Friday, February 2, 2018

How Do I Know When I'm Done? Five Stages of Writing a Book

A past student from my Madeline Island retreats emailed me recently with a great question.  It's one most writers struggle with:  How do I know when my book is actually finished?   "An overarching question I find more difficult," she says, "is whether it could ever be ready. Some things may not be worth the effort or the money. Is it better to pay someone willing to say yea or nay first or does that have to go together with sending it out for paid editing?"


There are five stages to writing a book, from seed idea to final revision before publication.  I think of them as gateways to the process.  If a writer can go through all of them, the book is probably ready to submit.  If you get stalled at any, know that you're not alone--I estimate only a third of writers who start book projects actually complete them.  But it helps to know where you are in the journey, so you can intelligently choose whether to go on.  


Five Stages


1.  Gathering stage:  When you start a book, you have an idea.  You sketch out chapters, or scenes.  You research.  You freewrite.  You do a rough storyboard, if you're into structure like I am (saving tons of time).  You may outline instead, or in addition to the storyboarding.  This is only a gathering stage, but it's essential to the process.  It allows you to explore, to really decide if you have enough for a whole book (maybe the idea is just a short story or essay or article).  A big gateway exists after the gathering stage, and not many writers make it through.  Structuring shows you whether you have a book--or not.  And some of us would rather not know.   


2.  Structuring stage:  At critical mass moment, when your gathered material becomes overwhelming, you either learn to structure or you hire an editor to help you see through the morass.  This is often when writers come to my class, Your Book Starts Here (online starts February 14, in person workshop on March 30, if you're intrigued).  Or they hire me to help them privately.  This is what editors at publishing houses used to do, back when I began publishing.  It's what takes your writing, however good, into a logical shape that a reader can follow.   


3.  First draft:  Once the material is shaped, you create your first draft.  Some writers do a draft before structuring, which is fine--as long as they know it's basically going to be a freewrite until it's structured for a reader's viewpoint.  I usually structure, or at least attempt to, first, to save time.  I've worked with hundreds of writers, some well published already, who don't know this.  (I don't blame them--we're not taught structuring in MFA programs or writing classes, normally.  It's the editor's domain.)  Your first draft should be about 60,000-90,000 words, depending on your genre.  It should have cohesive chapters.   


4.  Revision:  There's a huge gateway here too, probably the biggest and hardest one.  Most writers aren't trained in revision.  They need to hire an editor or coach to help them.  Revision is a LOT more than just refining sentences.  It double-checks your structure on three levels:  outer story (plot or information), characters' narrative arcs, and the sense of place.  You may be good at one or two of these, weak at the third.  Even though I've worked as an editor since the eighties, I still hire out revision help.  It costs too.  What you're looking for is a careful read-through, structure analysis (if you can get it), and suggestions for revising those three areas.  Your editor might come back with suggestions like:  (1) your plot falls apart in chapter 15; (2) I don't believe this character's motivation; or (3) I don't know where we are in time or place--your setting is not anchored yet.  These are hard to hear!  I know, I've been there for every book I've written.  Editors are gold, though, because they see what you can't see.


Many writers take an intermediary step before hiring an editor.  They attend classes on revision, to learn the basics.  Downside of most classes at revision stage is that you workshop only part of your manuscript at a time--a chapter, say.  If you go for a class at revision stage, try for one like Grub Street's Novel Incubator or Memoir Incubator (not revision stage for all writers but useful for whole-book perspective), or the Loft's year-long writing projects.  Classes do help hone individual skills, like dialogue or setting or character motivation.  But don't expect whole-manuscript help from a class.  Nobody is paid that much!


Other writers use writers' groups for this stage.  They are great, and I've used them too.  Again, you rarely get whole-manuscript revision help, since your groupmates read only chapters or scenes each time.  You can, however, make great writing connections in groups and classes, and from these, if you're lucky, come beta readers.  I coined that name, which means an early tester of your whole manuscript.  Beta readers are helpful in ways that writers groups and classes can't be.  You exchange manuscripts with them.  I always go through this step with my own manuscripts before hiring an editor; beta readers often catch problems I can fix before I spend money.


Revision can take years.  At some point, like the student who emailed me above, you have to decide if you're going to take the manuscript one more step, into submission.  You may not be sure, which is why I recommend both beta readers and a paid editor who will help you with structure and whole-manuscript review in the three categories mentioned above.   


A world about magical thinking:  Many writers, especially first-time book writers, believe that an agent will help them with this stage.  That used to be true--when I first was publishing in the eighties, my agent did just that:  take fairly unformed material and help shape it.  Also, the publisher's editors did this job.  No longer true.  Agents won't even glance at your manuscript unless you've done your utmost to get revision help.  One agent I know gets 400 submissions a week.  Unless the writing is tight, bright, and clean, it doesn't even get past her assistant's desk.  Don't count on an agent to bail you out. 


5.   Submission:   Why do writers decide to submit to agents or publishers?  It's the toughest gateway of all.  Maybe you want validation that the book works and someone else can see your genius.  Maybe you desire fame and fortune.  (I'm laughing a little at that one, because although I've published thirteen books, I've never made a living from any of them.  The advances were good for some, but not living-worth.  I won awards but I didn't get famous.)  Mostly, the reason I go through the agony of submitting my manuscript to agents and publishers is that I believe in the book.  I wanted it out there, in readers' hands, helping and inspiring others.  This has been my go-to reason for every book I've published.  
I also want the book to be the absolute best it can be, before I start this process, because it's a glorious feeling to read one of your published books, ten years later, and still love it.  So loving your book, given the incredibly tough publishing industry right now, might be s the most valid reason to approach this final gateway.   
Many writers, even well-published ones, are looking at self-publishing or partner publishing now, instead of traditional publishing, and using a publicist to help market the book.  This is less painful.  It requires an investment of money and time and energy.  But so does traditional publishing, these days.  You'll be spending your own energy to get your book read, no matter which avenue you choose.   
But bottom line:  Is the story worth it, to you?  There's an axiom in writing circles about the first book being the one that you learn on.  I understand this, because you might get to this fifth stage and decide, No, it's not worth the energy, the rejection, the cost.  That's fine.  You've learned a lot, you've come far.  But it's a very individual choice, not one another can make for you--not even all the agents you query that say no thank you.  Because agents aren't the final word as to whether your work is worthwhile.  You are.
I guess this would be my answer to the student who wrote me asking how to know if you're done.  Is the book something you'd like out there, in readers' hands, as it is now?  Would you be proud of it in ten years, if it were published?  If not, then scroll back to earlier steps and ask yourself which would be logical to consider.  Which you may have skipped over, telling yourself you didn't need it.  Or consider this book is your learning curve and you learned a lot.  And now you can move on to the next project.
The road to writing a book demands the same kind of--or more--belief in yourself and your purpose than a triathlete training for a race or an entrepreneur starting a business.  Books aren't easy to write, revise, and publish.  they'll take everything you got.  But they give back in many ways--the joy of achieving a dream, the light in a reader's face as she tells you how she stayed up all night, reading your book.

If you accomplish any of the stages listed above, congratulate yourself.  You've achieved something that few writers have.  Consider the next stage, what skills or stamina or tools you need to approach it.  Consider your belief in your book--is it still strong enough to carry you through?