Writing Process, from Soup to Nuts
This post first appeared Thursday, September 24th on the Hedgebrook blog at http://www.hedgebrook.org/blog/ Hedgebrook is a rural retreat for women writers on Whidbey Island, Washington. I really wanted to pile some pasta on my laptop and take photos, but my tech support said no.
From Soup to Nuts
In my previous life as a management consultant, we mapped processes “from soup to nuts,”* which is a delicious way to explain my writing process.
Soup: Idea Consommé
My novels begin with a single idea, be it theme, bizarre character trait, or what-if scenario. This simmers for months or years among thousands of other ideas while I write other books and live life.
Amuse-Bouche: Unamused Synopsis
Once a single idea takes hold, I force myself write a two-page synopsis of the manuscript (without, you know, the manuscript.) Writing a synopsis before writing a 90,000-word manuscript helps ensure the story won’t fizzle halfway through. When this course is prepared properly, it makes the rest of the meal go down easy.
First Course: Outline, with an Inspiration Reduction
For the next several courses, I use Scrivener writing software to manage the intricacies of my work. My current manuscript, an adult contemporary novel about a group of women in crisis, includes complicated relationships and a series of flashbacks. Scrivener’s corkboard was instrumental in keeping my thoughts together as I outlined, and gave me a path forward.
Second Course: Blanched First Draft
The first is my most linear draft, written from chapter one straight through to the end. I write at least 1000 words a day, every day, for three or four months. To stay productive, I use brackets for unknown elements: the protagonist’s brother is named [BROTHER] and her favorite pastime is [SOMETHING RARE AND EXCITING]. I research and replace the brackets in my free time outside of writing. This helps me immensely; if I didn’t cage my thoughts between brackets, I would spend whole hours researching popular boy names from the 1970s, or going down a rabbit hole on Wikipedia. This course is rife with gaps, but the major story arc is in place and characters are taking shape.
Third course: 19 Revisions, with Mint Sauce
Each time I revise the full draft, I focus on a single thing (e.g. establishing consistency of character, expunging my writing tics, or sharpening the language). These drafts solidify story arcs, characters, and dialogue. If I’ve done a good job on the second course, this course takes about two months. If I was sloppy, I’ll spend five months here. When I’m satisfied with the tone and characters, and once no brackets remain, I move the document into MS Word so I can share it.
Fourth Course: Family-style Pappardelle
I serve this course to my computer-scientist husband, and three dear friends:
--Dear Reader, a middle school English teacher turned attorney, often provides suggestions over the phone, frequently in real time as she’s reading.
--Super Reader, a YA librarian who has reviewed hundreds of novels for Booklist, sends back her plate—piled with insightful commentary—within a week.
--Alpha Reader, a YA author, takes a month to review the manuscript (usually twice).
My invaluable early readers come to the table with different perspectives, so they offer vastly different suggestions. They have my manuscript for six weeks, during which time I don’t touch it. Instead, I keep a separate list of notes offline.
Fifth course: Sushi for One
After six weeks of the fourth course, I edit the manuscript with fresh eyes. In a single pass, I edit and incorporate my own notes.
Sixth Course: Michele’s Mole with a Thoughtful Garnish
Using brackets for notes and placeholders, I add all four readers’ suggestions into the manuscript. With more than 300 pairs of brackets, the difficulty of this course lies in making decisions: how shall I proceed when the Alpha Reader loathes my Super Reader’s very favorite part? Now editing is less time consuming but requires far more thought. The sixth course is my favorite, because the manuscript changes rapidly into something much better.
Seventh Course: Filet de Récite
While alone in my house, I read the entire manuscript aloud, changing my dialogue and anything else that sounds improperly seasoned.
Eighth Course: Twice-Baked Edits
I repeat courses four through six, with the same early readers plus a few more. Edits are generally swift, and I sweep through the manuscript two or three times. When I make it 83 percent through the manuscript without finding any major issues, I start anticipating dessert.
Proper Dessert: Final Read Pavlova
This is sweet. I spell check for the first and last time, and read through without making any changes.
Nuts: Cashews, Macadamias, and Book Deals
This part is new to me. This winter, I will forward my new manuscript to my agent and hope she knows an editor who’s eager to buy it. The second I hit send, I will open a new Scrivener project for a new amuse-bouche.
* I’ve eaten dinners around the world, and have yet to start with soup and end with nuts.
I posted once about Kevin Wilson’s The Family Fang. Loved it. Last week, I started reading his short story collection, Tunneling to the Center of the Earth, and I’m apportioning it over a period of weeks.
It’s like really good chocolate*: I could read it in one sitting, but then it would be gone. (In this way, it is not at all like cake. Eat the cake/pie/crumble/mousse/pudding! I’ll make more. I cannot make more Kevin Wilson, sadly.)
I don’t often write about what I’m reading, because that’s not what I do here. But this? This I love.
And I refuse to tell you anything about it. Buy it today. Read it. You will not require dessert.
*In pregnancy, Dove milk chocolate constitutes really good chocolate. Not sure why, but nothing else satisfies me.
Behold the Power
Our county fair begins today, and the kinder are beside themselves with anticipation. Unfortunately for them, it’s supposed to be 100 degrees most of this week, so a visit with livestock and carneys seems unlikely.
Unfortunately for me, the fair will be a colossal disappointment, as it is nearly every year.
I grew up in Ohio, a massive agricultural state (also: football breeding ground and butt of American jokes, but those are topics for other days.) County and state fairs figured prominently in my life until I left the state ten years ago.
Embarrassing moment with the governor? State fair. Story of my (second) broken arm? County fair. Relatives’ crafts and hobbies showcased for all the world to see? County fair. Rabbits that were mine-but-not-mine? County fair.
I dragged 1977 to Alaska’s state fair on our honeymoon. No lie.
The absolute best treat of any fair, EVER, is cheese on a stick. Despite having been to many fairs outside Ohio, I have never found it anywhere else.
There are mozzarella sticks, yes. And very occasionally, “cheese on a stick” made from cheddar, which is just wrong. Genuine cheese on a stick is a chunk of mozzarella dipped in cornmeal and deep-fried like all good fair food. It tastes best when dipped in yellow mustard.
And it is nowhere to be found outside of Ohio.
**Image courtesy of dupagecountyfair.org
I’m straddling Monday and Wednesday here, because I have no intention of posting tomorrow. . .not that we have big plans. Our city canceled tonight’s fireworks, and the (two-hour) parade won’t happen tomorrow either. (Yes, 2008 is sorely disappointed; her mama is not.)
While our town recovers from Sunday’s massive storm, our little family will celebrate in the backyard with sparklers and a grilled dinner.
It should go without saying, but may not so I’ll say it: we grill over charcoal, because that’s how it’s done.
Lucky 2008 got to choose the day’s dessert, so tomorrow morning we’ll bake apple pie from scratch. Thanks to Fancy Nancy, we’ll enjoy it à la mode (Jane O’Connor, we need to talk.)
Meanwhile, the north side of our town is still without power, and may be for the remainder of the week. The city has advertised several cooling centers via email and their website.
Via email and their website. For people without power. I’m sure their underutilization is mere coincidence.
Happy, happy Independence Day to all of you. May your festivities be happy and your patriotism civil.
Happy Birthday to Me
Not really. My birthday is six months hence.
BUT, my children’s babysitter is having a birthday, which means birthday cake in our house. And, really, any time there’s birthday cake, I feel as if it’s my own. Is that wrong?
Some women want a big fancy wedding dress. Some want thousands of dollars of flowers. I wanted cake, so we had an awesome cake when we married.
I believe quite firmly that cake can improve any situation. Wrestling with query letters? Cake. Rough days ahead? Have some cake. No time to get to the gym? Cake is a good substitute. Baby not sleeping? Cake for you.
So, happy birthday, Maddie. I’ll be your cake twin.
Full disclosure: that is not the birthday cake. Birthday Cake is not carrot.
The Baking Bug
Somewhere among the preschool clutter, our fridge holds a list of people who accept baked goods.
I love baking. Cookies, brownies, pies, cakes, truffles, whatever strikes my fancy. But I don't so much enjoy the eating. Rather, I don't appreciate the effects of the eating, so I am constantly dumping sweet treats on friends.
Every few weeks, I blast FaceBook: "I need to bake. Who wants something?"
I eat the raw dough, my kids lick the beaters, I have the satisfaction of baking, thousands of calories leave my house via post, and my first responder receives baked goods.
Today, I'm baking bread, but I'm waiting on an address. If I don't have RM's address within the week, I'm baking pain au chocolate for someone else. Any takers?
I blog rarely, because I'm busy writing books. When I do blog, I focus on writing, friendship, family, and books. Because my family's best nicknames are private, I use their birth years for shorthand: