months or years still isn’t there. You’re going to hope, every single time, that your betas (or agent or editor) will come back and say, This is perfect! Change nothing! And you’re going to be disappointed every time when that doesn’t happen.
It’s part of the process.
However, the great thing about beta readers (and agents and editors) is that you can get their feedback before it’s too late. There is still time to fix those flaws and make the book stronger, and wouldn’t you rather have this information now than see a comment on a GoodReads review and think, “GAH, why didn’t anyone tell me about this gaping plot hole before it was published?!”
Yes. Yes, you would.
So be gracious when you receive feedback. It takes practice, learning how to digest criticism without taking it personally and without feeling like a total failure, but this is a skill that can be learned over time. Be grateful that your beta reader put the time and effort into helping you and be mindful that everyone has the same end goal: to make this the best book possible.
When I receive my beta’s comments, I usually read through them, and then set them aside and let them mull around in my head for a while. I contemplate why something wasn’t working for my betas and start figuring out what will need to change to make it better.
A lot of my favorite scenes or elements of my books are things that I came up with to fix a problem that was first pointed out by my editor or beta readers. Hearing fresh opinions can open up your imagination to new ideas you never would have considered before. This can be a very magical part of the process.
To Change or Not to Change
I’d say that 95% of the time, I read my betas’ comments and think, instantly, YES—you are absolutely correct. I will fix this.
4% of the time I have an initial gut reaction—NO, you are wrong and you don’t get it and this is why! But then, after mulling it over, I’ll realize that they actually make an excellent point, and while I may decide not to take their specific suggestion, I can still adjust the story in a way that addresses their concerns.
Then there’s that 1% of the time when I disagree with my betas (and even my editor), and after careful consideration… I still disagree with them.
And that’s okay. In the end, it’s your book, and it’s important to stay true to ourselves as writers. Listen to your instincts and do what you feel is best for the story as a whole.
Just make sure you’re making decisions based on what you honestly believe is best for the book, not because you’re sick and tired of revising this blasted manuscript. If you know, in your gut, that the book will be improved by making a change—make the change. No matter how much extra time and work it costs you, make the change.
Trust me. You’ll be glad you did.
So… where do you find a beta reader?
I found all three of my betas through the fabulous world of Sailor Moon fanfiction. They’ve been with me for a long, long time.
But if you don’t have a writing-based community to share your work with, try joining a society of authors that write in your genre (such as the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators, the Romance Writers of America, or the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America). Join your local chapter, attend the conferences… network! Find like-minded writers and ask if they would be willing to swap critiques with you.
(An important word there: swap. If you’re asking someone to take time to critique your work, be willing to give their work the same amount of devotion.)
You can also try the forums on different writing web sites, such as fictionpress.com or figment.com (which is specifically geared toward young writers).
If you have other suggestions—please list them in the comments!
You might find that you have to work with a handful of different betas before finding one that you really click with. Some betas may not be familiar with your genre, or won’t give feedback that you find helpful, or will have a way of delivering their criticism that puts you on the defensive rather than opening up your mind to the possibilities. If a beta relationship isn’t working for you, keep looking. Your perfect beta reader is out there, and when you find them, you will cherish them like the crown jewels.
Once I have notes back from all three of my betas (and my editor, if I sent it to her at the same time), I roll up my sleeves for what will probably be my last round of major revisions.
I generally start by going through the manuscript and making any small, easy changes first, just to clear them out of the way—things like spelling errors and easy clarifications.
Then, just like with my earlier drafts, I make a list of more major issues that need to be fixed or adjusted. I brainstorm ways to fix them. At this point, I might run some ideas past my betas (i.e., “You said you were confused about the big reveal in chapter 28… what if I did this instead? Would that fix it for you?”) and listen to what they have to say. Sometimes it can be really helpful to bounce ideas off of them.
Then, just like with previous drafts, I dive back into the manuscript and get to work.
If you would like to tell my beta readers that they are awesome (because they are), or just follow them because sometimes they post non-spoilery reactions when they’re reading my manuscripts, they can be found on Twitter: @jojodacrow, @MegTao, @TamaraFelsinger.
Last week I talked about my incredibly involved, complicated method for writing the second draft of a book.
My method for revisions for each additional draft looks similar to that first revision round, but on a smaller scale. For me, the second draft tends to be the most headache-inducing, and from this point on it seems to get progressively easier. Each draft goes a little bit faster than the last one. Each draft sucks a little bit less than the last one. Each draft gets a little bit closer to feeling like A Book.
Read, Brainstorm, Revise, Repeat
Depending on how much time I take off in between drafts, I may or may not re-read the most recent draft before jumping into revisions. Whether or not I’m doing a complete read-through, though, I’m always looking at the book with a critical eye. I’m constantly asking myself: What don’t I like? What isn’t working? What can I do better?
I make a list of things I’m still not happy with (if I don’t already have one started), and start problem solving. Just like with the Second Draft, chapters move around, characters become more interesting, and world-building is expanded as I uncover more information about the story I’m trying to tell.
Maybe I’m still not happy with the romantic tension between the hero and heroine. So for this draft, I’m really going to focus on their relationship and ask myself how I can inject more sparks. Does their first meeting sizzle? Is there enough internal and external conflict keeping them apart? Are there enough reasons for them to be attracted to each other to keep them both from just walking away? Am I crushing on the hero, and if not, how can I make him more swoon-worthy?
I brainstorm. I take notes. I figure out what needs to change and start making a plan for how to change it.
Then, when I feel like I might have a solution that works, I start making those changes. Depending on the level of revisions still required, I might start at the beginning and work through the whole manuscript again, or I might determine which scenes really need my attention and just focus on those.
After the completion of each round, I save that draft in a special “drafts” folder on my computer, so that I can always go back and revert to a scene in an old draft if I decide that I liked it better than the newer one. (Note: I have never actually done this, I just like knowing that I could.) These old drafts also become a gold mine for things like “deleted scenes” that you can use for bonus content later.
You Don’t Have to Do Everything All at Once
There are a lot of things to keep track of when you’re writing a novel. Things like:
– Do all of your characters have logical and interesting character arcs?
– Is the villain a good foil for the protagonist?
– Do the subplots play a big enough role in the major plot?
– Is the world-building authentic?
– Are you bringing the setting to life through sensory detail?
– Does each character speak with their own unique voice?
– Does the romance include enough tension?
– Does the suspense build throughout the plot?
– Is the climax satisfactory?
– Does the resolution tie up all of the loose ends?
And on and on and on and on . . .
My point of listing all this is not to frighten or intimidate, but to show that it is a lot to take in, and impossible for most of us to keep in mind all at once. Because of this, I find myself focusing on different aspects with each revision round.
The first and second drafts are all about getting to know my characters and figuring out a plot that works.
Alternatively, the third draft might be focusing on the protagonist’s strengths and weaknesses and their overall character arc. Maybe this will also include working on the romance or the relationship between the protagonist and the villain.
The fourth draft, then, might be more focused on world-building and setting details.
It isn’t that I’m completely ignoring other aspects of storytelling during each draft, but it’s easier for me to concentrate on one thing at a time, rather than trying to do it all at once.
On Themes and Symbolism
Waaaaay back when I was talking about brainstorming a new writing project, I mentioned themes. Often, my first hint of a theme comes from my initial ideas for the protagonist. When I’m asking myself what my protagonist needs (acceptance, self-confidence, freedom) or what they’re afraid of (loneliness, death, abandonment), I’m tapping into some of the deeper messages that this story is going to convey.
At the time, though, that’s merely a passing thought. My goal is to tell an exciting story with interesting characters, not point out the social injustices of the modern world. However, at some point (usually around the fourth or fifth draft), some of these deeper themes have become inherent to the story.
Although I’m not the type of writer to intentionally plant a whole lot of symbolism in my work, I think it’s worthwhile to take some time and look at the larger themes in your story and see if you can intensify them. Themes can be anything from love, friendship, self-independence, or freedom, to war, envy, vanity, or prejudice.
While you’re considering what themes have cropped up in your work, also keep an eye out for images that keep reappearing. Half the time I don’t realize I’ve tied a specific image or prop in the story to a deeper theme until I start looking for it.
For example, in one of the later drafts of Cinder, it occurred to me that Cinder’s cyborg foot played a role in almost all of the Big Scenes throughout the story. Originally I’d focused so much on the foot because I’d been trying to foreshadow some of the story’s later events, but it occurred to me that her foot was no longer just a plot device. Rather it had, in many ways, become the symbol of everything Cinder hates about her cyborg identity. Her foot, which is two sizes too small, beat up, and sometimes missing entirely, was directly tied into her self-worth and her yearning for freedom—freedom from her stepmother and freedom from society’s anti-cyborg prejudices.
Once I realized how these two things had connected themselves, I went back and added in some descriptions to try to really bring this symbolism to the surface.
How many readers will notice? Very few, maybe none. And that’s okay. That’s good, actually, because the last thing I want is for a reader to stop mid-story and think “Oh, hey, check out that symbolism!” But my hope is that giving themes extra consideration will give more emotional depth and meaning to the story as a whole.
How Many Drafts / Revision Rounds?
I often get asked how many drafts I complete for my books, and the easy answer is: As many as it takes. There’s no rule here. Some books are more complicated and require more work. Some books come together really fast and require relatively few revisions. Most books fall somewhere in between.
Generally, I would say it takes me about four to five drafts to feel confident enough about a book to send it to my beta readers and editor. That’s the first time anyone gets to see it, and I want to get to a point where I feel like I’ve pushed the book as far as I can before letting someone else take a look. (Other writers choose to work with their betas or editor much earlier in the process.
Do whatever you’re comfortable with.)
Once I’ve sent it off to my betas and editor, I’ll get another simmering period, and then it’s time for my final round of revisions. I’ll be talking more about all that later this week!
Once I’ve had some time away from my first draft, it’s time to start in on revisions. Naturally, the first stage in revisions is . . . the second draft!
The second draft is the most complicated stage of my writing process, and half the time I feel like I have to re-learn this part with each new book, but I’ll do my best to break it down into something that seems halfway logical…
Note: This is the stage where I start using Scrivener, an organizational software program for writers. I’m a big fan of Scrivener, but it’s certainly not necessary. I’ll include notes following each step for how I used to do this before I had Scrivener.
1. Transfer the manuscript into Scrivener.
I started using Scrivener with Cress, and I love it. It really plays to my neurotic sense of organization (more on that later). But I still prefer to write my first drafts in Word, because it’s easier for me to keep track of word counts and my daily word goals.
So for me, the first step of writing the second draft of a book is to transfer the text of the first draft into Scrivener. I separate each scene into a different Scrivener chapter file.
Not using Scrivener? No problem. Skip this step.
2. Read through the first draft.
Reading through the first draft is often a humbling experience. No matter how inspired I was, no matter how thorough my outline, no matter how excited for the story—the first draft is inevitably a disaster. So it goes.
But before we can make anything better, we have to figure out what’s wrong with it, which is why this initial read-through is very important.
I am not making changes when I read this draft. I might fix a typo here or there, but anything more complicated than that gets marked as something to fix later. I try to read the first draft as quickly as possible (within a day or two), so I can get a feel for the big picture.
While I’m reading, I’m simultaneously doing three things:
1. I’m updating the synopses (aka notecards summaries) for each chapter in the Scrivener file. This way, when I’m done, I’ll be able to look at the 2-3 sentence summary for each chapter and know what happens in it.
Not using Scrivener? You can do the same thing by making a list in a separate Word file, i.e.:
Chapter 1: Scarlet is delivering food to the tavern. We learn that her grandmother is missing.
Chapter 2: Scarlet meets Wolf in the tavern. She sees Cinder on the netscreens and stands up for her. Brawl breaks out.
Chapter 3: Blah blah blah…
I also call this making my “scene list.”
2. I’m updating my list of BIG changes I want to make (I almost always have a list started from back when I was writing the first draft and already thinking up things that needed fixing). I’m looking for things like plot holes, flimsy characterization, twists that seem contrived, villains that are too boring or too easily defeated, romances that don’t sizzle, and the like.
3. I’m noting smaller changes on a chapter-by-chapter basis. I note these changes in the “Document Notes” portion of Scrivener, so that they’re kept separate for each chapter. These will be things like: Insert Iko into this chapter. Or, Give Cinder something to do during this conversation—maybe have her fixing something? Or, Give Thorne a knife here (he needs it later).
3. Plan the Revisions, Starting with the Big Stuff
Once I’ve finished my read-through, I’m starting to have a sense of what’s working in the book and what’s really, really not working. I review those BIG issues I want to fix and start brainstorming solutions.
For example, in the first draft of Scarlet, Wolf had amnesia—he couldn’t remember anything of his life prior to arriving in this small town in France. But in reading that draft, I was unhappy with how passive of a character this made him. I wanted him to be filled with internal conflict that stemmed from conflicting loyalties to Scarlet and to his Pack (which wasn’t possible when he had no idea who or what a Pack was).
So I decided to do away with the amnesia entirely, which changed the basis of a lot of scenes throughout the book. Chapters and chapters had been dedicated to Scarlet and Wolf trying to find out more about his past—hunting down police records and the like—and those chapters now either had to be deleted or altered to fit with Wolf’s new reality. To change something that had been so integral to the plot before is never an easy task, but I knew as soon as I made the decision that the story would be stronger for it.
I go through my entire list of BIG changes this way—figuring out why something isn’t working and trying to come up with something I can do to make it better or stronger. Some solutions come easily, some will plague me for weeks or months. Many things that are bothering me at this stage won’t have feel completely fixed until the third or fourth drafts of the book, but I do my best to start working toward solutions now.
Once I’ve landed on a solution that I think is going to work, I start moving chapter-by-chapter through the book and notating what would need to change in each chapter to exact that change.
In the case of Wolf no longer having amnesia, I went through each chapter and, if it was a chapter in which Wolf’s amnesia was mentioned or impacted the plot, I made a note like: Remove discussion of his amnesia. Or, This chapter no longer relevant—delete. Or, Change conversation and dynamic—Wolf comes to the farm because he has info on Scarlet’s grandmother, not because she was nice to him and he has nowhere else to go. Or whatever.
I do this for each “issue” that the first draft had, for every scene. Sometimes a chapter might require only one or two changes, sometimes it will be more than a dozen (and may need to be entirely rewritten).
4. Reviewing Plot Structure and Rearranging Scenes
Often, the massive changes required of a second draft mean that scenes will be deleted or added or moved around. This is the number one reason I like Scrivener—it makes it really easy to re-order chapters, no cutting & pasting required.
As I rework different elements of the plot, I’ll often use the “corkboard” function in Scrivener to see if the order of chapters are still making sense and rearrange as necessary. I’ll update the synopses of chapters as they evolve so I can always see, at a glance, how the story is progressing from scene to scene to scene.
I’ll once again think about plot structure. Is my “inciting incident” accounted for, and can it be more intense? Is the suspense building consistently and leading to a satisfactory climax, or do I need to up the stakes somewhere?
Not using Scrivener? A technique I used before (and still sometimes use when a plot is extra complicated and I need more flexibility than Scrivener gives me), is that I print out my scene list (see #2, above), cut each chapter into its own strip of paper, and spread those out on a large table. Then I can rearrange them in the same fashion, once again able to see the “big picture” all at once. Be sure to leave space in each scene to add notes as you brainstorm.
(Re-arranging the plot without Scrivener.)
5. Developing Subplots
During the outlining and first draft stages, I’ll no doubt uncover some subplots and they’ll no doubt factor into the major arcs of the story, but they don’t usually get fleshed out until the second draft because I was focused on the major plot before.
Now it’s time to start exploring those subplots in more depth, expanding them, and connecting them to the main plot in a way that feels natural.
In the first drafts of both Scarlet and Cress I was almost entirely focused on the major plots of the title characters—Scarlet and Wolf seeking out Scarlet’s grandmother; Cress and Thorne trying to survive the desert and get back to the ship. Meanwhile, I had a chapter here and there of the secondary plot (Cinder trying to learn more about her past; Cinder trying to stop Levana), but it was relatively sparse until the point where the subplots merged.
It wasn’t until the second draft of each book that I really focused on these and other subplots, i.e., pretty much any Kai or Levana scene!
When I’m planning out my second draft, I take stock of the subplots—what’s going on with the minor characters? Does the villain have their own arc? Are there things happening in the story world that need more development (such as a war or the ongoing spread of a plague)?
Once I pinpoint a subplot, I ask myself if it has a beginning, middle, and end, just like with a major plot, and if those points flow together in a natural way.
NOTE: SCARLET SPOILERS AHEAD.
In the first draft of Scarlet, I’d written the chapters in which Cinder and Thorne escape from prison and make it to the Rampion, and I’d written the end where they find Scarlet and Wolf and drag them out up into space. I maybe had a scene or two in between, but otherwise, there wasn’t much happening with those two characters.
So in planning out Draft Two, I had to figure out what they were doing in between these two major points of the story. How and why do they go find Scarlet? How are they spending their time aboard the ship? What is Cinder’s goal in this book and how does she pursue that goal? How can I maintain some romantic tension between Cinder and Kai when they never see each other? And also… Iko!
All these questions lead to ideas for new scenes. After that, it’s a matter of fitting them into the major plot (Scarlet and Wolf) in a way that felt balanced and natural. Easier said than done, ha!
END SCARLET SPOILERS
For more complicated books, like Cress and Winter, I used Scrivener to add keywords denoting subplots in each chapter, so that when I was looking at my corkboard I could see how often and at what intervals each subplot was mentioned. That way, I can see at a glance that, for example, Kai hasn’t been mentioned in the last twenty chapters (nooooo!!), which tells me that I should insert a Kai-centric chapter, or at least remind the reader about him somewhere in those twenty chapters.
Not using Scrivener? I’ve done a similar trick using colored sticky notes or colored game pieces from board games and placing them on my scenes (as described above).
(Denoting subplots using game pieces… just in case you weren’t yet convinced of how neurotic I am about this sort of thing…)
6. Always Make it Worse
And by “worse,” I obviously mean “better.”
I often find that I go way too easy on my characters in the first draft. Characters fall in love and get that first kiss way too early. The villain is too easily vanquished. The protagonist too quickly finds a solution to their problems.
The second draft is where I start making it worse for the characters. How can I challenge them? How can I test them? How can I push them beyond their limits? What cruel, awful things can I do to them now?
Sounds sadistic, I know, but this is where conflict and suspense come from. If you’re going too easy on your character, the reader will get bored.
Always be asking yourself, during every draft: How can I make this worse?
7. Write (Rewrite / Revise) until you have your Second Draft
By the end of all this prep work, I should have a manuscript that’s been rearranged and restructured in a way that will (hopefully) tell the story in the most optimal, suspenseful way possible. In each chapter I’ve listed a series of notes for the things that need to change in that specific chapter. I’ve added placeholders for brand new chapters and summarized what they’re going to be about. I’ve moved any chapters that are no longer applicable into a “deleted scenes” folder (because I’m paranoid about actually deleting anything).
Then… I start rewriting!
Like with the first draft, I give myself goals, such as “revise 2 chapters per day.” I also aim to write lineally, but like with the first draft, if I get stuck or am inspired to work on a chapter later in the book, I’ll do that if that’s what I need to keep up my momentum.
Compared to my fast first drafts, the second draft is sloooooooow. Anywhere from three to nine months slow. (At least, that feels really, really slow to me.) In this draft, I’m not so much trying to get through the story fast, rather I’m trying to savor the story and let my imagination explore the world and the characters and the plot while I’m rewriting it, so that I’m open to fun, new, magical ideas if they come to me. I’m much more focused on making the story click together as a whole and make sense and start to be somewhat readable.
My second drafts change a lot. With Cinder, I’d estimate I only salvaged about 10% of the first draft. Alternatively, with Heartless, I’d say about 50% of the second draft was new material. So the percentage has gotten better with each book, but . . . I’m still rewriting a lot, a lot.
It still won’t be perfect—far from it!—but this is the draft where it starts to feel like a real book.
After I’ve finished, I give it another simmering period before moving on to additional revision drafts, which I’ll get into next week.
In between each draft of a writing project, I make a point of taking some time away from it. I call it a simmering period. (Like making a soup or spaghetti sauce… you need to give it time to simmer so all the flavors can meld together and become delicious… just like merging all the complexities of your story together in your brain. Get it?? … I can never tell if this is a good analogy or not.)
Why Let It Simmer?
Simmering periods are important for many reasons:
1. They give you space from your book so that when you come back to it, you can see it with fresh eyes. When you’ve just finished a book, you’re too close to it—your head is full of it—and it’s difficult to pinpoint its strengths and weaknesses.
2. Your brain will keep working even when you’re not. It’s usually during these down times that my brain starts filling up with new ideas for the story. I come up with a better plot twist to happen during the climax, or a more romantic first encounter for the hero and heroine, or I realize why the villain was giving me so much trouble before and how I can make it better.
For another popular writing analogy: It’s like a well. When you’re writing or revising your book, you’re draining that well, so you need time in between drafts to let the well fill back up again.
3. It prevents total burnout. Writer burnout is a scary thing. It’s like, horror novel scary. Worst nightmare scary. So I try to be conscientious about my limitations and recognize when I’m exhausting my brain beyond what’s healthy. Sometimes you need a break so that when you come back to your book you can be productive and efficient again.
4. It will help you fall back in love with the story. I reach a point in every book where I start to hate it a little bit. (I’ve come to find that all writers feel this way from time to time, so I’ve stopped feeling guilty about it.) Writing is hard. Books are difficult. You’re not always going to be in that happy honeymoon period. But if I can set a book aside for a while and forget whatever was driving me crazy about it, when I return it’s like rediscovering a past love.
How Long is a Simmering Period?
How much time I take off from a project depends on many factors: 1. How far ahead (or behind) I am on that book’s deadline; 2. How far ahead (or behind) I am on other books’ deadlines; 3. How excited or impatient I am to get back to it; and 4. How long it takes for me to feel like the story is fresh in my mind again.
I try to give it at least a week. Ideally, I’ll have something set aside for a month or two, but it can be even longer than that if I’m working on other things and just can’t get back to it for a while.
This year, I’ve had Winter on the back burner for about six months. Why so long? Because the release date was pushed back, which meant my delivery date was pushed back; because I’ve been focused on Fairest and Heartless; and because the fourth draft nearly killed me and I really, really needed some time away from it.
On the other hand, I finished Draft #3 of Heartless on Friday, and I plan on jumping back into it later this week. Why the short simmering period this time? Because I got some new ideas over the weekend that I’m really excited to apply, and also because I’m eager to send this book off to my beta-readers and have it off my plate for a while—so I can get back to Winter!
What to Do During a Simmering Period
Work on Something New. Just because you have one book on the back burner doesn’t mean you can’t be writing at all. I love having multiple projects going on so that I might be outlining one book while waiting to hear back from my editor on another; or revising a second draft of one project while researching something else.
It can be incredibly refreshing to work on something new, get into the heads of new characters, and start exploring a new story world. It also keeps your writing muscles sharp and prevents you from falling into the “endless simmering period”—where weeks turn into months with no forward progress.
Read! We all have a neverending to-be-read list. Simmering periods are a great time to tackle some of those books you’ve been longing to get to! I generally like to dive into a genre that’s entirely different from what I’ve been living in the past few months, and I love light-hearted, fun reads during my simmering periods. But maybe this is your chance to tackle War and Peace? Reading is also great because it can inspire new ideas for your own project and motivate you to get back to it (when the time is right).
Watch TV and Movies. I’m not really a TV person, but I become one when I’m in-between projects. I’ll marathon all those shows that my friends love and I’ve never seen. TV and movies are also great for learning about plot structure and characterization. After all, they’re just another form of storytelling.
Also… sometimes our brains just need a rest.
Try New Things. I become very adventurous during my Simmering Periods. I take classes. I travel. I go do all those things that I’ve been saying for years I want to do someday. I get out in the community. I spend time with friends. I see shows. You never know where an idea will come from, and every new experience has the potential to work its way into a someday-story.
Tackle the Non-Writing To-Do List. I also become super productive during my Simmering Periods. Walls get painted. Artwork gets framed. Cabinets get organized. Gardens get planted. All those things that are forgotten or ignored when I’m neck-deep in a story suddenly become a priority. Use this time to catch up on the rest of your life before retreating back into your writing cave.
When to Stop Simmering and Start Cooking Writing
Okay, I’m officially tired of this analogy. Whatever.
Be careful that you don’t set a project aside for so long that you become an eternal procrastinator. Eventually, you’ll want to dive back in and get back to work! For me, I usually reach a point when I start to get those butterflies in my stomach when I think about a book. It starts to crop up in my daydreams. I start to get excited again.
Then I know it’s time.
Stay tuned later this week when we move on to what is (for me) the most difficult part of the writing process: The Second Draft!
At the end of the outlining process, which I discussed in my last blog post, I have in hand an outline that gives me a basic summary of what’s going to happen in the story from scene to scene to scene, and how this story will progress from beginning, through the middle, and all the way to a hopefully satisfactory conclusion.
Which brings us to… the first draft!
The first draft is definitely one of my favorite parts of the writing process. There’s so much that could happen. So many surprises await you! So many twists and mysteries to be uncovered! So many characters to fall in love with!
It can also be a very intimidating part of the process, because you have a grand idea in your head of what this story is going to be and if you start writing it and realize that it’s not coming together how you wanted or it isn’t as epic/brilliant/genius as you’d thought, well… that can be really frustrating. (Unfortunately, this happens every single time. Sigh.)
For me, I try to fend off the first-draft doubts by writing really fast first drafts.
Not every writer works this way, but I like to get all the words out as quickly as possible so that I can make ALL the mistakes that are going to be made in this first icky, messy attempt at the story, and then move on to the good stuff. (The good stuff being all the epic/brilliant/genius things I’m no doubt going to come up with during revisions.)
How fast is ‘fast’?
During the first draft, I generally write anywhere from 3,000-6,000 words per day, which means I can get through it in a month or less. (Fairest, my shortest novel, I wrote in about a week, Cinder took me about two weeks. My longest novel so far, Winter, took almost three months by comparison, and boy did I feel like a slacker.)
Of course, “fast” is going to mean different things for different writers. For some writers, 1,000 words in a day is a huge accomplishment, especially when you’re balancing day jobs and families and school and Adult Responsibilities. Not to mention that—writing is mentally draining! So don’t be discouraged if 3,000 words seems like an impossible goal for you. Be nice to yourself and embrace the pace that feels right for you. Progress is progress, after all.
One reason I’m able to write a fast first draft is because of that outline. It’s not that I never get stuck during this part of the process, but if something isn’t working out, I can at least look at my outline and see where I’m supposed to be heading.
In other words, I don’t follow my outline to the letter. The story inevitably takes on a life of its own, and I just try to keep up. But when I feel like the story is losing its way, I have that original roadmap to fall back on. I might take an occasional detour, but I can always look back and see where I was heading in the first place.
That said, there have also been times when I realized halfway through writing the first draft that my final destination was somewhere completely different than I’d originally thought. No problem! It’s easier to scrap two pages of an outline and rework them than to scrap 100 pages of a manuscript. I’m constantly fussing with and altering my outline as I discover new things about the story and characters.
Other than starting off with a decent outline, here are some strategies I use in writing my first drafts.
Strategy #1: Set a Daily Word Goal.
I’m big on self-imposed goals. I’d never get anything done without them!
I recommend choosing a daily goal that feels challenging so that you don’t squander an hour staring at the wall, knowing that you still have plenty of time to hit your word quota, but don’t choose a goal that seems so impossible you’ll get overwhelmed before you even start. Play around, find what feels right for you.
Part of the reason that the fast first draft works for me is because when I’m trying to crank out 3,000+ words a day, I really don’t have the time to stop and listen to that annoying inner editor. Did that last chapter suck? Too bad, at least I hit my word quota! It keeps me moving forward, no matter how the neurotic perfectionist in me is cringing at all the horrible choices I’m making.
Strategy #2: Humor the Internal Editor—but just barely.
Often it seems that just when things are starting to get rolling, that little voice in your head says, “That last chapter really sucked.” Or “This entire plot is a mess.” Or “Did you just write the cheesiest dialogue in the history of fiction? Yes, you did!”
The inner editor is a jerk, in case you didn’t know.
So that was the cheesiest dialogue in the history of fiction? Fine. Write that down!
My first drafts are filled with random notes like:
– “Come up with something less cliché here.”
– “Make this less melodramatic.”
– “Need this to be funnier” / “more intense” / “creepier” / whatever.
– “Need to research this!”
– “Make this scene less terrible.”
That way the Inner Editor knows that I’m listening—I hear you!—and that I will come back and fix this. Later. Like, during revisions, when it’s time to start fixing stuff.
Strategy #3: Always keep moving forward.
Sometimes I might go back and read the last chapter I wrote so I can refresh my memory of what happened and where the characters were when I left off, but that’s it. I don’t go back and read anything else when I’m working on the first draft. I just keep pushing through until I hit the end.
That said, oftentimes I’ll realize that something needs to change in an earlier scene. Just like with leaving myself ‘internal editor’ notes, I’ll leave myself a note for these changes too. I might go write it down in the chapter that needs to change, or I’ll keep a separate file with a running list of things that need to change in revisions. Things like: “Insert the villain into chapter 3 so they can overhear the conversation between hero and heroine” or “Show early on that the protagonist has a black belt in karate so the final fight scene isn’t so random” or “you know what, let’s make this character an only child—delete all mentions of their older brother!”
Once I’ve noted something to change in revisions, I continue right where I left off, but I write it as if I’d already made the change.
Strategy #4: Skip Stuff
I used to be a very lineal writer. I started on page one and wrote straight on through to the end. No more! While I still try to write as lineally as possible, if I find myself getting stuck, I’m totally okay with skipping the scene that’s giving me a hard time and move on to something I’m really excited about. Oftentimes having some space from that tricky scene will help me figure out what wasn’t working with it.
And besides, progress is progress is progress. If you need to jump to the romantic kissing scene or the epic conclusion scene so you can hit your word quota for the day, power to you. Just keep writing!
The Most Important Thing About the First Draft
Finish it, finish it, finish it.
So that you know you can.
Finishing stuff is hard, and there’s always a shiny new idea ready to coax you away. But finishing that first draft is an accomplishment that can never be taken away from you.
Also, it will give you something to work with in revisions… which I’ll talk about next week!
I love-love-love NaNoWriMo. Cinder, Scarlet, Cress, Fairest, and Heartless all started life as NaNo novels, and if I can swing it, I’ll be drafting the first book of my superhero series this November, too. *fingers crossed*
The goal of NaNoWriMo (or National Novel Writing Month) is to challenge yourself to write a 50,000 word novel during the 30 days of November. They also do Camp NaNo during the summer for people who struggle to join in during November. Hundreds of thousands of people participate each year, and it makes for a really fun, supportive community. It’s nice to know that you’re not all alone in this crazy world of noveling. Plus they have neat things like graphs that let you chart your progress and pep talks from really awesome authors. (Such as this one. *cough*)
The great thing about NaNo: It gives you the goal. It gives you the deadline. All you have to do is hunker down and write.
If you’re the type that thrives on friendly competition, I highly recommend giving it a shot. You have about six weeks to plan.