…so let’s not make it worse.
Let's talk process.
Emerging writers are stressing out in record numbers, often needlessly.
We’ve talked before about the whole “ Theory vs. Practice ” dichotomy, and how there can be a difference between how the conventional wisdom assumes things are and how they really are. In my observation this gap is getting wider almost daily, largely due to social media.
If one were to get their writing/publishing info from places emerging writers hangout online (I’m looking at you, Writer Twitter) then they’d likely have a warped view of how all this works.
(There’s a similar disconnect between what the online CW would have us believe the query process is and what it really is. But that’s a post for next time…)
The reason I mention all this is I’m assuming you’re a writer who loves the craft, who writes from your core, who pours your soul into your work, and who wants to find a process (both for writing and for publishing) that gets you where you want to go… ideally without a lot of dead ends and wasted time.
One irony is that the ideas you see being promoted online almost universally promise to save you time… when in fact the majority of people I know—or know of—who try to use these methods seem to take longer to actually arrive at a submission-worthy manuscript, let alone have their work published.
And the sad part—when you look at the gap between what people think authors do and what most working authors actually do—is that the methodologies that many authors use are generally much simpler and have fewer variables than the so-called ‘online conventional wisdom.’
So let’s compare and contrast. (Keeping in mind that there is no ‘one true way,’ and I’m not saying that these ‘real world’ methods represent every working writer. Just that many authors I know use something analogous to them. IRL this stuff is on a continuum, of course.)
Starting with the writing itself… Social media would have you believe that before you begin writing you need to have a formula or system or structure, containing all the required story beats. (These are available as books, or on websites, or in seminars, or in video form. Lots of this is scattered about the interwebs, but there are plenty of people who will be happy to take your money in exchange for compiling the information for you.)
Then you construct an outline, making sure you have all the approved beats in all the approved locations. And you build this whole thing using writing-specific software that will help you ‘structure your story’ and let you move big chunks of story around in wholesale fashion until you finally arrive at an order of events that theoretically has all the right stuff in all the right places.
Then you take your “draft zero” and dig into it, turning your roughly-filled-in outline into readable prose after you’ve done a major structural overhaul (using the story-centric software, which you may have studied via an online workshop since the learning curve is pretty steep).
Then you track and save all the various revs you end up with as you make revisions, each stored as a separate doc. Because you never know when you might want to go back to a previous version and cut/paste a specific chunk into your current rev. And of course each chapter is a separate document, and you also keep a file on each chapter (also a separate doc) delineating what happens therein, as well as what each character either did or learned in order to further the plot. All of these are numbered in a coherent fashion (i.e. Ch.7.rev.3.2.notes) so that you can access any of them at any time, should it be necessary.
Then when you finally feel like you might have all the scenes in your story arranged in the correct order, you compile all the separate chapter docs into one uber-document and export it to a Word doc so you can have it available for beta readers or to send out to an agent if/when you get the much-sought-after, vague-tweet-worthy event: the legendary full request. (Although if your betas have structural suggestions you may find yourself ungrouping the manuscript back into its original components and re-juggling things all over again, then re-compiling it into another full manuscript for Round 2, etc.)
On the other hand…
For the most part, many working authors I know or know of basically do something resembling this: They get (and develop in their minds) an idea they find really compelling. They make some notes. Or not. They open a word-processing document. They write the book, referring to the ideas in their head and/or the notes they created before starting… or they might write the first few chapters and then pause/plan/plot/ponder and make a few notes about the next phase of the story once they know their character and setting and setup a little better.
As they write, they typically have one primary doc containing the manuscript in progress. When they reach the end of a chapter they insert a page break, hit return half-a-dozen times, enter “Chapter 14” or whatever then drop down a couple of lines and keep writing. All one doc. (In TNR 12pt. double-spaced with 1” margins, because duh.) Maybe with a second doc containing notes, although I know a couple of writers who just put their “aha!” ideas at the end of the primary doc and keep pushing them along as they write and either use them or delete them by the end of the book.
If at any point during the initial drafting they happen to go back and re-read some previous pages or chapters and they find something clunky, they often just make a quick edit on the spot without saving the earlier version as a separate rev or anything. (The first time I mentioned that I did this—while I was presenting to a writer’s group—I remember a woman up front literally putting her hands to her face in the ‘home alone!’ gesture. In my defense, the saying is “Kill your darlings,” not “Have a giant memorial service for each one,” right?)
The same applies during revisions. Unless it’s a major structural rewrite, many working authors doing line-level revisions will revise directly in the original doc, not worrying about saving each earlier version.
I think a side benefit of doing this—beyond avoiding strangling yourself with multiple saved revisions—is that it teaches you that none of your text is so precious that it can’t be improved. It also teaches you to have confidence in your authorial vision… if there’s clearly a way to rephrase something that’s better/tighter/more compelling, trust your judgement, make the change, and move on.
Then, after multiple rounds of revise/edit/polish—when they feel it’s as good as they can make it on their own—they’ll send it to their agent or editor… with the full knowledge that their agent or editor will have ideas of their own on how to make it even better. Which is all to the good, as I’ve never seen a work that couldn’t be improved via thoughtful feedback followed by further revision.
TL;DR: Many working authors follow something roughly analogous to the following…
*Get idea, develop it.
*Make notes (or not).
*Open a doc.
*Write the book.
*Repeat until happy.
90% of getting published depends on having a really strong manuscript, so put your time there… into (1) developing your craft, then (2) executing it on the page, and then (3) revising until it’s absolutely as good as you can make it.
Stories that will move a reader (including an agent or editor) aren’t ‘assembled,’ like some sort of paint-by-numbers thing. They’re written in such a way that they make an emotional connection with the reader. And almost all of that comes from inside your head, not some formulaic external process.
So I would suggest not overthinking it, and not making it any harder than it needs to be. Writing is hard enough without feeling you have to attach a bunch of additional process-related stuff to it. (Unless you want to, of course. You do you.)
This is where I write about things that are of interest to me and which I think may be of interest to you. I’m assuming most of you are here due to an interest in reading, writing, editing, publishing, etc., so that’s the primary focus.