Friday, June 09, 2006

DR: Birthing a Novel in Less Than Nine Months

Recently a writer friend compared birthing a book to birthing a baby. Indeed, when I first started writing, it would take me at least nine months to write a book from “once upon a time” to “happily ever after,” not counting some major rewriting after my editors got hold of it.

So I was shocked to realize that I’d finished my last novel in just over three months. When I turned it in, I feared I’d given birth prematurely and that my manuscript would require some serious time in the neoliterary intensive care unit. But my editor was pleased—very pleased—and according to her, the quality didn’t suffer one bit.

In exploring how I’d pulled that off, I discovered several reasons why I’ve thankfully become a faster writer, apparently without sacrificing quality.

• After a dozen years of writing and studying the craft of writing, I’m more confident of my ability now. I don’t second guess myself so much, and I now know the conventions of writing, and recognize mistakes much sooner than I used to. Thus many things get fixed in editing-as-I-go mode, meaning my rewrite process is also far quicker than it used to be.

• I’m teaching writing at writers’ conferences now, and as anyone who’s ever taught knows, the teacher often learns more than the students. Every class I teach is a refresher course that benefits my own writing.

• I now have a critique partner (also a published author) who reads my chapters and edits with as sharp an eye as any professional editor I’ve worked with. She edits as I go, which means she catches things early on that might have necessitated a complicated rewrite before. That means much less rewriting from my end before I send my book to my editors. In addition, I have absorbed so much from my critique partner about writing well, especially since she’s strong in areas where I am weak.

• Now that I’ve had a few books published, my family and friends are starting to view me as more of a “professional” and are better at acknowledging my working hours as “legitimate.” Add to this the fact that last summer we moved to a new neighborhood a few miles from where most of my friends live, so I don’t get dropped in on quite so often.

• Now that I’ve had a few books published, I’ve started to view me as more of a “professional.” This means I’m giving myself permission to spend some of my writing income on things that make my life easier—office furniture and storage that work for the way I write, a one-day-a-month housekeeper, sending the ironing out, more convenience foods and eating out more often, etc.

• (This is a biggie!) We only have one child at home now and she’s in high school. The other three are all out of college and living out of state, so my “mommy” time has gone way down, is much less stressful and takes up much less brain space than it used to.

• I’m beginning to realize that much of the story/plot process for me starts before I ever write “once upon a time.” The book I finished in three months was conceived two years earlier when my husband treated me to a weekend at a bed and breakfast to write. I’d been mulling over the idea ever since, so a lot of the story was already inside me, well formed and just itching to get out. I think that’s why I could get it on paper so fast once I finally sat down to write. When I come to the computer not knowing my story yet (because I’m a seat-of-the-pants plotter) it takes much longer. But I’m learning to consistently let my next story incubate even as I work on the current book. Often I’m able to excavate ideas that have been there without me even being aware of it.

• Another big reason I think I’m writing faster these days is precisely because I’m writing faster. When the writing of a novel is condensed into a three- or four-month time frame, when my thoughts are concentrated on my storyline every day, I waste far less time trying to play catch-up, backtracking to refresh my memory about what I wrote the time before. I am steeped in my story and thus all the elements fall into place more easily.

Birthing a book is still a long and grueling process, but I’m happy to report that as the years go by, the delivery itself has become—if no less painful—at least much shorter lived.

Deborah Raney is the author of A Vow to Cherish (Steeple Hill, June 2006) and Remember to Forget (coming from Howard Publishing/Simon & Schuster). She has until July 1 to give birth to her next book.


At 8:38 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

That's great, Deb! 3 months, wow. Maybe there's hope for me. I'm so slow these days. I remember you saying something about that bed & breakfast trip. Looking forward to the book!

At 10:22 AM, Blogger Ernie W. said...

Wow!! My first novel is one week from being done (it took a year and a half to get to this point). A publisher is interested, so I know there may be more work to come, but that's okay for me. One day, I can shed my 'regular' mundane job and write full time.
Wonderful insights, thanks.

At 10:39 AM, Blogger C.J. Darlington said...

So there is hope for those of us who take years (rather than months) to write a novel? :-)

At 10:39 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Phew! So there is hope for me. Thanks for that insight, Deb.

At 5:03 PM, Blogger Southern-fried Fiction said...

With great teachers like you, Deb, my own writing gets better with each book, too. I'm SO looking forward to the early bird session in Dallas with you.

At 7:54 AM, Blogger Deborah Raney said...

Dan, I feel for you. It has to be tough when your day job also involves writing and/or sitting in front of a computer. I admire anyone who can hold down another job of any kind and write a novel at the same time. Especially a first novel, when you're still learning all the conventions and learning to edit as you go, etc.

As far as keeping it fresh in the eyes of publishers and agents: if you first pitched it over a year ago when it was 50 pages, my advice would be to wait until it's completely finished and edited to your satisfaction, then pitch as though it were an entirely new project (because by now, it probably is!) If your synopsis is distinctive, some of the people you originally pitched to may remember it, but editors and agents understand how a work changes as it's written, and how a writer grows through the writing of a first novel. I would imagine they'll be willing to take a fresh look at the finished product.

And for future projects, again, I think the best way to avoid them getting stale is to simply not pitch them until they're finished. It would be rare that a first novel would allow a person to quit the day job, so pitching a 50-page novel is risky anyway because of the length of time it might take to deliver a finished manuscript.

Best wishes!

At 9:36 PM, Blogger Rachel Hauck said...

Nice post, Deb, and so true! Well, back to my baby!



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