Thursday, November 20, 2014

Why Writing Takes So Long

The other day I was explaining the book-writing process to a friend. Editing, querying, editing again, and waiting to hear back from publishers can commonly take years.

Soooo long ago...

They expressed surprise at this time frame. Their main concern was the amount of editing a book goes through. "Does it really take that much time to make a book good?" they asked. "Are writers really that horrible?"

Which gave me pause. And got my back up.

No, we're not 'that horrible.' We're good at what we do: that's why we do it and not you. (Okay, calm down.) But just because a writer's rough draft is better than what the average person could do, doesn't mean it's ready to hit the shelves.

My first draft is spewing words on paper, but it still takes time and forethought. I need some idea where the plot is going (Voldemort dies), what the character wants (to stop Voldemort), how they're going to get it (SPOILER: by dying), what's in their way (Voldemort's traps and Death Eaters), and what will add to the suspense (dragons, people with private vendettas, Harry's emotional baggage, etc.).

With this in mind, I give it my first try at getting words down that communicate what's happening. Some will be good while others will be cliche or stilted or misleading. Draft #1 is the messy birthing process that results in a bloody, squalling thing that doesn't look much like a human being. I can't make it better until it exists in some form.

I still spend time rolling each word and sentence over in my mind. Is Shortie hurt or angry? How will he express his anger in front of Cora? He'll leave the room quickly. But I want something more visceral and descriptive. Would he stomp his massive feet on the way out?

Thus is born: "Shortie turned a darker shade and stomped from the room, slamming the door behind him."

When I come back in the next draft, I might look at that sentence and decide it's too long. Maybe I want short choppy sentences to emphasize the abruptness. Maybe I take issue with "turned a darker shade" and want something more vibrant.

With each draft, there's one big thing I work on. The first draft is a starting place. It's like a block of marble shaped in the rough outline of a person. You know what it'll be. But there are many things to do in order to get there.

This is how most of us actually feel about
our first draft. But we know it's not true.

In my most recent work, there are dark, starless rents in the night sky that only Shadow Speakers--people who magically command the Shadow element--can see. While they don't know where these terrifying "night scars" come from, they know it's connected with Shadow Speakers' insanity. The night scars are also a plot device, causing the protagonist's best friend to confront her about her secret identity.

Let's say I want to remove the night scars. Maybe I can't find a way to cleanly explain where they come from, or they're getting in the way of the plot. I'll start by deleting the main scene where characters see/discuss the night scars, and sew up the hole with smooth transitions.

When the protagonist's friend confronts her, what else can make him suspect that she's a Shadow Speaker? Does he overhear her chatting with the element? Witness her using it? Follow her to one of her secret Shadow lessons?

Then I change all the other scenes where night scars are mentioned. In one scene, the protagonist's discussion of the night scars leads her to discover new details of the Shadow Speakers' mental illness. What else can I use to prompt her discoveries?

Those edits would take about a week. Ta-da: new draft. Maybe in the next draft, I'll make all the fight scenes more daunting and the sentences more conducive to fast, gripping reading. I'll add to the suspense by having my protagonist face the kidnapper in person or observe a violent outbreak, rather than merely hearing about it. New scenes will be written, old ones removed.

Writing is both a science and an art. In one draft, the only thing I did was change overused words like thought/paused/managed/continued, as well as cleaning up verb forms ("she had been wondering" to "she wondered"). Technicalities like that are a very different type of editing from changing major plot points.

I don't necessarily have to do all this to have a good story. If you read the book, you might enjoy it. Yet it wouldn't shine. You'd say, "this is a good idea," rather than, "this is a really good book." You might not completely know why you felt that way.

It's my responsibility as a writer to make a good story. To fiddle with word choice on every single one of those 120,000 words. To moderate sentence structure and paragraph size to make it not just easy, but enjoyable, to read. To make characters' motivations clear and the plot logical.

It's my job as a storyteller to have a good story to tell.

That's why the process takes so long. Agents get hundreds of manuscripts Every Single Day. Many haven't been edited enough, leaving the agent to wonder if the author truly knows what makes a good book. When the agents slog through and find one that shows an extra oomph of promise, then it's time to get to work...and polish even more for the publishers.

Please: be kind to writers in your life. Don't ask them when. Tell them you understand. What they do is important. Without them, there wouldn't be good stories.

Word count: 942.