Ok, so it’s been a while since I wrote a blog post. Time is precious, even to an obsessive workaholic like me. Sometimes people ask me why I have to work so much. My answer? Because writing can be bloody hard! And this is why I get really annoyed when people say: “I could write better than that author.” or “I could do that if I had more time.” or the shudder-worthy: “Everyone has a book inside them.” It’s like when my brother yells at the football. Why yell at players? You couldn’t do any better. You haven’t even touched a football for years.
So, think you’re better than Stephenie Meyer? Think you could write faster than George R.R. Martin?
Then bloody well go do it and good luck to you, because I think there are some truths about writing that no one has told you.
Writing a story is easy. Kids can do it. You take a character and make things happen to them. Susie goes for a walk, she gets lost in the forest. She meets a friendly dragon, helps him cook his breakfast, then he shows her how to get out. Done. My three year old comes up with stories like this all the time. But few would argue that it is publishing grade material. Do you know why most writers take at least a year to bring out a book? Because that is how long it takes to make it GOOD.
So what do you do? You write a first draft. Great, well done, you have some characters and they do some vaguely interesting things, or even some very interesting things if you’re lucky. This stage takes me about 5-6 weeks for a 100,000-120,000 word novel. It’s exciting. If you’re a fly by the seat of your pants writer like me it’s really exciting because you don’t know what your characters are going to do until they do it. It’s the best part of the whole process, the part where we get to be storytellers, not just glorified typists. But now what? Do you submit your amazing work to a publisher? No, almost certainly they would throw it in the bin. Self publish it? It’s easy to do, but please don’t. It isn’t ready. You have to put it aside. You have to leave it, and when you do come back to it you have to be critical and tear it to pieces so you can rebuild it better. You write another draft. You fix the plot holes, ramp up the tension, take out the characters that don’t need to be there even if you really like that one line they have about goats.
Great. Second draft is done. Off to the publisher now? NO! Give it to someone else to read. And no, I don’t mean your partner, your best friend or your mum, unless you are fortunate enough to have a great literary critic about you. Give it to someone who reads a lot, who you trust to tell you the absolute truth no matter how much it might hurt. These people are your true friends. People who say “It’s good” are no use to you. You want the people who have the balls to say: “Why the hell does Johnny go into the sewers anyway?” .. “Don’t you think dragons and elves are a bit… well… cliche?” Or even: “Dude, it’s shit. I didn’t like your character and I wanted to throw the book in the fire.” – because these opinions aren’t any good to you if you’ve already self published it.
Ok, so you have your readers (yes, you need more than one). These are your ‘alpha readers’. Fantastic. Let them read it. Listen to EVERYTHING they have to say. You can’t be a precious ass at this time and defend everything. If they see a problem most likely there is a problem and you have to at least take it on board. Then you re-write with all of these comments in mind. Fix the pacing. Give Johnny a damn good reason for going into that sewer. Spice up the pointy-eared fantasy staples or take them out. Then give it back to the readers. The same ones, a few new ones, hunt around for even complete strangers if you have to. These people are your ‘beta readers’.
Great. Now you’re starting to get somewhere. But you know what? You aren’t there yet. How many drafts and changes do you have to make? As many as it bloody well takes to come near perfection. I draft, I have readers, I draft more, I keep this going until there is no plot holes, no slow patches, and I am carrying these readers with me on the edge of their seats. Then the story is finished, but the book is not. From there chances are you need to cut words. Some people work to a percentage, 10-15% cutback. I go with the flow, but keep an eye on the math. Read the work aloud. Are there difficult passages to read? Highlight them as you go and fix them up later. I’ve found loads of problems this way that I might never have found otherwise.
By now you are probably wondering if a book is EVER finished. And the answer is that it has to be. There comes a point at which the effort is no longer worth it. In the early drafts you are dramatically improving your manuscript. By the time you have the story right and are fixing the words, you are taking it from good to great. But after a while every editing run you take through your work is going to change less and less, and somewhere we perfectionists must draw the line. It is finished. I might never be able to read it in print for fear of finding a sentence I could have improved, but it is finished and I will not touch it anymore.
It is nothing short of torture. But it is a torture I love. So this, this is why there is no book inside everyone. Everyone has a story to tell over a beer down at the pub, just as everyone can be funny, but that doesn’t mean we should all become comedians. There is a big difference.
So next time you idly think about how cool it would be to write a book – don’t. It is not for idle dreamers. Writing is for mad people who would self-flagellate if it hadn’t gone out of fashion.