How I write a book

I’ve gotten the “How the heck do you write an entire book anyway?” question a lot lately, so I figured I’d answer it here, too. And let me just preface this with the disclaimer that this is just my process. Everyone writes a book differently. There are people who can churn out near perfect first drafts in a month (I hate these people a little bit). There are people who take years to finish a single draft, and then take several more years revising (I’m looking at you, George R.R. Martin). I fall somewhere in the middle, and my process looks a lot like this.

Draft 0.5—The start and stop draft.  This is when I get a shiny new idea and immediately jump in and start writing. I get anywhere from 10,000 to 20,000 words in and realize I’ve written complete, nonsensical crap. So I throw it out and start again. I get 10,000 to 20,000 words in again and realize I’m not much better off. But somewhere in all of this writing and discarding, I start to figure out what story it is that I’m actually trying to tell. Draft 0.5 is all about chasing that A-HA moment, and the second I have it, I’m ready to start writing for real.

Average time this takes: Months. I can’t be more specific than that. Sometimes I’ve had to ruminate on projects for six or seven months before they click, and sometimes I can figure it all out in a single month. It’s a total crapshoot.

Draft 1—The plot draft. This draft is pretty much exactly what it sounds like—me trying to get the plot down on paper, to the sacrifice of everything else that makes a story. My characters are as one-dimensional as paper dolls. They make choices that don’t make any sort of rational sense. Their dialogue is stilted. There’s no set dressing to speak of. It’s almost as if the entire book takes place in front of a green screen with incredibly boring people who just met five minutes earlier.

Average time this takes: Two months.

Suffice it to say, my first drafts are horrible. I have a semi-irrational fear that I’ll die tragically young and people will find all these first drafts on my computer, and I will then be known as the worst writer on the planet and everyone will wonder how I ever got a book deal in the first place.

Draft 2—The character draft. This is the draft where things start to come together a little more. I have the plot down, so now it’s time to focus on the people who make the plot what it is—the characters. I try to bring them to life. I refine their personalities. I flesh out their backstories. I really get to know them. This always changes the plot just a little bit, but it’s usually for the better.

Average time this takes: One month.

It’s after I’ve finished this second draft that I would maybe perhaps consider letting someone else read it, if I was desperate for feedback. I’d still throw out a bazillion disclaimers to my critique partners not to judge me too harshly, but if push came to shove I’d be ok letting people read this one.

Draft 3—The sensory draft. This is the draft where the story really comes to life. I try to engage all five senses—sight, sound, smell, taste, touch—in every scene. This draft focuses on the setting. I try to make myself feel like I’m actually there with the characters, which in turn will (hopefully) make my readers feel the same. I tend to go overboard with my descriptions and then edit them back as need be.

Average time this takes: A few weeks.

After I’ve finished the third draft, I send it off to my critique partners and anxiously wait for their feedback.

Draft 4—The polishing draft. After I get the thumbs up or thumbs down from my critique partners, I go back through the book and focus on the specific points they brought up. Maybe one character’s motivation doesn’t make a lot of sense, or maybe a plot point is confusing. I try to work through all of the hiccups and make the book as perfect as I can.

I should also note that I am generally sick to death of the book by now.

Average time this takes: A few weeks.

And after that, I send the book off to my agent.

Draft 5—The polishing draft, part deux. This is the step where I do everything I did in step 4 all over again, but this time it’s with official agent feedback.

Average time this takes: A few weeks.

After that, my agent will go out on submission to publishers with the book. And then I wait. And wait and wait and wait some more. And while I’m waiting, I’ll get a shiny new idea and it’ll be back to Draft 0.5 for me, to start the whole game over again.

So basically it’s like the writing equivalent of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.

What about you? Is my process similar to yours, or do you do something completely different? 

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10 Responses

  1. I think I spent too much time worrying about characters and setting during the plot draft, which is why it’s taking me soooo loooong. I end up doing multiples drafts chapter by chapter as I write.

    • Meredith says:

      I used to do the same thing! My current system is a big conglomeration of stuff that worked for me, after I’d weeded out the dozens of processes that didn’t.

      I wish I could revise as I went!

  2. Karen Strong says:

    We have a similar way of doing the draft. Ha, if someone saw my first draft I would die of embarrassment of how UGLY and BAD it is. I may have to do a “sensory” draft — that’s a good idea.

    Thanks for sharing. :)

  3. Huh… I think I draft similarly, though I’ve never really thought about it. The big difference in my process is that I pay a lot of attention to the world and specific settings early on. Helps me feel more immersed in the story.

    Thanks for sharing your method… I think it’s so interesting to read about how others do it!

    • Meredith says:

      I wish I could focus on my characters and setting as I write my first drafts. That would make my life so much easier, but I just. can’t. do it. I had to stop sharing in a critique group that read aloud as we wrote because I was tired of the “I have no idea who your characters are and what they want” comments. DUDE. I KNOW. ME EITHER.

  4. I’m in the middle of revising my next book and ugh. I’m totally lost right now. Somewhere stuck between worlds. :-)

    • Meredith says:

      I hate that lost feeling. That’s the way I feel throughout every first draft, when I’m blindly trying to find my way through the plot swamp. That’s where I am right now, so I am totally lost there with you!

  5. Thanks for sharing your process! I started a new WIP recently and basically realized after the first 10K words that I’d written draft 0.5, so I’ll be starting over. It was helpful to write those words to determine what I want the story to be (and what I don’t want it to be). :)

  6. Pingback: More than you probably ever wanted to know about my writing process… | Meredith McCardle

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