When the indie author revolution started several years ago, there was a lot of advice about how authors must do things in order to be successful. One piece of sage advice still making the rounds is how authors must write and publish books as fast as they can—story-time assembly line writing, if you will. The rationale behind this is simple: the more books you have to sell, the more money you’ll make. Makes sense, right? As a result, I felt bad about myself for not writing faster. I kept hearing about these authors who write, edit, and publish a book every few months, sometimes every few weeks, and I thought I should do that too. I felt like I worked at a snail’s pace compared to others. Then, just as I had to do with social media and marketing, I had to find what works for me, not what works for others.
I write and publish exactly one book a year. I’m not writing the entire year, mind you. I find that my stories need time to bake. I need time to roll them, knead them, push them this way and make them round, press them there while they roll. I always start out with a general idea of what the story is about, who the characters are, what happens to them, that sort of thing. First, I write a general outline of what I think will happen in the story. Then I write my first draft, which is always a painful experience for me (you can see my thoughts on writing a first draft here). As I’ve said before, I love Anne Lamott for many reasons, but mainly I love her for introducing me to the phrase “shitty first drafts” since mine are the shittiest shitty first drafts anywhere. I know that most of what I write in the first draft will either be changed, rearranged, or deleted. When I’m writing a first draft I write the story in its most basic form with hardly any description, not much dialogue, and no thought to theme or foreshadowing. I’ve been writing long enough to understand my writing process, and for whatever reason the shitty first draft is my brain’s way of working through the first layer of the story so that when I’m done I can dig a little deeper to see what’s really tasty there. When I can write “The End” on my first draft I sigh with relief because I know the hardest part is over.
After I finish my first draft, I put it aside, usually for 2-3 months—sometimes more, sometimes less. That might seem like a long time to some people, especially those of the “write as many books as you can, as fast as you can” variety, but I find that time between drafts, what I call the baking time, is important for me. Even though I’m not working on the manuscript during this time, this is when I let my mind wander through different scenes, putting the characters in different situations, playing the “What will happen if…” game that fiction writers are so fond of.
I’m not only imagining my way through the story during this time. I read, a lot, particularly books written during or about the time my story takes place. My latest project is set in Victorian England, so you’ve already guessed that I’ve reread a number of Dickens’ novels—most recently Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend, both of which touch on the same themes I want to address. I’ve also read Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, which is set in New York, but since one of my main characters is a young American woman from New York, the novel has been a great read, giving me insight into New York society. If I’ve got you thinking of Wharton’s The Buccaneers or Lady Grantham from Downton Abbey, no, my book isn’t about American heiresses in London—not quite, anyway. In addition to my reading, I’ve been watching a lot of television about the Victorian period. The BBC is a master at recreating classic works of literature, many of which are set in the Victorian era. I’ve also been watching a number of documentaries about the period. The journey back to the Victorian era is mainly review for me since I studied that period for my Master’s degree (my thesis was on Dickens, the Big D himself). One thing I’m doing this time that I haven’t done before is I created a board on Pinterest where I’m pinning clothing from the Victorian era, as well as furniture, houses, art, gardens, books—anything I can find to give me a feel for the period. Right now the board is private because I don’t want to bombard people with the 40 pins a day I put on my research board, but soon I’ll make a public version so others can see what I’ve found.
This is where the fun of writing fiction begins for me—immersing myself in the time period. Reading other authors, learning new information, seeing the clothing and the furniture, listening to the music, watching the movies and documentaries, it all gives me an abundance of ideas to use in my own story. Of course, not everything I read or see will end up in the novel, but it doesn’t matter. It gives me a framework from which to build the world in which my characters inhabit. If it takes time for the ideas to meld together to form a cohesive story, that’s fine. I’ve learned to be content with my writing process.
How do I know it’s time to start writing again? It hits me out of the blue, like an oven timer letting me know the baking is done and my story is ready. This happened to me just last week. Suddenly, I saw a new opening scene for my novel playing before me as though it were on a movie reel behind my eyes. As an opening chapter it works better than the one I had before because it introduces us to the main characters, to the main setting of the story, and yet there’s enough action in it so it isn’t all exposition. So far so good. As I continued thinking about it, I realized that I could see the story through to its new conclusion, along with a few twists and turns I hadn’t thought of when I was writing the first draft. I wrote a new outline, and now I can begin writing the second draft, which is where all the pieces of the puzzle start to fit together. Really, I know it’s time to start writing again when the pain from not getting back to the story is stronger than the pain of writing—though, to be fair, this second draft isn’t painful the way the first draft is. In fact, the second draft isn’t painful at all. This break between first and second draft costs me a few months, but I find it’s a fun time for me and it’s time well spent.
It took some time, but I did finally realize that I’m not on anyone’s time frame but my own. For authors who write more quickly than I do, that’s great. My point is only to say that it’s up to authors to find out what works for them, and everyone’s process is different. Don’t fall into the trap, as I nearly did, of being dictated to about how often you should write or publish books. If you can write more quickly, go for it. If you need a year, two years, take it. Do your own thing. Write your own way. I would rather publish one book a year and put out something I was happy with, something I was proud to have my name on, than put out something I wasn’t satisfied with because I felt like I had to publish something. Over the years, I’ve come to terms with my “baking time.” Bringing stories to life is what I love most about writing, and the baking time allows me to do that in a richer, fuller way.