Writing as Process

I have to relearn this every time: novel writing is a process. It is a series of quite distinct stages.

Confusing those stages is what often has people giving up prematurely -“Oh, this stuff is nothing like …” (fill in blank with favorite author’s name). What they are usually comparing is their first draft with a published book. A bit like comparing the ore in the mine to the gold in the crown.

I am, interestingly, at both stages of the process right now, so these musings are fresh. I am copy editing my latest novel, SHAKESPEARE’S REBEL, (out next year, about the Bard’s fight choreographer at the time of ‘Hamlet’). I am also playing with an idea for a novel and very much in the ‘noodling’ phase.

For those who aren’t fully aware, copy editing is the penultimate stage. The very last will be reading through the proofs for errors. Here I still have a chance to alter a few things that strike me, and to respond to any inconsistencies, factual mistakes, poor grammar or repetitions that a new editor has flagged up. He/she hasn’t seen it before. They read it very carefully and pick out what bugs or confuses them.

I think I missed out on a lot of grammar classes at school. I tend to overuse commas and hyphens (though I am quite adept with my personal favorite, the semi colon!). A copy editor will correct those. Or they will point out that, if a character was fourteen on page 22, a year later on he should be fifteen. (Though I sometimes catch them with the month!) Some editors don’t like repetitions of words or phrases. I don’t if they are careless. I do if they are for an effect, an echo perhaps.

So, during the copy edit, I get to say, ‘Yes, I agree,’ or ‘No, leave it my way’. (The famous STET) But I also get to listen again to what I’ve written and make a change. Find a better word. Shift a sentence. I find I don’t cut much at this stage. But I do add a sentence here and there, a more mellifluous word.

It is the last polish, and rather lovely – though it is all done electronically now and how I  miss the red pen. It is not, however the time for second guessing yourself about character and plot. The novel is almost done.

Unlike beginning one. I always say to my students: never show anyone your first draft. It is not meant to be approved of. It is meant to be gotten down. I don’t believe in the mantra: all first drafts are crap. They are not. You will be writing words that will not alter for the printed book. But it is not time for the fine polishing of the copy edit. If it’s a table, this phase is the banging together of bits of rough wood with nails. You need a shape before you can begin altering it.

I could go on and on… and will, in further posts, you may be assured. Process, separating it out, is the biggie!

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4 Responses to Writing as Process

  1. Great post Chris. Nice to know a bit about your process. I liked the advice about not showing someone the first draft, and I totally agree. Although I found that I didn’t feel my first draft was actually real until someone saw it (like I had somehow imagined the accomplishment of getting that many words down on the page) so I struggle with that a bit. I would love to see a post on how you handle people’s (read well meaning family and friends) requests for early reads of your work. I totally want to share my work with my friends and family, but not until it is either done or so close to done that I am comfortable in my skin (and the pages) so I don’t doubt myself as hard. I’m totally looking forward to Shakespeare’s Rebel. – Laura

    • Heh Laura, good to hear from you.
      I will certainly address the when and how of showing in a future post. In fact, I am teaching a workshop on ‘the showing’ – how to handle an editor’s comments in Kirkland, WA, September 23rd.
      Take care.

  2. Love the line about first drafts — not meant to be approved, but gotten down. I just finished a blog entry about self-editing and that for creativity to flow, the filters need to come down. I also noted your comment about telling your editor whether or not you’ll go along with a change. With my first novel I found myself stretching to be amenable to editorial changes. Have you found that as your writing career developed you created more latitude in disagreeing with your publisher?

    • Probably. But I was always fairly opiniated. Totally open to a new way of seeing things but in the end certain that if I truly believed in it I was right. An editor can see what you don’t – yet the fix may not be where he says but 50 pages earlier.

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