The Novel Writing Process, by Lish McBride
People like to ask the question, “How do you write?” Because, well, the writing process is a big, fat, mysterious beast that likes to hide out in the shadows. It’s not something you can learn through observation. You can’t wrap yourself in camo, drench yourself in hormone-emitting doe urine, and sit in a hunting blind waiting to make your move. If you were staring at me right now, you would just see me making faces at my laptop while occasionally hitting a few keys. Then I would make another face. Then I’d hit the delete button.
If publishing a novel is a lot like having a baby – and in many ways I find that to be an apt analogy – then the rough draft process is a lot like dating, complete with awkwardness and the soul-crushing worry that you will do everything wrong and die alone.
Of course, you’ll decide to take the plunge anyway. How can you not? You’ll put on you’re best clothes, think of funny things to say, and get all excited – what will this book be like? Is it “the one?” Should you play a little hard to get? Then you ask your friends, the ones that really get around, for first date advice. Next thing you know, you’re out there and you’re taking the plunge. It’s everything you hoped. The conversation is sparkling and witty and the atmosphere is something out of a dream.
But then the next morning arrives and you wake up with doubts. You second-guess everything that you said. You over analyze everything said to you. Then you think that maybe the restaurant had rats and the food made you sick. So you decide to delete his number and go out with someone else.
This process of backwards and forwards continues for a while. And, just like dating, it sucks. Eventually, you will meet the book that you can really spend time with. It’s bumpy for sure, and you go back to those friends for more advice. Some might not approve of this new novel you’re seeing. They prefer their novels with different POVs or with a little more genre to them. And that’s okay. You know that this novel is the one for you and you’re going to spend the rest of your life with it.
The next thing you know, you’re in the delivery room holding a manuscript in your hands and wondering how you got there.
It’s a messy, weird, amazing process. Naturally, there are things you didn’t expect. There are a few tidbits your friends tried to explain to you that you really didn’t “get” until now, but that’s okay. You lose some sleep, you cry a little, and then you think maybe, just maybe, things will be okay.
And that’s when you start the whole process over again. Every time, it terrifies you. You worry that this time you’ll screw up. Or worse, the magic will fail you all together and you won’t be able to do it again. You worry that you are, in fact, a one-trick pony.
This is normal. This is also why some writers drink. (Which might not be your best option.)
And the worse part is that you’ll ask other writers for advice on how the whole thing is done and they all give you different answers. Or they just shrug because it’s kind of hard to explain.
Here’s the thing, friends – we’re not trying to be jerks by giving different answers. It’s just that different things work for different writers. Some write character arcs and story arcs for everything. They outline. They make character sketches and really get all the details down.
Others, like me, wing it. Though I have the ability to outline, it doesn’t work for me. For me, the process is one of discovery. It’s like being an archeologist. Sure, you have a few pieces of pottery and some scrolls. You know some of the story. But you’re not going to know all of it until you bust into that tomb and really look around. Then you steal some mummies. (That last part doesn’t really work for the analogy.)
I tried to outline once during the first draft of Hold Me Closer, Necromancer. I spent a big chunk of time carefully mapping out several chapters…and then I completely ignored it. So here is what I do: I work scene by scene. I write toward that next step and try not to worry about the big picture. I listen to my characters. Often I’m writing and realize that my idea of where the plot is going is wrong. The characters tell me what they would do in the situation and it’s not what I had planned, but I listen to them and have faith that they know what they’re doing. I try to turn off my internal editor. Some pages will suck. Things won’t make sense, and there will be plot holes. Those things can be fixed in editing. Try not to worry about them. I have never once met an author who wrote a perfect novel in one draft.
If a certain process isn’t working for you, discard it and try something new. The same thing that works for one book might not work for the next. Be flexible. Listen to what other authors do. Try it their way. It might work. It might not. Basically, it’s trial and error until you find a groove that works for you.
Breathe. Have faith. (And never ask me for dating advice. I was terrible at it.)
Homework: Go to an author event, if possible. If not, read some of your favorite author blogs. I promise that some of them will write about their process. Write down some things that seem like they make sense to you and give them a go next time you’re stuck.
Lish McBride’s author website: www.lishmcbride.com
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