Friday, February 3, 2023

Five Gates You May Encounter as You Plan, Write, and Develop Your Book

An important lesson I learned as I wrote and published my books was this: there are predictable gates, or passages, in the journey. These are places where the writer can typically get stuck. They must be traversed but often new skills are needed. I've seen many books fail at these gates, so it's often helpful to know about them and prepare.

Writing a book, as you know, is not just serendipity. We don't just sit down and "let it flow." Rather, we may in the early stages, but once the book becomes its own being, it requires structure and refining to grow into a publish-worthy effort.

So this week I'd like to review the five gates and the potential problems that arise at each. Knowing about them lets you recognize where you are, if you're ready to move on, and--at the last stage--when you've finally done enough.

The stuck point arrives when the writer is ready to move to the next gate. I appreciate knowing this for my own books--when I feel stuck, skill-less, out of energy or ideas, it's often because I've passed through a gate I've been working with for a while and I'm facing the next one, which might require a new perspective, new skills, new energy.

These may or may not resonate with your experience. But I also hope they will help a few readers and encourage them not to give up.

Five gates on a book journey
1. Taking an idea into regular production of pages
2. Structuring the flow of the book
3. First draft completion
4. Revision completion
5. Final editing (often with professional feedback)

Gate One: Ideas into Pages
You approach the first gate as you become full of ideas for your book and begin to get them on the page. An exciting time--the book bubbles inside for a while and bursts forth. The energy of this passage is often easy and free flowing. Sheer enthusiasm can carry you forward. Included in this time are classes, your writers group, feedback, reading to learn. The writer is somewhat innocent about what it will take to further the project. That innocence is very important.

If that initial enthusiasm begins to wane--you glimpse how much work a book can be!--you are reaching the next gate. Accompanying this moment is terror: your mother will read it! you may bore readers! you may never get this published! you don't know how to do it, actually!

Writing regularly is the key to getting to the next gate, to have enough material to begin to structure it wisely and create a real book.

It's hard to say when gate two arrives in the life of a book: some writers want to structure that hot mess as soon as possible. Others prefer to wait. You can do either, but realize you'll probably toggle back and forth until you've accumulated about 90,000 words, or three hundred double-spaced pages.

Gate Two: Playing with Structure
Tools for structuring abound. Tons of books out there to teach you, plus classes. Save the Cat to storyboarding to Shawn Coyle's story structure grids--they are all methods to move you from random, exploratory writing to a linear organization that effectively translates your book to a reader.

Writers who have trouble letting go of the free flow often don't pass beyond this gate. Structuring tells you exactly what you have in all those pages. And what's missing. A good structure tool will give you a road map to the next part of your journey.

I call this gate "playing with structure" because it's rarely an instant success. It helps to adopt a playful attitude. To know that your first, second, or tenth try at structure may not be what you end up with. My best results come when I create a possible flow for the book then write to fill gaps. Then test the structure again. Usually it changes.

Stuckness in this part of the journey comes as "I hate my book" or "It doesn't feel creative anymore." Structure is that way--it uses the more linear mind. To release yourself, read. Study structure in books you love. How did the author engage you? How did he or she flow the scenes or information? Anything you can learn from it?

Once the structure kicks in, is working, you can catch that flow again as you write what's missing. Eventually you have enough for gate three.

Gate Three: Your First Draft
Once we have a good structure and plenty of workable "islands" written, we are ready to build the first draft. If you have an electronic tool like Scrivener, it's a simple matter of clicking a few keys. Otherwise, you cut and paste, using the map of the storyboard or other structure tool, plus the hundreds of pieces of writing you've completed. This is rough! Irreverent writer Anne Lamott (author of Bird by Bird) calls it "a shitty first draft"--aka SFD. It is that.

This gate is a simple one--your goal is just to get that SFD made. Print it out if you want. Let yourself admire the stack of pages. Know that you've taken a huge step.

Depending on the genre, most books are about 300 double-spaced pages or more at this stage.

The only way writers get reliably stuck at this gate is if they begin revising before the draft is completed.

Gate Four: Revision
Revising the draft is next. As a professional editor, this is my favorite gate. It's also the hardest. It requires staring down all my mistakes and figuring out what path my reader needs to take through my book, then weeding anything that doesn't serve the story.

Revision reveals many things, including where we've gone to sleep.

Skills are needed. You may already be a competent writer but you need to learn revision--they are two different skillsets. Take classes. Read books on revision. Hire an editor or coach to help.

Many, many writers get stuck at this gate. Getting feedback from too many friends (writer's groups, etc.) too soon is a sure way to sink.

Gate Five: Feedback
At final editing, after revision, I always recommend getting feedback. Of course, use your beloved writer's group or writing partner. But also consider investing at a higher skill and experience level than your peers. Find a professional editor or a published writer (in your genre) to do a read-through and evaluation. Get a sense of where you need to focus for the final edit (line editing, substantive editing if needed).

Feedback gives you the next road map: where to clean up, how to make it sing.

Feedback can also stall you out. I've talked with dozens of writers who received feedback and felt completely discouraged (or enraged). My two cents: step back. Thank the reader, who took time to dive into your book's world with good intentions. Write down the main points of the feedback. Then put it away for a week, maybe two, until the burn dies down. When you can be impartial, neither silently raging at the reader who "didn't get it" or silently weeping at the new problems, choose one item from the list, a small change you can make in an hour or two. Then test it out. Make the change, see how it feels.

Nine times out of ten, the feedback is pretty accurate and it just takes getting unemotional about it to see that. Sometimes the feedback itself isn't the fix but it points out the problem and just sitting with that will bring your own solution.

I go into each of these gates in my book Your Book Starts Here. You can use it as a guide for whichever passage you're traveling right now. To recap, here are the five gates and what keeps you moving.

The Idea Stage
How to keep going? Build a writing practice

The Structuring Stage
How to keep going? Work with a visual map, such as a storyboard, to keep oriented

The First Draft Stage
How to keep going? Focus on simply getting the manuscript completed--no editing

The Revision Stage
How to keep going? Let go of what's not serving the book

The Feedback Stage
How to keep going? Step back, get impartial, then test the advice

No comments:

Post a Comment