When The Book is Finished, the Hustle Begins
To those who have never written a book, writing the book probably seems like the hardest part of the process. Guess what? It's not! For those who are interested or who might find this helpful, I thought I'd break down the process so far.
July 2015: Dreaming
This is about the time I started fumbling my answer to the ubiquitous question, "What do you do?" I'd stepped away from my longtime role as executive editor of Round Table Companies, but I hadn't come close to stepping away from the identity it gave me. Without it, I had no answer. I couldn't yet say, simply and confidently, "I'm a writer." Because what was I writing? At that point, nothing. The truest thing I could've said was, "I read." Because that's what I spent my first few weeks doing--returning to the creative space that reading a great book always puts me in. Then one night, in the loose, disjointed moments before sleep, I remembered an article I'd read years before, about a strange and fascinating psychological condition called Cotard's delusion, which can make people believe they're dead. When I woke up the next day, the excitement was there. And when I read more about it, I knew: this was it. The start of my book.
August 1 - October 1, 2015: Planning
For two months, I focused on character development and outlining. For character development, I started with the Proust Questionnaire. For the main characters, these questions yielded some 40 pages or so each of memories and backstory. For minor characters, I picked and chose, writing about 10 pages for each. This part of the process is time intensive, but it's among the most creative, almost magical parts for me--inventing someone, pulling them from the air, watching them solidify before you. Doing this helped me immeasurably in the next step: outlining.
Before RTC, I was not an outliner. I wrote with blind trust that the story would come. For short stories, which were what I wrote in grad school, this was fine. But when I started writing books with RTC, then managing multiple projects for multiple clients who were understandably anxious to know what to expect, I realized not just the importance, but the necessity of an outline. At RTC, outlines comforted the client while also assuring the writing team that we were all on the same page. We had a road map. We knew, more or less, what Chapter 10 would hold and when we hoped to write it, though we were only on Chapter 3. I can't understate the relief of that knowledge. So with my own book, I never considered not outlining. I used Scrivener for the whole first draft process because of its organizational capacity. In one sidebar, I could see all my folders: character development, outline (broken into scenes written on virtual index cards, which I could rearrange on a virtual cork board), research (subdivided into categories: military, mental health, Mexican Revolution, etc.), and eventually each chapter, broken into scenes. With Scrivener, I could split my screen so that on the top half, I saw the chapter I was working on, and on the bottom, I could see the relevant research. All of this would be impossible with Word, which I used for second draft onward. (I'll explain why later.)
October 2015 - March 2017: Writing
For the next year and five months, I wrote. In hindsight, God, that was blissful. And frustrating and clumsy and inspired and worrisome and joyful. Some days, I was sure I was creating something beautiful and brilliant. Others, I hated the feel of the sentences in my mouth--I felt like a hack, as delusional as my poor character, Celia.
But to simply create, not thinking about who would read this or what they'd think or whether I'd find an agent or whether it would ever be published--that was joy. To get to live in the story, dreaming about it, waking up with lines and images in my head, discovering my voice as a writer, falling deeply in love with my characters (but not so deeply that I couldn't kill off a few when the time was right)--that is where I belong.
In the last two years, people have asked whether I get lonely, writing by myself all day. The question startles me each time because, at the risk of sounding a little nutty, I never feel alone. I'm surrounded by fascinating, flawed, lively people struggling to live with their mistakes, to cover their lies, to find their truths, to tell their stories--that these people exist only in my head doesn't make them worse company!
I finished the first draft on March 20, the night before my sister's birthday. We were in Laredo, and Adrian was in the room when, heart racing, I typed the last words. I was crying, the kind of exhausted, exuberant tears you shed after a long race, filled with pride and disbelief that you actually did this thing, this enormous thing you weren't entirely sure, at least all the time, that you'd really finish. I was crying, too, because after so much time, I wasn't completely ready to say goodbye to these characters, to walk away from their world. Already, I wished I could go back to the middle again--a place where the path ahead seemed achievable but mysterious, laced with secrets and surprises I'd only discover along the way.
March 20, 2017 - May 17, 2017: Revising
Holding the manuscript in my hands for the first time was a high I hope to feel again and again throughout my life. Reading it on paper, all at once, was a different experience than reading it piecemeal on the screen. It gave me more objectivity, experiencing the book as a reader instead of the writer--but not enough objectivity to be truly helpful in editing. This is where having a second set of eyes was truly invaluable--more so because that pair of eyes belonged to Amanda Eyre Ward, author of six wonderful novels, whom I've read and admired since college. I'd been taking a class with her since last summer, and part of the fee included her feedback on a first draft.
Her enthusiasm for the novel was clear and genuine--I was ecstatic. But she also had some critical feedback that would require complex edits--including chopping the first 150 pages of the novel. Of course this was a blow at first--but the more I sat with it, the more I knew she was right. How did I know? Because I'd always identified the scene she suggested starting with as "when shit got real" for the characters. In an unarticulated way, I felt sure that if a reader made it to that scene, they'd be hooked for the rest of the book.
Uh . . . shouldn't I have felt that way from page one?
It's a good thing I like editing. I like the intellectual puzzle of it, conceptualizing new, better ways of making the material hang together. So I actually enjoyed the challenge of cutting those pages, re-visioning the book to see how it worked without them, finding the best spots to relocate and/or rewrite some of the most important parts of those 150 pages. (I ended up using about 50 of those pages and cutting the rest entirely.) Also based on Amanda's feedback, I revised and/or rewrote the main character's point of view to give her more insight into her condition and to give the novel a different kind of frame. Finally, I made a major change to the climactic scene so that it worked better with the novel's themes--something you can really only do in revision, once you understand the story you're telling.
For this part, I switched from Scrivener to Word, because it made sense to edit the novel as a whole, rather than in pieces, the way I had it laid out in Scrivener. Also with Word, I could track changes if I was worried about losing a section I'd later want back, and while I'm sure Scrivener has similar or more advanced features, I haven't played with it enough to discover them. Word is familiar editing ground for me, and it worked well.
May 17 - Now: Submitting
In an act of confidence and writerly generosity that meant to the world to me, Amanda introduced me to her agent once I had finished revisions. Her agent immediately asked if I'd grant an exclusive for the full manuscript, promising to get back to me quickly. Of course (not yet realizing the limitations of granting exclusives to agents), I agreed.
To her credit, the agent was fast and very kind, writing to me in just under two weeks to let me know she appreciated my talent and creativity but was passing on the project. I'll be honest: I cried. As much as I'd tried not to, I'd been obsessing about her response, daydreaming about receiving The Call, hoping to somehow get lucky enough to circumvent a submission process I knew could take months, if not years. I knew it was a long shot, of course, but hope cares very little about statistics. So I cried a little and thought about opening a bottle of wine at three p.m., but instead I got on to Publishers Marketplace and ran down the top 10 most queried agents. By the end of the day, I'd queried three of them. By the next morning, Amanda had sent me a list of five more. I made it my goal to query 20 agents by the time we went to South Padre Island one week later.
And I did. I subscribed to Query Tracker and bought the latest edition of Writer's Market, cross-referencing promising candidates on Publisher's Marketplace, Twitter, Manuscript Wish List, and the agents' own websites. I also searched the hashtag #MSWL (manuscript wish list) on Twitter to find any agents who might be searching specifically for something like my book. My goal was to aim high but not indiscriminately. I wanted to target agents who had a history of representing bestsellers and/or prize winners, but I also wanted to get a sense that their personality (via interviews, blogs, or Twitter) and taste in books would be a good fit for mine. I want to work with someone who is genuinely excited about selling my book and working with me into the future.
So far, 13 days since my oldest query and 5 days since my most recent, three agents have requested the full manuscript. All three came last Thursday, when were driving to South Padre. By the time we got there, I was lightheaded with excitement. And while all three may come back with "Thanks but no thanks," it helps to know I have so many irons in the fire. That gives me a sense of peace, which I'll need in order to be patient and wait for whatever happens next.
Now I start all over again. Last night, I started dreaming scenes from my next book. That's how I know I've daydreamed enough to start putting words on paper. But it'll be a little different this time. To prepare for (I hope) an agent asking me about my next project, I'll work on a synopsis first, then a rough outline, then the Proust Questionnaire. Then I'll refine the outline, and I'll be ready to begin writing.
Writers, I'd love to know: do you have book writing strategies? A typical timeline? If you have an agent, how did you approach the submission process? And if any of this is helpful to you, I hope you'll let me know!