Thursday, August 4, 2011

Is Writing A Book Like Following A Recipe?

It depends. Of course it does. It depends on many factors. It also depends on what kind of a cook you are. If you’re the kind of cook that never follows a recipe and just adds things as you go, then the chances are that’s just how you’ll write your book too. Good luck!

Me? I’m a little more organized than that. In my work life I’m a project manager, and project managers have to be well organized and structured. They also have to be able to react to change and manage risks and things that may (and do) go wrong. I think it’s pretty good training for writing a book!

So how exactly do I write a book? Let’s start at the beginning (and I want to add a comment here that due to the fact this is a blog post, the following process has been summarized). First off I have an idea for a story. It’s usually something really simple, and there are a few characters involved; the protagonist and the antagonist. Oh, and some kind of setting and back-story too. I usually write this down – a few bullet points – and then I let it sit and bake for a while. I come back to it from time to time and then add a few more notes. Eventually there comes a time when I’m ready to structure the story properly. I decide on the length I want it to be (80k – 120k depending on audience, genre, etc.), and I also decide on the number of chapters I want to write. 

This is where my project management experience kicks in. I know from personal experience that for every plot point I create, I will write somewhere between 400 and 600 words of story. This means that if I want to write an 80k word book, I’m going to need about 160 plot points. That’s a lot of things happening in a story!  My first job – before I write a single word – is to create at least half (preferably two thirds) of those plot points. This gives me a firm basis and direction for my book and also allows me to add other storylines as the book develops and gets ‘its own life.’ Then I write the book.

Okay, easy part done! Next I like to let my newly written manuscript sit for a while (just like letting bread prove). I don’t touch it for at least a month – preferably two – so that I can mostly forget about it. Then I come back to it anew and re-read it, editing as I read. It’s easy this time through to spot parts that don’t work or need changing somehow. After this is done the manuscript is ready to send out to a team of pre-readers (as I call them). These are people who are prepared to read through my manuscript at least three times, looking for different things including plot and character inconsistencies, grammar, spelling, parts of the story that don’t work, and all sorts of other things. I require my pre-readers to give me written reports that follow a strict template.

Next comes the final edit. I take all the feedback I have received and decide which I want to take and which I don’t (it’s still my story after all), and then I make my edits. One final reread and the manuscript is probably good to go. This just leaves covers, book blurb, pricing, marketing, press releases, advanced reader copies (ARCs) – for reviews - and all that great stuff to organize.

End to end timing? Wow, that’s a tough question. It depends on the actual writing part. I try and allow a month to let the story grow inside me, then a further week or so to flesh it out before I write. Then I write it. This usually seems to take about 3 months. Then a month to let it sit, a week to make edits, another month to get feedback from pre-readers, a week to make final edits and another couple of weeks to finalize all the other details. 

All in all, it’s about a 7 month process, end to end for an 80k novel. I’m sure some people can do it quicker and some people take longer. Just remember, you get one shot at your reader, so don’t rush the process – it will show through in the final product. We all want to start earning money off the book tomorrow, but a book is on sale forever and can generate revenue for years. Think about that when you come to the editing process. Spending quality time before the book goes on sale in order to create a better book is well worth it. Good luck!

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  1. Really interesting post! Just out of curiosity, how exactly do you define "plot point"? I'm not a novelist so I don't know, but I always thought "plot point" meant a significant event that affected the outcome of the story. I never knew it was as formulaic as 400-600 words per plot point.

  2. Great question. I use the word plot point to describe a scene / story point / or some other event. Every scene you write should take the story forward in some way or other (characterization / plot / etc.), it should never be just filler or waffle! Also, I'm writing from a personal perspective. I know different people do it in different ways. I just try to stay organized. This way I do not lose where I am going. I find too many new writers 'wander' all over the place in their stories. Hope this helps - good luck!