I have finished writing the first draft of my latest book – a novel (the title and subject I choose not to reveal at this time) – and you would think that I am ready to pop the champagne open, right? Wrong! Because even though it feels wonderful finishing the first draft – what I call Phase One – I know the real dirty, hard work looms over me.
The way it happened is a usual process for me – I get all excited about an idea, sit down, and bang out a story. This is why I love short stories because my investment of time is minimal in comparison to working on a book. I do revise it a few times, but at 10-15 pages – the usual length of one of my stories – it is not all that time consuming. There is still work to it, but it is nothing like the time writing a novel requires.
Then, like most of my stories, I submit it someplace and then forget about it. Maybe it gets rejected or gets published, and if does get published I will go over it and think about ways I still want to change it. This has happened to me again and again over the years.
The original story that inspired this novel was submitted and not accepted, so I shelved it for about 15 years. I thought about the story one night in May while watching The Day the Earth Stood Still on television, and it made me think about the story because that film is something the characters in the story watch, so later on I pulled this story down from the shelf, brushed off the cobwebs, and decided that my original idea to turn it into a book was a good one.
Now I had my summer challenge. Since I am not teaching during the summer months, it is a perfect time to commit to writing a longer work. I had to set a schedule and stick to it. Since the kids are off from school, it would have to be earlier than they get up, so my target time was 5-8 in the morning. I started on the first day by going into my office and shutting the door, and I stuck to this routine all summer – except on weekends and vacation – and this worked for me.
There were some speed bumps along the way. One of the kids would get up early and want breakfast, or I had to go to the store because we were out of eggs or milk. But most of the summer I got my three hours in each day, and I found myself surprisingly awake and fresh and mostly excited when that alarm went off. Still, when those unplanned things happened, I looked at my picture The Distrest Poet by William Hogarth that I have hanging near my desk, took a deep breath, and carried on. Like the poet in the drawing, I wanted to write but life had other plans.
Every writer is different, but I am a visual learner and need to see the story. What I mean is that I must plot out the story on little storyboards and post them around my desk where I am working. They consist of an outline of exactly what (or will) happen in that chapter and characters names that appear in it. So, I started out with eight chapters – it would later grow to 14 – and each one was posted on a storyboard and was visible for me to see as I was writing.
If I am in the middle of writing chapter seven, and I forgot a name or an event in chapter two, it is very convenient to have the storyboard there with the information I need. Sometimes as I write a chapter it starts writing itself, and thus the story changes from what I have on the storyboard. I use pencil to make them up, so that I can erase some of the outline and plug in the changes if I make any.
Does this sound like fun? I know why many people hate writing – it is work – hard work. After a three-hour session, I am tired but exhilarated too. Then if my kids want to do something after breakfast – pool, beach, mall, movie, etc. – I can participate without feeling like I didn’t accomplish something that day, but I may yawn a few times along the way.
Besides the physical effort necessary for writing, there is an emotional toll as well. I get attached to characters and the story, and in one instance when two characters had to die – sure, I am the writer and can change it, but it was necessary for the plot – I felt real pain. Hemingway said, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” All I can say is that I know what he meant, because my office looks like a crime scene.
Now that the first draft of the book is done, I must go into what I call Phase Two – the revising of the book. I started doing that this morning during my three hours, and I didn’t get out of the first chapter. There were several things that I didn’t feel worked, and now some pages are totally different. I felt like a movie director sending snippets of film to the cutting room floor.
Writing the first draft was work but it was joyful work. Revision is the heavy-duty work of writing, and it always takes longer than actually writing the first draft. After I am finished revising the whole book – and judging from this morning it is going to take a while – I will then have Phase Three to deal with. That is the editing and proofreading stage, which is the hardest step of all. This sometimes takes even more time than the revision depending on the story, and it’s very tedious, but necessary work.
Of course, I go back to work in two weeks and the kids go back to school, so my wonderful 5-8 window will be gone. Inevitably, I will get the work done and have a book ready for publication, and then there will be happiness that it is over but also the despair of an empty nester whose baby has gone away.
For now, I am satisfied that I succeeded in my summer challenge and the book’s first draft is done. Usually, every summer I would say, “I’m going to write a book” and then never get to it. I did it this year, and felt the need to write about the process, so this article is the result of that.
Okay, enough already. Now it is time to get back to work.