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 blog rarely, because I'm 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: