I come from a car family, and we have this running joke based on a YouTube tutorial my dad once watched about fixing the transmission on our old Volvo station wagon.
Step One: Remove transmission.
Now, of course, removing a transmission is a wildly complicated and difficult process, a little like saying step one: Animate the monster or step one: Walk on the moon. In my family, the term has become synonymous with comically difficult tasks– such as writing a book.
Now, lately, my drafts have been a little more complicated than simply going in and writing. I’ve been doing a lot of edits from the inside out and that brings with it a whole slew of challenges and difficulties, including issues of continuity, pacing and POV splits. But I am still usually working towards that first draft, and sometimes that first draft is complicated and challenging, and sometimes that first draft changes from one thing to something else entirely.
Getting that first draft down to the page is my Step One: Remove transmission. Here’s how I break it down into more reasonable, bite-sized chunks that take a seemingly insurmountable task and make it possible.
As I’ve written about in the past, ideas come from everywhere. Sometimes they play off a story I’ve already written, sometimes they’re inspired by a book I’m reading. It could be a house, a television star, or a conversation I hear on the street, but eventually, the story begins to percolate.
And I let it percolate. I’m busy enough right now to focus on any number of other manuscripts and allow that one to expand and fill up. This might include anything from coming up with the title to scribbling down scenes or dialogue snips. I don’t start writing the book just yet, not until I’ve gotten a better sense of how it’s going to turn out.
Once I feel like I have a good grasp on that, I start planning. Each book has a different planning process. If it’s part of a series, I need to know characters and plots for those series. In any case, I’ll work on interviewing my characters and getting to know them, and then, more importantly, I’ll put together a skeletal outline of what the story is going to be. As I’ve written about before, I tend to be an overwriter, and not having an idea of where the story is going can be a dangerous path of overwritten fluff and no content. For me, the roadmap is key to success.
And then it’s ass in the chair and fingers on the keyboard. I’ll admit, it’s been awhile since I’ve sat down to a blank page intent to write a full-length novel. My current WIPs started as shorts and now I’m revising them to be longer. The blank page has all the potential to be intimidating, I will never deny that.
But the nicest thing about a first draft is that not only is it allowed to be crap, it’s kind of expected that it’s going to be crap. First drafts are the word vomit stage of writing, they’re they ‘I’m just closing my eyes while I type, not sleeping, I swear’ stage of writing. Writing a first draft is like being 19 and studying abroad in Europe with your best friends– you can get away with pretty much anything.
This stage takes a while, but not nearly as long as the editing stages. After draft one is complete, I go through and read it, searching for major continuity issues or plot errors that need to be revised. This isn’t a line edit or grammar edit, this is a chunks of the map are missing and we need to fill it in edit. During this stage, I’ll write extra scenes, delete the unnecessary ones, change elements of character or plot and generally try to tighten up the whole storyline.
Then I’ll read it again– this time to make sure those changes worked and to start running recon on grammar and sentence structure. This is usually around the stage when I’m starting to get sick of my own book.
And then it’s off to the print shop, where I’ll single space print a copy of my little monster and hunker down with a purple pen and start doing a much more in-depth line edit. Here I’ll change passive voice, check for overuse of words and a whole slew of other issues and grammatical changes.
The process for putting those changes back into the manuscript always takes longer than you think it will, so I’ll devote a few days to turning my head like an owl, looking from the hard copy to the computer screen until I’ve gotten it all.
And then I’ll do one more readthrough, checking to see if I messed anything up in the editing process, if the chapters are in the right order, if every place and name is capitalized and spelled correctly. This is the final edit before I start submitting.
Now, I’m working with several presses where I can do in-house submissions, but even then it’s still a process. So I’ll sit down and work on the blurb, synopsis, summary, series outline or whatever else the publishers might need to evaluate the manuscript.
And then I send it out. It’s a little less climactic than putting a manuscript in the mail, but it’s a whole lot cheaper and faster. I watch the spinning ball and breathe a sigh of relief when the email goes where it belongs.
This won’t be my last edit. Assuming the publisher picks up the story, they’ll go through on their own for publishing house rules and for third-party recommendations. They’ll probably tear the piece up and put it back together and then it’ll come to me and we’ll repeat the process two or three more times. This is how books get made.
The process can be really long, and at times it feels like I have to go through the entirety of building a car myself, but that’s okay. Without this process– and it’s the one I’ve found works for me, we all have our own – I would feel a whole lot more overwhelmed by the prospect of putting a book together. The step-by-step instructions make the enormity of the challenge seem so much more accessible.
And I’m eternally grateful for this process because trying to attack a manuscript without a roadmap is almost as crazy as saying Step One: remove transmission.