Em's place

Writing, anxiety-wrangling, tea.

The Hokey Cokey of Book Writing

By Emma on April 5, 2012

As you may or may not know, I’m currently writing a five book urban fantasy series on a very tight schedule, and at the same time releasing a short story every week up until the launch of the first book on November 1st. That’s 54 in total, the 23rd story was released yesterday. It’s clear that I’m a tiny bit insane but hey ho, life is short and we have to do crazy things sometimes, right?

Over the last 6 months I’ve written two of the novels, the first is in its third draft and I’ve just finished revisions on the second book to take it to second draft. I’m about to plunge into book 3 (after Eastercon anyway) so I wanted to take a little time out to jot down some thoughts about the editing process before I forget.

Here’s the process I’ve been using for the Split Worlds novels so far. Note this is only the sharing of my own experience and not instructions on how I think it should be done by everyone else, because that’s just silly.

After the first draft is completed, there are distinct stages I and the manuscript go through.

1. The resting period

That’s the manuscript resting, not me. I tried to take two weeks off after I finished the first draft of book one but it was a little disaster. I have to work, I have to write, if I don’t I go a bit squiffy. Now I just ease off the pedal a tiny bit. But the manuscript gets at least 5 weeks rest without a human eye looking at it, most especially mine. I would prefer that period of time to be 3 months, but there isn’t room for that here.

The aim here is to forget most of what I’ve written. That’s why three months is preferable.

2. The initial read-through

When that time is up, I read through the novel from start to finish. I usually do this on an e-reader, and make very occasional notes about any structural and pacing problems. I note points when the book drags, or does someone mention something they shouldn’t know about yet because of a change as the book was being written, that kind of thing.

The reason I do this on the e-reader is because it saves one round of printing – these kinds of corrections are made on the computer before the next step.

I should add that this is the point where I will hate everything I’ve written, feel that I have taken on an impossible task, that it is all doomed and I should find an easy desk job somewhere instead of trying to be a writer. Like anxiety, depression and all the other moods in between, I’ve come to realise this isn’t actually a real thing. This is just fear, and like all the others, it passes.

I’m not saying that it’s unreal because I’m actually a brilliant writer (hah!), what I mean is that it’s impossible for me to make that judgement. But that’s another post I reckon.

3. The first copyedit

Once the problems identified in the read-through have been corrected, and a large cup of tea made, I print the whole manuscript off. I’d really like to say I’ve moved away from paper for this stage, but truth be told, I can’t. It also allows me to clutch the pages to my bosom and have the moment of bliss where I think “I made this” before the hard work begins. I can see errors on paper I just can’t see on the screen. It’s easier on the eyes and quicker to scribble over.

There are always lots of scribbles.

At this stage I correct typos, identify clunky sentences and re-write them, slaughter clichés and lazy placeholder phrases and generally tighten it all up.

This stage can also trigger terrible doubts – especially if the book I’m reading at the time (I’m always reading something) is particularly good. The only way I get through that is to remember that the published book has already been through several rounds of drafts and been professionally edited. No blossoming second draft should be held up in comparison to a polished work. Especially when it’s American Gods by Neil Gaiman. That made me weep with insecurity. But damn, it’s a good book.

It goes without saying that all these scribbles are taken back to the computer and the manuscript revised.

4. The official second draft

That’s when I consider the second draft complete and ready to go to my beta readers. In case you haven’t come across these fine, shining examples of humanity, beta readers are people kind enough to read your work in progress and give feedback.

Choosing beta readers is another post entirely, suffice to say that I have been blessed with knowing several people who are intelligent, well read and excellent at giving feedback.

Sending the book out to beta readers is excruciatingly nerve wracking. Well it is for me anyway, but don’t take my word for it, as we all know I find most of life excruciatingly nerve wracking. For me, it’s letting this thing I’ve been growing and nurturing in a closed environment out into the world. There is an obvious analogy to be made here involving babies and children, but it’s been done to death so I’ll move on.

5. Feedback from beta readers

When the golden souls have finished the book I like to get their immediate first impressions. Thankfully all of the initial feedback for the first Split Worlds book was “I couldn’t put it down” and variations thereof. One beta said she’d stayed in her pyjamas until mid-afternoon as she couldn’t bear to stop reading to get dressed.

That made me very happy.

But if I had a celebratory cuppa and skipped onto the next book at that point I’d be a fool. My ego would be very happy, but the thing about this stage is not about feeling good about your draft (though that’s nice), it’s about really drilling down into their experience of the book to find the fault lines.

I interview each beta reader (the ones who live close enough to me I have over for dinner to do this) and ask questions that explore their thoughts about each of the characters, the plot and the structure. One of my beta readers (who was one of the first I ever had and gave feedback on an early draft of 20 Years Later) is fantastically analytical in his reading, and gave me an hour and a half of feedback on the phone. He is worth his weight in books and gold.

Of course, each set of feedback is an opinion, and subjective, but as I’ve acquired experience of this process, I’ve learnt that how I react to the comment is a good indicator of whether it needs to be changed. This is hard to explain without an example. Okay, so there was one aspect of the book’s structure I had started to doubt whilst I was waiting for feedback, but it was nebulous. The betas all commented on it, expressing it explicitly, and when I heard it, I felt relief. Yes! That’s it, I thought, and made notes to change it. At one point in my writing life that would have terrified me, it would have been akin to losing control, but as time has gone on, I’m more tuned into these gut instincts, and betas can help tease out the instincts that haven’t bubbled up to full consciousness yet.

Does that make sense?

6. Major redraft

This is the stage I’ve recently finished on book one. I needed to move things about in some sections of the book, add in several scenes and write a new ending. This is all in response to the comments from my beta readers. Now the manuscript is in its resting phase, and ultimately stages 1 to 6 will be repeated (with a new set of beta readers who can read with fresh eyes), though hopefully it won’t require as major a re-draft by stage six.

Then I’ll be sending it off to the professional editor I’ve engaged for the project, then it’ll be revised again. By the time the manuscript goes to the typesetter it’ll be in its sixth or seventh draft and (hopefully) pretty damn tight.

So what about the Hokey Cokey part?

When I’m approaching and writing the first draft, it’s all about getting as deeply into the story and characters as possible. Initial planning, discussions with my ever patient husband about character arcs, plot points, early scenes etc serve to immerse me in the world again and reconnect with it all on a deep creative level. No self-editing, no fretting allowed, it’s story, story, story with no looking back. That’s why writing in intensive sprints works for me.

However, once the first draft is done, the process reverses and it’s all about getting out of that state, seeing the book as a different thing. Seeing it as a book and not being inside the world. That initial rest period is a critical part of it, but each round of revisions and feedback separates me from that initial heady, euphoric state of pure creation into a more cerebral, distant and hyper-critical state in order to improve the book.

That’s why I will never, ever release a novel without an editor being involved. I need another professional who can refine the book without ever having been in that first phase. My head is a messy, crowded place and I’m emotionally involved with the story and characters, no matter how far I manage to step back. The editor has perspective that I could never have.

I see the end of that withdrawal process as writing the elevator pitch. It took a year for me to be able to “see” that for 20 Years Later – it’s incredibly hard to see the book as everyone else will when you know a book from the inside. I’m dreading that with the Split Worlds as there won’t be as much time, but I’ll leap that hurdle when I come to it.

The hokey cokey? “In, out, in, out, you shake it all about”. That’s what writing and editing a book is like for me.

So, you made it all the way to end? Wow. Have a nice cup of something warm and ask any questions, or share your techniques in the comments, I’d love to hear from you.

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{ 14 comments... read them below, or add one }

  1. Steve chandler (aka Scifi Steve) says:

    Hi Em,

    Really interesting read. I’m about half watt through 20 years later and am really really enjoying it. Thank you, and keep up the good work

  2. Icy Sedgwick says:

    I love these posts of yours – you make me feel a lot better about this whole ‘writing’ malarkey. It’s too easy to look at a finished book (for me, it’s Neverwhere) and go “Crikey, my work will NEVER be like that!” But we’ve all got our processes and we have to find one that works. I’m sure most people think I’m insane for my piecemeal process but it gets the job done.

    • Emma says:

      Thanks Icy, I’m glad my ramblings make you feel better, that’s exactly what I hope. And I couldn’t agree more about everyone having their own processes. We’re all special snowflakes. Or something.

  3. “I’ve learnt that how I react to the comment is a good indicator of whether it needs to be changed.”

    I know just what you mean there. I find that my subconscious knows when things are wrong with an MS, and my conscious tries its best to push the bugger down and keep it quiet. It would succeed too, in most cases, if it wasn’t for that kind beta reader or editor who drags the battered unconscious awareness out into the open and shames me into acknowledging its grievances.

    • Emma says:

      I’m glad that made sense :) I also find that if there’s something I’ve given a lot of thought to and written as a result of conscious decisions, I’m prepared to stand my ground if a beta or editor flags it up, so it works the other way round too.

  4. Mark says:

    Wow, that’s pretty impressive all the writing you are doing and will be doing.

    How do you manage it? Do you have a set timescale for writing and just crack on with it? Through rain or shine?

  5. Tony Noland says:

    Great summary of your process, Em. It sounds like you’ve develolped a really effective formula!

  6. Dom Camus says:

    There are a lot of parallels with game creation in all this… Replace editors with playtesters and the problems of being too close to the story with the problems of being too accustomed to the control systems and it’s pretty much the same set of problems.

    I’m off on holiday for a week to get some distance from my project before I get it ready for beta testing. Despite the fact it’s going to be a week of fun stuff I love doing I’m still really tempted to take a copy of the game on my laptop to fiddle with in quiet moments. (This would, of course, be a terrible plan!)

    • Emma says:

      This made me laugh – I’ve been fighting the urge to take a laptop to Eastercon so I can write. What muppetry! That would be a terrible plan too :) Interesting that it’s so parallel, thanks for that Dom x

  7. Dave Cochran says:

    My own process is rather more scattered, I must admit – though I’m still working on the first draft of my first novel, so I dunno whether I could be said to have a process yet anyways. I’m releasing chapters one at a time to a test audience, and I do at least one round of editing on each one before I release it to the group. I started off doing purely “exploration”-style writing, making stuff up as I went along; but as I’ve gone, I’ve been having more and more ideas for things I want to happen in future chapters, and have been actually putting that in some sort of structure before going ahead and writing it. I have quite a few fragments of chapters-to-come written, too.

    Occasionally, I’ll come back to a chapter and do some edits, though generally either tightening up the prose, fixing typos, or making changes so that something I’m planning on putting in a later chapter will make sense; but I also have the thought that heavier edits are something that should definitely wait until I have a full first draft; for things like retooling or outright cutting scenes, I feel like I need an overview of the whole story to be able to know what’s expendable and what’s not.

    My hope is to be able to do all the big structural, continuity-affecting changes at the second-draft stage. If subsequent edits are all more of the prose-tightening & typo-fixing kind, then at that point I can start finalising chapters and, once I have a buffer of about 10 chapters ready to go, start serially publishing the book.

    On top of that, there’s all kinds of other fun stuff that I’m working on (or planning to do) as part of the project; artwork, audio versions, video content intended to give an engaging, accessible outline of some of the scientific topics touched on in the book, and a number of Hyperbole-And-A-Half style illustrated blogposts, co-authored with my daughter, representing the journal of my protagonist before the events of “Chapter 1 – The Accident”. Good fun, but it does make structuring my day a little tricky…

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