Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Five Stages of Writing a Novel

As much as I learned over the years, I still don't recall a lot of specific antics that occurred in the hallowed academic halls at West Point.  Yeah, of course I remember a few.  For instance, I remember being shaken awake from a puddle of my own drool after submitting the engineering assignment I'd worked on for 48 straight hours.  I also remember that time in Russian class when the cute-as-hell classmate of mine fell asleep so hard she hit her cute little button nose right smack on the cute little wooden desk top, and since I sat right next to her I had the honor of drawing a cute little target for the desk's future nasal use.

Nope, I'm still not sorry for that, if you're reading this, Cadet *redacted*.  That was pure comic genius.  Even the professor enjoyed it, though of course he couldn't break decorum and laugh.

I also, for some strange reason, remember most of my plebe psychology class.  In general collegiate terms, it was one of those general education "psychology for the student who doesn't give a crap about psychology" classes, but the professor in this case made it rather enjoyable.  Um, somehow.  I don't remember what she did, specifically.

She was pretty.  Very pretty.  Cut an awfully nice form in those officer greens.  I remember that much, of course.


Psychology--right.  Anyway, I vividly remember learning about the five stages of grief.  I doubt I could list them off the tips of my fingers today, but they were there, and when a human being experiences loss, he or she must go through each of them in turn.  Oh, we all have our own ways of dealing with each stage, but the immutable law of human grief is that we must all deal with each stage, or else we swell up like a prickly ball of emotional hazardous waste (my term, not the professor's--she was pretty, did I mention that?).

I think writing a novel is like that--not the pretty part, but the other bit about stages.  I have no idea why, of course, other than the fact that both processes strike directly at our core emotions.  Other than that fact, though, the two sets of circumstances are very different.  For one thing, while I suspect most psychologists agree that there are five stages of human grief (which works out conveniently to one per finger on a human hand) nobody on the Internet can seem to agree on how many stages there are to writing a novel.  One site says there are fourteen, one says ten, and one lists a mind-blowing twenty two. 

I say there are five.  You might categorize them differently, but I, personally, am drawn to the simplicity and memorability of one stage per fingie.  So, having now gone through this process four times, here is my enlightened take on the five stages of writing a novel:

Stage 1: Pure Optimism

In Stage 1, the era of unbridled optimism, you generally have yet to write a damn word.  Maybe you have, and that word (or short phrase, even) is what will be called The Title right up till you realize how badly it sucks as a book title.  Doesn't matter, though.  You have The Idea, and you know that you're the only person ever in the history of the entire world to be fixin' to write this idea down on paper in the way you're fixin' to write it.  The Idea is, thus, going to make you millions.  No, billions.  You'll be able to retire like JK Rowling did and write in whatever genre you want to, and at that point people will buy your other books no matter how crappy they may be.  In short, you got this one, man.  Everybody else can just sit back and watch the genius at work.

And thus, you sit down to write, and after a short while you enter....

Stage 2: Pure Pessimism

Some say it happens at about 20,000 words, while others say 30,000.  With me, this stage seems to pop up consistently right at 23,000 words.  By that point you've written everything good there is to write about The Idea, and you realize that, if you didn't outline, you should have, and if you did, then the outline is all screwed up.  Whatever the case, at this point in the book you're realizing that: a) writing a novel is hard, and b) you really don't possess any sort of supernatural skill level at it, and c) writing a novel is really damn hard.  It's never, ever, ever going to get finished, you could swear in an oath on your own handwritten blood, and you might as well take the words you've already written and replace every one of them with a big ole' all-caps bolded and underlined instance of the word "DUH."  For variety, you'll just vary the number of Hs you use in each one, and that'll make your new work just a skosh more interesting than the pap you've already created. 

Stage 3: Extreme Self Doubt

Those few energetic/resilient folks who make it through Stage 2, whether thanks to NaNoWriMo, an extreme arrears on the mortgage, consuming vast quantities of alcoholic beverages, or any combination of the three, must now go through Stage 3, the realm of self doubt.  I mean, yeah, you did it.  You got to the point where you could write "The End" at the end with a mostly-straight face.  But it sucks.  You know that it sucks.  It's a small consolation to know that the first draft of every novel ever written sucked, honestly.  This one isn't War and Peace, nor is it The Great Gatsby.  It's your baby, man, the culmination of weeks or even months of effort in making The Idea into something tangible.  Your baby, right there in your hands, and you know beyond the shadow of a doubt that it reads like a million drunk monkeys had just managed to prove that no matter how long they banged randomly on a million keyboards they actually could not produce anything worth reading.

Damn those monkeys.

Stage 4: Pleasant Companionship

There are only two ways out of Stage 3.  One involves the digital equivalent of a toilet flush, while the other involves the hardest work known to man: revision.  You know, killing your darlings, over and over again, and if you haven't done it before you have no idea how hard it is to hit the Delete button on your favorite passages.  Yet Delete you do, over and over, taking the ugly duckling you initially created and slowly, painfully sculpting it into the amazing swan it will some day become.

It will, trust me.  The more you revise it, the more you think about the structure and the wording and the voice and the plot, the closer you'll come to Wordvana.  I've blogged before about the latter times of this stage, in particular, and described it in many pleasant terms.  "The work sings to you," I've said.  "You start enjoying to read it, even aloud," I've said.  It even *gasp* starts to resemble the book you envisioned in Stage 1.

You might even, as I have, employ the services of a professional editor during this stage, and that is a good thing to do.  Another set of eyes can help you identify darlings you didn't even realize needed to be cut down in their prime.  Another opinion can help you see that in the second act your heroine behaves completely out of character.  It will, in fact, shock you at what another professional will help you discover about your own writing.

You might also engage the assistance of other readers.  Beta readers, I've called them.  As I've pointed out in other articles, the first time you do this will be really damn confusing.  You'll hear "I love it" and "I hate it" and "it was too wordy" and "it wasn't descriptive enough" all day long.  The trick is to take each bit of feedback for what it's worth--which, in all cases, is definitely a large quantity, but in terms of quality there's variance depending on the point of view of the beta reader.  You know: "You can please some of the people some of the time, but..." and so on.

Yet--here's the trap of Stage 4: it's not ready.  You think it's ready once the prose starts a-singin' to ya.  Woo hoo! you want to shout.  You're ready to wrap it up into query letters and send it to agents.  But don't.  Trust me, I know.  If you're still reading the prose and thinking "woo hoo," it's not ready to send out.  You haven't been through the final stage yet, and you need to.  You really, honestly, do need to. 

And that, by the way, brings us to:

Stage 5: Hatred and Loathing

I haven't read Cataclysm in years.  I wanted to; I picked it up again to do another little revision on it, just 'cause, but I got a few pages in and wanted to throw it against the wall.  It's not that I don't love the book.  It's not that the words didn't at one point sing to me.  It's not that I'm not proud as I can be of the prose so contained.

No, it's that I don't ever want to read the damn words ever, ever again, not so long as I freakin' live. I've read them enough, thankyouverymuch.  I'm sick.  I'm tired.  I'm sick and tired of them.

And that's when you know it's ready.

So anyway, those are my five stages of writing a novel.  If you can think of a different way of dividing the process up, I'd love to hear it.


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