John Straley: The Paperwork

Here is the third post from July guest author John Straley. 

I once heard Robert Hass, before he was the Poet Laureate of the United States, say  “Being a writer would be great, if it wasn’t for all the damn paperwork.” 

So we have inevitably come to writing the cursed book. 
In the earlier blog entries I discussed some aspects of preparation. Here are a few more:
Fit your organizational needs to the workspace that you have. Space and organization of materials are related matters. We all might like a huge white board or a magic screen to project outlines and photographs upon and leave them there to think upon. If you have big room or an office you can afford such a thing. If you’re in a tiny space or share a tiny space you can’t. If you have a private office you can afford sloppiness, if you don’t you can’t. No sense fighting about this with roommates or spouses. Whatever space you have, whether it’s a laptop, a notebook and an ironing board, use it and be grateful. Great books have been written on less. I have found that public libraries are great places to work and can become kingdoms if you let them. Personally I think coffee shops are terrible places to write.
No one makes time. You steal your time back and you keep it. All of us, if we are lucky, will have twenty-four hours in the next day. It’s what we do with those hours which determines our fate. To write a book we have to plant our pen in the day-planner and say, “This is my time for writing,” and then we have to follow through and use it. We colonize that portion of the day. We establish a beachhead and we start shoving out other lesser claimants to our attention. Our partners will support us in this only if they see progress from us. When they see pages. When they hear us read selections, and understand that we are doing something we have always wanted to do but never had the nerve to actually do, they will help see this book to completion. This part I have taught and said before but it is worth saying again: the supportive partners of this world have done way more for the Arts than the MacArthur Foundation. 
Back to the book: Who is going to tell your story? This is a big decision. First person, Third, Third Omniscient, these are the most common. There is lots to be said about this decision. I wrote my Cecil Younger series, first person in the voice of Cecil. First person has immediacy and it is easy to crack wise.  It’s suited to the private I. novel. Right out of the gate your reader is engaged with the series character and sees the world through his/her eyes. But first person has severe limitations. One person can only be at one place at one time, cannot time travel without a lot of ridiculous hocus pocus (discovered letters that suddenly appear ect…) If you want help with this and other questions starting out, I suggest Ursula Le Guin’s very fine book Steering the Craft. I really think it is the best of the writer’s manuals I’ve come across for understanding the essentials. I would also point you to some of her interviews on craft. She has a nice minority point of view on some of the big questions. 
Ok, Butt in chair time. Here we go… Every day has to be a victory. You have your notes, you have your desire, set yourself a goal every day, and don’t get out of that chair until you meet that goal. The first step will be to take your notes and start filling out the lists of “things that happen” into some kind of loose outline. As you do this start drafting out an opening paragraph that captures the poetry and the geography of your book, something that transports your reader to the world of this story. 
Now. Choose how many words you want to write every day. How big a book did you say you wanted?  A skinny book is 60,000 words, a chunky book is 150,000 words, a doorstop, editor screamer is 400,000. So, how long do you want to work on this rough draft? It’s up to you. (The neurosis of the writer largely revolves around the feeling of helplessness, but the truth is, at this point, the Universe in under your command.) The important thing is to make sure that every day is a victory.
Let’s say you want to start off slender. Good idea for a novel. Write about five hundred words a day. Bite off two hours a day, five days a week. Maybe an extra day or two when you have the momentum rolling and in two and a half months or so you have a rough draft done. Now, this is not exactly free writing, you edit as you go but you don’t suffer a lot and you don’t you don’t tear it apart and start over half way through, unless you want to start the clock all over. 
Now you’ve got a rough draft, take a vacation. Take a vacation from the book. Don’t think about it for at least a month. Don’t let anyone read it at this point. No one. Not your spouse not anyone. Let it sit like Sauerkraut in a jar for about six weeks. Try your best to forget about it. At six weeks read it yourself. Read it straight through with a pencil and mark it up. What do you think it needs? Structural changes? Minor tweeking, copyediting? Something in-between… a character re-alignment or a plot adjustment?  Whatever…. You are probably wrong at this point because you are still too close to it. Start revising the easy stuff. This first time through try to revise with you first impulse. Go back to your dream notebook. Is this rough draft really what you wanted? Probably not. If you see some structural changes you can make at this point, make them. If you see plain old dopey mistakes fix them… a common mistake I make is; I have a character give a speech rather than bother write an extra scene or two. It’s like the narrator in a melodrama tromping out on stage to say, “Well folks, then this and this and this happens but it’s not all that interesting.”  I’m really bad about characters speechifying. If you do that, fix it. 
But back to revisions. If it took me “X” number of hours to write the draft of a mms it will take me (“X” x 4) hours to revise it. So, that’s how I figure the number of hours I have to sit in the chair that night.  
Drafting= # of words per night
Revising = # of  hours per night
So, you got about a year into this maybe. Time to show it to somebody. Show it to your partner. They’ll be nice, probably. That’s nice. Usually worthless as far as real help. Partners should be supportive, not really brutal. Then send it to someone brutal, smart, and honest. 
Most Valuable Lesson: A good writer learns to take a punch: Over and Over and Over and Over. I’m sorry, but this is true. The editors (and by extension hard-ass readers) of this world really don’t care about your tender little feelers. Generally they don’t care about anything in your life other than what lives on the page. They are not cruel, they are just busy, and there are way more people who want to be writers than want to be editors. So, if you get a real editor with experience in publishing to read your work, listen to their criticism. You don’t have to take it, you might be mismatched and that does happen, a lot, but still consider what they say, and look at your work with a new eye.
Keep revising and sending your novel to readers until you are one hundred percent satisfied with it in your heart of hearts. One clue that you are done writing the novel is when you notice you are beginning to write another novel on top of the one you are revising. Then stop. Call it done. Either set it aside and start that new novel, while you are sending your first packet to agents or publishers (with that very pretty one page cover letter and the beautiful sample chapter).
I know, it doesn’t sound very romantic, does it? When do we drink martinis by the paddocks with Lady Ashley?
Next time will talk about why it was worth it.
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