Different writers have different methods of writing books. Some start with an outline and know what they are going to say before they say it, and others write their way into their books and go back to clean them up for publication.
For some writers, content is most important, and literary style or technique is just a method of communicating content. For others, style and technique are most important, and content only matters as a muse. Imagine an architects blueprint compared to a painting of a bowl of fruit. Both are drawings, in a way, but one is communicating definite ideas for application, and the other is communicating a bowl of fruit.
Literary style, or voice, is more important to me than content. However, I definitely have something to say when I write. So I’d put myself in between those two examples. Imagine an architects drawing of a bowl of fruit, perhaps. And as for outlining, I don’t outline. I write my way into my books, then clean them as I go, and clean them more when I have a rough draft. I wish I could outline, but I can’t. That alone costs me about five more months of work, I am sure.
Anyway, I’ll try to break down the evolution of a book in hopes it helps some other writers feel a bit more sane about where they are in their own project. But again, every writer is different.
1. I usually have multiple ideas for books floating around in my head. Some are fiction, some non-fiction. And as I’m wrapping up one book, another of those concepts is beginning to capture my attention. And by the time I wrap up a book, I pretty much know what I will be writing next. The key is to not get too excited about the next book and finish the book you’re working on now. And that isn’t easy. I won’t let myself research the next book, or dream too much about it until I am done with the existing manuscript.
2. So when I start the next book, I search my computer for random files and essays I’ve written on the subject. It’s never happened to me, but I always hope there is already a usable chapter in my files. Just something to put on the canvas that helps the book take shape. When I can’t find anything, I start writing the first chapter. And I’ll probably write about five or six first chapters. It’s remarkable how much they change as the concept evolves in my head. And then I write a second chapter, which usually ends up being chapter five or chapter nine or something. And then another, and another. This process can take anywhere from six months to a year. You just get your stuff on the page and try not to think about the fact almost none of it will ever be in a book.
3. I begin to organize all the mess. I start reading through all of those Word documents to see if I can find a book in there somewhere. For A Million Miles, I originally thought I saw a book called “Let Story Guide You” which was more didactic and straightforward (not my usual style, but I wanted a change) but as I began to shape chapters within that voice, I didn’t like what was coming through the filter. It felt forced, and felt like I was selling something. Rather embarrassingly, I had to scratch the title. The cover had already been created and, no kidding, you can still order that non-existent book on Amazon. If you’ve already done so, please forgive me. I’m sure they will switch it over to A Million Miles in a Thousand Years so you’ll receive the book in it’s final version. Anyway, this was a major breakdown in the writing process. Being late on a book is a no-no, and I’ve done it a few times. Publishers don’t like it and they get rightly tired of authors who can’t professionalize their art. (note to artists: most of the obscure, withdrawn, and non-conformist singers and writers you know are actually very hard working and self promoting, otherwise, i assure you you’d never have heard of them. The point: If you want to be a successful artist who can pay his bills, work.) There are a lot of people with family’s to feed who count on your book, and when you don’t deliver, it’s not a good thing. So, the only thing I can do is resolve to write a great book and make up for it in the long run. Enter A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. Essentially, the same subject matter but told in a more narrative form.
4. I go through the existing material and find usable chapters. I put these in the order I think they might fit into a book and call this file “Rough Draft” (see image above). Now, finally, what was a hundred or more documents is compiled into a single document and you can start to get a feel for a book. There are missing chapters, for sure, but the word count is high enough you start to believe this thing is actually going to happen.
5. You begin to edit the Rough Draft, filling in missing pieces, massaging the text, fixing the broken voice wherever it is broken. You will pass through the Rough Draft as many as five times. This process can take a few months, but it’s important. This will be the framework or skeleton of your book. But it’s a hard process. Revising a rough draft is like painting a giant mural, only you’re never able to step back and look at the whole (it would take you a whole day just to read it). You are an inch away from the mural, and you have to paint the little piece you can see (perhaps a paragraph) and keep it in proportion with the rest of the book. Imagine painting a thumb on a hand on an arm on a man, never able to look at the entire man, or the scene in which he stands. That’s the process you are in at this point.
6. This is the final critical stage of the book. It’s been a year now, and for the first time you feel a book is going to get born. You take each chapter from the rough draft and you edit them, cutting them from the rough draft and pasting them into the final draft. In this process, you are thinking more about the whole than the part. Each chapter should stack neatly on the other. There will be no revising the book after this stage. You will edit it, but the major surgery is done. This process can take a couple months (A Million Miles will take me about seven weeks).
7. You turn in the manuscript to your editor. You can also turn it in to friends, though I don’t. The less feedback you get, the better. The reason is too much feedback creates a web of contradictions of opinion. If you’re turning it in to your friends to get affirmation, that’s fine. But honestly, what plumber shows off their work to their friends. It’s just a craft, what you need is critical feedback from another plumber. I’ve had more than a few people give me their manuscript in which I gave it back to them with critical feedback, all the while they wanted affirmation. I crushed them. Anymore, I don’t review manuscripts except for those from folks who really do want to make it better. It’s not about you, it’s about having a working toilet.
Just find a few people who will comb through the book for you. For me, Bryan Norman, my editor at Thomas Nelson will read through the book and provide paranthetical feedback (this part is getting boring….I feel like you’ve already made this point….this part is really moving….) and so forth. I will also have my agent read the book and give me broad feedback. She’ll tell me what is working and what isn’t. And Brian Hampton at Thomas Nelson will also offer feedback. I will then send that edited book to Jordan Green over at The Burnside Writers Collective who will comb through the book and write, in ink on paper, his thoughts in the margins. Jordan will get the final pass. I trust his insight as much as anybody I know. (This part will cost me a bit of cash, and it’s out of my pocket. But it’s worth it.)
8. The book will go to a copy editor who will look for grammar mistakes and misspelled words. And believe me, I misspell my share of words. I feel for the poor editor who has to go through my manuscript. Then I will get this copy back and will probably fight a little for some of the bad grammar. I like incomplete sentences.
9. The book will then go to a typesetter, and they will send me a final version that only requires my signature. I look through the book but I don’t read it. If I read it, I will want to change it, and that is a very expensive process. So I sign off on the book and send it back, and after this I have nothing more to do with it.
While all this is happening, a cover design is being created, cover copy is being written and sales teams are beginning to pre-sell the book to stores across the country. If I miss a deadline, this process gets shortened and it hurts the final roll out of the book. So hitting each of these deadlines is important.
After that, you get to go around the country and do readings. And those are a blast. It’s like doing stand-up, but you get to read. We are planning a sixty-six city tour to support A Million Miles.
And that’s it. Okay, back to work. I’ve got about ten-thousand words in my Final Manuscript document, and about fifty-thousand more to go. I love this part. Hope you’re loving your project too. It’s a mess, but it’s worth it when you cross the finish line.