Embracing the (Whole) Writing Process

by Susan Bearman

Arms hugging books

Today’s post is written by regular contributor Susan Bearman.

Like third graders writing a report, beginning writers tend to believe that writing a first draft means their work is done.

While completing the first draft of a manuscript, whether a short story or a full novel, is a huge accomplishment, writers are never “done”. There’s always a next step. But that’s OK.

In fact, that’s great, because writing is a process, not a product. If you’re lucky, you will produce some finished products along the way, but the process is ongoing. And each step offers an opportunity to hone different writing skills.

First Draft—No Holds Barred

We have Anne Lamott to thank for coining “sh$!!y first draft” (SFD) in her classic writing memoir, Bird by Bird. And we should thank her, because that’s what first drafts are. We squeeze our guts out onto the page (or screen) just so we have something—a bare beginning, a wonderful character, a glimmer of an idea—with which to work.

This is the free-form part of the process. Enjoy every minute of it. Lock your inner editor in a closet and let your imagination run wild. Spend some time asking “What if …?” Then put every crazy notion you can think of in this SFD and give yourself permission to make mistakes.

When you’re finished, remember a first draft is just that — a first draft. Your final manuscript will go through many revisions (that’s revisions, plural). So, revel in finishing that first draft … for about five minutes. Then put it away to marinate, and get busy on another project.

Revision—Honing and Shaping

I personally love the revision process, but many writers loathe it. If you’re one of them, the first thing you need to revise is your thinking. Revision is where you hone and shape your masterpiece, a land of opportunity where you get to:

  • exercise your craft to the fullest.
  • ask your characters who they really are and what they really want.
  • throw in plot twists that will keep your readers on the edge of their seats.
  • weave subplots together into a rich tapestry of story.
  • explore all the possibilities your rough draft offered to discover the story you were meant to tell.

A great writer and teacher, Esther Herschenhorn, offers the best, most thrilling definition of revision I’ve ever heard. She even pronounces it differently: re-visioning.

Revision is a chance to look at your story all over again from a different perspective. When you learn to see your story anew, with fresh eyes and vigor, each draft will take it to a higher level.

This is also the time to bring in your critique group. It’s often helpful to ask beta readers to concentrate on specific areas for feedback, such as:

Remember what revision is not:

  • it is not a line edit.
  • it is not a final edit.
  • it is not something you will accomplish in one read through.

The revision process can take a long time, often longer than the first draft. Give it the time it deserves. When you’re completely satisfied, then it’s time to polish and prepare your manuscript for submission.

Final Edits—Making It Picture Perfect

If you tend to be a little OCD, this is the stage where you can pick nits to your heart’s content. Comb, trim, slash, polish, buff, and beautify until your words glow in the dark. Be ruthless.

Even the best editors, however, have a hard time doing final edits on a manuscript they’ve lived with day in and day out through rough drafting and revisions. This is a good time to hire or beg an editor to help. You must have at least one fresh set of eyes proof your work.

Queries—Nothing to Fear

Writing a pitch or query letter seems to be the most hated job writers face, but I’ve never understood all the angst.

You’re a writer. This is just another form of writing, a chance to sell your work (first) and yourself (second) to people who want a good read. If you don’t believe your work is great, no one else will either. If you don’t know what it’s about or who the target audience is, neither will an agent or a publisher.

But, if you have written a great story (you’ll know), if you have polished it until it shines (if not, go back), if you have done your research and know your target audience, then writing a query letter will be a snap.

Keep it short, drop the adjectives, and stick to the plot. A query letter should make an agent want to read more of your writing. Keep in mind that queries are almost always written in the present tense and third person, even if the story is not. Use your best writing to:

  • Introduce your main characters. In one or two sentences, make an agent want to meet them.
  • Outline your plot. Don’t leave an agent guessing; summarize the beginning, middle and end.
  • Show why you are the only person who can tell this story. Include only relevant writing credits.
  • Say thank you and sign off.

Write to a real person and spell his or her name correctly. Follow submission guidelines to the letter (many are available online).

BIG WARNING: If you pitch to more than one agent, be sure to change the name on your salutation. This is a major faux pas when copying and pasting a query, and a great way to get an agent to hit the delete key.

If you have done your job, the query should practically write itself.

The “Elevator” Pitch—Short and Sweet

Every book needs a knockout “elevator” pitch—a brief, marketing-oriented synopsis of your story. You can write it at any stage of the process and revise as necessary. Pretend you have a top agent in the lift with you and that you have only the time it takes to get to the eleventh floor to grab her attention. The pitch should be a truncated, inverted version of your query that answers:

  • What is the genre?
  • Who is your reader?
  • Who is your main character?
  • What is the conflict?
  • Why do we care?

Practice this pitch. Out loud. You never know when you might need it. If you’re overwhelmed by the idea of creating an elevator pitch for your own manuscript, try writing one for your favorite book first.

Remember, all you need is two or three lines, but each word has to count before those doors open on the eleventh floor.

Give Yourself Time

Don’t rush the process. Between each stage, let your manuscript percolate for a bit. This doesn’t mean you should stop writing. Never stop writing. It just means that it’s pretty hard to shift gears on the same project. Many writers find it useful to work on different stages of several projects.

For example, say you’ve just finished that SFD of your new novel. Put it away and go back to a piece you’ve already drafted and begin revising. Then write a query for a piece you’ve already polished. Or take out that short story you loved that was rejected last year and resubmit it. Then start outlining something new. The key is to have lots of work in the pipeline.

There are more steps to the process, of course: submission, rejection, revision, acceptance, publication, marketing … it never ends. Embrace step with enthusiasm and you will become the writer you want to be.

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